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The Thistle
Essentially Equipped: Pastors Training Pastors – Heath Kahlbau
By Covenant Seminary on Monday, May 2nd, 2011
Posted In: Article

Essentially Equipped: Pastors Training Pastors

By Heath Kahlbau, MDiv '02

Through the fire of ministry experience, one pastor has come to realize how critical it is for pastors with hearts for academia to do the work of training and equipping in [MO the academic arena of] seminary.

“The pastorate is a crucible full of blessings and battles,” said Dr. Bryan Chapell to our graduating class in 2002. I had no idea just how true those words would prove to be. If statistics can be trusted, an estimated 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month. Of those surveyed, 80% believe that the ministry has negatively affected their families, and 50% have considered leaving the ministry in the last three months.[1]

Like every other pastor, I learn things daily that I could not have learned in seminary. Like most others, sometimes I feel like throwing in the towel and exchanging the glass house I live in for one that is more opaque and has curtained windows. However, I feel that I have been given a gift that the vast majority of pastors in America today have not been given. Covenant Seminary requires that its professors have extensive pastoral experience themselves. I believe that much of why I am still in the ministry and am not a statistic today can be directly attributed to the character and experience of the men under whom I studied. 

How Do We Learn How To Be Pastors?

Few students go to seminary already possessing a wealth of pastoral wisdom and knowledge. I certainly did not. In fact, seminary is a great place to learn how little we actually know. However, it is much easier to impart doctrinal knowledge than wisdom. So, how does one learn to pastor? We are under-shepherds, but we are sheep as well. [2] I remember Dr. Dan Doriani, adjunct professor of New Testament, saying, “Pastors are cardiologists with heart disease.” We are still broken and need Jesus at least twice as much as the most hardheaded sheep in our congregations. As pastors, our failure to embrace this can result in a fakeness on our part and in our sheep wrongly thinking that we pastors are somehow more than we actually are. It also inevitably results in our sheep being appalled to discover that we are actually less than they thought we were. Famed British preacher  Charles Spurgeon once said:

That is the article I am deprecating, that dreadful ministerial starch. If you have indulged in it, I would earnestly advise you to “go and wash in Jordan seven times,” and get it out of you, every particle of it. I am persuaded that one reason why our working-men so universally keep clear of ministers is because they abhor their artificial and unmanly ways. If they saw us, in the pulpit and out of it, acting like real men, and speaking naturally, like honest men, they would come around us…We must have humanity along with our divinity if we would win the masses. Everybody can see through affectations, and people are not likely to be taken in by them. Fling away your stilts, brethren, and walk on your feet; doff your ecclesiasticism, and array yourselves in truth. [3]

We Can’t Give What We Don’t Have

Most pastors with whom I have served desire to serve the Lord and truly do love his church. However, as men, we can only pass along what we have received. In 2 Timothy 2:1–2, Paul tells Timothy to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” If an integral part of being a pastor is multiplying our lives into others by equipping them for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11–12), a couple of questions arise: How are we to equip others to do what we do not ourselves know how to do? And how is a pastor to  learn what he does not know in order to be a better equipper?

Theologian Thomas Oden has said, “It is dangerous to the health of the church for ministry to be practiced without good foundations in Scripture and tradition, reason, and experience.”[4] If Oden was right in saying that experience is key, then it is fair to ask whether those without significant pastoral experience should train those who aspire to become pastors. The role of the pastor and the role of the academician are related, but different. It is easy to overlook this fact in a seminary context when an academic professor is attempting to equip a budding young pastor for local church ministry—but doing so in an academic setting.

The failure to recognize the difference in the two settings can result in professors equipping their students to answer the wrong questions. One example of this is the frustration experienced by a young man I mentored when he took  a New Testament class for his Master of Divinity degree at a well-known and respected evangelical seminary. His professor was very sincere, but had never been a pastor. In the student’s own words:

I was in seminary to get the training I needed to become a missionary. I will probably never have the opportunity to pursue further theological training beyond my MDiv. When I had such a limited opportunity for training, it really frustrated me that my professor spent literally 75% of the semester going over source criticism and how to refute it. I know that this is important, and I understand that I need to know a certain amount of it. But he never got around to teaching us how to understand and teach the New Testament. As a result, I feel like it was a monumental waste of my time and money.

Does this mean that I believe that pastors do not need to be trained in source criticism? Absolutely not. However, it does mean that one who trains pastors needs to understand the environment for which he is training them, and nothing but pastoral experience can equip him to understand that context.

One might object that there is no practical reason for a professor of biblical languages to have extensive pastoral experience in order to train pastors in those languages. Yet, the Greek or Hebrew professor with extensive pastoral ministry experience knows the difference in the weekly schedule of the pastor and the professor. He can temper his training based on this knowledge and help young pastors set realistic goals for the use of biblical languages in the pastorate. Is this a compromise? It is hardly a compromise to train students in such a way that they actually continue to use effectively what you are trying to teach them—especially considering how few pastors who studied Greek and Hebrew actually use either of the two in their ministries. [5]

Recognizing the Gap Between “Is” and “Ought”—And Knowing What to Do

Finally, if a man has never been a pastor, his concept of how to lead the local church has a tendency to be centered in the “ought.” The “ought” is good and necessary. However, it doesn’t take long for a pastor to realize that the church doesn’t work like it ought to. Just as in other areas of life, there is a major gap between what “is” and what “ought” to be. A lack of pastoral experience in those who train future pastors, leads to a very real danger of recognizing the true state of the church only in a theoretical sense, if at all.  Only in the crucible of ministry can we become acquainted with the reality of the church and realize how far removed it is from what it ought to be. At this point, however, we often have no idea how to bridge the gap. Scholars who have been pastors know the reality of the gap as well as the difficulty of bridging it. They know how to teach on the “is” and they know how to teach on the “ought.” But they also understand the gap between the two.

I began by stating how blessed I was to have studied at Covenant Seminary under men with deep and rich pastoral experience. As a result, I believe that I was much better prepared to endure the fires that I face in ministry than I would have been without these mentors. This is not to say that I have always listened well to their advice, but the Lord has brought their words back to my mind many times. I have learned over the years that they knew what they were talking about, and to a greater degree how blessed I was beyond measure to have learned from them.


[1] John Cameron King, The Key to Your Church’s Vision: A Practical Guide to Praying for Your Pastor (Longwood, FL: Xulon Press, 2009), 24–25.

[2] For an example, see W. Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970).

[3] Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), 167.

[4] Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1983), xii.

 [5] Dennis E. Johnson, “The Peril of Pastors Without the Biblical Languages,” n.p., available online at http://www.wscal.edu/faculty/wscwritings/07.10.php (accessed July 10, 2010).

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