The harvest is plentiful - but the workers are few

mike dicker
The harvest is plentiful - but the workers are few image

If there is one persistent and unrelenting challenge in theological education that can derail the whole enterprise before you even get into the classroom, it is simply this: “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few”.

It’s been reported that Australian theological colleges are experiencing a sharp downturn in enrolments. While it’s clear that theological providers need to investigate reforming their modes of delivery, this is somewhat irrelevant without people being sent to by their churches to train for ministry.

After only six months on the faculty at Youthworks College I’m already aware that, nearly every week, churches call looking for trained youth and children’s ministers. There is no shortage of paid ministry positions for trainees or qualified ministers. There just aren’t enough people being sent to train. Demand is high. Supply is low.

Musing on my 14 years in parish ministry, here are my reflections on why I think churches and ministers find it so hard to send find it hard to send people for full-time training. In summary, it boils down to protectionism, distrust, misdirection and misapplication.

1. Protectionism. “I have my own ministries to sustain”.

The cycle of recruiting and training leaders in our churches never ends. It is relentless and exhausting. Every year new leaders have to be found, trained and equipped. You never seem to hit the point when you’ve got all the leaders you need. As a wise teacher once observed, “All streams flow into the sea but the sea is never full”.

Who can afford to tap their best and brightest leaders on the shoulder and send them off to college when we need all the quality leaders we can find to lead our kids’ club, our youth group, our growth groups, our services? Who can stand to invest so much energy and time in their leaders only to see them move on to bear fruit elsewhere? I don’t want to send people because I need them here.

What we need is a bigger vision for kingdom work outside our own parish and ministry programs.

2. Distrust. “I can’t be sure my people will be looked after”.

In this part of the world we’re privileged to have many trusted theological colleges that teach true and robust theology. However, there is far less certainty that students will be trained in the skills they need for pastoral ministry. This is partly due to a forced division between theological education and ministry formation, which leaves much of the formative ministry training to occur in local church ministry placements.

This parish partnership is an integral part of theological education, but it invites a level of distrust in the ability of each local church to train students for ministry and the ability of colleges to ensure training quality in their ministry placements. Some churches are ministry training powerhouses, others less so. Sending churches don’t want to see their quality leaders used as cheap labour or burnt by poorly executed “training”.

What we need is a bigger vision for kingdom work outside our own parish and ministry programs.

What we need is accountable supervision of our students in their ministry placements and an integrated approach to theological education and ministry formation from our colleges.

3. Misdirection: “I’m not looking for the right people”.

When you look at ministry job ads, there is an abundance of churches with the money to employ a children’s or youth ministry trainee, but don’t have many people in the (apparently ideal) 18- to 28-year-old age bracket.

But is this the right place to look? What about the parents whose kids are all in school and now have the possibility to work school hours at church and do part-time study at college? What about the recent retirees who have financial stability, abundant time and a wealth of life experience to train in ministry to children and young people?

Sometimes we have the people available to send, but we’re not looking in the right place. It may take some convincing and you’ll undoubtedly have to unpack some cultural assumptions about ministry, but since when have kingdom values not cut back across our comfortable cultural ideals?

What we need is the eyes to see all of those who have the right character, convictions and potential competencies in ministry. What we need is creative thinking that leverages the people we have and gospel-hearted disciples who are willing to take a risk.

4. Misapplication: “I unduly uphold the validity of secular work”.

There is much to be gained from mature, mission-minded Christians being present and available in secular work. This is, in fact, what our churches should be full of. Every minister of the gospel wants to see our churches overflowing with growing followers of Christ. We want people who are so confident in the hope of the gospel that they can't help but live by it and speak of it to their neighbours at home, at work or on the street.

This is the goal for all followers of Jesus, but not all followers of Jesus are suited for full-time gospel ministry and equipping the saints. So when a person is identified with the potential for full-time ministry, they should be urged and exhorted to go into full-time ministry. They should be sent to train for ministry even if they are the only Christian in their workplace, even if their current salary is a generous blessing to the church budget. Send them so that more disciples may make more disciples in every workplace, schoolyard, backyard, street and country lane.

What we need is to value the everyday witness of gospel-hearted saints so much that we send the right people into full-time ministry to make disciples who make disciples.

The problem in our colleges and our churches is that “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few”. It was evidently an issue when Jesus spoke these words in Matthew 9:37 but he also gave a solution: “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matt 9:38).

Let’s pray to the Lord of the harvest that he would send more workers, and let’s pray that he might use us in answer to that prayer.

The Rev Mike Dicker is Dean of Students at Youthworks College.