Why we still need ministry apprenticeships

The Ministry Training Strategy has been around now in some form or another for 30 years. (We put on the first ministry apprentices at the University of New South Wales in 1979.) Today (as there always have been), there are questions about the value of doing a ministry apprenticeship. Is it still worth the cost to congregations and individuals? Shouldn’t we be trying to get our best and brightest through the system and out onto the street before they become old and tired? Does doing a ministry apprenticeship add value to the process of training people for a lifetime of gospel preaching work?

In many ways, ministry apprenticeship is an application of Paul’s words to Timothy: “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). As he nears the end of his life, we see Paul looking ahead to the survival of gospel ministry in the future. He knows that the continued faithful proclamation of the gospel will not be secured by the writing of doctrinal confessions or by the creation of institutional structures (as important as these are in their own way). The gospel will only be guarded and spread as it is passed from one faithful hand to the next—as each generation of faithful preachers passes their sacred trust to the next generation, who in turn teach and train others.

As I continue to talk to people around the world about the value of the apprenticeship model, I continue to reflect on the benefits of ministers taking on apprentices. Let me share some of the great positives I’ve seen over the last 30 years.

1. Apprentices learn to integrate Word, life and ministry practice

This is difficult to do in the classroom, where much of the time is spent imparting information. Especially for apprentices who have not grown up in the church, it is not immediately obvious how to shape the whole of life with the Word. It is possible for students to gain superb grades in theology and still not know how to nurture themselves in the Word, or apply the Word to others so that they are convicted, rebuked, encouraged and converted. This learning can be facilitated in a training relationship where a pastor shares his life and ministry with the apprentice. By studying the Scriptures together and wrestling with their application to pastoral issues, theological fashions and ministry plans, the apprentice learns to think theologically about everything.

2. Apprentices are tested in character

A pastor working closely with an apprentice can see what might remain well-hidden in the classroom context. The gap between image and reality becomes exposed in the pressures and hassles of ministry life; the real person becomes known, along with their true motivations, capacity for love and forgiveness, scars and pains from the past. A wise trainer can build the godly character of the young minister through the Word, prayer, accountability and modelling.

3. Apprentices learn that ministry is about people, not programs

We know that ministry is about the transformation of people and the building of godly communities through the gospel. But ironically, the average pastor can spend so much time preparing for the next sermon and church service, planning the next evangelistic event and organizing another committee that the people are neglected. A normal apprenticeship involves two years of working with people—meeting with unbelievers, discipling young Christians, training youth leaders, leading small groups and comforting those who are struggling. Our goal is for apprentices to spend 20 hours of their week in face-to-face ministry with people, with the Bible open. This way they learn that ministry is about people, not structures. In addition, by working with people intensively for two years, apprentices learn some of the interpersonal skills or ‘people smarts’ that are crucial for ministry leadership.

4. Apprentices are well prepared for formal theological study

During the two years of ministry involvement, lots of biblical and theological issues are raised, and apprentices become eager for rigorous study. Theological study is placed in the proper context of evangelism and church-building. Furthermore, the apprentice’s motivation to study is less about examination success and more about preparing for life and ministry.

5. Apprentices learn ministry in the real world

The classroom is an artificial world, not the real world. Academic success may have no correlation to the real world in that good learners don’t necessarily make good relaters and teachers. The way that success is measured at college may not be relevant to success in the world of future ministry.
In the classroom, the student does not need to own the ideas in the same way he would in the pulpit. The learning he does is abstracted from everyday life and ministry to others. We learn ten views of the atonement to pass exams, not because anything hangs on it—as it does when we preach.
The educational model suits those with an academic disposition and screens out others. But our best evangelists and church planters might be those who struggle to learn in the passive context of the classroom, thriving instead in a context where they talk and preach and build ministries and are tutored along the way. In academia, they would be deemed failures.

6. Apprentices learn to be trainers of others so that ministry is multiplied

Because apprentices have had the experience of being personally mentored in life and ministry, they imbibe what we call ‘the training mindset’. When leading a ministry in the future, they will instinctively equip cowork ers and build ministry teams. Those who only learn ministry in the classroom often do not catch the vision of entrusting the ministry to others, whereas those who were trained as apprentices immediately look for their own apprentices when they lead a church.

7. Apprentices learn evangelism and entrepreneurial ministry

Apprenticeships provide an opportunity to think strategically and creatively about ministry. In our post-Christian, pluralistic, multicultural missionary context, many pastors no longer have a flock sitting in the pews, waiting for the Sunday sermon. Apprentices can experiment with new ways of reaching people, and take the initiative to start new groups and programs.

Father and son ministry

The ministry apprenticeship is not a formal program or curriculum. The paradigm is not an educational method, but rather that of a parent raising a child. Paul, with great warmth and affection, repeatedly describes Timothy as his son: “But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” (Phil 2:22). Paul was a model for Timothy not only in his teaching, but also in the whole of life:

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. (2 Tim 3:10-11)

Apprentices need to see into the heart of their trainers—their sins and confession, their fears and faith, their visions and realities, their successes and failures. The life and ministry of the pastor is a model for the apprentice—not of perfection, but of godly desires in an earthen vessel. This requires the trainer to be honest and openly share his life with his apprentice.

Nowhere is the true person more clearly seen than in the home. In the home, the trainer is no longer the public preacher or the ministry leader; the professional persona drops away. He becomes —indeed, he is—the husband laughing with his wife, the father dealing with his daughter not eating her food, the cook enjoying his creative side, the homemaker fixing the tap, the exhausted man gazing blankly at the TV. He is living out life in the Spirit in the hardest context. Similarly, in inviting his apprentice to his home, the wise coach can observe whether his young charge listens respectfully to his wife, ignores his children, expects to be waited upon or is unable to relax. All of this is stored away for later reflection, discussion and assessment of suitability for leadership.

It is costly for a pastor to invest his life in ministry apprentices. But it is our responsibility to pass on the gospel baton to the next runner. What a great joy it is to see ‘our’ apprentices running the race! Indeed, we have no greater joy than to hear that our children are walking in the truth (3 John 4). It seems to me that we are in as much need of ministry apprenticeships today as we have been for the last 2000 years. It’s about passing on the gospel for the honour of Jesus.

Reproduced with kind permission from IX Marks.