Training Lay Pastors in your District

If you pastor a multichurch district, you will benefit from learning how to equip and empower your members for ministry.

James Wibberding, DMin, pastors the Cloverdale Seventhday Adventist Church, Boise, Idaho, United States

The Pennsylvania Confer­ence president just called,” my wife said. “He wants to talk to us about a six-church district.”

Thus began my immersion in multichurch districts—a context that would define my pastoral experience for the next decade. For those who face the challenge of a multichurch district, along with the spiritual responsibility of equipping others for ministry,1 let me share some of what I have learned in this area with you.

After surveying the biblical roots of lay pastoral ministry, I have summarized my discoveries in the following areas: biblical roots, educational theory, methodology, curricular content, and a lay pastor training course.

Biblical roots

The term lay pastor means a person serving as church pastor with minimal to no pay2 and no higher ministry education.3 This model corresponds to that of the New Testament elder.4

As the New Testament church developed, its organizational struc­ture was not pre-defined. Instead, Jesus defined the mission but the structure took shape around mis­sional need. The apostles comprised the first branch of church structure (Luke 9:1–6; Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 1:8, 9). The second branch emerged to meet social needs, explicitly so that these needs would not interfere with the apostolic mission. Thus the order of deacons was formed (Acts 6:1–7). Finally, the apostles appointed elders in every new city to provide spiritual guidance while the apostles moved on (Acts 14:23, 24; Titus 1:5). This was the third branch of church structure.

In the early church, the local elder became the primary spiritual leader while deacons attended to social needs and apostles shared the gospel abroad.5

Today’s pastor often comes tasked with all three functions: apos­tolic mission expansion, deaconlike social care, and elder-style spiritual guidance. The lay status of a lay pastor can facilitate a re-narrowing of the pastor’s role because mem­bers do not expect as much from a volunteer. It can also help recapture the apostolic function by freeing the salaried minister to lead mission expansion.

In essence, developing lay pas­tors in your multichurch district can be a restorative model to help redis­tribute ministry leadership according to the New Testament pattern.6 The results can lead to less fragmented ministers and more leaders helping to advance the mission.

Educational theory

The educational approach I used in the Pennsylvania Conference oper­ated on three assumptions.

Assumption 1: Experience from two factors has already taught can­didates much of what they need to know. The first factor is that, in most cases, lay ministry candidates have spent many years observing church ministry in action. The second fac­tor is that adult educational theory endorses the value of building on previous knowledge.

Preaching, for example, can be defined as a task that many candi­dates have vast experience with. Through experience, most know a good sermon when they hear one but do not realize how much this could instruct their own preach­ing. Asking Socratic questions to help learners pinpoint what makes a sermon effective will not teach them new information, but it will give new meaning to what they know,7 and it will give them most of what they need to start writing biblical sermons.8

Educational theorists contend that adults retain what is practical for them. Much of the teaching task helps students reorganize what they already know in ways that help them apply it to ministry. Showing the links between new information and knowledge already retained becomes essential.9

Assumption 2: Every competency should be reduced to its underlying principles from two factors. The first factor is the limited time students have. The second is the law of dimin­ishing returns.

Many of my lay pastoral students had full-time jobs and young families. They were sacrificing their time to develop their skills for God. I needed to be a good steward of that time, making their participation possible.

I also contend that most things pastors do are not complex. When we have understood a competency well enough to teach it, we can explain its core simply. By contrast, if we say too much, we might make the student think that the task is more difficult than in reality and scare them away.10

Assumption 3: Candidates are best prepared for unexpected min­istry challenges when, from two factors, they learn to reason from principle to practice. The first factor is our rapidly changing world. The second is the importance of learning to adapt.

Through a principle-driven cur­riculum, we prepare students to adapt to whatever new challenges might arise. Every methodology becomes an adaptation of a prin­ciple. Teaching students principles instead of methodologies makes the difference between students who can grow and students who cannot.11

Methodologies should be taught only as examples to help students learn the underlying principles. By teaching principles, you give students a mental filing system in which to retain what experience teaches them. Before drafting a single lecture, you must do the hard work of summarizing the principles that underlie each competency.


Adding five methodological guidelines to this broad educational theory gives it sharper focus and a greater chance of being used.

Guideline 1: Use mentors to guide the learning process.12 This allows the curriculum to adapt to the needs of each student. It is essential, however, that students earn class points by meeting with their mentors. By trial and error we learned the necessity of such accountability.

Guideline 2: Facilitate learning in a real ministry context.13 Separation from the world of application lim­its formal ministerial education. Short-term field schools mitigate this problem, to some extent, but remain partly artificial. Learning competencies in the context where they will do ministry is the best way for students to become competent.

Guideline 3: Make the curriculum accessible. In other words, make it as easy as possible for candi­dates. Cost, location, workload, and schedule are the primary factors to consider.

Guideline 4: Combine theory with practice.14 This guideline is second only to spiritual development. For the principle-driven curriculum to work, you must constantly challenge students to reason from theory to practice. You can do this by teaching theory in class and giving assign­ments that require the student to apply it in practice.

Guideline 5: Foster spiritual development.15 The work of ministry is a central part of the salvation process, both for the one minister­ing and for those to whom they minister. This means the shaping of the minister’s heart after God’s heart. It also means revealing God’s character to a perishing world. Both require spiritual transformation. Do not assume that spiritual formation is happening. Weave it through the learning process.

Curriculum content

Having considered how to teach, we must also consider what to teach. The local context should define this. However, drawing from a broader consensus can help overcome your blind spots.

While developing my methods in Pennsylvania, I synthesized a list of five major ministerial competencies that met the criterion of quantifiable consensus:16 spiritual vitality, people skills, biblical preaching, spiritual leadership, and team building. I drew these competencies from data on common pastoral practices, commonly desired traits, biblical instruction, and similar sources.

Spiritual vitality consisted of one lecture, monthly study assignments, and student-created spiritual devel­opment plans. People skills included listening skills and conflict manage­ment. Biblical preaching integrated exegesis, writing, and delivery. Spiritual leadership incorporated biographical sketches and principles of leadership. Team building involved the ministry of all believers and mentoring.

The five competencies provide a framework for your localized cur­riculum development. Each warrants 1–3 class sessions, depending on its complexity. If you cover the basics well, I believe you will find that graduates possess all the major skills needed for effective lay pastoral ministry.

A lay pastor training course

If this discussion corresponds to a need in your district, prayerfully develop a plan. I offer four steps to help.

Step 1: Nurture a culture of lay ministry. Trying to meet a felt need results in greater success than trying to meet an unfelt one. Enough of your members need to believe in the validity and value of lay leadership for it to thrive.

Consistently preaching positive sermons on the priesthood of all believers, spiritual gifts, church mis­sion, the work of the Holy Spirit, and similar themes will turn the tide over time. Circulating books like Russell Burrill’s Revolution in the Church17 or Lonnie Wibberding’s Fire Your Pastor18 can also add impact.

You will have to decide when enough people are ready. You should not wait for everyone. Some hesitant members will buy in only when they see the obvious skills of your gradu­ates in action.Step 2: Establish a strong place­ment policy. Before asking people to invest their time in a lay pastor training course, find a place for them to minister. This nurtures two advantages. First, it gives them a natural context in which to apply what they are learning. Second, it helps to avoid setting them up for disappointment by graduating with nothing to do.

To know how students will develop during their training may be difficult. Do not let this stop you from placing them in ministry—these might be small ministry roles at first. You can give them greater respon­sibilities later. The main concern is to make sure they have ministries. Before you plan any further, make a list of potential ministry opportunities in your district and community.

Step 3: Identify and enlist a proj­ect pioneer. This person needs to be in tune with the scope of pastoral ministry, able to organize, and able to mentor. This might be you, but only if the role matches your gift mix. Ask the project pioneer to develop the training system to meet local needs. He or she should incorporate the educational theory, methodological guidelines, and curriculum content outlined above but otherwise use creative license.

The project pioneer may or may not teach classes, but he or she will be the stable presence from session to session. He or she will also recruit experts to teach classes, grade assignments, and administer all aspects of the course.

Step 4: Recruit and teach students. Students should be hand-picked for their potential. The selection process, in the majority of situations, will be most effective when done in collaboration with established lay leaders. This helps ensure that no one is overlooked and that local leaders are ready to assimilate new ones. Established leaders are also prime candidates for training.

The class schedule should be conveniently arranged for students. We found that two-hour sessions, once per month on a Sunday morn­ing, worked well. This also gave busy students enough time between classes to apply what they learned.


Experience has convinced me that when a pastor equips and empowers members of the church to do ministry, a lot of good results. The pastor might not get the credit, but God’s kingdom advances. The educational theory, methodological guidelines, curriculum content, and the lay pastoral program, which I have shared above, will give you a good start toward success.


1 Stanley E. Patterson, “The Pastor as Proactive Leader,” Ministry, May 2009, 21–23.

2 We should ask whether it is ethical to request so much from an unpaid volunteer. Although Paul contends that the work of an elder earns him the right to compensation (1 Tim. 5:17, 18), the economy of the New Testament church was need-based. Members “had everything in common” and “gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44, 45). In most cases, local elders and deacons would have had the opportunity for gainful employment because they were stationary. By contrast, the apostles were less likely to have such opportunity. Full salaries were probably, in most cases, reserved for apostles. Whatever the arrangement, I suggest that a need-based pay policy is a pragmatic solution with biblical precedent.

3 Lay Pastor Ministry Description (Silver Spring, MD: Church Resources Consortium, North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, 2002).

4 Andrew Mustard, “James White, and the Development of Seventh-day Adventist Organization, 1844–1881” (PhD dissertation, Andrews University, 1987), 225; Raoul Dederen, “The Church,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000); Denis Fortin, “Principles of New Testament Ecclesiology” (lecture presented in CHMN 780: Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, March 26, 2010).

5 Kenneth B. Stout, “Developing, Implementing, and Testing a Training Program for Lay Pastoral Ministry in Selected Churches of the Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists” (DMin dissertation, Andrews University, 1983), 62–67; Didache, in M. W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English translations, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999).

6 This should not be taken to suggest that the New Testament structure is a mandate for the church in all times and places. The mission is the mandate (Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 1:8), not the structure. Instead, the structure must develop around the unique needs of the mission in its present context. However, disbursement of ministry activity and authority is a mandate (1 Cor. 12).

7 Dorscine Spigner-Littles and Chalon E.Anderson, “Constructivism: A Paradigm for Older Learners,” Educational Gerontology 25, no. 3 (April/May 1999): 203–209.

8 James R. Wibberding, Learn to Preach Before Next Weekend (Telford: Big Fish Publishing, 2006), 3–10.

9 Frank Smith, The Book of Learning and Forgetting (New York: Teachers College Press, 1998), 30.

10 Ibid., 1; E. Pollock, P. Chandler, and J. Sweller, “Assimilating Complex Information,” Learning & Instruction 12, no. 1 (2002): 61–86.

11 Henry Peter Swanson, “Pastoral Effectiveness: A Study of Differences Among Comparison Groups of Seventh-day Adventist Clergy” (PhD dissertation, Andrews University, 1999), 273.

12 Thomas R. Grove, “Implementation and Evaluation of the Spiritual Leadership Curriculum ‘Joshua’s men’ in the Williamsport, Pennsylvania Seventh-day Adventist church”  (DMin dissertation, Andrews University, 2011); Barry J. Tryon, “Implementation and Evaluation of a Leadership Mentoring Program in the Hampden Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church” (DMin dissertation, Andrews University, 2001).

13 Richard Bryant, “Portfolio and Competencies as a Model for Enabling Ordained Ministers to Take Responsibility for Their Own Learning: A Response to Roland Riem ‘Why Calling Matters More’ in Bjte 14.1 (July 2003), Pp.78–92,” Journal of Adult Theological Education 1, no. 1 (2004): 29–47; Roland Reim, “Why Calling Matters More: Weighing Vocational and Competency Approaches to Ministerial Development.” British Journal of Theological Education 14, no. 1 (2003): 78–92.

14 Graeme Smith, “Something That Can Be Learnt but Not Taught: Teaching Theological Reflection Through Enquiry-Based Learning.” Journal of Adult Theological Education 5, no. 1 (2008): 20–32; Howard Worsley, “Problem-Based Learning (Pbl) and the Future of Theological Education: A Reflection Based on Recent Pbl Practice in Medical Training Compared to Emerging Trends in Residential Ministerial Training for Ordination.” Journal of Adult Theological Education 2, no. 1 (2005): 71–81.

15 Reggie McNeal, A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Jossey­Bass, 2000).

16 Wibberding, 2010, 37, 57, 58.

17 Russell C. Burrill, Revolution in the Church (Fallbrook, CA: Hart, 2001).

18 Lonnie Wibberding, Fire Your Pastor: The Hope of a Lost World (Telford, PA: Big Fish, 2009).

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James Wibberding, DMin, pastors the Cloverdale Seventhday Adventist Church, Boise, Idaho, United States

December 2011

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