John H. Leith is Pemberton Professor of Theology Emeritus at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. This article is abridged from Crisis in the Church: The Plight of Theological Education (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky). Copyright © 1997 by John H. Leith. Reprinted with permission.
The secularization of the church has brought significant changes to the way the institution calls people to be pastors. Young seminary graduates today are caught in a system that by its very nature is destructive of the sense of call, of personal dignity, and of the church as a community of faith. The new system of “calls” is further complicated by presbytery procedures and by the oversight of presbytery committees.
The end result is the rise of the notion that the ministry is like any other secular work, that the calling of a minister is not different from hiring a person for GE or GM. Over against these trends, it should be emphasized that the church is not in the business of providing jobs for people and that the seminary is not a trade school.
The changes in the way pastors are called are paralleled by changes in the status of the ministry. In the years since World War II ministers have become a relatively protected people with considerable job security and benefits. The shift was well intentioned, yet it is clear that the decision to become a minister does not involve the sacrifice and risk that it did up until World War II.
In a nineteenth-century discussion between two great Presbyterian ministers, James Henley Thornwell and Robert J. Breckinridge, the two agreed on the fundamental emphasis on the call of God. “It is a prerogative of God, and of God alone, to select the men who shall be invested with authority in His Church,” wrote Thornwell. He was very much opposed to the doctrine that every young man of talents and attainments should devote himself to the ministry without some special reason to the contrary. “No one is to show cause why he ought not to be a minister: he is to show cause why he should be a Minister.... He is not here because he canbe no where else but he is no where else because he must be here.”
Thornwell and Breckinridge were in the tradition of Calvin in emphasizing that the first qualification of the ministry was “that secret call, of which each minister is conscious before God, and which does not have the church as its witness.” Yet neither Calvin nor Thornwell believed that a person’s conviction of having been called to be a minister was sufficient. There were other tests. “Learning joined with piety and other gifts of the good pastor” must be evident. Those whom God destines for the high office of pastor, he supplies with the gifts necessary to fulfill it.
The call must be confirmed by a responsible church authority that in Presbyterianism is the presbytery. Calvin also insisted on the vote of the people in calling a pastor. The principle was clearly written into the old books of church order. Today this right is again being lost to presbytery procedures and to a quota system. Emphasis on the primary importance of the divine call should temper any procedures the seminary or the organized church may use to call persons into the ministry.
Thornwell and Breckinridge alike were hesitant to take the initiative in encouraging people to become ministers. This wisdom from the past should make clear that the calling of ministers does not come through public relations schemes or organizational activities or marketing, but out of the community of faith itself.
Awareness of the Holy
Calvin always insisted that the activities of the church must take place in a context in which there is an awareness of the holy. The fundamental difference between entering a theological school to study to be a pastor and entering a secular graduate school must be maintained. This means retaining respect for the ways in which the Holy Spirit usually works through the ordinary means of grace in the community of faith, while remembering that God chooses when and where God pleases.
In the recruitment of students the church and seminary interact. The breakup of the old context of youth programs designed to teach the faith; campus ministries that emphasized Bible study as well as teaching the faith; and church colleges that gave students the opportunity to engage in the academic enterprise in the context of a Christian interpretative framework and Christian worship deprived the seminary and church of the context in which ministers of the Word are called.
The old context for the calling of ministers appears to survive today primarily in evangelical churches and colleges and in parachurch groups. Without such a context, or “infrastructure,” the seminary’s recruitment tends to become marketing.
The church and the seminary have not faced the real problem. Instead the seminaries have sought students in other ways. One answer has been new programs, especially the doctor of ministry degree. Another has been an appeal to second-career persons. Yet second-career invitations to ministry are hazardous, especially when they are answered after failures in a first career and after a personal tragedy such as a divorce. Still another answer is the advocacy of “commissioned lay pastors,” a program that, if enacted, will have a dramatic impact on seminary and church alike.
Directives for Call
The recovery of the structures, the communities, and especially the awareness of the holy, the context in which persons were called to the ministry, will not come easily or quickly for old- line churches. In the context of what remains of the ordinary means of grace, we can in the recruitment of ministers insist on at least five directives:
1. The call to the ministry that the church makes must emphasize the prior call of God. God calls a person when and where God chooses, but the call is not likely to come outside the church, outside authentic Christian community. A large seminary student body may mean trouble for the church. A small student body who have been truly called may be a great asset.
2. Seminaries, in recruiting students for the ministry, have a second responsibility, namely to be honest about the limits and possibilities of pastorates. This honesty begins with the recognition that two-thirds of the congregations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have 199 or fewer members and three-fourths have fewer than 300. Moreover, the work of the pastorate overwhelmingly is the pastoral care of ordinary people dealing with the ordinary trials of life. It is also teaching the faith to congregations made up of busy people who are inundated by television and other secular distractions. Students should not be under any illusions about the glamour and excitement of a pastorate.
Seminaries must instill into students a great confidence that the preaching of the Word of God is never without consequences but at the same time prepare them for the inevitable discouragements. The great blessings of being a pastor frequently come only after many years.
The seminary, in helping students to see the reality of the pastorate, must also give them a vision of what is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. The great time in the pastorate is when the preacher has the gospel to proclaim, a faith to teach, and in the light of this faith and teaching, a ministry of healing and support.
The context out of which ministers are most likely to be called will come only with the renewal of the congregations as worshiping, believing people.
3. The call to the ministry includes the dimension of sacrifice. This should be clearly articulated in the recruitment of seminary students, just as it is clearly enunciated throughout the New Testament. I do not know specifically how the sense of sacrifice can be incorporated again in the call in the most affluent society in human history, but we must avoid sentimentalizing sacrifice or trivializing it. Much work in the church will have to be done by people who genuinely live sacrificially. The great challenge in recruitment today is to call people to be servants of Jesus Christ in the work of the church.
4. In recruiting students, seminaries must be realistic, not only about the church but also about the abilities necessary for an effective pastor. The minister of a church must be an administrator, an organizer, a leader and initiator of actions, as well as a preacher, teacher, and pastor. An effective pastor must also have the personal and physical capacities for hard work.
Seminaries, insofar as I can observe, recruit students without much consideration of the applicant’s ability to gather a congregation, bring members into it, or raise a budget. This is unfair to the church and to the students. Moreover, academic work in seminaries is not very demanding. If the ministry is serious work, the education for the ministry must be as serious as that of a first-rate medical or law school.
Fifty years ago the high point in the education of a seminarian for the pastorate at Columbia Theological Seminary was student preaching. Each student was required to preach before the entire student body and faculty and then submit to public criticism by the homiletics professor, and briefer criticisms by all the faculty. I have never preached three better prepared sermons than those I preached before the faculty and student body at Columbia. In the mid-1960s student preaching was eliminated from the requirements at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond on the grounds that this public evaluation of sermons was harmful to the personalities of the young students. I had just come from a university community where football players, some of whom worshiped in the church of which I was pastor, had to perform before the cheers and also jeers of tens of thousands of people every Saturday. More than that, they were subject to strict grading on the part of their coaches. These grades were public knowledge. I never understood why theological students preparing for the arduous task of leadership in a local congregation should have more tender personalities than football players.
5. The call of the seminary and the church must be sharply focused. The church’s ministers are not called to do good in general, but to be ministers of the Word of God. They are to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise pastoral care. They are to go out in the byways and hedges and invite people into the context of the means of grace, to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
The recovery or repair of the communal context of the intentional means of grace out of which persons have been traditionally called to be ministers of the Word of God will likely take time. It cannot be accomplished by a committee action or the direction of a governing body. Communities grow out of life. The context out of which ministers are most likely to be called will come only with the renewal of the congregations as worshiping, believing people.