Ask any number of pastors what they learned from seminary and they’re sure to recall fond memories of a collegiate experience that formed some of their foundational views of Scripture. If you ask those same pastors about being prepared for a leadership role in a local church most will tell you it is something they just figured out several years into the ministry. It was the on-the-job training that helped them learn how to be a pastor.
Seminaries are not at fault here. Like any institution, they cannot deliver a result for which they were not designed. This model is not wrong or even broken; it is simply incomplete. Seminary is an institution designed to educate the masses through information. Yet, information is not transformational.
Transformation can only happen in the context of community.
The challenge is that people development isn't linear and cannot be delivered in mass. This presents a substantial challenge for any institution. An institution functions most efficiently (and thus profitably) when the process creates a uniform output. Conformity can provide a foundation to build upon, or even to deconstruct, but individual growth is about creating the conditions for sustainable change. It requires a more organic approach.
One challenge in an organic approach is that it requires a significant investment of time. Often, it will not be until a specific issue emerges in the context of an "on the job" situation that the leader’s skills will be put to the test. In that moment they need a safe place to go to learn and grow.
Another challenge with the organic approach, and the reason it cannot be delivered by an institution, is that growth is intensely personal. Growth cannot be achieved outside of knowing the person.
A fundamental shift must occur in how the church trains and deploys leadership.
The answer is not a new technique, but rather an ancient one practiced by the Jewish community for many centuries. Here is how Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg explain it in their book, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus:
"As critical as it was to study with a rabbi, it was considered essential to have one or two people who could learn right along with you. Fellow students could ask each other questions that they might be too embarrassed to ask their teachers. Also, partners could learn from each other. Our Westernized minds may struggle with this idea. We tend to believe that the only way to deeply encounter God is through solitary prayer and study. But Jesus implies that his presence will be felt most often in the presence of a small group of haverim (a study group, peers)."
A complete model for staff development in the local church must include both elements, the rabbi/talmidim (teacher/student) and the haverim (peers). Only by combining these aspects can the paradigm shift from a purely educational model to a more holistic approach that includes a "continuing education" aspect through a group of peers.
If you were meeting with a group of students preparing for your ministry role what one thing would you want them to know that you learned on the job?