2 Keys to Training Shepherds (Not Theological Robots)

The theological robot. Perhaps, you know this person or (God forbid) you are this person. Aloof, given to theological musing detached from real lives, unfeeling, mechanical, and impatient, the theological robot wields knowledge like the Tin Man of Oz swings an axe—heartlessly. “Let’s face it, young men struggle more than most with patience,” says one seasoned pastoral voice. “Every new doctrine they learn often quickly becomes a bludgeon with which to pound truth into the saints. What’s worse, they rarely see their own weaknesses clearly but think they see others with such insight.”

Diotrephes was one such leader in the early church. He was a theological peacock desiring a place of prominence. What’s more, he refused to listen to the leaders of the apostolic church (3 John 9). He was a self-promoter who was too big for the local congregation. He increased his persona while the sheep went hungry. Such is always the case with shepherds who neglect their flocks (cf. Jer 23, 50:6-8; Ezek 34; Zech 10:2–3).

The theological robot is too often the byproduct of churches that rush in sending promising young men to seminary before they’ve received deep spiritual formation among the local flock. Somehow they’ve missed basic, vital, soul-enriching ministry experiences that instill what it means to be a well-balanced shepherd. As a result, theology is degraded from being a sturdy anchor for faithful shepherding and it becomes a weapon for abusing souls.

How do we avoid producing theological robots? How can the church train up a new generation of shepherds who love the sheep rather than wreck entire flocks through misguided zeal and ungodly pride? How can we raise up effective shepherds who put their theology primarily to work in the care of souls?

On the front end, I believe it will demand an investment from the church’s existing leadership. In the long run, it will require our ongoing commitment to the all-too-uncommon marks of biblical ministry.

Here are at least two investments that pastors must consider as we seek to groom young men for ministry.

1)      The Investment of Time 

One’s call and fitness for ministry can only be measured by careful evaluation over time. Anyone can fake it for a season. Of first importance is to answer whether he genuinely knows Christ the Lord. “A man may have prodigious learning. He may be master of half the languages spoken around the globe. He may be acquainted with the highest and deepest things in heaven and earth… and yet never be saved.”[2] A young man does not have to be special or eloquent but he must be a child of God and lover of Christ.

Time will also reveal evidences of God’s grace in his pastoral qualifications. These requirements will reveal his character as he lives his life in the midst of the sheep. He does not have to be savvy in the ways of social media. He doesn’t need to be remarkably gifted, or even bright, as the world would measure such things. Rather, he must simply be what God has clearly revealed about the servants who shepherd the flock (1Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9; 1 Pet 5:1–5).

Measuring a minister by time does not mean scrutinizing the clock as much as it means watching the compass. Serving for a period of time will bare the direction of a budding minister’s heart. “When the work of shepherding is difficult, the commitment of the shepherd is truly revealed. Yet shepherding is a labor of love to the one who truly is a shepherd.”[3] Faithfully serving in the living lab of the local church will help the flock cultivate leaders who truly love the sheep. There’s no way around it. It takes time.

2)      The Investment of Training

Training means cultivating the necessary understanding and skills involved in regular pastoral ministry. This begins with a love for and commitment to know the Word of God top to bottom. We are rightly concerned for the young men who know the varied arguments of scholars such as Wayne Grudem or N. T. Wright but cannot help a struggling believer find grace in God’s Word. Leaders need to train these young men in basic Bible knowledge and hermeneutics, not so they grow fat in their knowledge but so they prove useful to real people in the church. Train them to accurately handle the word of truth knowing both its larger landscape and nuanced particulars (2 Tim 2:15; 3:15).

This investment of training should also allow for pastoral novices to shadow older leaders as they walk with people in the congregation. Ministers in training need to be equipped for real situations. This takes much wisdom to apply, but they should know firsthand what it’s like to peer over the shoulders of their leaders as they stand next to someone’s deathbed or navigate wise counsel for a church member’s failing marriage. This kind of training will help seasoned pastors cultivate thoughtfulness, patience, gentleness, and boldness in these young men.

Pastors, let’s prioritize these vital investments in future ministers. By doing so, we’ll strengthen men for long-term ministerial faithfulness and improve the health of our Chief Shepherd’s flock.

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