The development of Christians for ministry in Australia has, in recent times, suffered at the hands of a government decision to alter funding arrangements for competency-based training courses. Accredited entry-level options are less sustainable, no matter how inexpensive, without the availability of deferred repayments. Meredith Lake’s The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History details the value of Christianity to the social, educational, welfare and justice systems we often take for granted. Beyond volunteerism, then, churches need a leadership pipeline to ensure the quality provision of their invaluable community supports.
Of course, many pathways exist for formation, generally through formal programs in Bible Colleges. Overall student satisfaction is high in relevant courses, as evidenced by the University of Divinity recently topping the rankings for all Australian universities.
Churches and denominations, however, require a range of ministry and leadership skills to be developed to ensure compliant practice, diverse relevance and sustained growth. This warrants close relationships being developed between all stakeholders for formation outcomes to be optimised.
Research based upon extensive interviews with ministers reveals some fascinating ingredients to ensuring quality practice for the provision of leaders focused on mission that is fruitful and not just faithful.
1. Harnessing positive training experiences
Although local church formation practices may sometimes lack rigour and depth, they often shape locally-relevant ministry competence and can become a useful gateway to further study. Difficulties with accreditation or quality assurance can be overcome with strategic partnerships, since they are otherwise too dependent upon the gifts and experiences of the handful of readily-available (and often self-accredited) trainers involved in teaching, supervision and modelling.
Research suggests, though, that it is not qualifications alone that enhance outcomes. Rather, the diversity and cooperation of multiple formators who themselves have enjoyed positive learning experiences increases the likelihood that such experiences will be reproduced by almost fifty per cent. Also, a fifty per cent increase also exists in appreciation of available training courses among ministers more positive about their own formation journey.
This suggests a need to harness ministers and churches positive about formation in order to provide localised enculturation of training, but also to foster shared ownership of the discipleship journey that best utilises various gifts partnering together. Denominations would do well to find and promote the stories of long-term training impact in inspiring greater rates of participation.
The positive training experiences of ministers collectively increase momentum for developing new leaders, whether in local churches or in formal training institutions. Rather than prizing parochial interests, particular curricula, or silver bullet tools, it is the positive disposition of multiple key leaders which is all-important to inspiring the development of new ministry candidates.
2. Intentionalising focused supervision
Whether through personal mentoring or skills-based coaching, some manner of structured supervision of trainee leaders will channel positivity and giftedness with purpose.
In fact, the vast majority of a sample of twenty-five ministers interviewed about their own formation journey identified the intentionality of another leader as the primary stimulus in realising and clarifying a call to ministry. Whether through personal prayer, encouragement, prophecy or an invitation to participate in ministry tasks, some focused discussion of potential was essential.
This, however, requires the subsequent development of competence in specific ministry skills and theological frameworks. Intentionality by existing leaders is required in bridging the gap between the initiation and implementation of a ministry call.
Supervision is therefore enhanced by aligning local church coaches or mentors with the expertise of formal training providers in developing mutually-affirmed outcomes.
The primary developmental context, however, is the ministry community in which learning is applied. Intensive development through classroom environments, though offering the focused shaping of knowledge and convictions, will not sufficiently facilitate the identification, development or appreciation of giftedness.
This is an important consideration, given that ministry gifts are a significant basis for determining and endorsing credentialed ministry. Aptitude is not determined apart from some measure of effectiveness within community.
Fewer than half of ministers interviewed about their formation valued the training they undertook before ordination as being essential for their subsequent ministry roles. However, more than nine in ten valued the use of clearly articulated statements of competence as the basis of training and coaching practised in a ministry context. Classroom learning was more greatly valued when focused on practical outcomes, notwithstanding the appreciation of theological expertise offered by partnerships with specialist providers.
That articulated competency statements might guide individual supervision relationships allows collective ownership of values, practices and outcomes. These can easily guide the efforts of both coaches and trainers, as well as denominational endorsement panels seeking the quality assurance of new ministers or leaders.
3. Shaping competency-based outcomes
Senior ministers interviewed about formation effectiveness were more likely than other categories of ministers to endorse rigorous but practical training, often in the form of short courses. This may have been due to their own lack of formal training in previous generations, in some cases. It was nevertheless also shaped by an informed and vested interest in finding practical – and sometimes urgent – ministry solutions. Short-courses and one-off training opportunities, whatever their format, were believed to offer value in catalysing interests that might still be pursued further, as needed.
Such opportunities might be used to augment the more specialised qualifications and needs of formal training courses. Valued practitioners can be utilised for the shaping of mission-centred distinctives, values and skills with an intentional focus on targeted outcomes.
Furthermore, courses prioritising competency-based training allow the development of ministry readiness by utilising practitioners who are not merely experienced, but demonstrably fruitful.
A how-to focus, clearly driven by the very formation programs no longer funded, exposes a gaping hole in training next generation leaders. In some cases, too, those returning to training, such as grey army volunteers not accustomed to academic approaches to formation, need vocationally-oriented solutions.
Finding entry-level options that can equip new local church leaders with optimised supervision and training requires churches and colleges to shape mutually-beneficial partnerships focused on ministry outcomes. Offering pathways for subsequent training will often require more immediate front-door solutions that can still remain valued endpoints for a range of ministry, theology and leadership applications.