In the next of our series, Andrew Nicholls explains how we prepare people for pastoral work.
The very idea of “pastoral” work draws on the idea of the shepherd, who is a pastor for the sheep. Bad shepherds look after themselves, ignore the weak while pursuing their strategies, forcing them into line with harsh brutality, damaging the flock. As a result, lacking the shepherd they really need, the flock wander in search of food but end up becoming food for others (Ezek 34). The Good Shepherd came himself to care, gather, feed, give rest to, search for and bind up the lost and wounded, giving
himself totally in the process (Ezek 34, John 10).
Such a pattern sets a radical agenda for any would-be pastoral worker. We must warn the idle, encourage the timid and help the weak (implying that we must be able to tell which is which or we will do exactly the wrong thing), and be patient with everyone (1 Thess 5:14). We must let our gentleness be evident to all as we rejoice in the Lord and in his presence (Phil 4:4-5).
Some of this can happen from a pulpit in a service, but a lot more must happen somewhere in the other roughly 112 waking hours of a minister's week. Becoming a good pastoral worker means all the biblical, doctrinal, historical, linguistic, cultural study we can cram into the timetable, and careful attention to how we feed real people in real moments of real life. Coronavirus is asking a million new questions a day. Becoming a good pastoral worker means learning how to apply the faith once entrusted to the saints in every new circumstance.
As churches send people to us for training, therefore, we feel the responsibility to use their time with us to help them become the best ministers they can possibly be. As the newly revalidated programmes' design has progressed, this has meant weaving training in pastoral work into each of the three years - preparing for inter-personal ministry.
Following Jesus' teaching in Luke 6, we lay special emphasis on humility and the dangers of hypocrisy in the first year. We want each student to think about an area of their own life in which growth would be desirable. We want them to be able to find the planks in their own eyes, and have some idea what removing them looks like. We teach them that to do so means attending to their hearts, and growing in personal repentance before Christ the Lord and faith in Christ the Saviour.
In the second year, we'll coach them in the skill of Christian conversation. We want them to know how well they listen, how well they hear what is said and what is not, and how carefully they are able to relate Scripture to what they are discovering about the hearts of other people.
And in the third year we will give them lots of problems to work with, thinking how to apply what they have learned to the complexities of real life in our churches. What will they say, to whom, what will they do, and why, when things look like going belly-up? When a plague gallops towards us and the supermarket has no pasta? At Oak Hill, we want people to know how the gospel equips us to pastor in every possible circumstance.
The 'We are for' series: