Students and Candidates for the Ministry
In this article we will look at the practical application of articles 3–6 and appendices 1–3 of the URCNA Church Order by the elders of the consistory. I hope that some of the issues here are of help to other denominations as well. It is not my intent to formulate a standard method for the supervision of students and candidates for the ministry but to address the underlying principles that should govern the decisions that are made and the methods used. This is not a scholarly article or a commentary on the church order. It is based on my experience gained in dealing with these issues and my concern that this function of the consistory be done thoroughly and in good order.
As in most things, how a process begins often has a lasting effect on all the factors that lead to the finished work and the quality of that final result. When a team of elders returns from a visit to a family in the congregation with the report that a son or the father of the family has a desire to pursue an internal call to the ministry, what should the elders do? What should be our first thoughts and actions? Should we do anything? We should certainly be joyful that this desire has been made evident in the man, but our joy should be flavored immediately by the opportunity this affords the local church as well as the responsibility that this will place on the church and the elders in particular.
As should occur often in consistory meetings, earnest prayer should be immediate and fervent. This is one event that certainly calls for it. The amount of good church work that will need to be done and the time that will need to be devoted to it is immense. Let us be clear. This is the work of the elders, not the pastor, although he will be a necessary and valuable resource. The man himself will have years of hard work and study to do. Whether that work bears fruit and if a tool will be made to serve our Lord’s kingdom rests with God, and He has entrusted it to the church and to the elders. Beyond the local church, this aspect of the work affects the federation or denomination as a whole as well. This should weigh heavily. The local elders are the gatekeeper of the pulpits of the present and of the future, and this work begins immediately, not after four years of college and three years of seminary.
A couple of elders should immediately be tasked with a preliminary interview with the man. This interview should begin with some questions regarding the internal call. We often struggle with discerning the hearts of those we shepherd, but the evidence of doctrine and life in the individual, evidence we should already have as elders, will help guide us in the process of determining whether or not this call is genuine. If the church is vacant or if an outside opinion on the man would be helpful, this is the time to involve a neighboring ordained pastor to consult. Yes, quite apart from the practical aspects such as seminary choice and income that we can examine, this issue needs to be settled first of all, and it needs to be a united decision of the eldership that all feel confirmed in. Part of this process involves considerations of the wife and children if the man is older, aspects of personality as related to the age and maturity of the man, educational background and intellectual abilities, and many more. Whether or not this man proceeds in his course, as well as the timing and manner, is up to you as elders. This is where the responsibility to God’s kingdom and the well-being of His church, incumbent on the local church elders, begins. You may need to tell this man, in as pastoral and loving a way as possible, that you do not believe that this is God’s will for him, that this is not the time yet and we will see, or that the elders and he should pray for further guidance and clarity. This is difficult work, but it is far better done at this point than after years of study and emotional investment.
There are key words in article 3 that direct us as further. The first word is competent. This is a great word, but let us flesh it out. No one will deny that academic ability is a facet of this competence. A hallmark of our Reformed polity has always been a highly trained clergy. The knowledge and skills needed to deal with the text of Scripture in the original languages, a comprehensive knowledge of and ability to use our confessions effectively from the pulpit and in pastoral work, and so many other skills and areas of knowledge must be mastered. The elders will need to monitor the academic progress of the man in seminary, but at this stage you need to deal first of all with the raw material. Are you men all convinced that this individual will receive and act on your guidance in these matters in humility? If you feel this could be difficult, how will he deal effectively with his elders after his ordination? Does he have a realistic sense of the rigor of the study he will undertake and the cost to his family?
Let us take this area of competence and project it years from today. If this man is sitting at your consistory room table as your minister, how will it go? If he is in the pulpit of your church twice each Lord’s Day, how will it go? If he is teaching the 11th and 12th grade catechism class at your church, how will it go? I do not expect the elders to have a complete answer to these questions at an initial interview with a man, especially a young man, who feels a call. So much change will occur in that man during the years of study that you will scarcely believe it, but you must take this kind of ownership of the process. If you feel there are issues of the heart and spirit of this man that give you pause, it is up to you to control the situation so that a tool well fashioned is the result, a tool you would feel blessed to partner with in ministry yourself.
A key phrase in the church order addresses this: he “must evidence genuine godliness.” We must use our knowledge of the man’s doctrine and life, but we much also ask pertinent questions regarding the creeds and confessions, our reformed distinctives, such as covenant theology and the primacy of the preached Word as a means of grace, and the place of the Word and sacraments in worship. This becomes doubly important if the man desires to come under the supervision of the consistory under article 5. Without a history in the congregation as a member to look back on, the elders need to be certain that this man meets the criteria.
The consistory also “shall assume supervision of all aspects of his training, including his licensure to exhort.” This word supervision, though not the best choice, needs to be defined, as it has been subject to many interpretations. While it is possible to exert too much supervision, we must be more careful to avoid the “out of sight, out of mind” problem. A seminary student in most cases moves away from his family and church support system to pursue his studies. Do not assume that the seminary takes care of all of these things: a place to live, finding a doctor or dentist, car repair, a trustworthy babysitter, and so many more. One could argue that those who go to medical school or law school have these same challenges at a similar stage of life, but you are not involved in their supervision in the same way that you are in the case of a seminary student. Self-reliance is a useful trait, but as a supervisor, you must be available. You must come alongside of every aspect because you are bringing him to the churches. He is heavily responsible for learning his craft through the study and practice of ministry, but his success or failure and his presentation to the churches first as a licensed exhorter and then as a candidate is up to you and reflects on your church for good or ill. Budget for and visit the seminary student and his family at least twice a year, attend classes and talk with the professors, talk with his wife and children, inquire about their material needs, offer your input regarding internships and preaching assignments, and ask the seminarian to share his grades with you and discuss his progress. Due to privacy laws and certification regulations, seminaries are not able to share grades, concerns, or progress reports with supervising elders. The seminary cannot and will not do the work of the elders. Discuss the choice of seminary with the candidate. Also discuss the recommended requirements shown in appendix 1 of the church order as well the contents of candidacy and ordination exams. These need to be addressed in the seminary curriculum, or the elders must supplement the seminary in areas that are not studied.
The council of his home church is also charged with “helping him insure that his financial needs are met.” Addressing this requirement has taken on many forms within the federation, ranging from ample and complete financial provision to a certain budgeted amount to only requested benevolent help. In this area the need for plain speaking is vital between student and council. Successful full-time seminary study with the rigor described in appendix 1 of the church order does not allow the man to earn any significant and regular income. Our federation has many small churches that do not have the means to pay the entire cost for the student and his family. In cases where a council does not have the ability or the willingness to obtain funds from others churches within their classis, sometimes the solution has been for the candidate to transfer his membership to a church with adequate resources. I know what a blessing a seminary student can be to his home church, and the experience of furthering the growth of the church through this is a part of that blessing. A fulsome concern for the future of our churches on the part of every congregation should result in a desire to provide for the need. If each church would allocate a budget amount that it could handle or take a few special offerings per year for those studying at the seminary, and if churches with a need would express this need, the issue would disappear. I applaud the classes that have taken an active approach to this issue as well.
As the student under your supervision enters his final year of seminary, the elders should begin preparations for the candidacy exam. It may seem a small thing, but the student must request the exam, and such a request implies the desire to take it and the confidence that the man feels prepared. Article 4 and appendix 3 of the church order describe the areas that are covered in the exam and the documents that are required. Of these documents the first is, for the elders, the most important: a letter of recommendation from the elders. That letter implies that the elders know that this man is ready to go. Stop and think before you blithely have the clerk draft such a letter. By this time you should know that the man you sent has a genuine call and bent for the ministry and that his academic work has taken him to a point that will lead to graduation and the awarding of a Master of Divinity degree. You should know that he is a man who can look in the mirror and see his strengths and weaknesses, that he knows he still has much to learn, and that he is humbled by the work he feels called to. Ask yourselves again, would I feel good about sharing the responsibilities of ruling the church with this man?
If you can go forward with confidence, then do what you can to make sure all will go well for your student. Do have your own examination as elders as a confirmation for yourselves of his knowledge and ability. It will also serve as an excellent dress rehearsal and confidence-builder for him. As a by-product, you will feel more confident of your ability to serve as an examiner in a future classis meeting. The practice of elders participating in exams has fallen off in the classes of the URC, and this trend needs to be changed.
The sermons that will be evaluated as a part of the exam should come to you early, and one of them, at the very least, should be delivered in your presence. Be genuinely and constructively critical of the content and the delivery; be sure that all of the essential elements are there; be sure that the essential aspects of the text are brought out effectively; check the exegetical work that was done, that the organization and sermon points are apt, that enough time is given to each point, that children are addressed in the sermon, and that the form that it takes is age-appropriate in language and illustrations. Evaluate them all carefully so that you can be sure that those three sermons are his best work. Do not just assume it. Above all, do not just send them on to the consistory that is doing the evaluation for the exam under the mistaken impression that this is their work to do.
After the consistory has done its work and is confident that the student is prepared, make arrangements for the exam at a classis meeting. Even after all of this, your man will still be apprehensive. Pray with and for him, and pray for his wife as well. She has invested much of herself into this process, too. Stress is in the air. Full support and the presence of the entire consistory throughout the entire exam are mandatory. At the conclusion of all of the exam sections the first decision is yours as his elders. Has he sustained all the sections of his exam? It is not for classis to decide, but it is for you to decide. Can you decide this if you were not in attendance? Some in our churches still believe and practice a mind-set that the student is here to make his own way in the world of ministry and that the classis makes candidates for the ministry. You, the elders, have brought this man, and you have brought him because you believe he is ready. You have heard his answers over a very full day or two days and have decided that he has sustained his exam and is ready for candidacy. As you return to the meeting for concurring advice, you need to listen respectfully to the evaluating comments made in executive session, but you do not need to listen only. In some cases you may need to clarify or even to defend statements made and deflect criticisms leveled at your man. You may need to point out that he is not a completed work. It would be preferred, if you as elders feel that some sections were not sustained, that you would come from your meeting with a decision that some areas were sustained and others were not. You would meet with your student and explain your consistory’s decision and report that decision to classis. Most of the rules of classis procedure in the URCNA allow for a partial exam completion with rules about how and when the missed section(s) can be made up. This is a disappointment to the student, but your support of him will make all the difference.
There is much more that can be said about this process, but the overriding principles of taking ownership of the process and the student from the very beginning, being diligent in supervising his studies and his home life, and giving much attention to the candidacy exam will prevent many of the problems we see occurring. The success of a man in the ministry, especially in his first charge, is directly proportional to the work done by his consistory during his study and candidacy.
I hope these comments are of benefit to the churches, and I welcome feedback on this and the other issues dealt with in this series. You can contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org In the next article, we will look at the nature and practice of elder work during a period of vacancy and in the ministerial calling process.
Mr. Martin Nuiver is a member of Faith URC, Beecher, IL, where he serves as an elder and the clerk.