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Who’s ready?

Testing the calibre of those preparing to enter Christian ministry


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Men or boys? | photo: iStock

During the days of the Cold War, Brother Andrew began what has become the work of Open Doors.

He felt the call of God to run Bibles secretly into Communist countries to beleaguered churches and Christian leaders for their encouragement. It is interesting to read in his famous book, God’s Smuggler, about how the ministry expanded and how he tended to select people to join the work.

‘It wasn’t that we couldn’t find volunteers – almost every time one of us spoke someone offered himself for our work. The problem was to know whether or not these were the people God was sending us. In an effort to weed out the novelty-seekers and the merely curious I often said: ‘As soon as your own ministry of encouragement is started behind the Iron Curtain, get in touch with us and let’s see if we can work together.’1

For those offering to join his ministry Brother Andrew’s approach was to set them a working test of initiative and discipleship. This article proposes that testing candidates at a practical level, similar to that of Brother Andrew, is something to which we need to pay much more attention in our ongoing quest to produce good church leaders for the future.

Falling by the wayside

Why the need for such testing? We are often reminded of the fallout rate from gospel ministry. Writing to the November 2015 en letters page, Marcus Honeysett of the organisation Living Leadership commented: ‘Broadly speaking, I think we see longer-term folk dropping out because of exhaustion and discouragement – compounded by isolation and carrying unsustainable burdens – but younger folk dropping out because we have accepted people we shouldn’t and not prepared others well enough, nor surrounded them with the scaffolding of wise counsel. A sufficiently large number are clearly not lasting five years out of college, so we ought to be asking some serious questions.’

Perhaps one of the questions we should be asking is about testing ministry candidates.

Asking the question

In Scripture we find patterns of training and testing when it comes to leadership.

With a future as the Shepherd of Israel, it is no coincidence that the anointed shepherd boy David is tested in his willingness to face down God’s enemies like Goliath and to face up to the antagonism (through Saul’s persecution) often entailed in leading God’s people. Elisha is prepared as a prophet by coming alongside Elijah as his servant and having his faith tested at the Jordan river following Elijah’s astonishing departure. And we read an example of a trainee who failed the test too: Gehazi succumbed to covetousness and was dismissed from Elisha’s service (2 Kings 5.27).

It is difficult to question a man’s call in a sensitive way. Also I understand why, because of the great need to raise up the next generation of leaders, we may be reluctant to probe too deeply about the suitability of candidates. We want to get workers out there. But in the long run this can boomerang back and clobber the churches with a high rate of ministry fallout or even divisions in congregations, as unfit leaders are let loose among God’s flock.

Fear of failure?

In the New Testament we find that, as Paul gives instructions about the appointment of various leaders in the church, the deacons ‘must first be tested’ (1 Timothy 3.10). And a person’s true quality only emerges in real-life practical situations.

In our therapy culture society, tests are out of fashion. They make people feel uncomfortable. And if we are going to set a test then we are encouraged to lean towards strategies which mean that nobody will fail.

But failure has its upside. Even though Christ’s road-testing exercise of his disciples in sending out the 72 led to great joy, it also exposed the weakness of leadership sustained by ‘success’ rather than God’s grace. ‘Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’ (Luke 10.20).

Of course, later on Judas fails completely with dire consequences. Some do need weeding out. However failure was turned to a positive, especially in the sad case of Peter who denied his Lord. As he was brought to repentance, not only had he learned a new sympathy with Christians who might be afraid, he also recognised as never before his need to rely on the Lord rather than himself (Luke 22.32).

Only a paper exercise?

As students come to the end of their training they usually sit theological examinations and very right and proper that is. We don’t need heretics in our pulpits. But surely there should be something more than a paper exercise?

Its regular position near the beginning of the Gospel narratives means it is legitimate to look upon the temptation of the Lord Jesus Christ in the wilderness as his being tested for ministry. He was driven by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days of fasting. Was he prepared to suffer hardship for the kingdom? And then, as the climax of the test, when he was physically weakened and worn, he had to face the devil. It was only after his victory in this challenging arena that the Lord commenced his public ministry.

In what did the testing of Jesus in this spiritual warfare consist? It certainly included theology, as our Lord relied upon and quoted the Word of God, and countered the devil by quoting it back to him. But there was a lot more to it than that: the patience of his faith was put on trial as the devil insinuated that he should turn a stone into bread; the priority in his worship was confronted as the world was offered to him in exchange for bowing to Satan; any iota of sinful pride in his heart was searched for and not found by the devil’s goading that, being so indispensable to God, he should throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple and angels must come to save him.

Jesus was put through so much more than the stress of an examination room. Now, obviously I am not suggesting that theological students should or could face anything like the things which Jesus faced. But surely the spiritual calibre required for Christian warfare is far more than having a good mental grasp of theology or even an ability to put over a stimulating message in a sermon.

Adventure of faith

As, in recent years, we have emphasised the importance of ‘Bible handling skills’ an element of training which used to be present in many colleges seems to have been sidelined.

Going back to Brother Andrew, it is interesting to read about the team trips which were part of the curriculum at the WEC College in Glasgow where he trained in the 1950s. ‘It’s an exercise in trust’, said the college lecturer. ‘The rules are simple. Each student on your team is given a £1 banknote. [c. £25 today].With that you go on a missionary tour through Scotland. You are expected to pay your own transportation, your own lodging, your food, any advertising you want to do, the renting of halls, providing refreshments…’ 2 And the teams were not allowed to mention money or take up collections at any of their meetings. There must be no manipulation of people. They were just to speak to God about their needs and trust him. And it worked.

Is anything like this part of our training courses today? I don’t know. And further, on Brother Andrew’s team, not only did they never speak about needs, but he writes: ‘we gave away a tithe of whatever came to us as soon as we got it – within 24 hours if possible.’

We can’t produce perfect men (and their wives) for the ministry, but shouldn’t they have passed at least some kind of reasonable test as to their Christian calibre? How can we build that into current evangelicalism? We must seek to nurture good soldiers of Jesus Christ, prepared to suffer hardship, spiritual athletes who will compete according to the rules, which means following in the footprints of Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 2.2-7).


1. God’s Smuggler, Brother Andrew with John & Elizabeth Sherrill, Hodder & Stoughton, 1980 impression, p. 239 2 ibid. pp.74,75