About 40 years ago, a small group of ABC ministers had a vision for training lay people for ministry. It was controversial at the time, but also perfectly in alignment with historical Baptist practice. That vision eventually became the Institute for Learning (IFL), and from it came a significant number of pastors and church leaders. Many of them serve our congregations today.
Moreover, Baptist congregations have always had a strong tradition of choosing their pastors from within. The habit of selecting professional ministers from a crop of seminary graduates is a relatively new invention in the 400 years of Baptist history.
Times are changing. Fewer people are enrolling in seminary. Graduates are emerging with heavy burdens of student debt. At the same time, many of our congregations are reducing their budgets and having to settle for part time calls. The combination of these factors makes it increasingly difficult to find seminary trained pastors who can afford to serve small New England congregations.
Rather than throw up our hands, we are rolling up our sleeves and taking a typical New England approach. Rather than rely on outside sources and external pipelines to provide us with ministry candidates, we are going to find ways to “grow our own.” That’s why we are renewing our emphasis on locating those within our own congregations whom God is calling to ministry, and helping them to receive the training and preparation needed in our current climate.
That’s why we are renovating IFL, bolstering its framework, and refitting it with updated features. We have renamed it LifeTree School of Ministry, to better reflect the nature of its mission for our time. Moreover we have restructured the curriculum and the way it is delivered. Finally, we are adding a component of spiritual direction and opportunities for the developing a ministry support network.
While the Institute for Learning has accomplished great things, the name reflects the spirit of a different time. 40 years ago, it seemed important to mirror models of professional ministry, the default setting for denominations working within an institutional “Christendom” paradigm. Today institutions no longer have the hold that they once had. In addition, the ABCVNH is heading toward a much more missional and movement-oriented way of understanding church. We are placing a much stronger emphasis on discipleship and evangelism. LifeTree School of Ministry is a name that better reflects our mission within that new landscape.
Our Curriculum will still cover the basics of Biblical studies, interpretation, and theology. It will also include courses on practical ministry to help students be more effective as a gospel presence among real people living real lives. Many of the courses will be available as live lecture series being offered remotely by Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. They will also be available through online sources so that student will not have to be prevented by concerns about travel and bad weather.
Each LifeTree student will be paired with a spiritual mentor, who will assist the student in exploring their call and developing their personal walk with Jesus. Far from being a minor feature, this will become a central part of the LifeTree program. Church leaders can more effectively help their congregations when they themselves are walking in step with the Spirit. Head knowledge is necessary, but insufficient by itself. Ministry is a spiritual matter, and church leaders must be people engaged developing hearts of humility and mercy by regular practices of repentance, forgiveness, and reliance on the Holy Spirit.
Finally, LifeTree is not just for the preparation of Pastors, but for all church leaders: deacons, trustees, Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, and so on. If you are a church leader, or you see it on your horizon, LifeTree may be a great option for you. You can be better prepared to love and serve the Lord as you serve his people.
You will be hearing more about LifeTree School of Ministry in the months to come. Please pray for everyone involved as we seek to follow the call of Jesus to make disciples of all kinds of people, and teaching them to obey all that he commanded.
Read what's happening all around the Region!