After the post on calling a minister someone wrote to ask if I would comment about the process of calling a minister from the candidate’s perspective.This is a difficult question in part because churches employ a variety of methods of calling ministers and because those churches (and denominations and federations) have different traditions. For example, early in my ministry I was told that a candidate should never contact directly a congregation conducting the search. I was told that a candidate, e.g. a student about to graduate from seminary, should contact the clerk of classis (the regional gathering of elders and ministers) to let the clerk know of his availability so that the clerk of classis becomes a sort of clearing house of information for candidates and congregations. It’s not quite Match.com or eharmony.com but you get the idea. In some congregations it is customary for the consistory (the elders and minister(s) of a local congregation) to send out letters notifying congregations in the federation that one has sustained a candidacy exam.
Further complicating things is that there are two classes of candidates: those who are finishing their seminary education, who have not yet received a call, and those who are currently serving a congregation who might be subject to another call. This post will address both classes of candidates in order. So far, the process I’ve described has had seminary graduates in view. I’ll address the candidacy of pastors below.
It is important that we recognize that, however the candidacy process is conducted, it should be a churchly process. This is to say that process of calling a minister or candidating for a call is not a “free-for-all” nor is it an entrepreneurial process. In the URCs, one is not officially a candidate until one has sustained a candidacy exam on the floor of classis. After a candidate has sustained an exam then his candidacy is announced in the minutes of classis and often in print announcements in ecclesiastically oriented publications or on some websites.
So much for the formal aspect; on to the informal aspect of the process. What can seminary students or recent graduates do to prepare themselves for a call?
1. Provide pulpit supply. At WSC students do not usually begin “exhorting” (preaching done by one who is licensed to exhort but not yet ordained to pastoral ministry) until after their first year of seminary. First year MDiv students (“juniors”) have had the ministry of the Word course and at least one other course in homiletics and some rudimentary training. They present themselves to their consistory to schedule a licensure exam. In some denominations/federations, this exam is conducted on the floor of classis and is not much different than an ordination exam. In the URCs it is conducted by the local consistory which invites consistories from the area to send representatives to the exam. The licensure exam focuses on preaching, confessional knowledge, and other basics. It is designed to assure the consistory that the candidate has some understanding of writing sermons (exhortations), giving them, and leading worship services.
As you provide pulpit supply congregations you gain invaluable experience in conducting services and in preaching (exhorting). You learn what to do and what not to do. Further, congregations and consistories get to know you as a potential candidate for ministry.
2. Practice. Try to arrange an internship with a congregation that is not vacant. This might seem counter-intuitive. It might seem wisest to try serve an internship where there is no minister currently where one might become the most logical candidate. Yes, this sometimes happens but it’s not the best process. The one thing a ministerial candidate lacks, whatever gifts and abilities he may have, is experience and guidance. Most ministerial candidates need both and time with a wise, patient, godly, and experienced pastor is the best way to gain practical wisdom, discretion, and experience. I was blessed to have an internship under the Rev Mr Don Treick in the mid-80s. He was (and remains) an amazing example of ministerial industry and care for a congregation. In many ways he set a great and positive example for me. In my first call I served what was essentially a two-year internship with the Rev Mr Norman Hoeflinger. He was 63 when I arrived in Kansas City and had been in the ministry more than thirty years already. The stories I heard, the time we spent together discussing biblical exegesis, preaching, and ministry practica generally was invaluable. One would think that, after two such examples, I would be a better minister than I am but there it is.
One should be reasonably (but not too) active in a local congregation during seminary. At WSC students are required to fulfill 700 clock hours of internship during seminary but in some cases it is wise arrange a full-time internship after graduation to gain additional experience.
3. Prepare. This seems obvious but I have observed more than one student who did not seem to understand that he was preparing for pastoral ministry. Seminary is a school but it is more than that. It is, Lord willing, the last stop before one begins a life of active, full-time, ecclesiastical ministry. It is likely (unless our churches begin requiring continuing eduction—which they should begin doing immediately! Why is it that teachers, lawyers, and physicians all need continuing education to conduct their professional lives but ministers do not? Ministers frequently confess that the demands of daily ministry keeps them from “keeping up” with academic developments that occurred after graduation. Experienced ministers tell me that they long for time away from the constant press of business. A little refresher course for those ministers whose Hebrew has become a little rusty or a seminar on Christian education/catechesis or a colloquium on counseling would be most valuable even for experienced ministers) that seminary is the end of one’s formal education. Students are well advised to make the very best use of what will turn out to have been a quick three or four years. Prayer is an essential part of that preparation.
Part of the process of prayerful preparation is to make contact with other students and with ministers. Because the calling process varies from tradition to tradition and from denomination/federation to denomination/federation it’s helpful to know as many people as possible, to be informed as to new church planting opportunities or of vacant pulpits. Some seminary students seem oblivious to the fact that God, in his providence, uses people in calling process. If consistories/sessions do not know you exist or if you are a total stranger to them they are less likely to consider you. I understand that this is a sensitive topic. I am not advocating that seminary students “market” themselves to congregations but I am saying that they should do sensible things such as attending classis/presbytery meetings. Again I am surprised at how often students seem to miss this simple step in the process. Students should be active in a congregation. They should teach at youth camps and the like.
4. Pray. Pray for the graces necessary for ministry, for maturity, for wisdom, discretion, discernment, patience, and piety. Pray for a call yes (I suppose students are already doing this!) but pray also for the congregation that will call you. The seminarian/candidate probably doesn’t know which congregation will call him. When I was in seminary we used to play “ministerial roulette.” It begins like this: “If this pastor goes here, then that pastor might go there, until finally we had deduced what pulpit might be available to a nervous graduate. Of course we were completely wrong! I was called to a position that did not exist until a few months before I graduated. This prayer is not unlike the prayer one says for one’s future wife (assuming that one is single).
5. Persevere. There are ways, of course, in which pastoral ministry is not just “a job.” It is a unique, sacred, high vocation. One is about to be called to proclaim God’s Word. It is a vocation to service in the Kingdom of God. There are ways, however, in which receiving a call is like getting a job in the civil kingdom. The truth is that, in the civil kingdom, it often takes time to get a job. Sometimes it happens quickly but sometimes it doesn’t. It may take time to match your gifts with the needs (perceived or real) with a calling congregation. There may not be any openings just when you graduate, but if you are called to pastoral ministry, if you are prepared, then, in the ordinary providence of God, you should expect to receive a call but it may take time. Don’t panic. The Lord did not bring you this far to abandon you.
I have seen a small number of cases, however, where candidates have lingered without receiving a call. In these cases re-evaluation is necessary. If, however, after a given length of time (I can’t say what that might be), all other things being equal, one has received no call, it would be appropriate to re-consider whether one has a vocation to pastoral ministry. It would be wise to consult with one’s consistory, with experienced ministers, and perhaps with one’s seminary professors to see what, if anything, can be changed. Perhaps there is a blind spot or some other hinderance to a pastoral call, which calling congregations are seeing but of which the candidate is unaware? It may be that the candidate is simply not ready to begin pastoral ministry. In such a case the candidate needs to know that.
As my old friend Alan Mallory (pastor of Harvest Community PCA in Omaha) says, the candidacy process is not unlike courting. Candidates are asking the same sorts of questions. “Where do I meet this girl?” (the calling congregation) Do we agree? Does she like me? Both the congregation and candidate put on their best clothes and try to put their best face forward and neither one really knows the other until years after the courtship is over. Unlike a courtship leading to marriage, however, ministers (seem to) get divorced from their congregations rather regularly which leads to a sort of serial monogamy, but that’s a topic for another post.