Training in the Trenches

$75,000.

Four years.

A move away from home to a larger city with a college or university.

This is the average opportunity cost for a rural church leader to earn an undergraduate degree at a public college or university (the average cost at a Christian school is even higher). If this church leader wishes to receive further training at the seminary level, that’s another three years and $25,000, bringing the total cost to $100,000. Gulp!

100-grand

This is a cost that is prohibitive anywhere, and especially in poor rural areas where employment opportunities are limited and where few esteem the value of a formal education.

Because of this, rural churches face two common problems when they’re looking to hire a new pastor:

Untrained Leadership

Many small congregations in out-of-the-way locations across the country are unable to hire ministers who have received rigorous theological training. Members of these churches do their very best to be as generous as possible with their meager incomes in order to give their pastor a livable wage. But there’s a problem. The pastor needs significantly more than a livable wage in order to pay off the ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLAR education he just received. Little by little, search committees in churches like these must lower their requirements and standards until they are able to find a pastor who is willing to live in a rural area AND who doesn’t require quite as much income. Usually this results in hiring someone with little experience or training.

Untrained leaders, while almost always sincere in their desire to serve the church, can unknowingly veer into heretical teachings, preach in a way that doesn’t reflect the content of the Biblical text, and can be ill-equipped to address the spiritual needs of their flock. It’s a bit like going to the doctor to be treated for what could be terminal cancer, only to discover that this fellow (friendly and sincere as he may be) never went through medical school.

Out of Touch Leadership

Sometimes, these town and country churches are able to hire a trained pastor. Maybe through the contributions of a few wealthy congregants or simply by way of very disciplined spending, they are able to afford to bring in a pastor who has been trained in the work he’s about to do.

For awhile, everything goes really well. The people recognize and appreciate their new pastor’s knowledge of Scripture and handling of difficult theological issues. They sense that he’s been taught how to approach counseling situations. But the honeymoon doesn’t last long. A subtle but troubling reality begins to emerge. This pastor is… different from the people in his church. His favorite hobbies, food, music, and technology are different. His political opinions and social beliefs are different. And none of these distinctions are, in themselves, deal-breakers. The poison is introduced when either the pastor or the people of his church begin to think less of the other because of those differences. When that sense of superiority sneaks in, mutual resentment steadily develops, and it doesn’t take long for the pastor to decide it would be best to move along (if his congregation doesn’t force that decision on him first).

This is the harsh reality and the difficult scenario facing many rural churches. Do they (prayerfully) cross their fingers and hope an untrained pastor has happened upon enough quality discipleship in his own local church that he’ll be adequately prepared for the work of ministry apart from formal training? Do they (as my church did) try to present the soon-to-be transplant with the blunt reality of rural life and culture before signing on the dotted line? What is a church to do?

At this point, and to address this very conundrum, allow me to introduce you to the Bible Training Center.

This is a program designed with rural ministry in mind, organized and instructed by rural Christian leaders, with classes held in rural settings and course schedules designed to work around rural workers’ lives. Oh, and this is all done with a sensitivity to a rural budget – the course my wife and I are presently taking costs $175 per person, which not only covers the class itself, but also the textbooks and TWELVE HOMEMADE MEALS served during the weekend class sessions!

I’ve had the opportunity to take part in courses with the Bible Training Center (BTC) both as a student and as a teacher, and I consider my proximity to a BTC campus to be one of the great providential blessings of my ministry experience.

In the next post, I’ll share a bit about the nuts and bolts of the BTC, and I’ll wrap up the three part series with a few personal stories from my experiences in this program.

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