On Calling a Pastor

G. I. Williamson

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 6, no. 2 (April 1997)

The noted Reformed commentator William Hendriksen made a careful analysis of the qualifications for the permanent ecclesiastical offices. Our outline here is based on his findings. Of the qualifcations:

A. Seven are positive: The candidate must be a man who is:

  1. Above reproach in the esteem of fellow church-members;
  2. A man of unquestioned sexual morality;
  3. Temperate in living habits;
  4. Mentally self-controlled (not impulsive);
  5. A man who has a well-ordered life-style;
  6. A friend to strangers (hospitable);
  7. Well grounded in biblical truth.

B. Seven are negative: The candidate must be a man who is not

  1. Given to [much] wine;
  2. Given to blows (belligerent);
  3. Jealous for self (one who can yield);
  4. Out for the almighty dollar;
  5. A man who can’t manage his own household;
  6. Contentious (of a quarreling nature);
  7. A recent convert.

C. One is special: The candidate must be one who is (1) Above reproach in the eyes of the surrounding community.

This summary is sufficient to give us a sharp reminder of one thing—namely, the fact that there is only one of these qualifications that could be considered primarily academic.

We can perhaps assume, tentatively at least, that a man who has received a diploma from a reputable theological seminary is “well grounded in biblical truth.” But how can we be sure—with anything like the same degree of certainty—that the other fourteen qualifications are met? When it comes to the choosing of a ruling elder or a deacon the difficulty is not nearly so great. Communicant members of a congregation usually get to know the men in their midst well enough to make an assessment of all these qualifications in casting their vote. But when it comes to calling a minister it is very difficult to do this. It is difficult for the simple reason that the communicant members who are called on to vote usually know very little about the man whose name is placed before them for a call. And because this is true it is our conviction that our sessions have a solemn obligation to ferret out as much information as they possibly can concerning any candidate that they recommend to their congregation for a call.

But how is this to be done? This, of course, depends on where the man is with respect to the ministerial calling. If he has not yet served any church, then the session should seek to obtain testimonials from those who have had some extended association with him. They might seek knowledge from the congregation in which he worshipped before going to seminary. Or they might seek information from professors of the seminary that he attended. Over a period of three or four years it ought to be possible for these teachers to get a fairly reliable appraisal of these fifteen qualifications. Information can also be obtained in the OPC, in some cases, as a result of the internship program conducted by the Ministerial Training Sub-committee of our Christian Education Committee. In this program those who seek to be ministers are asked to critically evaluate themselves, while the session does likewise. It is often the case that these parallel evaluations are quite similar, indicating a high degree of accuracy. It is not surprising, therefore, that this program has usually been quite helpful to both the prospective pastor and the participating churches.

When a session is considering a man who is already in the pastoral ministry it may want to send two of its most experienced elders to visit the church in which he is presently serving to make an assessment. This option would be especially well advised, in our opinion, if this potential candidate is presently serving a congregation outside the OPC. However, where this is not possible—or for some valid reason not advisable—the session will need to seek reliable information by some other means. The aim should be to obtain enough reliable information to have adequate assurance that the qualifications summarized above are adequately met. We say “adequately” because there is, of course, no perfect minister—no one who fully measures up to the high standard set by the Lord of the Church. This is well understood by even the best men who serve the church as elders and deacons. They know only too well that there is a difference between what they are and what they ought to be. So what is looked for is not perfection, but integrity. The man to be recommended for a call must be one who—in the considered judgment of the session—is genuinely striving to live up to the requirements set down by the Apostle.

But what if a man does not prove to have this profile? And what is a session to do when it comes to realize that this is the case? Is it not true that in too many cases the church that has this “problem” will just pray that some other church will call their minister, and solve this vexing difficulty for them? And when some other church does call their minister, is there not too often a sigh of relief because some other church now has the problem? This ought not to be so. If a church has a minister that does not even approximate the profile set forth by the inspired Apostle, then the session ought to do both him and the church a kindness by initiating action to help him vacate the ministerial office. In our permissive culture today this is very difficult. Elders who are willing to “bite the bullet” so to speak and do something about ministerial misfits will probably be called “cruel, and hard-hearted.” But, if they are right in their assessment, they are not “cruel and hardhearted” at all, but rather men who show compassion for the church of Jesus Christ.

Of course it is essential to follow “the book” in any such case. Constitutional rights and due process must always be respected. But the bottom line is that this is where the buck stops. It is one of the primary duties of the ruling elders to see to it that the apostolic qualifications for the ministerial office are upheld. Where this is not done faithfully, grief will surely follow for the man himself, and the churches he serves. Where it is done—for the right reason and in the right manner—both the man himself and the churches will benefit.

Here is one of the urgent needs today: to do a better job of making certain that all the qualifications set down by the Apostle Paul receive the kind of consideration that they ought to receive when a congregation votes to call a pastor.