Ministry leaders keep saying it but responses are slow in coming. Since the Reformation – – no, since the New Testament church, we have believed in the importance of “making disciples” (Matthew 28) and “equipping the saints” (Ephesians 4). Yet the structures for such discipling and equipping, for multiplication and transformation have most frequently functioned through formal educational structures such as colleges and seminaries, eluding the ownership of local congregations and church-based leaders.                          

A design is described here for a non-formal approach to ministry education. The proposed plan is being implemented through the Commissioned Pastor Program of the Synod of the Great Lakes. It is structured to work in cooperation with local churches, classes, church leaders, and college and seminary programs. The model is based on the components of adult and non-formal education principles and practices, using a “mixed media” (including on-line courses) delivery system. This approach to developing pastoral leaders can take place in small groups, in classrooms, online, or through one on one discipling.

Issues and Values

How are churches, classes, and the denomination to move forward with creativity in developing new levels of pastoral leadership? In the Reformed Church in America, one area of innovation in pastoral leadership is the position of Commissioned Pastor. A description follows that identifies selected educational theory and practice underlying the Commissioned Pastor program of Synod of the Great Lakes.

The educational theory and practice that are described here suggest an educationally-respectable, non-traditional model. While different from formal approaches to schooling, it seeks to function alongside classroom and distance education approaches. In fact, it may be a feeder for them. The approach being taken is in response to needs that are expressed at the congregational, classes, and denominational levels and includes the following:

  • The need for establishing clearer pathways and best practices for ministry education and commissioning processes at the denominational level by which classes are able to develop Commissioned Pastors.
  • The need for developing a more effective and time-efficient process for training and commissioning church planters at the denominational level. It is projected that during the next five years (by 2013), seminaries may provide only fifty of the next 200 leaders needed. An alternate track, such as the Commissioned Pastor approach, should be more clearly organized on a denomination-wide scale;
  • The need for improving support structures at the classis level in areas such as: processes for candidates to become Elders and being commissioned to their new calling, guidelines for leading commissioning services, appropriate support structures for candidate care, creation of a vision at the congregational level for raising up new leaders, and the establishment of more church-based environments for training emerging leaders.

The above needs are being addressed, to a degree, through the Commissioned Pastor program. However, a revolution is needed to create a more fluid movement in the body so that no artificial limitations are put on any called and gifted member of the body to reach her or his full potential in the kingdom, such as required college and graduate school degrees for ordination, etc. This approach being developed is not in opposition to seminary education but rather in partnership with it as a component for the continuing education of ministry leaders.

The life principle of “Leaders reproducing leaders” must be embraced. The best fruit of an equipping leader in the church of Jesus Christ is not more followers, but more equipping leaders. Raising-up leaders from within the local church, from the harvest and for the harvest, is the key to deep and rapid change. In other words, if you lead followers, you will add; if you lead leaders, you will multiply.  The challenge is to restore a multiplying andsending church for the sake of our society in order to see a far more holy, catholic (kingdom-wide), and apostolic church emerge under strong biblical leadership.

Leaders were formed in the ministry of Jesus by a strong field-based and biblically-modeled apprenticing approach. The way in which Jesus equipped disciples was by each emerging leader’s calling, character, competency, and chemistry being developed in relationship to Jesus. “Classroom” teaching in large groups was largely reserved for the crowds; leadership development, by contrast, occurred night and day, up close and personal.

The call in the commissioned pastor era is to pursue ongoing reformation, looking to where the early reformers were pointing—to Christ, the New Testament, and the early church. Churches need to again receive the five-fold equipping of leaders. Christ gives to his kingdom some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some to be pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11-13) —five-fold equipping leadership meant to work in concert with one another. This is very evident in the New Testament patterns (see Acts 13:1-4 and 14: 4, 14; 1 Cor. 12: 28) and in most parts of the world today.

The characteristics necessary to meet the needs of a multiplying, modeling, ministry-based approach call for a new paradigm in ministry education. The proposed model does not diminish the importance of current formal and informal approaches. Rather, it connects with these and extends the intentionality of education processes into the non-formal arena that is church-based, in-ministry, life-long, process-oriented, flexible, accessible, accountable, and exponential as described below:

  • Church-based – because the church should not over-delegate the crucial role of leadership development to learning institutions such as seminaries or other para-church groups;
  • In-ministry – formation so that testedness, fruitfulness, and prayerfulness may develop along with understanding and skills while on the job, and parity exists between Commissioned Pastors and Ministers of the Word and Sacraments;
  • Life-long – since humility and hunger for continued development in the context of real ministry should mark a leader, rather than certification and tenure after schooling;
  • Process-oriented – a wide funnel needs to begin in the congregation for calling and equipping commissioned leaders who can then go on to the classis designation of commissioned pastor;
  • Flexible – respect ought to be shown for the giftedness, skills, and cultures of emerging leaders in thousands of micro-contexts indigenous leaders are needed. For example, Native American tribes have a history of losing leaders who have gone away to seminary;
  • Accessible – relatively inexpensive training that is located near the emerging leader ought to be available wherever another leader or church context is nearby with functioning leadership; this does not require either moving from the emerging leader’s ministry context or large tuition indebtedness which shrinks options for “tent-making” ministry in the present or future;
  • Accountable – learning and serving within RCA standards as described in The Book of Church Order -ought to guide the development of all church leadership and be under continual classis and church supervision;
  • Exponential – because in a multiplication environment the context expands exponentially from dozens of schools to hundreds of churches and thousands of leaders who can now raise up other leaders, and because the leaders themselves can in turn train other leaders, the creation of leadership as the church should multiply steadily in third and fourth generations and beyond, as in 2 Timothy 2:2 and the Ephesus 4:11-16 models.

Program Design

The above issues and values are not new to ministry. With an awareness of them, an innovative approach is being implemented in the Commissioned Pastor program of Synod of the Great Lakes. The design could be available for implementation on a denomination-wide scale (or even larger) because of the use of internet-based resources. As a result, it is also not limited to a specific geographic area or sociological context, while having some areas in common with telephone-based coaching.

Understanding the program

A basic description of the purpose of the Commissioned Pastor designation is in the Book of Church Order of the Reformed Church in America ( Churches and classis have freedom to interpret and implement it in ways that are respectful of both the intent of the text and the needs of their contexts so long as the prescribed minimal competencies are met. The Commissioned Pastor program of Synod of the Great Lakes is based upon the BCO guidelines and educational perspectives that are non-formal and adult education-oriented.

1. Prescribed ministry competencies

The Commissioned Pastor program provides a track for the emergence of pastoral leaders who have not followed traditional, seminary-based pathways for ordination but are being called to greater levels of leadership involvement within the context of their churches and geographically defined regions. The BCO states:

A commissioned pastor is an elder who is trained, commissioned, and supervised by a classis for a specific ministry within that classis that will include the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. The commission shall be valid for the period of assigned service…

The classis shall satisfy itself that the candidate exhibits ministry competence in 1) maturity of faith, 2) personal integrity, 3) understanding of the Old and New Testaments and biblical interpretation, 4) Reformed theology, 5) church history, 6) knowledge of and adherence to the Constitution of the Reformed Church in America (the Government, the Standards, and the Liturgy), 7) nature and administration of the sacraments, 8) ability to preach, 9) capability to minister within the church, and 10) understanding of and adherence to pastoral ethics and practices (2008, pp. 55-56).

These ten areas have been grouped in the Synod of the Great Lakes program under the headings: Personal Faith and Evangelism, Call and Character, Scriptural Knowledge, History and Theology, Reformed Perspectives, Leadership, Pastoral Care, Worship and Preaching, and Other. In areas where candidates are able to demonstrate competency, additional training is not necessary. In areas where competencies are not met or are in need of enhancement, an individualized learning plan is developed. Learning plan design is consistent with adult learning theory and practice, including non-formal education, andragogy, experiential learning, and continuing education units of learning.

2. Non-formal education

Commissioned Pastor candidates emerge from within the context of a local church and receive most of their ministry education while in this context. The congregation is also the place to which they will likely be appointed as pastors. Commissioned Pastor candidates begin this journey of ministry preparation from the highly experiential environment of church life. Consequently, by design, their education focuses on achieving ministry competencies as they serve. In view of these factors, an approach to education that is generally “non-formal” characterizes the program. At the same time, formal education coursework and the verification of learnings through informal education experiences are welcome as evidences of competencies that have been achieved.

Non-formal is a category for education that is often used to describe non-schooling approaches to teaching and learning. It is differentiated from the other two categories which are “formal” and “informal.” Following is a brief description of the three categories.

  • Formal education: the hierarchically-structured, chronologically-graded ‘education system,’ running from primary school through the university and including, in addition to general academic studies, a variety of specialized programs and institutions for full-time technical and professional training.
  • Informal education: the lifelong process whereby every individual acquires attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from daily experience and the educative influences and resources in his or her environment – from family and neighbors, from work and play, from the market place, the library, and the mass media.
  • Non-formal education: any organized educational activity outside the established formal system – whether operating separately or as an important feature of some broader activity – that is intended to serve identifiable learning clienteles and learning objectives.

The distinction made between the three categories is largely methodological and administrative. Formal education is linked with schools and training institutions; non-formal with community groups and other organizations such as churches; and informal covers what is left, e.g., interactions with friends, family and work colleagues. (For further reference see: Combs with Prosser and Ahmed [1973]; Coombs and Ahmed [1974], Srinivasan [1977] and Encyclopedia of Informal Education:

Three Categories of Education

  Formal Non-formal Informal


Pre-established hierarchy Equal partnership amongfacilitators and participants Learning may take placeindividually, or can be

shared within a group

Environment  Classroom environment Learning groups are more casual and participatory Learning may occurin any environment
Content  Determined by teacheror other authority Participants actively identify learning needs and methods, guided by a facilitator Determined completely byparticipants who assess their own needs and identify solutions


Lecture primary source of information delivery Primarily participatorytechniques Completely participatory methods; participants assess and reflect on their own learning


Formal test or “proofof learning” Formal tests, papers, or projects are supple-mented with students’ application of learning within the community Learning is practical and related to real needs; applied in the lives of people within the community


3. Adult Learning Principles and Practices

There are two primary adult education perspectives that are applied to the Commissioned Pastor program. These reflect the concept of andragogy as developed by Malcom Knowls and the cycle of experiential learning as advocated by David Kolb. Andragogy influences the ways in which individuals are treated in the program. Experiential learning influences the development of training plans and learning activities.

a. Andragogy

Malcolm Knowles developed the concept of andragogy.  The premise of andragogy is that adult learners are different from child learners (referred to by the term pedagogy) in at least four areas.

1. Self-concept: As a person matures, his or her self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.


2. Experience: As a person matures, she or he accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.

3. Readiness to learn. As a person matures, his or her readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of her or his social roles.

4. Orientation to learning. As a person matures, her or his time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and, accordingly, the orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem-centeredness.

Consequently, adult learners

·         Expect to be treated with respect and recognition.

·         Want practical solutions to real-life problems.

·         Can reflect on and analyze individual experiences.

  ·         Have different learning styles.

  ·         Are motivated by the possibility of fulfilling personal needs and aspirations.

  ·        Are capable of making their own decisions and taking charge of their own learning.

b. Experiential Learning

According to David Kolb’s theory of “experiential learning,” people learn in a cycle consisting

of four stages (Experiential Learning, 1984): concrete experience, observation and reflection, forming abstract concepts, and testing in new situations.

For purposes of educational planning, Kolb’s stages may be illustrated by the following questions and action verbs. These are built into Commissioned Pastor courses and facilitator training.

·         Concrete Experience:

Questions: Describe your experience – what did you do? What actions did you take?

Action Verbs: worked, created, prepared, implemented, conducted, produced

·         Reflective Observation

Questions: What did you notice and observe about the experience?

Action Verbs: observed, watched, noticed, saw, thought, discovered

·         Abstract Concepts

Questions: What rules, theories, and concepts apply to this situation?

Action Verbs: concluded, theorized, found, realized, deduced, learned

·         Active Experimentation

Questions: What happened as a result of your experience, reflection, and learning? How did you apply your learning to future situations?

Action Verbs: used, updated, applied, tried, implemented, changed

c. Continuing Education Units (CEUs)

In adult continuing education, the term CEU provides a standard for identifying the amount of time that is to be devoted to a learning project or activity ( Contact and involvement time is quantified into CEUs. A Continuing Education Unit is defined as 10 contact hours of participation in an organized continuing education experience under responsible sponsorship and qualified instruction. Continuing education, as used in this definition, includes all learning experiences in structured formats that impart noncredit education to post-secondary-level learners. The number of units to be awarded is determined by considering the number of contact hours of instruction and supervised learning activities.

Reasonable allowance is made for activities such as required readings, written reports, field activities, and guided study. Learners are awarded CEUs for activities that range from attending conferences and seminars to participating in structured classes (residence or online) or guided studies. The number of CEUs given will depend upon the number of contact hours (60 minute periods) between a learner and facilitator and the amount of additional complementary learning activities.

Applying the rule that 10 contact hours equals one Continuing Education Unit, a learner who attends a seminar that meets on a Friday, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (with an hour off for lunch) and then on Saturday, 9:00 am to noon will qualify for 1 CEU. In a different situation, someone taking an online course that meets 10 times, one hour each time, and involves an additional five hours of learning activities in relation to four of the meeting times will get 5 CEUs.

As a guideline, a minimum of 5 Continuing Education Units is recommended for verification of a competency being achieved in each area. This guideline may be modified or waived by the candidates supervisory team where they are able to judge that a competency has been met based on evidences that are provided by the candidate and filed in the candidate’s e-portfolio.

For purposes of comparison to formal, classroom education, a Credit Hour is the equivalent of one hour (50 minutes) of lecture time (or other teacher-student contact time) for a single student per week over the course of a semester, usually 14 weeks, and two hours of study outside of class for each hour (50 minutes) in class. A student taking a two hour course will typically meet for 28 fifty minute classes (or a total of 700 minutes) and complete 56 hours of work outside of class (or a total of 1400 minutes). Therefore a two hour class can be said to require about 94 academic hours (50 minute periods) of work.

If a formal approach to education were being proposed, the next step would be to identify college or seminary courses to be taken either as a resident student or through distance learning. A non-formal, adult education approach provides flexibility for the candidate to meet the necessary competencies while remaining in ministry. A candidate’s program may be brief with only a few competencies needing to be met. The program may also recognize college or seminary courses as evidences of competencies or a combination of formal and non-formal learning experiences. In fact, it is recommended that candidates and Commissioned Pastors build undergraduate and graduate courses into their plans for lifelong learning. Characteristically, when candidates and members of their training plan team meet, the resulting plan has a preponderance of small group and guided learning projects.

The principles and practices of adult, non-formal education are next applied to the ways in which individuals are admitted to and trained through the Commissioned Pastor program. For more information about admission and training see the document entitled “Becoming a Commissioned Pastor.” For additional information contact Burt Braunius, Commissioned Pastor Coordinator (cell phone: 616-745-6482, email: or Alison Deboer, Commissioned Pastor Administration (office phone: 616-698-7071, email: Or, visit the Commissioned Pastor web site:

Acknowledgement: The writing of this document was triggered by concerns raised by Rev. Tim Vink, (Coordinator of Multiplication, RCA) in personal conversations and emails. The document has also benefited from the “Mobilizing Leaders” materials of the Synod of the Far West, RCA.