21 Ways to Prepare for the Ministry
- Friday, September 09, 2011
Twice in the last week I have been asked what advice I would give to a young person preparing to go into the ministry. The question is so broad that it defies an easy answer.
But when you are asked the same question twice in the span of a few days, that does make you pay closer attention. So here are my thoughts, arranged in no particular order, to the question, “What advice would I give to a young person preparing for the ministry?"
1. Read widely.
In the years ahead we will need well-educated young men and women. So read widely, read from the bestseller list, read people you don’t agree with. It’s not a good sign if you’ve read 700 books and all of them support what you already believe.
2. Learn to speak well and write well.
All things being equal, the people who can speak with confidence and who can write clearly will rise to the top in any field. Take a few speech classes, join Toastmasters, take every speaking opportunity you can get until you feel at home on your feet. As for writing, technology gives this generation a huge advantage. My parents were raised on manual typewriters, I started with an IBM Selectric. The advent of the personal computer means that no one has an excuse for not writing well. Keep a blog. Write out your sermons in full.
3. Find out what you can do well.
This takes about ten years–or maybe a little longer. In the beginning, you naturally think you can do everything. You can’t. You’ll learn that the hard way. Find out what you do that God blesses–and keep on doing it.
4. Decide now to be flexible later.
Don’t get stuck in the trap of thinking that you have to be a pastor or a teacher or a missionary forever. We’re past the day when people stay in the same position for a lifetime. Your only call is to serve the Lord in whatever way he chooses to use you and wherever he wants to put you. Flexibility is a great blessing and inflexibility tends to be a career-ender. So stay loose.
5. Ask the Lord to put you in over your head.
He’ll probably do it anyway, but it’s more fun if you ask in advance. If you are so cool and so well-prepared and so competent that you can do it all, why do you need God? It’s a good thing to be thrown in the deep end where you don’t know what you’re doing and if God doesn’t help you, you’re sunk. That’s when you learn how to pray.
6. Beware of envy.
It’s a big time-waster. In the great game of life, we’re all constantly being compared to everyone else around us. We’re all being measured, quantified, and examined to see how well we’re doing versus those around us. And there is nothing we can do about it. Envy tends to be the sin of moderately successful people. Pray to be delivered from it because it destroys your joy and makes you a miserable person to be around.
7. Learn to do a few things well and the rest just okay.
In the beginning you won’t be able to specialize so learn how to do it all. In my first church I folded the bulletins, printed them, opened the church, led the singing and preached. But I started my writing by doing a weekly column on the back of the bulletin and continued for 27 years. Do whatever needs to be done–and then learn to do a few things well.
In earlier generations travel was expensive and difficult. Today it’s no big deal to go online, book a ticket, and fly to Spain or China or Kenya or Chile. Tom Friedman is right. The world is flat, and the future belongs to those who have multicultural experience. So take a semester and study abroad. Build an orphanage in Ecuador. Go to Russia and see the Hermitage. Ride a train through Europe. Spend a few months on a Mercy Ship. Put down the remote, stop playing video games, hop on a plane, and go see the world. It will give you new vision for the global cause of Christ.
9. Serve the Lord now.
We used to say, “If you aren’t winning souls now, what makes you think you’ll win souls when you go to Thailand?” It’s a good point. One way to get ready for the ministry is to serve in small ways now. Teach Sunday School, sing in the choir, visit the sick, help in the kitchen, play the piano, be an usher, clean the altar, mow the grass, take Evangelism Explosion, type the bulletin, clean the church offices, speak at the nursing home, do whatever needs to be done. A record of faithfulness in small things matters more than great potential never used.
10. Get a good education.
This probably matters more than it did 100 years ago. One year isn’t enough. Two years probably isn’t enough. Get a college degree if you can. Go to seminary if you have the desire. Billy Graham has said that he regrets not having done more ministry preparation. You’ll never regret the time spent getting the tools necessary to be effective. Can’t wait? Take online courses while you serve the Lord somewhere.
11. Stay involved in your local church.
What I mean is, don’t think that you can ditch the church and be successful in the ministry. You can’t. We’re all in this together. So have a church, be part of a church, stay close to your church. And don’t criticize your own church while preparing for the ministry. You need the accountability of other believers to help you grow spiritually. And they need your contributions. If no one else around you supports your desire to go into the ministry, maybe you should think about a career in auto repair. Generally speaking, God’s call comes through the church, not apart from the church.
12. Get some real-world experience if you can.
You’ll have more credibility with people if you’ve had a “real job” somewhere along the line. Work at a bank, be an assistant coach, serve in the military, teach for a few years, work in an office, run a restaurant, start a business, learn how to handle money and people and all the problems that people routinely face in the business world. There is nothing like hiring and firing and balancing a budget (and maybe being laid off yourself) to give you empathy and believability in your ministry.
13. Don’t be too picky early on.
Sometimes young people try to “game plan” their ministry career (an oxymoron, by the way) too carefully. Few of us spend our lifetime in the same place doing the same thing. There really isn’t any rule for what the first step should be. Small church? Large church? Rural? Suburban? Big city? Staff or senior pastor? Internship? I just shrugged my shoulders because who knows what you should do. I’m not saying, “Go through the first open door,” only that you shouldn’t try to figure out where you’ll be in 20 years. Only God knows that–and he’s not telling in advance. But don’t say no because it doesn’t advance your career. Take the opportunity that seems right at the time and leave the future in God’s hands.
14. If you ever stop learning, you’re finished.
Keep growing, keep reading, keep your eyes open, keep stretching, keep learning. Very few twenty-year-olds know what they’re doing. Come to think of it, very few fifty-six-year-olds do either. Your seminary degree probably opens a few doors, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. Keep growing!
15. Get out of debt if you can.
These days it’s possible to accumulate $30,000-$60,000 in debt by the time you graduate from college. You could double that when you add in three or four years of seminary. You owe it to yourself and to the ministries you serve not to start with a heavy load of debt hanging over your head. That may mean taking fewer classes each semester and spending a couple of extra years in school so you can pay as you go, or it may mean working somewhere for a year or two after your training to get your debt down to manageable levels. Given the current economic climate, this will become a more important issue.
16. Look for mentors along the way.
Note the plural. If you are fortunate enough to have Tim Keller or Howard Hendricks personally disciple you, you are greatly blessed. For the rest of us, we will need to find a variety of people along the way who can help us with parenting, spiritual disciplines, leadership, marriage, decision-making, prayer, conflict resolution, skill development, and the all-important but very general Wisdom Department of life. Most effective mentoring tends to happen in informal settings. You don’t need to have someone say, “I’ll be your mentor” in order to learn from them. But it is worthwhile to pray that God will send those people across your path and pray to see them and learn from them while you can because a true heart for God is better caught than taught.
17. Seek training through the local church.
I mention this because more and more churches offer internships, weeknight classes, training institutes, online courses, and other methods of ministerial training. In earlier generations training tended to happen on-the-job in real-world settings. Spurgeon trained hundreds of young men for the ministry in London in the 1800s through his college associated with the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Look around and see if your church, or a church near you, offers some sort of formal leadership training.
18. Expect some detours along the way.
This touches more the attitude you should have than any particular step you need to take. But since a big part of preparing for the ministry involves developing godly character, and since godly character is formed largely through the trials of life, set your heart to serve the Lord, knowing that the course of your life will not go exactly as you envision now, that you will face times of trial, and that those hard times are necessary for you to become a useful servant of the Lord. You may face sickness, you will certainly encounter opposition, you may see your dreams crumble more than once. Don’t be surprised when it happens. God’s leaders must go through the fire to produce the gold of tested character.
19. Be a student, not a victim.
This follows from what I just said. Victims complain, students learn. Victims blame others, students look in the mirror. Victims make excuses, students learn from their mistakes. Victims are stuck in the past, students keep growing. Victims accuse God of unfairness, students seek God’s face. Victims focus on themselves, students share what they have learned. Students make great leaders because their hard times develop wisdom, humility, compassion and courage.
20. See your marriage as part of your ministry.
I almost didn’t include this in the list because it’s not exactly like the other items. So I took it out and then decided later to put it back in for a very particular reason. I think many people put marriage in one category and ministry in another. It’s easy to act as if marriage is over here and the ministry is that stuff you do for God over there. But that’s not right. The Puritans hit the mark when they talked about “every home a little church.” As the list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 indicates, there is a strong connection between leadership in the home and in the church. The one prepares you for the other. No one knows you better than your wife. You can’t fool a good wife and you shouldn’t try. Ditto for the kids. Marriage is one of God’s best tools in our sanctification. You certainly don’t have to be married to go into the ministry, but if you are married, you should view your marriage as a vital part of your ministry and not something separate from it.
21. Listen more than you talk.
I could have said this differently–something like “Be a follower first.” Remember that the essence of ministry is serving others. You don’t need to be in charge of anything at first. Prove your faithfulness and promotion will come in due time. Remember that “everyone is my teacher because everyone knows something I don’t know.” So pay attention. Ask questions. Don’t be a big shot know-it-all. Be swift to hear and slow to speak. And that “slow to anger” part is important too.
These suggestions are not in any particular order so you can rearrange them any way you like. As I think about these 21 things, it occurs to me that you could do all of them and still be a washout in the ministry. In the final analysis only God can make true ministers of the gospel. He must call us, he must qualify us, he alone can “establish the work of our hands.” There are no guarantees, but these 21 things can help you become the kind of person God uses to bless others in Jesus’ name. I would love to hear your comments on this topic. What’s your advice for a young person preparing for the ministry?
Originally published on: January 28, 2009
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