Ordained Servant Online



Organic Officer Training

William Shishko

Anyone who undertakes the most worthwhile project of working through Herman Bavinck’s magisterial four volume Reformed Dogmatics will soon pick up Bavinck’s frequent use of the adjective organic as his way of describing things that grow out of the life of the church. I suggest that we consider the process of identifying, training, and calling out church officers (for our purposes here, elders and deacons) as organic officer training, i.e., a process that grows out of the life of a local congregation.

At this point let me say most emphatically that the absence of training of local church officers, or even the careless training of men who are being considered for the eldership or diaconate, should be repudiated. Both the seriousness of the vows that precede a man’s assumption of church office (see Eccles. 5:1–7), and the seriousness the Scriptures attach to ordination (see 1 Tim. 5:22), and the work of church office itself (see 1 Tim. 3:1–14, Titus 1:5–9, and 1 Pet. 5:1–4) should be sufficient to constrain sessions to make every effort to see that this work is done thoughtfully, carefully, and thoroughly.

How, then, should sessions approach officer training organically?

Above all else (although this is often sadly absent), there must be prayer by existing church officers and within the congregation that God would raise up and form men of his choosing for all church offices—ministers, ruling elders, and deacons. Our Lord mentioned very few specific things that should occupy our prayers, but one of those specifics is for laborers: “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest” (Matt. 9:38, cf. Luke 10:2). While the primary reference here is to shepherds, i.e., pastors (Matt. 9:36), most certainly we should also be praying for those who labor as evangelists, teachers, ruling elders, and deacons. All have their vital places in the fields that are white unto harvest. If the congregation you serve is in need of more officers, do you pray regularly for the Lord of the church to supply them?

It was the common counsel of older Reformed and Presbyterian writers that time should be provided at every session/consistory meeting for the consideration of men in the local congregation who might be worthy church officers. Many congregations have a formal process by which congregation members submit the names of men whom they believe would be good elders or deacons; but, in most smaller congregations, it would seem that this very formal process would be better replaced by an organic one. Elders, do you lead the congregation you serve in encouraging gifted men to “earnestly desire” (1 Tim. 3:1) church office? Do you cultivate church life in which men speak to you about their interest in church office? Has the congregation been taught what it means to look out for men who possess the raw materials necessary to serve as ministers, elders, or deacons? In this climate, regularly allow time at officer meetings so that you can consider men who might well be future elders, deacons, or ministers.

Once such men are identified, sessions should agree on training programs that really train men for church office. Such training must include (for both elders and deacons) sufficient instruction in the church’s doctrinal standards that the men can conscientiously “sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.”[1] While the issue of confessional subscription has some difficult aspects, it should be obvious that no man who would serve in church office in a confessionally committed church should disagree with the affirmations of that church’s doctrinal standards. Especially in the training of the initial group of officers in a young congregation, ministers should allow ample time for prospective officers to study the church’s doctrinal standards, and to personally work with them on technical and distinctive issues.[2] Never slight the time for this. It is an investment that will bear much good fruit for any congregation the man may serve.

For the training of deacons, it would be good for the prospective officer to consider the work of the diaconate through the grid of the church’s doctrinal standards.[3] Along with that, ministers should acquaint prospective deacons with the actual work that deacons do in the congregation. It is helpful if these men in training could attend actual deacon’s meetings. In every case, it is imperative that deacons in training should be given ample opportunities for service in the congregation. “And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless” (1 Tim. 3:10). This is a divinely given requirement for organic officer training. Congregations should know that this requirement has been honored. Ordination to office does not confer commitments and abilities that were not present before the act of ordination.

In addition to thorough grounding in the church’s doctrinal standards, elders in training must receive instruction in the nature of the work specific to that office. Those two elements are rule (1 Tim. 5:17) and shepherding (1 Pet. 5:1–5). It is imperative that both the officer in training and the congregation understand that the serious act of calling out an elder is nothing less than calling out a man who serves with a pastoral role in that congregation. For this aspect of elder training, I recommend the use of material I have developed for the pastoral theology course that I teach for both Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC. It presents the material in accordance with OPC standards and is available in a format that makes it easy to use in elder training.[4]

Officer training for both elders and deacons should not neglect treatment of the specific graces and gifts required of church officers in 1 Timothy 3:1–13, Titus 1:5–9, and 1 Peter 5:1–5. Remember that church office is bestowed, above all else, because of recognized character in a man. It is highly beneficial for ministers to work through these texts carefully (applying them to themselves first), and then to devote at least one full session of officer training to work through these with prospective officers. (It is also a healthy exercise to periodically review these with sessions and boards of deacons.)

In the case of both elder and deacon training, keep in mind that one of the vows an officer in the OPC must take is, “Do you approve of the government, discipline, and worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?” (FG 25.6.b(3)). In our officer training we require that men in training take an “open book test” that is designed to acquaint them with The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.[5]

Throughout this process, the congregation should be reminded that men are being trained for church office. Congregation members should be urged to pray for God’s work through the training time. They should be encouraged to observe these men (especially as prospective ruling elders are given teaching assignments, 1 Tim. 3:2, “able to teach,” cf. Titus 1:9; and as prospective deacons are given service assignments), asking themselves if they believe that Christ, the king and head of the church, is forming them to be his representatives as elders or deacons. That is the seriousness of this holy process! Further, they should be speaking with these men, expressing to them any concerns they have, and also encouraging them in their training. It is not proper that the expression of these concerns should wait for the congregational meeting at which there will be a vote to call these men to office.

Our standards require that a session certify “those nominees whom, upon examination, it judges to possess the necessary qualifications for office” (FG 25.4). Our session does this during a regular meeting or at a special meeting called for this purpose. I cannot overstate how important this is: It is an aspect of church rule that both prevents unworthy men from being certified, and also declares, with Christ’s authority, that those entrusted with the work of rule believe that a man possesses the biblically required gifts and graces for church office.[6] Prior to this meeting the session should secure some testimonials (usually from a co-worker, supervisor, or neighbor) that a prospective elder is “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7), i.e., non-Christians who know the man.[7] (The emphasis on “must” in this passage should alert a session that this is non-negotiable in its work of certification.)

Once the announcement of the certification of men for office has been announced to the congregation (and this should be announced with some explanation of the process and the procedure that led to this point), a time should be set for a congregational meeting during which there will be an actual vote on these candidates. The congregation should be taught that our model for “voting” is not at all like what we experience in the civil realm. Voting for church officers is not a popularity contest! It is a solemn recognition that either Christ has clearly gifted and graced a man for the office of elder or deacon—and for service in that congregation—or that, in some way, there has been neglect or fault in the training and certification of the man. Perhaps the highest aspect of “the power which Christ has committed to ... the whole body,” i.e., to the church, is “the right to acknowledge and desire the exercise of the gifts and calling of the special offices” (FG 3.1). When congregations understand that their “vote” is to represent the voice of Christ who has equipped and formed a man for church office, elections to church office are transformed from formalities to festivities. The ordinations become, as they are meant to be, the crowning validation of a man’s call to church office.

Organic officer training is one of the great joys of healthy church life. May the Lord of the harvest give us delightful seriousness as we go about that work to his glory and to the health and well-being of each local church, presbytery, and the church as a whole.

Endnotes

[1] The Book of Order Form of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Form of Government 25.6.b(2) (2011), 70.

[2] One helpful approach is the program for training elders developed some years ago by Pastors Gregory Reynolds and William Shishko. It, together with other resources of pastoral theology and officer training, is available through the website of the OPC, Franklin Square, NY: www.opcli.com, Officer Training and Pastoral Theology Resources.

[3] One model for this is given in the Deacon Training Program which has been used for many years at the OPC, Franklin Square, NY. It is available at www.opcli.com.

[4] These items are also available at www.opcli.com under the titles of “Elder Training—Rule”, and “Elder Training—Shepherding.”

[5] Available at www.opcli.com under the title of “BCO Exam.”

[6] A session should develop a list of certification questions to use for this critical stage in the work of officer preparation. A sample can be found at www.opcli.com under the title of “Certification Questions for Officer Candidates.”

[7] Suggested form is available at www.opcli.com as “Reference Form for Elder.”

William Shishko, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is the pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Franklin Square, New York. Ordained Servant Online, May 2013.

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