Mentoring Leaders Through Seminary
One Professor's Approach to Training
by Benjamin C. Shin
In this issue
- Companions on the Journey
- Mentoring Leaders Through Seminary
- Talbot Authors
- Dean's Column
- Alumni Focus
- Campus Focus
When it comes to the shortage of leaders in the local church, many people would like to blame seminar- ies for this deficiency. Critics would say that the seminaries are not doing an adequate job in training and preparing leaders to lead especially within the local churches. And while seminaries may be training young pastors to learn theology, the Bible, preaching, Greek, and Hebrew, they do little to help these pastors in working with people and with relating to their congregations. In addition to ineffective ministry, some would cite that seminaries also do great damage to the spiritual lives of the future pastor as well. Paul Da- vid Tripp, in his book Dangerous Calling, writes that seminary “arms them with powerful knowledge and skills that can make the students think they are more mature and godly than they actually are.”1 Both of these situations are huge concerns and fair criticisms of seminaries and Christian educational institutions overall. The big question is “how can this be solved?” The answer lies with the specific and intentional role that seminary professors can play as part of the solution. And that role is to be a mentor who spends time with the prospective pastor in guiding, coaching, and modeling to him what it looks like to be an effective and biblical leader.
An Honest Assessment of the Situation
It is true that there could be many negative charges made towards seminaries for its inadequacies in preparing future pastors to be ef- fective leaders within the church. Daniel Aleshire, the president of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), lists everything from tuition costs to lack of academic rigor, curriculum, and even location of the campus as hindrances to preparing adequate pastors and leaders within a seminary.2 The educational system has definite limitations to it. And there are some aspects of ministry that may not be taught within a classroom setting. Thus a better way to prepare future pastors in the area of leadership seems to be through gaining some experience in actually doing ministry. We see this kind of model being done in medical schools and schools of education that incorporate follow-up residencies and internships that complement the classroom learning with practical experiences as well. For Talbot School of Theology, there is a required Field Education program for the
Masters of Divinity students to meet with their supervisors for ac- countability and training. This is certainly helpful for training and development but it might not be enough to help future pastors in lead- ing their congregations.
While students may prove to be excellent in the classroom and to perform well academically, to lead in a church as effective pastors is quite a different story. They may be able to preach a sermon well but working with a leadership board may be very challenging. Or they may be able to study of passage of Scripture with great skill but lack in dealing with conflict resolution with a congregant in the church. Part of the issue is that they do not have the practical training necessary to help them relate to others. While most seminaries do require some kind of field education or spiritual formation component, sometimes these programs are not enough to help the students because they do not include relational training and development. So what can be done for future church and ministry leaders in preparing them for this task and high calling?
How Local Churches are Responding to the Leadership Crisis
In response to the apparent lack of seminaries producing good pastors and leaders, many local churches have taken up the responsibility by themselves by creating “bible training centers” or “ministry schools”
in order to develop and raise up their own leaders. Many churches, especially larger ones, have the means and the resources to create their own biblical and leadership training centers. While this seems like a good initial solution to the leadership crisis, this response, too, has many other hurdles.
One of the greatest challenges is that while these large churches are resourceful, they cannot offer the same kind of depth of training that seminaries can. In other words, while the local church can assist in the development of practical and relational skills, they typically do not have the educational and knowledge base that seminaries and their professors can offer. This may not seem to be a problem, especially in light of the pragmatic shifts that many churches today are moving towards. But in the long run, it will prove to be difficult because pas- tors who only go through their own churches may not be fully trained to study at a deeper level. Seminaries have experts in many different disciplines who can offer a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to their students. The goal of seminary training is not just to learn information but rather to gain valuable study skills for knowing the Word of God. In other words, they are now trained to be excellent learners for a life- time. This is highly valuable especially for the long haul of ministry.
Another drawback to learning centers based only in churches is that while they may develop the pastors to learn the culture of that specific church, they may not create transferrable skills that could apply to other churches. The reality is that each church has its own distinct culture and way of doing ministry. If the pastors stay within this system for the lifetime of their ministry, there is no problem. How- ever, it most likely that the majority of pastors will change churches at least a few times during their ministry career. Seminaries give general training that could be transferred to many different church settings and denominations. And the more diverse the faculty, the greater opportunities to learn from and gain the experience of a variety of professors who represent different ethnicities, traditions, denomina- tions, theological persuasions, and sizes of churches. This diversity gives great accessibility and ability to work in a variety of different kinds of churches.
My Personal Story
I have had the privilege of serving as a pastor for 23 years. Much of my success can be attributed to the connection and mentorship that I’ve had over the years with many of my professors at Talbot School of Theology. Their willingness to spend time with me, answer my ques- tions, and support me through prayer and words of encouragement was priceless to my time as a pastor. And most of these occasions would be over lunch or in their office where practical and relevant discussions can occur. I always remember how so many of the professors would be glad to open their doors to have students come by impromptu for any kind of ministry question that they might have. This is the culture of Talbot. It certainly became this way due to the leadership and influence of the deans who encouraged the faculty to do this. Once I became a faculty member many years later, it became clear that this kind of “mentorship culture” was part of the ethos of Talbot. Because of these experiences, I’ve felt the call to be that kind of professor/mentor to my students who are currently at Talbot. Specifically, due to my experience in the Asian- American church, I’ve been able to counsel and mentor students who face many cultural as well as relational challenges within the context of the Asian-American church.
The Different Opportunities for Mentorship at a Seminary
So what does this kind of mentorship between a professor and a student look like? And where does this kind of relationship occur? Let me answer this second question first. Since biblical mentorship and disciple- ship really should be a life on life circumstance, then the place of this kind of relationship can be accomplished in many different venues. It often starts in my office during the stated “office hours.”
Although the designation of office hours was primarily intended to help students with the material of any given class, this time has become one of the most profitable and rewarding times for mentorship. During these times, situations at church, conflicts between leaders, personal struggles and many other topics have emerged in just the short time of discussion. This has resulted in long-term relationships after repeated sessions of prayer and encouragement. It also has extended beyond the semester of having the student in class. Often, the relationship lasts for the duration of the student’s time in seminary. What I’ve discovered in this ministry is that many students do not have anyone experienced to dialogue with. They often feel alone or even afraid to mention anything to their pastors or supervisors. So as these students spend significant amounts of time at school, they find opportunities like the office hours as welcome times for encouragement and training.
Another key component in mentoring students occurs through sharing a meal or having coffee. I have utilized these times intentionally to discuss and work with the students as a daily routine as simple as eat- ing a meal or having coffee together. I have termed these situations as “Mealtime Mentorship” and “Coffee Time Coaching” because of the frequency and nature of these ministries. Much like the practice of “Ta- ble Talk” from the time of the Reformation, many crucial life issues are discussed over this kind of setting. Normally during the meal or coffee, simple discussions about life start the time together and then it quickly shifts into personal issues that the students encounter in ministry. This is where a relaxed situation over a meal or coffee proves advantageous to the difficult circumstances that these students often face.
The interesting result of these times together over a meal or coffee is that it becomes a transferrable means of showing how to mentor and develop leaders in a natural and routine setting. This is called model- ing leadership. It was during these same times for me when I was in seminary that many of my professors would take me out to eat or to have coffee together to talk. I now do this every week myself as a professor. And what I hope will happen is that the students one day will do the same by taking their potential leaders out to a meal or coffee to have this meaningful and vulnerable time together. Modeling leadership is an important and powerful way to teach and develop leaders.
The Content of the Mentorship Times
So what aspects of training should the professor work with the prospective pastor for the future? There are many ideas that could be stated here but I believe that there are three main skills that I need to mentor students in for their future success. This includes the selection process of leaders, the training and developing of the leaders, and the self-nurturing of leaders. These are absolutely essential skills that leaders need to have in order to thrive and flourish. And the principles for these skills all come out of the books of the New Testament, specifically 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, that are collectively known as the Pastoral Epistles. So what skills does a seminary professor need to guide a student in developing as a future leader?
One of the first and most important tasks that I try to pass on in my mentoring is the ability to know how to select other leaders to be on a board or a team. While this may seem simple and straightforward to do, it is anything but that. One of the first steps towards selecting leaders has to do with knowing the biblical criteria for selecting qualified leaders who exhibit good character and strong integrity. The listings of these qualities are clearly laid out in the qualifications of an overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:4-9. Once these standards are understood, then the professor can encourage the prospective pastor to spend time with the potential leader and work on each of these qualities over a longer period of time. Discussion of different circumstances can be shared in the mentorship time between the professor and student in relating one’s experience in ministry. This leads to another unique aspect of Talbot School of Theology. So many of the professors have been or currently serve as pastors in the local church. What is unique about this is that many seminary professors are stereotyped as being former pastors who failed in their church ministries. But within Talbot, there are many who have been very successful as pastors and continue to do so.
Another helpful vision for the future direction of seminaries is to create a committee of alumni who currently are in pastoral ministry who can work together with professors to build a transitional committee that can train, develop, and even place graduates into churches that would be a good fit. This transitional committee should comprise alumni and professors who represent large churches, small churches, denomina- tional churches, ethnic churches, older, traditional churches, and finally newer, progressive church plants. This committee could not only train but also model how to select qualified leaders for the church. This com- mittee could also work as an advisory board to counsel the future pastor in areas needed for successful ministry whether it be for more in depth training or the need for the development of practical relational skills.
The next important principle of leadership that I emphasize in my mentoring is the ability to develop and train leaders. The classic passage for this concept comes from 2 Timothy 2:2, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faith- ful men who will be able to teach others also.” This passage emphasizes two important practices. The first is the longevity of the process of training from Paul to Timothy to faithful men to others also. The sec- ond principle is that there is a communal element of training. Paul men- tions how he developed Timothy “in the presence of many witnesses.” These witnesses probably include Lois and Eunice, Timothy’s grand- mother and mother respectively (2 Timothy 1:5), elders in the church of Ephesus, and the congregation members of this network of house churches across Asia Minor. It was a group effort to train, develop, and practice leadership principles. For the modern context, this is where the important partnership of the local church becomes essential for the follow-through of the training that begins with the mentoring professor with the student at seminary. Another way of viewing this is that the church can become the practice field for the seminarians while they are in learning in school. But this needs to happen with the guidance of the pastors and elders of the church working together with the seminary
professors. Long-term partnership between the two is essential for the success of graduates from seminary. We have witnessed this for many years through the testimonies of many of our graduates.
The final essential principle for leadership is that of the self-nurturing of the leader. This principle comes from 1 Timothy 4:16 in which Paul writes “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” This nurturing includes the ability for self-assessment and knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses. The self-realization for the leader is pivotal and has been stressed throughout the years even by older pastors such as C.H. Spurgeon. Spurgeon makes mention of this self-assessment in his work Lectures to My Students, with the opening chapter entitled “The Minister’s Self-Watch.”3
The seminary professor can guide the student very intentionally here using many different assessment tools in order to help a person to realize how God has gifted and wired that person. Some of these tools include the DISC test, the Myers-Briggs personality test, the Spiritual Gift Inventory, and the Strengthsfinder 2.0 test. These self-assessment tools along with the careful guidance of the professor as mentor to the student provide the necessary accountability and coaching that can be a vital part in the seminarian’s learning and development as a potential leader.
There is certainly a huge need to create some momentum in developing effective leaders for the local church. Both seminaries and Bible insti- tutes in churches need to partner together in order to ensure the future success of the prospective pastor. This process begins in seminary where professors can be involved in the training of the prospective students. Then a group of caring professors and pastors can serve as a transitional committee to discern, help, and place these students into a successful situation. This can lead to an internship carried out in the local church context with the supervision of a pastor or elder to help gain experience in serving and practicing the principles that were previously learned and shared by the mentoring of the seminary professor.
Interestingly, Paul David Tripp, who has been very critical of seminar- ies, offers this helpful thought at the end of his critique. He writes:
I am suggesting that seminary professors become committed to making community with their students and that they always teach with the heart in view and the transforming power of the gospel of hope. I am suggesting that the seminary student should feel known and loved by his professors and that, in the process of his education, he will come to know his heart and his Lord more deeply and fully.4
I wholeheartedly agree with Tripp. And most of all, I’m thankful that Talbot School of Theology is the kind of seminary which is committed to students in developing them in mind, character and leadership for the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 54.
2 Daniel Aleshire, Earthen Vessels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008).
3 C.H.Spurgeon. Lectures to My Students. (Carlise, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 1.
4 Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 56.