The temperature rarely peaks above 45 degrees in March in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where Chris Vogel spent most of his pastoral ministry. To Vogel, a transplant to the state who served as senior pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church for 26 years, it’s not that cold. But when you’re trying to recruit seminary graduates from North Carolina to plant churches in Madison or Milwaukee, it’s a hard sell.

“Telling them to come to Wisconsin was like telling them to come to Siberia,” Vogel says, only half joking.

In 2015, Mission to North America, in cooperation with an anonymous donor, established the Antioch Fund to promote creative engagement in church planting across North America. With only six PCA churches in the entire state up until 2011, Wisconsin was awarded a percentage of the fund to kickstart church planting — an effort later dubbed “On Wisconsin” — with Vogel tapped as director.

If cultural and emotional intelligence can’t be taught in the classroom or in Blackboard discussions — or even during a church internship — where does it come in?

Over the past three years, the effort to plant more churches in Wisconsin has morphed into a nationwide vision to teach soft skills to seminarians and foster renewal for seasoned pastors.

From the Ground Up

There are three ways to obtain a church planter, Vogel explains.

The first is by recruiting someone from outside the presbytery’s geography. This is called a “parachute” approach. And while this strategy has worked occasionally (if a planter doesn’t mind the weather or relocating his family) it will still take him at least a few years to adjust to the Wisconsin culture. The second strategy also relies on an outsider who comes to apprentice at a Wisconsin congregation before planting his own church.

But why not start at home? Vogel and others in the presbytery asked. Why not raise up pastors for Wisconsin from among its own Cheeseheads? The answer to that question is what gave birth to “On Wisconsin,” to focus the presbytery’s efforts around raising up indigenous leaders.

From there they asked, What does it take to build a pastor? The answer to that question eventually led to the creation of NXTGEN — a mentoring community for future and current pastors.

How to Build a Pastor

It takes three components to form a healthy pastor, Vogel explains. The first two — academic preparation and practical experience in a local church — are easy to come by in Wisconsin.

Although the state can’t claim its own gospel-centered Reformed seminary, future pastors can access excellent instruction in Greek, Old Testament, and other necessary biblical classes through places like Reformed Theological Seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary, Third Millennium, and LAMP.

The third component is soft skills. And those, Vogel says, can’t be developed in the classroom.

“The brick and mortar academic institution must never go away. We desperately need what it contributes. But as society is changing, culture is changing, the western model of a fixed place … [where] you do a period of time in academic preparation with minimal applicable reinforcement in a church context … that format is not at all ideal for adult learners. But when you’re talking about training adults, learning and doing simultaneously is extremely important.”

Online instruction is even worse when it comes to developing people skills, Vogel asserts.

“When you have guys doing distance ed, sitting in their basements at a computer, reading their texts, and they’re being trained to be a pastor and shepherd people, it should be really clear that this is not ideal.”

So if cultural and emotional intelligence can’t be taught in the classroom or in Blackboard discussions — or even during a church internship — where does it come in? According to Vogel, in a regular gathering of future pastors who meet both for encouragement, counseling, and instruction while they are in the middle of their academic studies. A brotherhood, really.

Out of this idea, Vogel created NXTGEN — a cohort of pastors-in-training who come together regularly to work through everything from issues of childhood abandonment to managing one’s time.

Soft Skills for Seminarians

Lest anyone label the gathering a glorified small group, Vogel is clear that structure and discipline are key to the success of any cohort. The projected 60 one-day modules of instruction — designed by selected teaching and ruling elders — guide participants through seven buckets of group learning: spiritual formation, soul care, marriage and family, emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, and management and leadership.

Over the past three years that the first and current cohort of 12 men have been meeting, they’ve discussed race and ethnicity, examined the potential marriage stressors for ministry couples, and worked through how to lead a session finance meeting.

What’s happening in the Badger State has potential to reshape the way presbyteries in all 50 states cultivate their shepherds.

Vogel explains, “There’s nothing worse in a church than to have a 30 year old out of seminary sit down during the budgeting process with 60 year olds who are mostly business people, and the kid has never seen a spreadsheet. It’s not just knowing how to use Excel, but understanding the story the budget tells.”

The men in the cohort also commit to periodic sessions for group feedback, based on the belief that “there is more wisdom in a room of eight people than sitting in eight different rooms with one person.”

For a full 45 minutes, participants are only allowed to pose questions to the person sharing his story. The intent of this exercise is to teach listening skills.

“It trains these guys to listen to understand, instead of listening to talk. As pastors, we’re educated to the point that we listen so that we can give you the right answer … but pastors by the very nature of their training can be pretty poor listeners,” says Vogel.

For James Lima, who is helping to plant a church in Oshkosh, it’s the relationships in the room that have meant the most.

“Our friendship goes beyond just our classes and cohort meetings,” he says. “We are regularly praying for and encouraging one another. Though we are scattered across the state of Wisconsin, we find ways to video call one another and even meet up outside cohort meetings when we can. Our wives have also been able to build relationships with one another.”

Theological Training … a Moldable Thing

Since 2011 and the launch of On Wisconsin in 2017, the presbytery has more than doubled its churches, with now 11 particularized churches and five plants. Of those in the cohort, six are preparing to plant in Wisconsin in the next several years. Other presbyteries have started paying attention. In fact, what’s happening in the Badger State has potential to reshape the way presbyteries in all 50 states cultivate their shepherds.

Paul Hahn, coordinator for Mission to North America (MNA), says that he is encouraged by strategies like NXTGEN that approach pastoral formation with creativity.

“We have a very, very professional model of ministry in the PCA and there are many good things about that, but, I think, biblically we see people converted, growing in grace, being tested and tried and trained in their local situations, and then sent out and set apart for gospel ministry. I think we do well to remember that model.”

“This isn’t in competition to traditional seminary training. This is adjunct to it, alongside of it, in partnership with it,” Hahn clarifies. “We’re at an important moment in general in the evangelical church, and in the PCA in particular, that we just have to work together, we have to think creatively and strategically about making everything as accessible as possible, as multiplicative as possible.”

Meanwhile, Vogel has been training members of Blue Ridge and Tennessee Valley presbyteries to launch their own cohorts; he also has meetings on the books with eight other presbyteries to help create groups for current pastors seeking renewal, as well as future pastors needing formation. He says he intends to help several of them create cohorts for current pastors seeking renewal, not just for future pastors needing formation.

“As Presbyterians we get together four times a year in a big room and make motions … which is right and proper, but it is not true community,” says Vogel. “The idea in these cohorts is to get pastors together where they can really talk about the struggles, the ups and downs we have in the context of ministry. But we need it done in some structure and format where we’re not just sharing our woes but we’re working on skills that will help us succeed in ministry.”