Ben Cooper is the Minister for Training at Christ Church Fulwood in Sheffield and Course Director of Fulwood Bible Training.
For over twenty years now, 9:38 has been engaged in encouraging Christian men and women to consider devoting themselves to full-time gospel ministry. And a key component of this has been to promote ‘Ministry Trainee Schemes’ – One or two year opportunities to be trained in a real church ministry environment. There are now many dozens of such schemes around the country. We’ve had a scheme at Christ Church Fulwood in Sheffield for several decades now, and are enormously thankful to God for all that he’s done through it, equipping the Trainees he’s given us for the task of ministry and sending them out to bear gospel fruit all over the nation and to many parts of the world.
So, then, what if you’re at one of the even greater number of churches that don’t yet have a Ministry Trainee Scheme, or something like one, and are wondering whether it might be good to take on a Trainee or two? How should you go about it? Well, there are many, many things to say about the practicalities of running a Scheme that there’s not space to cover here. But I thought it would be helpful to share two key principles we’ve found crucial to defend and keep central for our scheme in Fulwood. One has to do with the scope of a Trainee Scheme; the other, with how it functions.
Scope of a Trainee Scheme
They are works-in-progress. As we all are, of course. But it’s perhaps especially obvious among our Trainees, especially if they’re relatively young.
- Ministry Trainees are trainees. You might have thought this would be easy to remember — the clue is in the name, right? But this is so hard to keep in mind that I’ve even contemplated getting a T-shirt printed with this slogan so I can continually remind everyone — The Ministry Trainees are Trainees. This principle clarifies the appropriate limits on what we expect from our Trainees. In particular, it clarifies:
- They are not cheap labour. There are many practical tasks to be done in a busy church family, and it’s important for Trainees to be contributing to them as part of their experience of ministry. But to off-load all the things we don’t want to do onto (poorly paid) underlings is not only unethical but takes away from the sacrificial service we want to be encouraging from every member of the church family.
- They are not staff members. If you have a ministry area that needs developing or overseeing, get someone appropriately qualified and trained, and support them properly.
- They are works-in-progress. As we all are, of course. But it’s perhaps especially obvious among our Trainees, especially if they’re relatively young. I have to remind people sometimes about this if they grumble about the relative immaturity or incompetence of a Trainee. Transformation and growth takes time, patience and persistent love. What did you expect?
How the Training Scheme Functions
Ministry Trainees are God’s trainees. Who is it who actually trains a Trainee? Is it the church Pastor or some other ministry leader? That’s how it might work under an apprenticeship model of training. The apprentice works alongside the leader, picking up how do things. And there’s some value in this. You can see how they might pick up some good things, how existing ministry habits and patterns might continue into the future. But they could also be picking up some bad things: quirks, blind-spots, eccentricities, doctrinal errors. And while they might be able to roughly reproduce what’s going on now in one setting, they might struggle to cope with new or different settings. What’s more, there’s a danger they’re not learning the gospel convictions that will grow them in character and perseverance.
No, our conviction is that, while learning by example is of some value, true biblical training happens through the Scriptures. To be a Ministry Trainee means being trained by God through his Word in a real ministry context. (Which is why I prefer the term ‘Trainee’ to ‘Apprentice’.) Indeed, we’re convinced that the Scriptures are sufficient to equip us for the tasks of ministry – as Timothy’s mentor Paul was very keen to remind him (1 Tim 3:16–17).
while learning by example is of some value, true biblical training happens through the Scriptures. To be a Ministry Trainee means being trained by God through his Word in a real ministry context.
So at the heart of any healthy Trainee Scheme there really must be some kind of structured Bible training. This, of course, may be hard for small, hard-pressed churches to provide in-house. But there are many regional Bible training courses around the country to make use of. (Although we could do with many more.)
All of this means setting up a Ministry Trainee Scheme may not be the panacea to all your church’s practical and ministry problems you hoped it might be. In fact, it shouldn’t be. A Trainee Scheme should be a burden, a cost, a sacrifice. Just like other kinds of gospel ministry, then. But this is ‘highly geared’ gospel ministry. Growth in someone who goes on to teach, lead or train others multiplies the spread of the gospel in powerful ways. And that is a very exciting kind of gospel ministry to be involved in.