In this article I would like to examine the process of candidacy as it relates to the church order. There are several church order articles and appendices that relate to this matter.
Article 3 Competent men should be urged to study for the ministry of the
Word. A man who is a member of a church of the federation and who aspires to the ministry must evidence genuine godliness to his Consistory, which shall assume supervision of all aspects of his training, including his licensure to exhort,
and assure that he receives a thoroughly reformed theological education. The council of his church should help him ensure that his financial needs
Appendix 2 Guidelines for a Licensure Exam
The prospective licentiate must apply to his Consistory for the exam, securing the required credentials. At least thirty days before the exam, the Consistory is to announce publicly its intention to examine the prospective licentiate, providing opportunity for other Consistories to render observation and/or objections.
The prospective licentiate must be examined by his Consistory, and the successful completion of the exam will be certified to other Consistories within the federation.
An exhorting license is normally valid for one year, and extension may be requested annually in writing and may require another interview.
Article 4 At the conclusion of such training, a student must approach his Consistory to become a candidate for the ministry of the Word, which shall arrange for his examination at a meeting of the classis of which his Consistory is a participant. No one shall be declared a candidate for the ministry until he has sustained an examination at a meeting of this classis, in the presence of his Consistory, of his Christian faith and experience, of his call to the ministry, of his knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, both in the original languages and in English translations, of the Three Forms of Unity, of Christian doctrine, Christian ethics and church history; of the Church Order, and of his knowledge and aptitude with regard to the particular duties and responsibilities of the minister of the Word, especially the preparation and preaching of sermons. Upon sustaining this exam in the presence of his Consistory and with the concurring advice of the delegates to this meeting of classis, his Consistory shall declare him a candidate for the office of minister of the Word.
Article 5 A man who is not a member of a church of the federation who seeks candidacy shall place himself under the supervision of a Consistory, which shall make provision for his candidacy examination.
Article 6 The lawful calling to the office of minister of those who have not previously been in that office consists of: First, the election by the council of one who has been declared a candidate according to the regulations prescribed herein, after having prayed and received the advice of the congregation; Second, the examination of both doctrine and life, which shall be conducted to the satisfaction of the delegates to the classis of which the calling church is a participant, according to the regulations adopted by the federation (see Appendix 4 and 6);
Guidelines for an Ordination Exam: PROCEDURE: Exceptional case: If the ordination exam would occur in the same classis in which the candidacy exam was sustained, then the ordination exam may be waived by the delegates conducting the candidacy exam.
Certainly there is room for some difference in application of these articles and appendices. Does the term “his financial needs are met” imply that all seminary students should graduate debt free? I understand that the church order does not demand this, but I would not find fault with a council of a local church that had this as the goal for a man aspiring to office. Exactly how much time is needed in order to evaluate a man for candidacy? The exact minimum is not stated, and there are some differences in practice. However, URCNA consistories have very different practices related to these articles and appendices governing how a man moves from “aspirant” to “ordained minister of the word and sacraments.” This results in some churches having opportunities for calling a candidate while other churches never even have the opportunity to consider the same man for a call. It also results in some candidates being required to take two exams while others in the same situation are required to take only one.
The church order lays out the different stages a man needs to go through to attain ordination. Frist, consistories should encourage competent men to study for the ministry. Second, a man who aspires with or without such encouragement to the office of minister must demonstrate genuine godliness to his consistory. Third, his consistory commends him for training, oversees his training, and sees that his financial needs are met. “His consistory” is the overseeing consistory of his training, instruction, and ultimately commendation. Fourth, after the first year of seminary training a man can move from “aspirant” to “licentiate.” He must be examined by his consistory to be allowed to exhort and lead in public worship in churches. Fifth, after a man completes his seminary training his consistory must determine if it should commend him for candidacy. Sixth, if it decides to do this then the consistory must seek the concurring advice of its classis by means of a candidacy exam. Seventh, a classis meeting is held and an exam is given.
Eighth, if the licentiate sustains a candidacy exam, two things need to be addressed. First, the classis has the opportunity to declare that if the candidate is called to a local church in the classis then he does not need to take an ordination exam. Second, the licentiate’s overseeing consistory, “his consistory,” must approve him for candidacy and then declare him a candidate for the ministryto the churches of the URCNA. The licentiate now becomes a candidate. Any church seeking a pastor is now allowed to extend a call to this candidate.
Ninth, after the calling church extends a call to the candidate and if he accepts this call, the candidate must undergo and sustain an ordination exam by the calling church’s classis. As noted earlier there is an exception to this common practice. If the calling church is in the classis in which the candidacy exam took place and the classis declared that the candidacy exams fulfills the ordination exam, then there does not need to be an ordination exam.
Tenth, after the candidate sustains the ordination exam, the calling consistory organizes an ordination and installation worship service. The service is held using the form for ordination and the candidate is ordained into office. He now moves from being a candidate to an office bearer, a minister of the Word and sacraments. At this point, as an ordained minister, he begins his work as an office bearer in a local church of Jesus Christ. The man has transitioned from aspirant to licentiate to candidate to ordained minister.
These steps recognize biblical principles of calling, ministerial office, eldership, corporate responsibility, and the authority of the local congregation. They also put into practice the important distinction between the inner calling of a man seeking office and its confirmation by the visible church with a call and ordination. Certainly there are other models that also respect these biblical truths.
Sadly, these particular steps are not always followed in the URCNA. How could this happen? First, a church calls a licentiate before his consistory has set up a candidacy exam. Or a church gives a provisional call or indicates a strong desire to call a licentiate to ordained office. Then the licentiate asks to have his membership transferred from his consistory to the calling church and his consistory grants the transfer. The licentiate’s new church now becomes his overseeing consistory of his doctrine and life. The new consistory now asks its classis for a candidacy exam, the man sustains the exam, the ordination exam is waived, and the ordination service is announced. The licentiate and his consistory skip the step of candidacy.
Why is this a problem? First, this and similar practices weaken the value of the church order in the context of a secular society. This or any practice that compromises church order leaves URCNA local consistories open to the charge that church order is not a legal covenant that could have legal status but only gives suggestions. It weakens in an age of litigation the church order’s weight in legal matters. If some church order articles are ignored by some local consistories, then ultimately the church order will be no help in litigations regarding those articles giving direction to discipline or homosexual marriage. Albert Mohler in his “Briefing” on January 7, 2016, reported that Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post wrote on the last day of 2015, “The fight over whether gay marriage should be legal ended in 2015. But the issue remains unresolved for conservative faith groups, leading to continuing battles between the thousands of schools, non-profits and houses of worship run by conservative faith groups and any gay and lesbian employees who may work for them.” As our brother from Southern Baptist Seminary develops this theme he concludes, “there really is an inevitable collision between LGBT rights and religious liberty. And then secondly, there really is a mandate for confessional accountability.” Our confessional accountability is reflected in our church order. It is critical in our culture to be accountable to our authoritative documents. Better to change the church order than to compromise its legitimacy by ignoring it.
Second, it sets the stage for an unhealthy approach to church order for those just entering the ministry. If at the beginning of your ministry you fudge church order, why not compromise it in many other areas as well? If a minister enters the ministry not following church order, why should he think it is important to follow church order if he is leaving the church? A young minister or anyone might think he has the right to make up his own rules for resignation or accepting a call to another congregation. Or a local church may accept a resignation from a minister (which does not exist in church order), rather than an article 11 or a call or the necessity of exercising discipline.
Finally, this practice is unjust. First, it is unjust to licentiates. This is because some churches will follow church order and some will not. Therefore, some licentiates will be “forced” by their consistories to follow church order and others will not. One licentiate will say, “I can transfer my membership,” while another will say, “I cannot.” Or one local consistory will allow a licentiate to transfer while another consistory will refuse to transfer. I have already seen some friction between two graduates over this very issue. Two licentiates in the same circumstances will have two different paths to ordination. One licentiate will be required to have both a candidacy and an ordination exam while the other will need only a candidacy exam.
Second, it is unjust to the churches. One church scopes out, speaks to, votes to call, organizes a congregational meeting in which a licentiate is called, calls the man to the ministry, accepts a transfer of membership, calls for a candidacy/ordination exam, and upon completion of the exam ordains and installs the man into office with no declaration of candidacy. Another church desires to call this same man. They have the man preach, know about him, and wait until he is declared a candidate to call him. But instead of an announcement from his consistory announcing the new candidate’s candidacy, they receive an announcement from a consistory that is both his consistory and the calling consistory informing the federation that the man is an ordained minister. The churches that followed church order and waited until the man’s candidacy is announced before they extend a call to the candidate never had an opportunity to extend a call to the man because the man is never a candidate. This is unjust. There is a reason why we share a church order. It promotes fairness to both licentiates and local churches hoping to call a new candidate to pastor their church.
I hope that this article illustrates the importance of following church order. It would be far better to change church order to have only one exam following seminary education than have half the churches practicing one path and the other half of the churches practicing another path to ordination even when both paths would faithfully fulfill biblical principles. Unless the church order of the URCNA is officially changed, we should all follow the common approved path for licensure, candidacy, and ordination in our current church order, submitting to one another out of love for one another and love for Christ.
Rev. Casey Freswick is pastor of Bethany United Reformed Church in Wyoming, MI.