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Church, It’s Time to Bring Back Apprenticeships.

Photo of Chris BuxtonChris Buxton | Bio

Chris Buxton

Chris Buxton led Renew College Ministry at Arkansas Tech University for more than eleven years and Wolflife Campus Ministry at Arkansas State University for more than ten years. This summer, he launched ULife Campus Ministry Planting to help address the dire need for new state university campus ministries. He holds a master of divinity degree and a doctorate in missional and spiritual formation. He and Monica have been married for twenty-three years and have one daughter, Emma.

In the fall of 1998, I became the director of a campus ministry serving Arkansas Tech University. It was my first ministry job. The son of a preacher, I probably understood many aspects of ministry life better than most. I had also experienced campus ministry as a college student, which is what had drawn me to the role.

But, truth be told, I simply lacked many hard and soft skills needed to lead a ministry—and myself. Like many church leaders before and after me, I sought guidance through books, conversations with older ministers, conferences, and graduate school. While I eventually reached higher competency, I regret the missed opportunities and missteps in my early years that I largely attribute to one major missing component: a ministry mentor.

Now, after more than two decades as a campus minister and having recently launched a campus ministry planting and consulting organization, I am more convinced than ever of the need for the church to dust off the ages-old vocational training model called the apprenticeship. Outside the construction trades, the master-apprentice model has largely been replaced with the classroom. Today’s future ministers are often considered ready for service after receiving an undergraduate Bible degree and/or a graduate-level seminary education.

To be clear, I believe deeply in academic training for ministry.

I earned two such graduate degrees and teach as an adjunct on the undergraduate and graduate levels. But the hard truth is this: unless an undergraduate or graduate student intentionally seeks mentoring within the academy, it most likely will not happen. The “field” education most seminaries require is helpful but inadequate, and many faculty members are simply not interested in mentoring their students.

Additionally, skills such as evangelism, teaching, organizational and systems management, fundraising, and conflict management can be taught but are often more readily “caught” from walking alongside a master practitioner.

Even those who have earned the Master of Divinity—the gold standard for ministry education—may graduate having never actually worked, to any significant degree, with real people in real-life ministry situations or experienced the transparent and personal shepherding of skill and heart that the master-apprentice relationship allows. This is troubling. Just as no one would allow a surgeon to operate who has read many books but has never actually incised flesh, so we must ensure our ministers are not only equipped in mind but also in skill and in heart.

The ministry training model we encounter most frequently in Scripture is not a classroom experience; it is an apprenticeship.

Jesus went to the seashore and said to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17 ESV). Jesus declares to two of his most important future apostles that he is going to “make you become” something they would have otherwise never been. He did this, not by establishing an academy beside the sea, but by doing life with them for about three years.

When Moses went up Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, while he asked Aaron and the elders to stay behind, “Joshua his aid” (Exod. 24:13) accompanied him up the mountain. Long before Joshua became Moses’ successor, he had been “Moses’ aid since youth” (Num. 11:28). Because he had been granted long-term, intimate access to Moses, Joshua was the clear successor.

While Timothy was taught by a faithful mother and grandmother (2 Tim. 1:5) and was legitimized as a leader through prophesy (1 Tim. 1:18), it was necessary that his training include the shaping that occurred through Paul. In Timothy, Paul was not only training an exceptional early church leader but was also modeling for Timothy how to himself train others who would, in turn, be capable of training others (2 Tim. 2:2).

It was Paul who said, “Join together in following my example” (Phil. 3:17), “follow me as I follow Christ” 1 Cor. 11:1), and “I urge you to imitate me” (1 Cor. 4:16,17).

In 2004, when I was director of what is now called Renew Campus Ministry at Arkansas Tech University, we began the first campus ministry apprenticeship in Arkansas and one of very few in the nation affiliated with Churches of Christ. In 2010, when we planted Wolflife Campus Ministry at Arkansas State University, I continued a similar apprentice program there.

The apprenticeship model we created does not take the place of formal academic education, but it does privilege guided, supervised ministry experience over the classroom. During their two years with us, my apprentices developed in-ministry skills while also receiving personalized shepherding in every area from preaching to prayer life, Bible classes to budgets.

I am more convinced than ever of the need for the church to dust off the ages-old vocational training model called the apprenticeship.

The apprenticeship experience is also ideal for helping future ministry leaders understand and deal with their innermost vulnerabilities, fears, and areas of darkness. Without a mentor to draw the venom to the surface, they might never fully mature and could later shipwreck themselves and others. As Gary Nelson and Peter Dickens note, “How can I lead based on who I am if I haven’t taken the energy and time to know who I am? If we haven’t truly met ourselves, the way we lead will be inauthentic, the worst leadership possible in our day.”1

Thus, future ministers desperately need someone who will “make you become” so they will be empowered to rise to their fullest God-given skill level and exorcise the inner demons that can so easily devastate them and their future ministries.

Just as the apostles needed Jesus’ real-world guidance, future ministers need mentors to walk with them for a while, allowing them to experience ministry with a safety net. Training for future ministry leaders is not simply a head-to-head transfer of knowledge but should be a life-on-life journey with one who knows the way.

[1] Gary V. Nelson and Peter M. Dickens, Leading in Disorienting Times: Navigating Church and Organizational Change (Danvers: TCP Books, 2015), 14.