A friend of mine is a triathlete, and his sport is extremely challenging. A triathlete is required to swim for one kilometer, ride a bike over a 40-kilometer course without a significant break, then run for 10 more kilometers. Obviously, anyone who hopes to survive this grueling test must be physically fit.
The triathlon demands much more than mere physical fitness, of course. Fitness in many different areas-physical, emotional, and even spiritual-helps triathletes achieve their best.
In the same way, being fit for ministry is a multifaceted concept. Preparing for ministry is, in many ways, not unlike preparing for a triathlon. As you think about fitness for ministry, keep the following factors in mind. They can help you evaluate the various means of preparation.
I. Identify your fitness for ministry
The concept of fitness for ministry has two major dimensions. First of all, it means being suited to, or cut out for, ministry roles. In other words, fitted. This is similar to saying that a tall, lean runner is well suited to the triathlon, while a six-foot, 342-pound giant is better suited to football or sumo wrestling. In this sense, fitness for ministry means that a man or woman possesses an interlocking set of personal attributes and gifts that are particularly well suited to the calling of Christian ministry. These personal attributes are the capacities a ministry candidate brings to the ministry preparation process.
Second, fitness for ministry relates to being prepared, strengthened, or educated for the functions of ministry. As the triathlete has trained by strenuous exercise, proper nutrition, and mental conditioning to prepare for a racing career, fitness for ministry also means achieving a state of preparedness as the result of a training process that is aimed at maximal competence for a particular calling or role. This involves developing internal qualities and behavior skills by means of a process of living in and learning from a variety of experiences.
These competencies can be learned formally, and they are enhanced when you undertake graduate theological education.
Determining qualities and gifts of fitness
Discerning those people who are naturally suited to or cut out for ministry roles is perhaps the first step. Many different qualities are relevant to almost any ministry setting.
For example, a potential minister needs general intelligence and a facility to communicate well. Good, general intelligence, not merely the ability to recall information, is imperative for effective ministry in our complex world; it requires the capacity to see things from many points of view. Like a diamond, any problem has many facets, and intellectually flexible people are able to see those various dimensions. A business owner who is seeing his sales numbers go down may act foolishly if he simply fires his sales staff, for the problem may lie elsewhere. Perhaps foreign competitors are selling at half price; perhaps his product is cheap to buy, but expensive to maintain. Perhaps his advertising campaign has targeted the wrong people. Similarly, a pastor who sees church attendance declining and quickly decides to change the style of the worship music may not be acting wisely. Intellectually flexible people look at complex problems from many perspectives, and this helps to bring deep insight to the solutions.
Effective public speaking and interpersonal communication skills are central to most ministry settings. (Occasionally a person who has specialized technical skill but is weaker in communication ability can contribute to a team. But opportunities for those individuals are generally limited.) Communication strengths should not only include speaking and writing, but also listening and reading. Furthermore, because communication always takes place in cultural context, and because many ministries cross cultural lines, the special problems of cross-cultural communication deserve attention. An important key to good communication is understanding the audience, and the greater the difference between speaker and listener, the more important this becomes, for differences lead to communication breakdowns.
There are also some very specific skills and abilities that can contribute to a ministry, and the list is almost endless. Technical skills of almost every kind are useful in large churches, missions, or specialized ministries. Those who have a particular technical skill should do some specific research that is focused on finding just the right place to use that skill. Seminary or graduate theological study is a vital component to help future ministers explore their gifts and skills and lead them into further development of those skills.
Evaluating personal qualities for effective ministry
People who achieve excellence in whatever they do share some general qualities, and these are in addition to the skills that are specific to ministry. They include drive and determination, godly character, and emotional health.
Men and women who lead effective ministries have a strong desire to achieve meaningful results. They are courageous and determined. The inevitable conflicts, setbacks, and problems that arise in ministry settings bring out their best. For example, every triathlete faces physical obstacles. Wind, high or low temperatures, and hilly terrain all put the triathlete under stress. In the face of such obstacles, those who are truly determined draw on deep reserves, stepping up their effort and working through the roadblocks. Resisting the difficulties and eventually finding ways to overcome actually increase their strength. This principle holds true for people who succeed in every arena, including ministry.
Obviously, effective Christian ministry demands godly character, and godly people express character in their behavior toward others. They are, for example, honest in what they say, fair in their personal dealings, kind to all persons equally, and courageous in the face of adversity. We may think we know godly character when we see it, but godliness is more than proper external behavior. Learning to become godly is thus more than simply doing certain things. Godliness is a mysterious transformation that God begins and sustains within our heart as we live out his love in community with others. Still, each of us is responsible to live a disciplined life, and this includes behaviors that honor God and respect the talents, feelings, and rights of others. This life in community, as it captures the Spirit's life-giving power, leads to the deep inner transformation without which any ministry is a beating of the wind.
Godly character both influences and is influenced by emotional well-being. Godliness and emotional health are different things-unbelievers may have healthy emotional lives. Moving toward emotional well-being includes such things as learning to be secure and confident, courageous, trustful, humble, and loving; always being able to forgive oneself and others; having the ability to cooperate readily; having a facility for leading others as well as a willingness to follow; possessing a tendency not to succumb to inner fears but rather finding ways to deal with fears or insecurities so they do not bleed onto other people.
Interestingly, research shows that this emotional health and the capacity for deep and meaningful relationships with others is a more powerful predictor of effectiveness in any leadership endeavor than intelligence or technical skill. Becoming fit for ministry includes growth toward a mutually enriching intersection of emotional healthfulness and godliness. One of the great values of seminary training is the opportunity to grow in all of these areas, further developing disciplined determination and strength of character in an environment that encourages healthy and godly relationships.
Discovering qualities of fitness
You may wish to follow several parallel strategies in seeking to discover your own fitness for ministry. Spiritual gift testing, for example, is popular and can be useful. Working through a testing process does produce valuable insights. Scripture clearly teaches that, as a believer, you are gifted by the Holy Spirit. Understanding your particular gift is essential to using that gift to serve the body of Christ.
But keep several factors in mind. For one thing, not all gift tests are created equal. Some are quite simple and produce only a limited reading of your spiritual gifts, while others depend heavily on what you enjoy doing. But what you enjoy and how you are gifted may not match exactly. Still others focus on what you think of yourself. While this is useful, frankly honest feedback from a trusted faculty adviser or an experienced leader in ministry is even more important. Discerning your gifting is a process, not an event. Tests do the most good when they are part of that larger process.
That larger process should focus not just on your gifts, but on your passions, experiences, and calling as well. To have a passion for something really means that you value that thing. A lover of fine music may be passionate about Beethoven. But this does not mean she has achieved excellence in playing Beethoven's music. A bored music student about to drop out of the conservatory may be exceptionally gifted musically. A pastor who is bored by the thought of serving God's people may be gifted, but he or she is hardly fit to serve. Finding a place of service that fits includes finding out where your passions lie. A God-given passion for serving people is key to becoming fit for ministry.
Your experience counts, too. You may have developed some expertise through a secular job that overlaps a ministry position. If you are an effective elementary schoolteacher, for example, you might consider children's ministry as work in which your specific talents could easily be applied. On the other hand, that should not lock you in to youth work. Options that are worth exploring may even involve a significant shift away from what you have done before. Lee
Stroebel of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago was trained as a lawyer, worked as a Chicago Tribune reporter, and then became a teaching pastor. He has used his previous experience in his ministry, to be sure, but the core of his work has shifted. Think about things you have already learned to do, but always be open to learning new things.
The bottom line is that the most important issue is always God's call. While you should think through how you are gifted, what makes you passionate, and what you have gained through experience, this is not adequate in and of itself. Rather, the most essential question is this: What is God telling you to do? God calls individuals to particular vocations, and he anoints those he calls for specific work. The call will involve sacrifice and may be tested. But as you hear God's voice, you will find yourself drawn to a place of service. Still, the most important aspect of hearing the call is simply listening to God's voice. Our ministry activity is of value to the Lord only as it expresses our deepest longings to know him. More than our activity, God wants us.
As you study and prepare to answer God's call, dedicated faculty and your fellow students will help you to become that person God intends for you to be.
A number of steps can be taken to discover gifts and passions, and these steps should be purposeful, realistic, ongoing, and increasingly focused.
The movement toward clearly understanding your fitness for ministry should be purposeful. At the end of life, you will regret never having tried more than you will regret having tried and failed. I once struggled over whether to build my family a house, something I had always wanted to do. Deciding that I wanted to try, even though I might fail completely, I bought the land and built the house. In fact, I built two. The courage to take intentional steps into the unknown is critical to seeking God's direction. It is part of the life of faith.
You must also be realistic as you seek to discover your fitness for ministry. Each of us is liable to blind spots about ourselves. We show much more insight when viewing others. In business, top managers and leaders do 360-degree assessments. This means that a manager's work is evaluated, not just by herself, but by her supervisors, peers, and subordinates. Following this principle, honest feedback from many sources-teachers, advisers, students, and colleagues in whatever ministry you are already engaged in-and not just your own evaluation of skills and readiness, is worth pure gold. It could include both intuitive responses from mature leaders and formal testing by qualified individuals.
The discerning process should also be ongoing. It is not a single event, but rather a journey of exploration. Like a newspaper article, it starts wide and narrows down. You do not know for sure, for example, when watching a peewee league player score touchdowns that a career in the NFL is his best option. If he continues to excel at football as he moves up through the ranks, if he loves the game and shows a willingness to lift weights and run wind sprints, maybe the NFL is the place for him. But that is not something anyone knows for sure in peewee league. Likewise, in finding a good fit, you need to keep moving along, finding newer and bigger challenges in service. And see where God leads you.
This ongoing discernment process should focus, with increasing sharpness over time, on specific gifts, passions, and calling. Most of us can do many things. But it is wise, even after years in ministry, to ask the question with ruthlessness: What one thing can I do well? What do I do better than anything else? How can I use the one thing I do better than anything else to make the most significant impact for the kingdom of God? This focus brings a sharpness to the discerning process that will lead to increasingly effective ministry. If seeking clarity on these issues is valuable at midcareer, it is essential early on, and you will find as you prepare yourself in an environment of seminary or graduate theological training that your focus will become ever sharper.
II. Work through the stages of ministry fitness
While the concept of fitness may be described as being fitted for, suited to, or cut out for ministry roles, a second sense of fitness for ministry is one of being prepared, strengthened, or educated for ministry functions. This is fitness in the sense of working toward a state of preparedness. Fitness of this kind results from training that reaches toward maximal competence for a particular activity or role.
Like discerning fitness, developing fitness is a process. The earliest phase in developing fitness typically happens prior to formal education. A wise person considering a ministry call will test the waters through volunteer efforts. While this never perfectly replicates actual ministry experience, it helps point to one's suitability for ministry roles. For example, education majors in college are required to observe teaching and then to try out some short teaching experiences before committing their whole college careers to preparation for teaching.
Likewise, working as a volunteer in an actual church or other ministry will give important clues as to the degree of fitness of a candidate with the requirements of ministry. Volunteering in youth or children's ministry, for instance, provides great opportunity to learn one's own gifting. The work should include things other than simply hanging with the young people. It might involve recruiting others to work in your ministry area, training others for specific tasks, teaching or preaching for special events, or planning significant events or activities. Such tasks are the bread and butter of ministry. Specific practical assignments at your seminary or as part of your ministerial study will aid the process greatly.
For the person who has actually already served in ministry, the decision to pursue theological education is natural. This is not to say that the seminary is wrong for others, for young college graduates often feel led directly into seminary. But those who have already tried out the rigors of real ministry bring along to seminary many ideas and insights. Their questions are likely to be far more profound. So seminary is especially beneficial for those who already have had some ministry experience.
A different sort of stage in the process is detour management. What happens when a person who has served in one ministry setting finds it necessary to leave and pursue another calling? For today, almost no one starts out doing one thing and stays with that one thing until retirement. This could happen when, for example, a youth pastor feels she no longer connects with 16-year-olds and chooses to move into a different role. Or it may happen when a minister encounters resistance to his ministry and he needs to find a different place. The reassessment and retooling that such life transitions require can often be very difficult. But they make up one of the stages of a lifetime of ministry. A good denominational adviser or a consulting agency such as Ministry Transitions can bring great wisdom and help at such times.
Deciding on a generalist or a specialist approach
One ought to be a generalist in several broad areas of preparation for ministry. Bible knowledge, spiritual and emotional maturity, and general ministerial and leadership practice are all necessary. But none is sufficient by itself. For example, a modern army needs the support of air power and sea power. But by themselves, none of these military branches can win a war. Without air power, the army is at risk. Without the army, air power is limited in what it can accomplish. In the same way, one needs good biblical and theological understanding and insight that creates the foundation for a rich relationship with God. An individual's relationship with God is a deep well from which flows the energy and truth for leading a congregation or a ministry. If a person leads a ministry only out of personal talent and gifting, he or she will shortly run dry.
Because different people have different interests and abilities, it is easy to move toward the thing that seems easiest. A very conceptual person who loves the world of ideas may be tempted to live only in that world. For example, educational theorists have noted that children have different learning styles. This fact is obvious. But what does it imply for good teaching? Some think that good teaching caters to a learning style; that is, a child who learns best by listening should be taught only through the ears. But more recently, theorists have argued that children should be stimulated to learn not only in their preferred styles, but in other ways as well for, as adults, the world does not adjust itself to any one style. In the same way, in preparation for ministry, a person must grow in all three areas. If theology is a person's weakest point, that does not mean he should move away from it, but that he rather might push toward it and learn all the theology he can. It is often wise to lean into our growth edges.
With regard to functional capacities and specific job-related task skills, however, one may seek specialization. Multiple-staff settings offer opportunity for this sort of specialization, as do highly focused missions operations such as missionary aviation or radio. On the other hand, many places will demand a wider range of skills. If God leads a person toward a small town or rural ministry, the demographics of the town and country setting will impose limits on the size of any church or ministry. This means generalists still have a future. Furthermore, people grow in ministry. Those who start out in youth ministry frequently move on to other roles. If the preparation process is too narrow, future opportunities may be limited.
Understanding the value of seminary education
Theological education should address all aspects of the human person. Obviously, this includes dealing with the intellectual content of the Bible, history, and theology as well as developing the cognitive skills to handle complex information. In the recent past, seminaries placed the greatest stress on intellectual skills and content. Without losing this emphasis, however, the seminary of the future will offer a far more holistic curriculum. The content of the Bible and theology is of paramount importance, especially in an age when biblical literacy is declining. But we must not force an either/or choice between learning the truth of the gospel as revealed in the Bible and the spiritual and leadership dimensions of ministry.
Theological education rightly includes the issues of spiritual formation and emotional wholeness. Spiritual maturity-"holiness"-and emotional healthiness-"wholeness"-are two different things. Having one does not guarantee having the other. Spiritual holiness of a sort is possible even though a person is emotionally quite wounded. And emotional healthiness characterizes some who are not Christians. Spiritual and emotional fitness are both critical, and they should reinforce one another in the life of emerging ministry leaders. The minister who is unaware of his inner emotional issues can unknowingly project them on his congregation and so cause extensive harm.
Seminary finally includes learning how to lead and manage complex organizations. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, has said that the church is the most leadership-intensive enterprise in the world. And while training in leadership can begin with theoretical concepts in the classroom, two other factors are crucial. One is finding people who are natural leaders ("fitness" in the first sense), and the other is significant experiential learning. Research shows that developing leaders must get the chance to try their hands at significant leadership challenges early in their careers. This is not something someone can learn from a textbook alone any more than we could learn to drive a car just from a reading a book.
It is naîve to think a three-year seminary experience can teach a prospective minister everything he or she needs to know. Professional theological education at a seminary or graduate school cannot be the end of learning. The wise minister latches onto opportunities for continuing education or lifelong learning.
The three years of seminary are in actuality no more than entry-level preparation. Recent seminary graduates inevitably run into new issues that stretch their abilities to cope. This means that in considering a particular school, the prospective seminary student should consider not just the school's degree program, but its postgraduation offerings as well. Long-term learning opportunities bring not only new understanding, they also provide encouragement along the way.
Reaching the goal of ministry fitness
Ministry in the new millennium will offer enormous opportunities and present incredible challenges. The high-tech world of the future will place significant demands on the church. For one thing, people in our society are accustomed to excellence in their world, and they will expect excellence in every facet of ministry.
At the same time, people are experiencing alienation and disconnection, in part due to the speed of our technologically driven society. So people will also expect authenticity and genuineness in relationships. They will sniff out phony behavior in an instant. Developing fitness for ministry in this new millennium will demand competence in function and authenticity in relationships. If you can commit to being that sort of person by God's grace, then God may call you to a deep study of his Word and eventually to become an enduring and prevailing leader for his kingdom.
The successful triathlete, who runs against many odds, is both naturally suited to that event and committed to training for excellence. Just so, the successful Christian minister is gifted for Christian service and dedicated to specialized education for effectiveness.
Do you can relate to these two themes? Then you will find your level of fitness for ministry.
David K. Clark is dean of Biblical and Theological Foundations and professor of theology at Bethel Theological Seminary.