Wanted: Gifted Young Men For Pastoral Ministry

The confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches are facing a challenge that I have not seen since I first joined St John Reformed Church over 40 years ago: a shortage of pastors. For decades, there have been more candidates for ministry than there have been open pulpits. In business terms, it has been a buyer’s market. Now, for a variety of reasons to be explored below, the situation is reversed, and it is a seller’s market. The visible, institutional church needs gifted young men (and older men) to prayerfully consider their calling in this world.

The Plan

Scripture says,

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ (Matt 16:15–20).

The rock on which Christ is building his church is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God. The institution to which he committed that message is his visible church. He gave to her the keys of the Kingdom of God. Keys do two things: they admit and they exclude. When I come home, I use a key to get into my house. That key admits me to the house. Once I am inside, however, I use that key to exclude others from entering the house. So it is in the visible church.

In the Heidelberg Catechism we explain this passage this way:

83. What is the Office of the Keys?

The preaching of the Holy Gospel and Christian discipline; by these two the Kingdom of Heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers.

84. How is the Kingdom of Heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the holy gospel?

In this way: that according to the command of Christ, it is proclaimed and openly witnessed to believers, one and all, that as often as they accept with true faith the promise of the Gospel, all their sins are really forgiven them of God for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, to all unbelievers and hypocrites, that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation abide on them so long as they are not converted. According to this testimony of the Gospel, God will judge men both in this life and in that which is to come.

85. How is the Kingdom of Heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?

In this way: that according to the command of Christ, if any under Christian name show themselves unsound either in doctrine or in life, and after several brotherly admonitions do not turn from their errors or evil ways, they are complained of to the Church or to its proper officers; and, if they neglect to hear them also, are by them denied the Holy Sacraments and thereby excluded from the Christian Communion, and by God Himself from the Kingdom of Christ; and if they promise and show real amendment, they are again received as members of Christ and His Church.

Our Lord himself instituted the key of church discipline in Matthew 18. In Romans 10 the Apostle Paul explained the way that the Holy Spirit uses the public preaching of the gospel to bring his elect into the Kingdom of God:

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom 10:12–17).

This is the ministry of the key of admission to the Kingdom and, remarkably, the Lord Christ has ordained to use sinful men to administer this key. The Lord is free to use other means (informal witnessing, a revival preacher, etc.), but the act to which Paul attached promise is the official, authoritative proclamation of the gospel. That is the act in which God reveals himself as ordaining to the admission of his elect to the Kingdom.

Years ago I read a piece by a ministerial friend, with whom I disagreed on several topics, saying that preaching the gospel is the most important task in the world. At the time I took it as a self-justifying boast. I was wrong. He was right. It is the most important thing a man can do in this life.

This is not to say that everyone should leave his vocation and become a preacher. There are many good vocations, and Christians are duty bound to discover their vocation in this life (which may not be your passion or your heart—we are talking about vocation, which is sometimes another thing) and to fulfill it to the glory of God and the welfare of their neighbor. HVAC repairmen should repair HVAC units to the best of their ability.

There is a difference, however, between the HVAC repairman and the preacher. The HVAC man (or woman) provides a real service (especially in August, in the desert) but good heating and cooling only helps in this life. The preacher should preach to the glory of God and the salvation of their neighbors. God has not attached any promise of salvation to the work of the HVAC repairman. It is good and honorable secular work. The preaching of the gospel is good and honorable sacred work with eternal consequences.

How will the elect hear if there is no preacher? How indeed! How will the elect come to faith unless there is someone to preach? How will the elect come to faith if no preacher is sent? Those were not theoretical questions for the Apostle Paul, and they are entirely practical for us too. The fields are white for harvest (John 4:35)—that is, the heads of grain are mature. A wheat farmer needs to bring in the harvest before the weather turns and he loses his crop. For preachers, the harvest is always white because God always has his elect. We do not know who is or is not elect, so we preach the good news to all, and we call all to turn to Christ. The Holy Spirit brings the harvest, but he uses preacher-farmers to do it.

The Need

The church has a divine commission. We call it the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19‐20). The commission was given explicitly and implicitly to the visible, institutional church. Christ gave the commission to his disciples. They were de facto officers in his church and, after Pentecost, they became de iure officers. They were specifically charged with carrying out the commission to preach, to baptize, and to disciple.

A potential candidate for ministry should not comfort himself with the notion that the commission belongs to all Christians, lay and ordained alike. There is precious little evidence in the New Testament for lay evangelism. There is some evidence for lay witness (i.e., we have a few examples of lay witness). The man born blind in John 9 is a strong example of lay witness but the vast majority of the proclamation of the gospel in the New Testament is done by ordained officers—that is, apostles and the ministers they ordained.

Thus, for the Great Commission to continue to be fulfilled, for the gospel to be preached, for converts (and their children) to be baptized, and for disciples to be made, there must be preachers. For churches to be planted, for the lost to be reached, and for the reached to be taught, there must be ministers. They are essential to the work of the Kingdom of God.

Most of the USA is unchurched and thus, we may surmise, unconverted. The ancient Christian maxim rings true: “Outside the church there is no salvation” (reflected in Belgic Confession article 28). Probably less than 10% of Americans attend church weekly. In how many of those churches are the law and the gospel even being preached? One shudders to think of it. There are great stretches in this country, both urban and rural, where there is no gospel witness. There are millions in the USA, let alone across the globe, who know nothing of Christ and free salvation by grace alone, through faith alone.

Now, we seem to be facing a shortage of ministers, and yet the need for them is as a great as it has ever been. In a sense, this is not a new situation for the P&R churches. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of the greatest crises faced by the Reformed churches across Europe and in the British Isles, was the crying need for ministers. Schools in Geneva, Leiden, and elsewhere did their best but they were small, underfunded, and understaffed. Further, many of the men sent from Geneva to France were quickly martyred for the gospel. In the New World, the Presbyterian and Reformed churches were persistently short of ministers in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Only as we were able to establish seminaries to prepare ministers did the crisis begin to ease.

Today, however, there is a difference. We have the seminaries but where are the students? The answer to this is complex. Part of the answer is economic. P&R churches have always believed in an educated ministry, but never before has the cost of an undergraduate education been so unreasonably high and so potentially useless (particularly in the publicly funded schools) as it is today. Further, there is evidence to suggest that young men in the USA are becoming increasingly reluctant to subject themselves to Maoist struggle sessions in university. More than that, there is evidence that young people who once might have gone into ministry are heading to different vocations because they do not see the value of pastoral ministry.

P&R people need to think strategically about how to help future pastors deal with the intellectual and fiscal crisis created by the post-secondary education business. We need to plan for ways to send our future ministers to those schools that are actually capable of giving them the tools they need to succeed in seminary and beyond.

We also need to be prayerful and wise in strengthening those seminaries that are best equipped to prepare pastors to meet faithfully the challenges of this age. It is a wonderful thing to help evangelicals to discover the Reformed confession. That is one of the missions of the Heidelberg Reformation Association and we are, as they say, here for it. We also need, however, the churches to send us young men who have learned the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism, who have a good education, and who will thrive in the seminary and hit the ground running. A young man coming out of Calvary Chapel—again, we love to see it—will need to spend a few years in a Reformed church as well as educational preparation before he is ready to be called to a P&R congregation.

The elect, the wheat amidst the tares, are waiting. The Spirit is going to call them to faith, why should it not be you, dear reader, whom the Spirit uses?

Responding To The Call

Let us say that you have been considering this very issue and have been struggling with a sense of call to pastoral ministry. Elsewhere I have sketched how one knows he is called to pastoral ministry. But briefly, there are two aspects to the call—internal and external. A person who is sensing the internal call (i.e., a desire to preach and teach, or at least to investigate whether he may have the gifts) may well be called. That call must be confirmed by the visible church.

If you are reading this, you may be struggling with a sense of call or you may know someone who is. There are real obstacles. Sometimes it means leaving a career, uprooting a family, and relocating to seminary. Going back to school can be a challenge. Old skills have to be honed again and this time, perhaps, with a family. There are other kinds of challenges—for example, financial, personal, and even spiritual.

Seminary is not easy. It is not meant to be. Ministry is not easy. It is not meant to be. Few things, however, are as rewarding as opening the Word of Life and feeding God’s flock and seeing the lost coming to the Savior. God is sufficient. His grace is sufficient for your needs. His provision is wise, wide, and greater than you or I can imagine. I am constantly amazed at the way God provides for those he sends to our school. I am astonished at the level of commitment shown by our students. It is deeply encouraging.

When God calls, one dare not send it to voicemail. Men do postpone their response, and sometimes I have seen them postpone so long that they missed their opportunity to participate in the harvest. It was in the providence of God, but we only know that after the fact. In the moment, they were distracted from their sense of call by other, legitimate perhaps, concerns. Sometimes the called delay and then respond. Increased maturity and focus are always good things, and yet there is something to be said for youthful energy too.

If the church is speaking to you about your gifts, and if you have a nagging sense that you should be doing something else, something more, something directly for the Kingdom of God, you may be called to pastoral ministry. Investigate that call. Talk to your pastor and pursue it to see where it leads.

Finally, consistories and sessions need to be more deliberate about finding and sending into ministry gifted young men. For too long in the modern period, churches have taken a laissez-faire approach to candidacy for the ministry. I am calling for ruling elders and pastors to be more detective, deliberate, and directive. Sometimes young men discover, on their own, that they might be called to ministry, but sometimes a tap on the shoulder by the church can be very powerful indeed. The process of external call need not wait until after the young man (or second-career candidate) has approached a session or consistory.

Parents, have you bright, spiritually and intellectually gifted sons? The temptation of our age is to steer them toward STEM, the law, or business, but what about pastoral ministry? What higher calling could your son have? What more glorious work could he do than sit with the dying as they enter the arms of Jesus or stand in a pulpit and proclaim the good news to the living?

Our present moment is an opportunity to refocus on the divine vocation of the church and the divine vocation of her ministers. The collapse of a civilization has always presented such opportunities and ours is no exception. People are seeking for meaning and transcendent truth, and we have the riches of God in our hands and in our mouths.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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13 comments

  1. Why must this be limited to ‘young’ men?

    In the great reset there are many going back to school to re-tool for a second career. Many have financial means to self fund the expenses. The lack of young family constraints is a potential benefit to focusing on studying.

    Is there a biblical mandate to discriminate against the vintage?

    • Dr. Clark specifically also mentions older men in the opening paragraph. The last sentence reads, “[t]he visible, institutional church needs gifted young men (AND OLDER MEN) to prayerfully consider their calling in this world.” (emphasis added)

  2. And I’d like to say to my fellow elders and other laymen: Encourage the pastors you have! If there is a shortage of pastors, existing pastors leaving the ministry is part of it. Don’t let yor pastors go! Encourage them and support them. (If for no other reason that the rewards promised to us in Heb. 13:17 if it is a joy for him to be your pastor.)

  3. You have brought up a great subject, and perhaps a key reason why our church may appear to be in crisis. Over the years I have had pastors approach me about their tensions concerning there calling and ministerial practice. The most important aspect for any candidate or minister is to devote himself entirely to the work. (1 Tim. 4:15 ) Time does not permit us to develop this earnestness other than to consider the sheer reality in “feeding God’s sheep!” And in “making disciples” or, being a “light unto the gentiles!” Certainly, the candidate must have “fire in his soul!” “No person can reach the highest degrees in any calling or profession, who does not admire and love, and give himself to his work and have his mind full of it, day by day.”
    ( J. W. Alexander) A young man in want of a consuming zeal and some form of enthusiasm for the conversion of sinners should reconsider his calling and find counseling among his elders.

    In addition, I have seen over the years a shift in the ministers mind regarding the sublimity of his work. The divine excellence of God calling men to care for his children on earth! “The collapse of a civilization has always presented such opportunities and ours is no exception. People are seeking for meaning and transcendent truth,” Any man considering his calling must realize his prominent purpose is the work of saving souls; and while you may be eminent in other matters subservient to the gospel, you must give yourselves entirely to the work of the ministry. (Acts 20:24) Therefore, if there is any other work a man thinking of entering the ministry would rather be than a minister of the gospel he should take this burden in prayer and to the elders.

    Finally, I believe we have many good men seeking to be scholars when they have been called to humble themselves and “care for the state of God’s people.” (Philippians 2:19-24) And so perhaps a shortage of pastors is a good thing . . . perhaps we are merely in a period of reflection; a necessary motif for ordained men to reexamine their ecclesiology generally and pastoral theology specifically. Perhaps, for whatever reasons, we have men who have used the pastorate as a means to elevate themselves to something else when in fact they themselves have been called to return to the pastorate to preach the Word and care for the state of the local Church. (Acts 13:46, 47)

    Blessed be God! who hath not turned away our prayer, and his mercy from us.

    • Michael,

      I am not entirely sure that I understood your response, but I’m going to respond to what I think you are saying. If I’m wrong, please correct me. I hope that I am.

      At their best, the Reformed have not set being a scholar against being a pastor. That contrast belongs to American revivalism. Since the early days of the reformation, we insisted that our pastors get a proper education in the liberal arts, and that they learn to read scripture in the original languages, so that they can fulfill their vocation before the Lord.

      I have always been those who have taken advantage of God’s people. There were warnings and the earliest church order/manual, the Didache about men who went into the ministry, not to serve, but for financial gain.

      I don’t know if you would be as optimistic about a shortage of pastors, if you heard from search committees and elders, who are desperate for men, to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. In a properly ordered church, church, planting, and foreign missions are also conducted by ordained ministers.

      A shortage of pastors means a decrease in missions. That is not a good thing. A shortage of pastors, means injury to the visible church. That is not a good thing.

      I don’t see any good thing coming from this shortage.

  4. Mr. Clark, my third point is simply meant for reflection; we may not really have this shortage of men at all, and that some of our scholars (who may be pursuing other ambitions) may me the very men who are the ones called to pastor the church. Hence, let us reexamine our ecclesiology generally and our homiletics specifically, and make certain we have the right men to fill our pulpits and administer the sacraments. There is no criticism in the comment for the pursuit of further education; we all understand the importance of a candidate to have a proper education, original language, etc. However, let that man who is called to preach God’s Word remember his primary work is the church and not ambition.

    • Anecdotal evidence certainly suggest there is a shortage. In the URCs we have a number of vacant pulpits. We’re not alone. Only a few years ago, seminaries were producing more grads than pulpits. No longer.

  5. Yes I agree, however, do we want men to fill the pulpit for the sake of the “vacant pulpit” or do we want to make certain first we have the right men who are devoted to this task and care of the church of God ?
    2 Corinthians the whole book.

    • Have I said anything that suggests that I am interested in putting unqualified men into pulpits?

      The whole point of the essay is to encourage churches to look for young man who may be called to ministry.

      Let’s not set up false choices.

  6. Great and timely article. I recently read “An Appeal to the Young Men of the Presbyterian Church in the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia” by George Howe, a 19th century presbyterian minister and seminary professor. Your points and his were very similar. I gave this almost 200-year-old 1st edition to a young man in my congregation of the PCA. One of the last paragraphs in the book instructed those like me, who were past our prime, to use what we did have, such as our money and discernment, to help these younger men pursue a call. Also, to your point, the graduating 2023 class of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary all had calls upon graduation. I understand that all of the next year’s class all have provisional calls. Thay also have 92% of their MDiv alumni still in active ministry. This is evidence that when a seminary such as yours and GPTS focuses on training men to preach they produce men who are useful to the church.

  7. FWIW
    The Scottish First Book of Discipline (1560), Head Four, Admission of Ministers:

    . . . We are not ignorant that the rarity of godly and learned men, shall seem to some a just reason why that so strait and sharp examination should not be taken universally, for so it shall appear, that the most part of the Kirks shall have no minister at all. But let these men understand, that the lack of able men shall not excuse us before God, if by our consent unable men be placed over the flock of Christ Iesus. As also that amongst the Gentiles godly and learned men were also rare, as they be now amongst us, when the Apostle gave the same rule to try & examine ministers, which we now follow. And last, let them understand that it is alike to have no minister at all, and to have an Idol in the place of a true minister: Yea and in some case it is worse, for those that be utterly destitute of ministers, will be diligent to search for them; but those that have a vain shadow, do commonly without further care content themselves with the same, and so remain they continually deceived, thinking that they have a minister, when in very deed they have none. For we cannot judge him a dispenser of Gods mysteries, that in no wise can break the bread of life to the fainting and hungry souls. Neither judge we that the sacraments can be rightly ministered by him in whose mouth God hath put no Sermon of exhortation. The chief remedy left to your Honours, and to us, in all this rarity of true ministers, is fervent prayer unto God, that it will please his mercy to thrust out faithful workmen in this his harvest. . . . (italic add.)

  8. Israel could certainly use a presbyter or two. They would not be well appreciated though. (same probably goes for other countries)

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