The call to pastoral work is a call to lead the church to accomplish its work. Called people enter the ministry because they have sensed the hand of God in their lives and because they have heard the voice of God calling them to minister to his people. The ministry is not just a traditional job, a career among many careers. The ministry is a vocation and only those who have felt the sense of divine call to this vocation belong in the ministry.
Another reason people enter the ministry is because they want to be obedient to the call of God. The ministry is a call to obedience. God has given a mission to each believer and those who fill the call to pastoral ministry also accept the call to prepare themselves to fulfill that mission.
The pastor’s mission is to prepare God’s people “for the work of the ministry” or as the NIV says, to prepare God’s people “for the work of service.” The pastor is at the same time a teacher. As a teacher, the pastor prepares God’s people for their ministry.
Every Christian is a minister and the pastor is called to be a teacher of ministers. However, the preparation of God’s people cannot be done by one person alone. The risen Christ gave gifts to everyone whom he has called to the ministry. Paul said that Christ selected some people to be apostles, some to be prophets, others to be evangelists, and still others to be pastor-teachers (Ephesians 4:11). Christ selected all these people so that together, according to their gifts, they might equip God’s people for their ministry.
In the church of Jesus Christ there are people with a diversity of gifts that are needed by the church as it helps people to fulfill their ministry. In order to accomplish its mission, the church needs people who are committed to pastoral ministry, to evangelism, to missions, to education, to music, to counseling, and to administration. Thus, a pastor cannot work alone. In the preparation of God’s people for the work of their ministry, pastors must work with other partners who also are engaged in Christian ministry. These people must join their gifts and their abilities in order to enable others to exercise their Christian ministry.
Theological education is a partnership, a partnership in which two people, a teacher and a student, work together toward a common goal: the preparation of God’s people for the work of the ministry. This partnership is seen in the relationship between Paul and Timothy. When Paul met Timothy, Timothy was a young man, immature, and still developing his abilities. However, Paul saw Timothy’s commitment, his faith, and dependability and Paul set Timothy apart and prepared to teach him, equipping him for the work of the ministry. Timothy learned how to be a minister from Paul. He had observed how Paul exercised his own ministry and what made Paul successful as a minister of Jesus Christ.
The process of theological education in a seminary setting has some things that parallel the relationship between Paul and Timothy. True theological education happens when teachers and students seek to imitate that relationship.
One thing that contributes to a successful ministry is a good theological education. A call to the ministry is also a call to preparation. The ministry requires much study because pastors must prepare themselves in order to teach others to become ministers. Paul exhorted Timothy: “Study to present yourself approved, a workman that needs not to be ashamed” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV). Study is an integral part of theological education.
First, in the classroom a teacher guides students to study the events and matters that relate to the church, to faith, and to ministry. Study, in and out of the classroom, provides the foundation that contributes to a better understanding of the call and mission of the minister. The ministry demands the best of those who are involved in it. The Greek word spoudatzo, translated “study” in the KJV and translated “do your best” in the NIV literally means, “to pursue earnestly.”
Second, the teacher can become an example worthy of being followed. Paul could say to his followers: “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” Being a teacher requires much discipline and hard work. But, where the teacher becomes an example is in his teaching.
The pastor by vocation is called to be a pastor-teacher. A pastor must learn somewhere how to be a teacher. Pastors learn how to become teachers from the model that is set before them: their own teacher. Paul said to Timothy: “What you have heard from me keep as the pattern” (2 Timothy 1:13). And again: “What you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well” (2 Timothy 2:2).
Third, teachers can help their students to think theologically. Every pastor is also a theologian, because pastors must interpret the Scriptures and teach the articles of faith to those in the congregation who will exercise their ministry. However, what churches need today is the kind of theologian who can maintain a balance between theology and practice and who can apply theological concepts to basic human experiences. To be a pastor-theologian is to possess the capacity to hear and interpret the unarticulated longings of the spirit through the ordinary language of the people. To think theologically involves four basic things:
1. Pastors must be familiar with the Scriptures, the foundation of the church, and they must articulate them to the community of faith. To think theologically then, is to articulate clearly the teachings of the Old and New Testaments so that people might learn and apply the teachings of Scriptures to their own lives.
2. Pastors must be familiar with the history of the church and the great declarations of faith that give meaning and vitality to the church. To think theologically then, is to be able to relate to people the history and faith of the church so that the congregation might learn its relationship with the church through the ages and identify themselves with those who gave their lives to preserve the life of the church.
3. Pastors must be familiar with the debates among intellectuals that relate to the basic issues of life. Human history has been a long debate on the meaning and purpose of human existence. To think theologically then, is to think philosophically. Pastors must learn how to relate the human struggle for meaning to the message of the Gospel so that faith becomes a search for understanding in the light of the cross.
4. Pastors must be familiar with the meaning of reconciliation and forgiveness so that they might comprehend the meaning of Godforsakenness and human suffering. To think theologically then, is to relate Scriptures, theology, history, and philosophy to humanity’s search for a relationship with God. Pastors who fail to do these things in their ministry have failed in their mission to equip God’s people to accomplish their ministry.
Pastors and theologians, teachers and students must develop this partnership so that theological education becomes an enterprise where the classroom develops into the vehicle by which theological students, in partnership with teachers, work together to fulfill their mutual mission: the preparation of God’s people for the work of the ministry.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Note: This post is an adaptation of an address given to entering students at Northern Baptist Seminary.