A Sustainable Model for Training Ministry Leaders

What if your church could add skilled staff while helping grow future leaders, and do so affordably? Seminary is changing, and the new reality of higher education creates exactly this opportunity for churches across the US, regardless of size.

When seminary required residential studies, it meant churches without a local seminary option had no choice but to send their upcoming leaders off to school, losing their participation in the local body. The students couldn’t serve their home church while in school, and graduation generally wouldn’t mean a return. Meanwhile, students lost their home church and took on a huge financial burdens. If the church was big, maybe it could provide some financial support to its departing talent, but doing so was almost certainly only because of past connections and service. For churches without an excess of financial resources, prayer and words of encouragement would often be the limit of their ability.

Today, the reality is very different. One of the most important results of online seminary classes is the ability of students to remain in their home church and context. Churches are notoriously understaffed, especially small and medium-sized congregations, with frequent campaigns to increase volunteerism. While many roles ought to be filled by volunteers, there are roles that simply require the higher level of responsibility that can only come with a paid position, not to mention requiring skill and talent that is willing to be directed and managed. It’s just human nature that paid positions mean more tolerance of accountability. Potential seminary students are often the best volunteers and staffers… until they leave. But with online education, a church can encourage those potential leaders to start their studies, adding tuition reimbursement to an internship level position while still keeping total compensation affordable. Rather than losing their brightest young talent, the church is quite likely to keep them for at least the duration of their studies, if not longer.

Students benefit as well. Seminary is expensive, relocating is expensive, and seminary towns rarely have enough ministry work to employ every student in real, meaningful ministry roles where they can gain pastoral experience while paying the bills. (There are only so many youth pastor roles in any one place…) At Knox Seminary, the single most common reason we see applicants decide not to pursue their education is finances, even as a school with more reasonable than average tuition costs. A paid internship at a home church that includes seminary tuition often will be a much better financial opportunity for students considering leaving for seminary studies. They will have familiar circumstances to get valuable experience, can avoid student loan debt, and avoid the expense of moving and the financial uncertainty of trying to find a local job that allows sufficient flexibility for their studies.

Why isn’t this happening more? The best I can tell, too many churches, students, and seminaries continue to see online studies as second-rate, and aren’t spending nearly enough time thinking about the advantages distance studies offer. Like any change in educational model, there are advantages and disadvantages to online studies. But many—even most—of the disadvantages can be leveraged into strengths by churches and church leaders willing to be creative. For example, it is true personal contact with professors is necessarily greatly reduced by online study. In my seminary, 95% of our students study remotely, and I personally miss this contact, personally and pedagogically. However, personal contact with mentors can increase in ministry internships, and I recognize that for real ministry work, it is very often actual pastors and church leaders who can provide the best mentorship to upcoming students.

Long ago, the local church would have been the primary training ground for future church leaders, but no one church could ever have provided the breadth and depth of a true seminary education. Today, every church can do exactly that. Meanwhile, one of the most well-recognized disadvantages of “going off” to seminary was students graduating with a wonderful education but seriously lacking real pastoral skills. Students staying home and working in their church means they can get this critical experience while studying rather than in a crash course after graduating.

While many continue to emphasize residential seminary education, the reality is that online studies can allow churches to be affordably staffed with engaged, upcoming leaders, to provide critical mentoring and ministry experience to those future leaders, and to keep their most promising young members rather than sending them off to school. With a little imagination, every church has the capacity to be a part of training up the future pastors the church so desperately needs, while increasing staff, minimally impacting budget, and helping future pastors graduate debt free.

It really is a win win.

Blog Post written by:
Dr. Timothy Sansbury
Professor of Philosophy and Theology, Provost

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