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.
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.