A Different Planting Call

I recently spent a few days driving through rural Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois. During many stretches of travel a person could drive one hundred fifty miles and not find a confessionally Reformed church to worship with. As a member of the Mississippi Valley Presbytery of the ARP, I met with the brothers for our Spring meeting in Murray, KY, a town of roughly 17,000 people in a county of 34,000 where the median household income is just over $30k. Our minister there is bi-vocational, teaching at the local public high school.

Because our presbytery is vast and has many rural churches in its bounds, topics such as pulpit vacancy, the need for renewal, and even church closure are often before us. Simultaneously, we observe that some of our best seminaries are putting out qualified candidates who may send seventy-five resumes out before finding a suitable call. Many of these men are just beginning their families and may have lived in poverty or even under the burden of debt to gain undergraduate and seminary education. They have seen the cost of living, particularly home ownership, increase rapidly, and consider the costs associated with raising a family to be daunting.

In many ways, this has been the burden of the minster and his family for centuries; economic realities have closed off large territories, or if a call was taken to certain locales it virtually ensured an austere manner of living. My own ancestors were early twentieth-century arrivals to rural Montana and were in churches in the expansive Pacific Classis of the CRC where pulpit vacancies could stretch on for most of a decade. The elders would call and conduct worship, reading from hard-bound sermon volumes, expository in the morning and catechetical in the evening, published by the denomination for just such situations.

If a call was accepted to one of these rural congregations, it often meant the reverend and his family would take up residence in a spartan parsonage which came with a milk cow and a small shed, while partial compensation was disbursed in the form of firewood, hay, and eggs. There are anecdotes still among the living of cases where a minister or his wife would so long for the comforts they knew existed in Chicago or Grand Rapids, that the call would not last even two years before the dominie and his family departed, and a congregation who had finally had some life breathed into them would shrink back into a pattern of minimal spiritual sustenance.

Thankfully, the quality of life for a Reformed minister has improved drastically. We sometimes view call packages commensurate with the salaries of leading professionals. Our denominations have codified generous benefit and investment requirements. In more populated and affluent communities, a ministerial call might bring a man close to $200k in total annual compensation, while the decline in evening worship as well as mid-week prayer and instruction might only require that he preach forty sermons in a year. After thirty years of ministry, a man often retires quite comfortably with a paid-for-home, a large nest-egg, and multiple sources of retirement income.

What exists in between these differing contexts are vast swaths of country, unaffected by the Reformed faith and practice. A number of helpful articles have appeared in these pages recently, illustrative of the situation.[1] Perhaps, in what is represented by the gaping expanse between churches—and the even wider divide between minister’s compensation—in rural and urban contexts, there exists a refreshing stream that flows from a call to humility and trust that has been muted by the comfort and affluence which have become the attainable norm for many P&R ministers.

In between two human problems—a reality that younger men seeking call are often economically barred from entry to the pulpits of needy contexts, and an opposing reality that seasoned men may be at risk of slipping into the complacency of affluence—there may be a peculiar opportunity for P&R churchmen to rethink the lifelong continuum of a man’s ministry in a way better informed by wisdom and humility. The prevailing solution has been to plant churches, utilizing relatively inexperienced ministers, in contexts demographically researched for their economic viability, with six-figure fundraising paradigms and head-counting metrics in place designed to insulate against failure. The result is a very costly programmatic approach that guarantees a high standard of ministerial compensation, but only adds churches to well-populated areas, neglecting the hinterlands. These initiatives, while numerically successful, tend to be represented by a culture of hip innovation and slick production, straying from the practices historically understood to be regulated by Scripture and the Reformed confessions. It is rare for new church-planting efforts to be spearheaded by seasoned men who are deeply grounded in the Reformed confession; but that is exactly what is needed in order that the visible church be spread wider and also grow deeper.

Herein is the modest proposal. Hopefully there will be some who hear it as an explicit call. Confessional men with experience in ministry need to be the ones planting churches in unreached areas, and it is likely that they are financially positioned to best do the work. It simply requires a reorienting of priorities. Consider a man who is roughly fifty-five years old. His children have had their orthodontal treatments and their education, his home has a high measure of equity, as does his retirement portfolio. There may be among some at that point, a tendency to look longingly ahead to a lifestyle of creature comforts, the luxuries of travel and home improvement, or even nonmaterial concerns; but what if we laid some of those desires aside, humbling ourselves to take uncomfortable calls to impoverished contexts? What if just some men in the above season of life and financial position chose to downgrade their living standard by selling a valuable home to relocate to a smaller one in a more economically depressed area, and to live on a salary much smaller than they have become accustomed to? Their retirement account would continue to grow, perhaps not as rapidly or to a terminus as high as otherwise possible—however an unreached area could be blessed. Meanwhile, a comfortable pulpit would be opened to a younger man. Were this to compound over generations, meaning, were younger ministers to lay in place plans and ambitions to deliberately do something similar, the project could be repeated in the continuum of many ministers, humbly and deliberately applying wisdom, prayer, and trust to a different paradigm of career and financial planning. Men committed to ordinary means ministry, seasoned in applying the means of grace, apt to offer doctrinal instruction, liturgically wise, perhaps even able to precent a cappella singing in a context void of musicianship. Gifted in counseling. Committed to a whole-day Sabbath and mid-week assembly. Consider what these gifts might mean to an impoverished area.

There are several variations on this theme. The daughter church-planting model could be employed under this framework. Older men could forgo retirement altogether and augment the funding of the ministry with the revenue of their retirement and social security disbursements. Second-career men with pre-existent wealth or passive income, preferably men who have already served as ruling elders, could gain a seminary education and be sent into places and pulpits otherwise unreached. Certainly, there will be concerns such as adequate healthcare and the dispersion of grown children to consider in relocation. But perhaps the factors put forward in this proposal can be seen as a helpful guide for discerning opportunities in growing retirement populations, or even in areas that our own generations have not been able to find good churches.

Brothers, I hope that we do not consider these yet-to-exist pulpits unworthy of us. Is the Spirit pricking any of the readership as to whether our comfort or net-worth has become so devastating an idol as to outstrip our commitment to the costliness of discipleship? Might we be willing to reevaluate the ministry with a heart of self-sacrifice?

This is a framework that given time, could broaden and deepen the church for centuries to come. It would require that seminaries instruct students of theology in a mindset both of humility and of wise financial planning, as a discipline that includes frugality and shrewdness, with a long-term view; that our denominational home missions boards rethink the flash and dazzle of recent church-planting innovations, considering instead the human and financial resources that presently exist in the last third of a man’s ministry continuum; that presbyteries and classes be a place where humility and self-sacrifice are modeled, where the first might even be willing to be last.

Older men, can you hear this as a present or near-term call? Younger men, can you hear this as a call for the deliberate planning of your future? A mutual buy-in and renewed spirit of partnership between ministers and their wives will be required. Are some of us possibly being called to lay down a few of the privileges of life that we have become accustomed to, perhaps trading some of our dreams for a vital spiritual life among a population presently starved of the spiritual resources we have come to take for granted? Perhaps some in our circles have ears to hear this peculiar call.

As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” (2 Cor 8:15)


  1. See Sean Morris, “Give Me the Hills and Hollers, Or I Die!”; Brad Isbell, “Do You Know Of A Good P&R Church Nearby?

© Aaron De Boer. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Accurate picture of the culture of our times…perhaps another version of prosperity gospel that P&R teaching elders have fallen prey to…the trap of man made comfort & idol of control vs sacrifice and commitment to a call for “LIFE,” which requires dying to oneself until God calls you home.

    • Karl,

      I wouldn’t indict all P&R ministers. A very few indeed are very well paid or perhaps even overpaid. The vast majority serve at some cost, sometimes considerable, to themselves. In my first call, I was paid 50% of what PCA pastors, who served comparable congregations were paid. We paid our own insurance and benefits out of that salary. One of our elders gave us a quarter of a steer, which was a great blessing. Had, however, our in-laws not supplemented my salary considerably, we would have been hard-pressed to own a car, let alone buy a house or have children. I’m not blaming the congregation. The situation was what it was. It was no one’s fault. We were naive when we began. We could have continued but only with substantial help from family. Not everyone has generous in-laws such as I have.

      Some denominations have funds for small churches, which helps. Some denominations do not or they have so many small, poor churches that it’s barely feasible to call a minister. I know of one call, where the minister was transferring to a new denomination and when the call came to floor of presbytery some men objected to the terms of the call as quite inadequate. This was in a presbytery where they were used to a degree of poverty. The minister receiving the call stood and addressed the body to ask them to approve the call as it would be a great improvement for him and his family.

      In my lifetime seminary interns were still living in a sod house in the Dakotas.

      I’ve been helping seminary students to find calls for 26 years. I’ve not seen any of them getting rich.

      I don’t know any of them who were taught or adopted a health & wealth theology.

      • Agreed, Scott! I was active in Northern Cal RC-US churches, mostly rural, with pastors and elders planted in poor and not well in financed at all! These pastors DESIRED to reach the poor, lowly educated, and even crime invested areas for Christ! Try being ‘$uccessful’ in areas like Stockton, Modesto, Lodi, etc. California for examples!
        These pastors and elders I’ve known personally tried very hard to reach the peoples for the Gospel. Some churches could not make it. Stockton, Modesto, Grass Valley are prime examples! Pastor Merica was a wonderful man of God who tried desperately for the extraordinarily poor and crime ridden city of Stockton! I felt his heart driven love for Christ there for the people- a dedicated and highly Biblical desire to do so. He also singularly and secretly flew to Pakistan at least 3 times in extreme danger to sow the Gospel there, as well! I still feel sad I didn’t help him more, as even my own employment and finances were and are so slight! I’m grateful for knowing particularly this man!
        Thank you, again Scott..and Pastor Merica!

  2. Well it is also a travesty that men coming out of seminary have debt from that. A brother told me of men who lived in a low income area who went to seminary, acquired debt from that and were unable to serve the community they came from because of that debt. I’m not sure we’ve done a good thing by suggesting that a man must go to seminary rather than being trained in his own church by the elders. One doesn’t have to be a scholar or scholarly to preach. The acknowledgment of the elders and his giftedness in an Orthodox Church seems sufficient.
    Something is off when pastors live better than their congregations sometimes. Maybe this is why churches look for demographics that can supply the income they want. Hey has anyone read
    Paul ? He served churches not taking anything from them in order to have a good report among them. Would you preach for nothing ? I would, just for the indescribable privilege of proclaiming the word of Christ. Man we’ve strayed. It’s not a job or career. It’s a calling to go out to minister to both rich and poor.
    You know it was the well off clergy that didn’t sit well with the frontiers men, the farmers, the ranchers and settlers out on the plains that sparked the circuit riders leading to Methodist and revivalism in America. Maybe we’ll paid Anglican and Presbyterian clergy should have got their tails in a saddle and gone our into the country side. Besides I’ve seen way to many lazy men in the ministry. I believe it was Robert Murray M’Cheyne that rode 100 miles to visit and catechize the congregation. I don’t feel sorry for anyone. If you go into the ministry, it’s not to make a good living.

    • Victor,

      The horde of uneducated ministers who went west wrecked American Christianity. We may never recover.

      Yes, student debt is a problem but it is one that the confessional Reformed seminaries are seeking to address. I know a little about this since Mrs Heidelblog was a financial aid advisor in a seminary for the last 15 years. Most of the debt students have accumulated hasn’t come from seminary. For the last 15 years, students have come in laden with debt from their undergraduate education, the cost of which has grown but hundreds of percentage points over inflation. By contrast, our donors at my seminary, for example, have been extraordinarily generous and now we offer on-campus housing at well below market rates, so that students are able to graduate with less debt.

      It’s true that not everyone can go to seminary but we could send more men to seminary if the churches got involved on the front end. As it is, what I’ve seen for 27 years is that the calling church absorbs the cost of the student’s education on the back end, after graduation. They’ve been very good about helping graduates pay down their loans so that the students themselves don’t actually carry that burden (since the interest is waived while they are enrolled).

      It’s not a perfect system but it’s not as dire as your comments imply. People on the outside, who assume what must be or who don’t talk to us don’t always get the full story.

      As to getting rich, I don’t know to whom you’ve been talking but it doesn’t happen very much in NAPARC circles. Most of our congregations are small and underfunded. There are some large PCA congregations where a very few ministers are paid well but those are the exception and not the rule. I began my ministry in small Reformed denomination, in a small congregation, and we subsisted by the grace of God and the benevolence of my in-laws. I saw genuine poverty among some ministers. I’ve seen a lot of sacrifice on the part of NAPARC pastors. I’ve seen a lot of sacrifice on the part of seminary students, a few of whom have walked away from lucrative careers in order to prepare themselves to be pastors.

      I think your picture of what’s happening in ministerial education and Reformed pastoral ministry is out of whack.


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