Seminary student Simon writes to ask about how to choose where to serve upon graduation.
I wish I could say that there is a simple three-step process to discern the will of God. If I could do that I probably wouldn’t have to worry about sending my children to college since this I’m sure I could sell enough copies of that book to pay tuition.
Let’s start with the basics. Reformed Christians understand that there are two aspects to a ministerial call: the internal and the external. Pietists typically focus on the internal and usually this becomes quest to know the will of God by replicating the biblical, canonical phenomena (fleeces, small, still voices etc). The obvious problem with this approach is that we are not in the canonical period. We aren’t canonical prophets. Nothing in Scripture suggests that that God still speaks this way to his ministers. The same hermeneutic that subjectivists use to apply those passages to knowing God’s will now might also cause us to hang ourselves like Judas.
Nevertheless, there is a subjective element in the vocation to ministry. It often develops gradually and not usually in a blinding flash. It develops in the context of prayer and through self-knowledge and takes time; sometimes it takes an uncomfortably long time. Perhaps one begins to develop a sense that one should be doing something else with one’s life. As one listens to sermons one begins to think, “I wonder if I should be doing what the pastor is doing?” One finds oneself teaching catechism classes and Bible studies. One begins to feel a growing desire to tell people the Good News to point them to Christ, to know the Word more deeply and through it, to know Christ more deeply and to make him known to others. Those may be internal indicators of the growing desire to enter pastoral ministry. There are other internal considerations: If you find the idea of learning Greek and Hebrew repulsive you are probably not called to pastoral ministry. If the idea of sitting bedside with an elderly saint about to leave this life leaves you cold, then you should probably reconsider your vocation and if the idea of learning biblical languages and shepherding a flock this way seems overwhelming, well, welcome to the ministry.
The second and equally important aspect of the pastoral vocation is the external call. You will notice that the context for the development of the internal call is the church. Many of the desires listed above may (and probably should) be experienced by maturing Christians who are not being called to pastoral ministry. When the church comes to a man and says, “We’ve been observing you and we think you should consider the pastoral ministry as a vocation” that is something that should be heeded very carefully. To be sure the visible church and her officers do err but whatever one experiences subjectively the objective confirmation and call by the visible church is essential. Normally the man comes “under care” (or its equivalent) and is sent to seminary. During this time he is supervised by a session/consistory (or a presbytery committee) and serves an internship with an experienced minister and the candidate’s gifts and calling are tested.
The external vocation is confirmed during one’s ecclesiastical trials (no, I’m not referring to consistory/session meetings!) when one appears before presbytery or classis to sustain a series of written and oral exams in committee and on the floor. When one sustains those exams, which cover everything from one’s life and piety to the fine points of biblical exegesis and at least some church history, then one is declared a candidate and should have good certainty that one is indeed called to pastoral ministry. This call is confirmed again when one is called by a congregation–this process varies by denomination/federation.
Yes, but how does one choose where to serve? Once one has determined that one should serve then there are several things to consider:
1) Who sent you to seminary? In my case I was sent by a particular denomination with the intent that I should return from seminary to serve the denomination. They quite generously paid for my tuition and even provided a little book money. This allowed me to focus on the studies and prepare for ministry. To my brothers and sisters in the Reformed Church in the U. S. I will always be deeply grateful. Thus, when I graduated the only real question was where I would serve in the RCUS.
Even if one’s denomination/federation has not been as wise and foresighted as the RCUS was (and few of them are) if one comes from a particular confessional denomination/federation then one should probably assume that is where one will serve unless that process is interrupted in some outstanding way. In my case, after fulfilling my obligation to the RCUS I went to graduate school and then found myself for two years in Chicago and then in Escondido without a local RCUS congregation, thus I had to find another ecclesiastical home in the URCs. If, however, that relationship is not interrupted and if one’s confessional denomination/federation has raised and shepherded one then there is a certain natural loyalty expected.
If one comes from outside a confessional Reformed church or one has to find a new home then the choices become more complicated. There are three more things to consider carefully and prayerfully:
2) One should take stock of one’s own confessional inclinations. Through seminary one has studied the background, doctrine, and reception of what might be called the “Six Forms of Unity,” i.e. the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) and the Westminster Standards (the Confession, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism). Does one feel a particular kinship with or does one identify with one set of standards over another? This study may help narrow one’s choices (or it may make them more difficult!).
3) Study the history of the various confessional Reformed denominations. When I was in seminary I studied the history of my own denomination but I also studied the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). I read everything by and about Machen I could. Each of the major and minor NAPARC denominations/federations has a unique history which has helped shape their identity, theology, piety, and practice. For example, most all of the NAPARC denominations/federations are separatist groups, i.e. they all separated from larger mainline bodies. How they separated and why will tell one a good deal about them. The RPCNA, on the other hand, traces its roots to a different time and place outside of North America and is dissenting from much of American Christianity and even from much of the practice of the NAPARC churches.
4) Finally one must gain a little more self-knowledge and try to synthesize this prayerfully with the confessional and historical knowledge described above. A friend once said about this process, “You pays your money and you takes your choice.” Every denomination will have strengths and weaknesses. You must decide where you can best serve in the light of those strengths and weaknesses. Here are some examples (and these are just my perceptions not studied academic judgments or anything of the like) of the sorts of things I would think about:
One paradigm I use for evaluating the various NAPARC groups is to ask where they stand relative to fundamentalism (or the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty) and revivalism/evangelicalism (Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience), but there are important sociological factors with which to reckon as well.
The corollary to the QIRC/QIRE paradigm would be the confessional/non-confessional paradigm. On a continuum the OPC, URC, RPCNA are probably on the “more confessional” end and the PCA would, all things considered, be on the “less confessional” end — but in all cases there are likely classes/presbyteries, and congregations that one could find all across the spectrum.
Take the test case of the OPC. It is strong on theology, polity, and missions and but attends to attract more bookish ministers. Most OPCs (like most American congregations) are probably pretty small (100-200). The OPC has a long history of confessional faithfulness and a remarkable record of self-sacrificial giving and serve in mission. It is a separatist denomination and it’s sense of antithesis with prevailing evangelicalism is stronger than in some other denominations but it also attracts ministers and elders who are more sympathetic to fundamentalisms such as theonomy or 6/24 creation as a mark of orthodoxy. One might also consider the proportion of urban to rural congregations.
These would be the strengths and weaknesses of groups like the RCUS and the URCs. In those cases, however, you have the added consideration of ethnicity. In my case I’ve always been a “gentile” outsider so I don’t think about it much anymore but it’s worth considering. Some RCUS, RPCNA, and URC congregations have a strong ethnic heritage and consciousness — while others do not. The RCUS probably has a little more fundamentalism than the OPC and less broad evangelical influence. The URCs have relatively little evangelical influence and probably less fundamentalist influence than the OPC or the RCUS. There is virtually no theonomy in the URCs and they have reached a modus vivendi on the question of creation. Relative to missions (and anything requiring organization, ecumenicity excepted) the URC would be among the weakest of the NAPARC groups since they have not figured out a way to cooperate effectively in domestic of international church planting and missions are still conducted on an ad hoc basis. If a de-centralized connectional polity is attractive the URC might be for you.
Of the NAPARC groups the PCA is probably the most complicated inasmuch as it is a separating denomination, having left the old southern Presbyterian (PCUS) in the early 70s, but it is also most like American evangelicalism of all the NAPARC groups. The OPC left the mainline in 1936. Even the most liberal mainliners then would be regarded as “moderate” today. The churches that formed the PCA lingered in the mainline for most of another 40 years. This means that whatever trends develop in broad evangelicalism will probably manifest themselves in the PCA more quickly than in the other NAPARC groups. The PCA is also the largest and probably best funded and, in some respects, best organized of the NAPARC groups.
Sometimes the PCA seems to be a collection of various interest groups. There are committed confessionalists who identify strongly with historic southern Presbyterianism and the Reformed confessions but there are also large, well-funded and influential movements (e.g. The Redeemer movement) which do not identify with these things, at least not in the same way. Recently Tim Keller suggested a sort of pluralistic approach to church planting that implies a sort of diffidence to the Reformed theology, piety, and practice than renders them mere preferences rather than matters of principle.
There are other identifiable interest groups in the PCA. There remains a sizable group of Federal Visionists who do not seem to planning to leave the PCA. There is some movement in the Pacific Northwest toward addressing this crisis but it is not clear what will become of the vocal FVists in Missouri (St Louis) and Louisiana. Should those presbyteries (or others) decide to let sleeping FVist lie that will likely sentence the PCA to a sort of radical theological pluralism.
Another thing to consider is where one stands on various issues. For example, should one develop a strong commitment to the historic expression of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), then one’s options become more limited. As a denomination the RPCNA is one of the few NAPARC denominations/federations that observes the RPW in a way that would be recognized by the Reformers and the framers of our confessions. It is possible perhaps to observe the RPW strictly in the other NAPARC groups but it is more complicated. For example, I am aware of a URC congregation that observes the RPW very closely and it assume it would be possible to do this in the OPC or in a PCA but it would be impossible to do so in an RCUS congregation as they have made the singing of non-conical songs a matter of denominational principle. If, on the other hand, one decides that females not serving in the military or 6/24 creation is a matter of Reformed orthodoxy, then the RCUS might be just the place.
This may be more than you wanted or perhaps less but these are the sorts of things about which I would think (and pray) when considering where to serve, assuming that no group had a prior claim to one’s loyalties.