“What should I do to become a pastor?”
Recently a young man asked me this question via text message. I imagine you have been asked the same question by someone in your congregation—an eager person looking to take the next step in their spiritual growth. You probably have a safe guess as to what my answer was, especially since I am the director of the Western Seminary Seattle Teaching Site. We all know the assumed logic in America for landing a career:
1. Decide what to do with your life.
2. Go to school to learn the skillset.
3. Graduate from said school.
4. Get hired for a job using that skillset.
Now substitute “school” with “seminary,” and voilà! You have a career in pastoring … right?
You might be surprised to learn that this isn’t the answer I texted back to the aspiring pastor, and it isn’t the answer I hope pastors give congregants who ask the same question. In the Bible, those God called to shepherd his people didn’t look at their ministry work as a career—at least not in the way we understand the concept. Their learning came first from development in the context of a local church, with an eye for Christ-centered conviction, character formation, and the ability to make and multiply disciples. Formal training, if they received it, came after the core development they received within the local church.
That is not to say I am anti-seminary. As I wrote above, my full-time job is with a seminary. Academic training is an important resource for those entering full-time ministry. My aim here is not to discourage pastors from recommending seminary, but to provide an intentional order of steps they can offer aspiring pastors that starts long before formal, academic training. This model comes in part from my personal experience of being mentored in the local church prior to attending seminary and in part from my current work counseling people toward theological training.
How, then, did I respond to the young man who asked me what he needed to do to become a pastor? Below you’ll find the strategic, six-step process I recommended. This list is not exhaustive, nor must each step be followed strictly in sequence, one right after the other—they can overlap.
Step 1: Commit to a local church and begin serving.
This may seem basic, but it’s too important to skip, and it isn’t a given. A friend of mine recalls meeting several people during his seminary education who had not committed to a local congregation in years. Some were indecisive. Others were jaded. Many couldn’t imagine joining a congregation that didn’t fit their ideal vision of church—one they hoped to implement right after graduation.
If a pastor’s primary task is to shepherd a local church, the sooner aspiring pastors commit to life in the local church—in all its imperfection and beauty—the better prepared they will be for future pastoral ministry. It is primarily in the context of the local church where on-the-job ministry training begins.
A major component of organic training in a local church includes experiencing what it is like to serve in that context. This can be in a variety of capacities, but it should start with small, behind-the-scenes responsibilities.
Before I began any formal leadership role in the local church, I immersed myself in volunteer ministry by serving with middle school students in the youth program. There, I began to learn what it means to be a servant: committing to show up for weekly youth events, helping with setup and cleanup, making space in my schedule to spend one-on-one time with kids, and enduring all-nighters and weekend retreats. I was not paid to serve in this way, nor was I given an “upfront” role. I was merely one of a team of servants giving of my time, energy, and gifts to serve the church.
This experience built into my leadership DNA three values. First, the core motivation for ministry comes from the gospel. We get to serve the church because we have been so graciously served by our savior. Second, I learned the art of modeling what I taught. Pastors cannot lead people to serve wholeheartedly if they have never done the same. Third, behind-the-scenes roles help to form a pastor’s character around the gospel, shaping them with humility and gentleness. In other words, one of the best ways to prepare someone for full-time pastoral ministry is to seat them behind a soundboard, ask them to set up chairs before an event, or invite them to mentor a student as a volunteer.
Step 2: Read the whole Bible at least once.
I worry that the process of reading the entire Bible is becoming a lost art. That’s unfortunate for any Christian, but for potential pastors, it is devastating. Admittedly, this is a step I didn’t experience early in my faith and church experience. I was encouraged to read portions of Scripture—key narratives and memorable passages—before I began leading in ministry, but reading the whole Bible was not part of my regular practice until later.
Obviously, the Bible is a massive tome. The thought of reading the whole book cover to cover can seem a daunting task. But over the years, as I learned the importance of reading through the entire Bible, I discovered advantages for potential pastors. First, they will begin to learn the importance of context when interpreting Scripture. Second, they will begin to grasp the story-formed worldview of the gospel—difficult to discern from disembodied verses—which is a necessary component of Christian theology. Third, it will help them develop a life-long love and appreciation for Scripture, which will be their lifeblood throughout the rigors of ministry. Fourth, even before they serve as a pastor, they will take the lead in curbing the increasing problem of biblical illiteracy in the church.
Step 3: Learn how to make disciples and shepherd people.
The Great Commission undergirds all pastoral ministry. There is no pastoring without disciple-making. It is absolutely imperative that aspiring pastors learn what the Great Commission ought to look like in the local church and everyday life.
During my early development, I learned that making disciples happens not just through weekly, large-group teaching, but through one-on-one and small-group environments. In one situation, I had built a relationship with a middle school boy who was deficient in his reading ability. Part of my discipleship strategy with him was reading Scripture, as well as books from the Chronicles of Narnia. This was immensely fruitful for both of us. He learned to read, and I learned how to do life-on-life discipleship.
I should point out that each of these first three steps aren’t limited to those working toward full-time ministry. They are things every committed follower of Christ should aspire to achieve—which makes it even more distressing when I encounter seminary students who haven’t done any of them. Pastors often say things like, “Seminary didn’t teach me how discouraging it would be to toil in obscurity,” or, “Seminary didn’t train me to shepherd distracted people and naysayers.” Those things should be discovered in the discipleship process of any committed Christian, and I encourage you to push aspiring pastors in those areas before discerning a particular call to pastoral ministry.
Step 4: Pray and listen for God’s direction toward ministry.
Aspiring pastors cannot answer the question “How do I become a pastor?” until they have first answered the question, “What is God telling me to do?” Whatever your view of “calling” into ministry, the potential pastors you’re guiding won’t get very far without committed time in prayer and listening to God. I encourage this step after someone has spent time serving and making disciples because it is during those experiences when people typically begin to get a specific sense of God’s leading.
God often speaks in the context of church community. Early on, as I continued to serve in various capacities with opportunities to teach and lead worship at Sunday gatherings, church members began to encourage me and affirm my gifts (though not without constructive feedback, especially on my preaching). I did not hear God speak audibly to me, but I sensed his will and vocational plan for my life through his church by way of collective affirmation. As you encourage prospective pastors to express their gifts and passions in various ministry environments, help them listen carefully for feedback from other members of the congregation. The church community can provide many sets of eyes to observe and assess their readiness for pastoral ministry.
This process of prayer and listening has another benefit: aspiring pastors will grow in maturity by developing a healthy self-awareness and gratitude for how God has created them. Pastors sometimes leave the ministry because they were a poor fit for a particular role; because their gifts were under-utilized, resulting in vocational strain; or because they tried to express a gift they simply didn’t have. This growth in self-awareness will serve future pastors well for years of effective ministry.
Step 5: If God is leading toward pastoral ministry, begin to look at seminary.
I insert this step near the end as a way to define the nature and purpose of seminary. Unlike the typical role of education in the modern American model of career building, seminary is not the end-all means of ministry training, nor should it be the first step in the training regimen for future pastors—and I trust many seminaries would agree. They offer a unique context for honing theology and ministry theory, but they are not the kind of environment where potential pastors can learn the crucial skillsets of shepherding and making disciples. This context can only be found within the local church.
I have seen this step play out well in the life of a student at my institution, Western Seminary. He spent much of his high school, college, and young professional years serving in a variety of unpaid roles with his local church, where he has been a committed member for more than 10 years. He learned some basic theology while serving there, but it wasn’t until he attended seminary that he achieved greater confidence and clarity in his theology. He found this to be true, for example, with the doctrine of the New Covenant—a concept he had heard about in Sunday liturgy and of which he understood the basic gist. However, since his time in seminary, he has added depth and nuance to his understanding of this crucial aspect of theology: how it compares and contrasts with the Old Covenant and its place in God’s redemption plan and the grand narrative of Scripture.
This student is experiencing the rightful purpose of seminary. It exists to augment hands-on training in the church with accurate theology and ministry theory. It is an academic context where pastors and leaders are trained in tandem with experiential learning in the local church.
Once you are confident God is leading a person toward a vocation in pastoral ministry, you should begin helping them look at which seminary will best prepare them for pastoring. Choosing a seminary to attend for four-or-more years is a big decision, and every seminary is different. Aspiring pastors will likely look to you for guidance and recommendations.
Step 6: Begin reading theology.
This step could actually come right after Step 2, but I place it at the end because the previous steps add so much important context to the study of theology. When aspiring pastors have real-life experience serving and making disciples in a local church, they will realize the need for help in responding to tough questions, from others and in their own minds.
Even veteran pastors struggle with doubts and wrestle with biblical texts and doctrines. Aspiring pastors should expect the same. They may even find they have a personal passion to study theology more deeply. They could attempt this undertaking on their own, but seminary training will equip them with tools and research methods to make their theological study more fruitful. In-depth reading of theology is an addendum to the foundational biblical story and truths of the gospel attained through Bible reading and experiential learning in the local church and everyday life.
If you know people who want to pursue full-time ministry, it is paramount that you help them approach their training in a holistic way, prioritizing hands-on ministry skills supplemented with theological education in the classroom. They do not need help pursuing merely a vocational path to ministry; they need preparation to equip people for living in the powerful reality of the kingdom of God amidst a dark and broken world. The gravity of that situation requires an equally weighty and intentional approach to pastoral development.
Derek Hiebert is the director of the Seattle Teaching Site of Western Seminary.