By Colin Smith
When it comes to learning how to become a pastor, you can’t just dip your toe in the water of local church ministry. What’s needed is a total immersion.
Seminaries are a gift of God to the church. They provide essential training and an outstanding environment for discovering the riches of biblical, systematic, and historical theology, along with the rigors of Greek and Hebrew.
But when it comes to discovering the complexities of church leadership, the demands of sustaining a preaching ministry and the art of pastoral care, nothing can beat complete immersion in the life of a healthy local church.
Weeping with those who weep is better learned at a funeral or beside a hospital bed than in a library. Rejoicing with those who rejoice is better cultivated at a wedding or baptism than in a classroom.
Preaching that connects ordinary believers with the Scriptures is better cultivated by addressing a congregation gathered for worship than a group of theological student peers in a laboratory.
To provide these opportunities, the church I serve started The Orchard Network, whose mission is to grow gospel leaders for churches. We aim to do this by finding young leaders who give credible evidence of a call to ministry as pastors, church planters, and missionaries.
Then we immerse them in local church life, either through The Orchard or other like-minded churches in the greater Chicago area.
Having completed our first two-year cycle, I am more convinced than ever that the local church has an irreplaceable role in preparing next-generation pastors, church planters, and missionaries for sustainable gospel ministry.
In particular, the local church has a crucial role to play in regard to:
1. Casting a vision for pastoral ministry.
Passion is caught rather than taught. If a fire for pastoral ministry is to burn in the heart of a young leader, it will most likely be lit by pastors who give their lives to the local church.
Pastoral mentors show by their joy and example that they see this as a high calling and not as a stepping stone to something else.
We become what we behold, and too often seminary students are distracted from a pastoral call because they do not immerse themselves in a church where they observe faithful pastors serving Christ.
Instead, they immerse themselves in their studies and, looking to the model of their teachers, find their hearts turned toward academic pursuits.
2. Opening doors for bivocational ministry.
In many parts of the world, the economic base needed to support a team of vocational pastors and leaders simply does not exist. Bivocational pastors and missionaries are filling the gap.
Even here in the United States, we are seeing an increase in bivocational church leaders. Many of these are being raised up and trained in local churches where they are challenged, stretched, and encouraged.
A growing number of men and women in midlife are in positions where they could offer significant ministry leadership, and many of them would if they were called and equipped by the church. These mature believers can be sent out as church planting teams or use their careers as a platform to serve overseas.
Eighteen months have passed since a small group of leaders in our church began meeting to pray that the Lord would raise up pastors, church planters, and missionaries from our congregation.
We meet quarterly and, taking Acts 13 as our model, we have been asking the Lord who should be set apart from ministry, and then noting the names of people who come to our minds.
Praying for these people has led to important conversations, and some have taken significant steps forward as a result.
3. Building stamina for a lifetime of ministry.
My older son is preparing to compete, for the third time, in an Ironman triathlon—a brisk 2.4-mile swim, followed by 112 miles on the bike, followed by a 26.2-mile run.
The preparation for this event is all about building stamina. He accomplishes this by doing, in increasingly demanding stretches, what he will have to do for the long haul on the day of the Ironman event. Without this preparation he would have little hope of sustaining the rigors of the Ironman.
Sustaining ministry over the long haul depends more on building the strength of a person’s spiritual life than on giftedness, personality, or learning.
The best way to build stamina for a lifetime in ministry is to be stretched through hands-on experience of what God is calling you to do for the long haul, and the best place for pastors, church planters, and missionaries to do this is in the local church.
The Orchard Network
The Orchard Network offers a bridge to ministry, and people can engage with it in one of two ways.
Momentum is a two-year program for next-generation leaders which focuses on cultivating spiritual lives, strengthening doctrine, and developing ministry skills.
The group meets Friday mornings, 9 a.m. to noon. Those who join commit not only to full participation in the program but also to full engagement in the life of the local church.
The Residency Program offers full-time immersion in the church, normally for two years. Residents are funded partly through the Orchard Network and partly through funds raised from the outside.
Residents serve alongside pastors, lay leaders, and members of the congregation, participate in a broad range of ministries, and gain an in-depth and fully rounded experience of local church life.
The Orchard Network has seven full-time residents and hopes to expand to 20 in the next few years.
Learn more at theorchardnetwork.org.
COLIN S. SMITH is senior pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church, president of The Orchard Network, and Bible teacher on Unlocking the Bible (UnlockingtheBible.org). He’s the author of Momentum, a new Bible study from Lifeway.