Posted by: Andrew Webb | April 22, 2009

Some Advice to Pulpit Committees on Selecting a Pastor

Most Presbyterian and Reformed Denominations theoretically have a strong view of the doctrine of vocation. For instance the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) states the following in chapter 16 “Church Orders – The Doctrine of Vocation“:

16-1. Ordinary vocation to office in the Church is the calling of God by the
Spirit, through the inward testimony of a good conscience, the manifest
approbation of God’s people, and the concurring judgment of a lawful court
of the Church.

and

16-3. Upon those whom God calls to bear office in His Church He bestows
suitable gifts for the discharge of their various duties. And it is indispensable
that, besides possessing the necessary gifts and abilities, natural and
acquired, every one admitted to an office should be sound in the faith, and
his life be according to godliness. Wherefore every candidate for office is to
be approved by the court by which he is to be ordained.

Thus making it quite clear that church officers are only those men whom God has clearly called and gifted. Therefore, conversely, if a man isn’t manifestly gifted for an office by God, then no matter how much he may want it, he should not be allowed to serve in it.

Unfortunately that is the theory, in actual practice we’ve been laboring for far too long under the delusion that men can put in what God leaves out. If a man honestly isn’t called to the ministry, he will not have been given gifts to preach and teach. However, we have a multitude of for-profit seminaries that will attempt to teach anyone to do both (including a growing number of women) regardless of whether they are honestly called to do so. Since most presbyteries these days view an M.Div. as proof positive of a man’s calling to the ministry, it is virtually unheard of to deny a man with a degree “his” call, and in my 11 years as a Presbyter, I’ve never seen a man denied on the grounds that he can’t preach. These days the sermon part of the ordination trial is generally pro-forma. In essence, we have for all intents and purposes lost the doctrine of vocation and have ceded the  right to determine who can and who can’t be a Pastor to the academy.

And speaking of the academy, the process of actually of getting your M.Div is getting easier all the time. At one particular  Candidates committee meeting this was graphically illustrated when an RE held up a candidate’s two transcripts. The first was his transcript from a seminary in the RTS system – it was all A’s and B’s, the other was his previous transcript from a community college which was all Cs, Ds, incompletes, and even an F or two. The RE’s comment was “Look! It’s a miracle!” CTS President Bryan Chapell acknowledged in an interview for the White Horse Inn that it used to be that 1/3 of the incoming CTS class failed the English Bible Exam, now 2/3 of the class does, Chapell rightly noted that this indicates a profound ignorance of the bible amongst our churches and our future pastors – yet the vast majority of these “profoundly ignorant of the bible when they got here” applicants still graduate and go on to the ministry!

Many of our candidates for ministry spend their entire lives essentially “training” for ministry in the same way one might train for a position in which God’s calling is not a consideration. They go from Christian College directly to Seminary without ever passing through the real world or even having a chance to determine if they really have been gifted. Unfortunately, this process also tends to leave them soft, without much discernment, and usually naive.

All of these factors have actually combined to create a glut of pastoral candidates in the PCA. We have more candidates than open pulpits at present and as such there is no real pressure that might lead us to fill pulpits with barely qualified candidates. The pressure, if it exists, comes from the seminaries who would be aghast if Presbyteries started rejecting the majority of their graduates instead of dutifully plugging them into whatever positions they can find. Because of this many a Presbytery is in danger of becoming merely the final rubber stamp that a man receives after training for ministry.

The sad truth of the matter is that the pulpit committee is really the only gatekeeper in this process. Therefore, here’s a few hints I’d offer to a pulpit committee:

1) Aside from the fact that the candidate has a seminary degree, you can disregard it’s importance. It simply means he had enough money to pay for his education and enough diligence to complete it. Anyone who can get through college can get through seminary, it has no bearing on whether he is actually called. My wife could easily have gotten the same degree from the same institution I did (in fact I have no doubt she would have done better in several courses), this does not, however, make her equally qualified to be a pastor.

2) When it comes to the candidate’s preaching, take the liberty of actually assigning him a text to preach on instead of allowing him to preach his “best” sermon on a safe text. Make your text choice something controversial that should actually extract his views on subjects you consider to be of critical importance.

3) When you call his references don’t ask questions related to personality, you can safely assume that everyone he listed thinks he’s a nice guy. Ask questions related to calling – “what signs do you see that the Lord has called and gifted this man?” and “What examples can you think of where he took a hard stand for the truth?”

4) Keep in mind, you aren’t under pressure to accept any one man. Be willing to keep searching until you find a candidate you are confident the Lord has called and gifted to be your shepherd. There are plenty of nice guys who speak well and have nice families looking for callings, not all of them are actually called though and consequently an embarrassingly large number of these “nice men” will fail and leave the ministry in their first 7 years. More disturbingly, many will labor on, damaging churches, people, and denominations as they do so.

5) Finally remember, there are plenty of conservatives who graduate but don’t have a calling as well. Just because a man is Old School in his views, knows his theology, and isn’t soft about anything doesn’t necessarily mean he’s called either. History is full of thoroughly conservative guys couldn’t preach or pastor their way out of a paper bag.

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Responses

  1. “Many of our candidates for ministry spend their entire lives essentially “training” for ministry in the same way one might train for a position in which God’s calling is not a consideration. They go from Christian College directly to Seminary without ever passing through the real world or even having a chance to determine if they really have been gifted. Unfortunately, this process also tends to leave them soft, without much discernment, and usually naive.”

    So are you saying that those who believed they are called before/during college, that he should upon graduating college, get a job and not seek out seminary?

    It seems your presumption is that all who are called to the ministry are called after college when they have acquired a job in the world.

    Or are you saying that for those who are called before/during college, that they should seek the church’s guidance (test gifts, etc.) and told whether they should go to seminary or not.

    The main question is this: If someone is called to ministry, can they go directly from college to seminary (being guided by the Church [and presbytery] of which they are a member), or do they have to go attain a job in the ‘real world’ and then go to seminary later?

  2. Andrew,

    OF course they can. Many good pastors have. I did. But, I wish I hadn’t. I am not questioning Providence, but on mere prudence, I would have been much better as a new minister if I had been out in the “Real world” a bit.

    But, how one is supposed to do that, then go to seminary, then pastor, then get a PhD whilst having a family is beyond me. And the PhD is required for being a confessional guy, right?

  3. Ken,

    I can’t think of anything less worthwhile for me to do than get a PhD (and I already have a B.A., an M.A., a J.D. and an M.Div).

    I think that “real world” experience is a great benefit to the minister, helping him to connect with his people.

    Personally, I think that the greatest preparation that the Lord gave me for ministry in a Presbyterian context is to have made me a Ruling Elder for almost 10 years. It has allowed me to work closer (and with more trust) with my REs than almost any TE I know.

  4. Andy,

    Within the last couple of years we in Calvary Presbytery had a man come for ordination (licensure and ordination at the same time). He didn’t pass the written or oral exams, and his sermon showed nothing of Christ and everything of works. I think the latter was largely due to the fact that he was an older gentlemen who had become a Christian late, out of a horrible background, with little in the way of education (though he did have an MDiv from one of our Reformed seminaries).

    We worked with him, because there was a church that wanted to call him, but after working with him on the exam material and on his sermons, we were making no progress. Then I got an email from him saying that he was no longer seeking licensure in our presbytery. It turned out that, frustrated with us, he had gone to another Reformed denomination (I suppose even looser than we are) and had gotten a church there.

    I pity the church that got him, because they will hear only moralism and fundamentalistic legalism. But I’m glad he’s not in the PCA

  5. My denomination has a propensity to thrust every man that has a heart for God into vocational ministry. We have done a poor job of showing men how to serve God in their true vocations, such that they see the pulpit as the only way.

  6. Andy,

    I would also say that a similar word of warning goes out to Sessions as well. Far too often we think a man will “grow into” the office of elder, or, if he is not quite capable of that, deacon.

    We all need to be far more respectful of the office, and not just worry about the man.

  7. Andy: Building on Fred’s post above: since the local congregation’s pulpit committee is “the only gatekeeper” in the process of choosing a pastor for the church, it is also necessary that the pulpit committee be comprised of men who know what the biblical requirements are for a teaching elder, and who are willing to uphold them, no matter how “nice” a candidate and his family are.

    Not only must the candidate be actually called to the pastoral ministry, but the search committee must be completely up to speed on what that means and be willing to do the hard work of rejecting men who are not actually biblically qualified.

  8. This comment is belated. If you are still answering questions regarding this topic, perhaps you can answer mine. Why do confessionally reformed churches even have pulpit search committees?

    Richard posted above that, “Not only must the candidate be actually called to the pastoral ministry, but the search committee must be completely up to speed on what that means and be willing to do the hard work of rejecting men who are not actually biblically qualified.”

    Why entrust one of the most important decisions to a search committee? Shouldn’t the elders of the church be the sole committee to choose a pastor. These men have been ordained by God to sheperd their flock and they should understand biblically the qualifications and duties for pastors.

    Too many times a pastoral search committee becomes a political process made up of people who may be good businessmen, but have absolutely no idea what the qualifications and duties of a pastor are. In the end, a CEO-type ends up being hired instead of a pastor.

    So why have a pastoral search committee to be the gatekeeper? It seems logical to entrust the elders with this task?

    Thanks.

  9. What is the internal call? As far as I can see, it has come to mean in the PCA nothing much more than feelings. Men are chosen for the eldership based on their worldly success and not on any Biblical knowledge, love of theology, or desire to serve the sheep as Christ did.

    Having heard stories of men accepting the call as TE’s and then changing their minds makes me wonder even more. If God truly called you to the new church, then how would you dare not to obey. Or was their some miscommunication?

    But, this is just another area that has leads me to feel greatly discouraged and alienated from the modern church.

  10. oops there not their


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