Some Thoughts on the Preparation of Men for Ministry
Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 6, no. 4 (October 1997)
Preparation of men for ministry within our denomination is an issue of great concern at the present time. I am aware that much thought, discussion and prayer has already been devoted to this topic. This brief outline of my thoughts about the subject has been prepared with the idea that it may in some way contribute to the ongoing discussion of this important issue. My comments and suggestions are the result of reflection upon my own experience within the existing ministerial training environment of the OPC.
From August 1988 to May 1992, I attended Westminster Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. When I arrived at Westminster I was not a Presbyterian. However, during my years at seminary I was converted to Calvinism. I have grown to love and respect the Reformed system of doctrine as contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Through my involvement in the church, I have continued to learn about the Reformed faith and the OPC in particular. My love for our rich heritage continues to grow.
At the outset, I feel it is important to state that the guidance and oversight of my home presbytery and the denomination as a whole has not been a significant factor in my preparation for ministry. Overall, the encouragement, support and training received from the denomination has been meager, at best. I suspect that my experience in this regard is not unique. I hasten to add that this is not intended to be either an accusation or a complaint. It is simply a conclusion based on my personal experience.
There are several indications that ministerial training within the OPC is not as effective as it might be. One indication is the consistently high level of vacant pulpits. Another is the lengthy period of time many of those pulpits remain vacant. Another is the filling of pulpits with men from outside the denomination while men already in the OPC are bypassed. Yet another is what I feel to be a high incidence of pastoral failure resulting in sometimes wrenching disruptions within congregations throughout our denomination.
I believe that if there were OPC men trained and prepared properly to fill OPC pulpits the number of vacant pulpits might be less, the length of time pulpits remain empty might be shortened, men committed to the OPC over a long period of time might be able to fill those pulpits instead of being bypassed and disruptions within our churches would be far more rare than is currently the case.
A relevant illustration of some of the concerns mentioned above is the recent experience of Calvary OPC, Glenside, PA. While many OPC men expressed interest in the recently-filled pulpit there, the committee erected by the congregation to evaluate potential candidates felt constrained to report ...there are few men ideally qualified to be the pastor of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The failure of the OPC to effectively train its own pastors was underscored by the fact that a licentiate from the PCA with no prior experience in the OPC was assessed by the committee and then the congregation to be the most qualified candidate to be pastor of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He was subsequently called to the position. The OPC men who applied were bypassed even though some had been in the denomination for a long time.
Clearly, something needs to be done. Thankfully, something is being done. While I do not know the details of the work already underway, I am encouraged by the fact that there is not only recognition of the problem but a serious effort to rectify it.
To my knowledge, most of the work thus far has involved documentation of the requirements of a more formal training program. This is a good start. I feel that a more formal denominational training regimen clearly documented and rigorously applied would be very beneficial. But I feel that other measures can and should be taken to strengthen the overall training environment.
To that end, I have listed below five concepts that I feel may be developed profitably to enhance pastoral training in the OPC. I do not presume to have thought through all of their details and ramifications. They are presented merely as ideas that may deserve some further thought and refinement. I ask and encourage you to read and consider them in that light.
1. An OPC Training Center
Westminster Theological Seminary was established by the same men who established the OPC. As originally constituted, the seminary clearly reflected the theology and positions on apologetics and church polity that characterized the denomination. However, Westminster is not an OPC seminary. Over the years the seminary has changed. While it is still the seminary of choice for OPC men preparing for ministry, many within our denomination express concern about both the content of the training currently offered and the environment within which that training is presented. In some ways the seminary does not adequately address the concerns and interests of the OPC with respect to pastoral training. A related concern is that OPC students are a distinct minority within the seminary community. They are easily engulfed by those around them.
While Westminster does in some measure respond to the concerns of the OPC there is no real focal point for OPC concerns and interests within the seminary. To address this deficiency, I suggest that the denomination establish a focal point for OPC concerns outside the seminary. This proposal is not a call to establish a new denominational seminary, which I believe to be impractical at this time. Rather, it is a more modest and feasible alternative of establishing an OPC training site in a denominationally owned facility in the vicinity of the seminary. I leave the identification of such a place to your imagination. Suffice it to say that there are viable possibilities near the seminary.
Training accomplished at such a place would be oriented to specific areas of concern and specific interest to the OPC. Possible areas of study are OPC church history and polity, hermeneutics, preaching, and the Westminster standards. I am sure that as you consider this idea other subjects may come to mind as well. Additionally, the OPC should explore the possibility of negotiating an agreement with Westminster Seminary to allow substitution of such structured and properly documented training for both currently required Practical Theology courses and electives.
I have observed that men who have had the experience of being associated with a mentor have developed their abilities more effectively, attained positions in ministry more readily and have served with observable confidence once in responsible positions. Actually, the concept of such preparation for ministry is not new. It has been an effective form of training for many years. However, it is not employed in the OPC to the extent that it can and should be.
One important form of this type of training that is offered in the OPC is pastoral internship in local congregations. Many have profited from a formal internship, whether for the summer or, better yet, for an entire year. There is little doubt that an internship can be a very fruitful experience. But reliance on internships alone is not the most effective way to prepare men for the ministry. A pastoral internship for a limited period of time is not an adequate substitute for an ongoing relationship between a mentor and a man aspiring to the ministry. I have learned that the cultivation of a pastor involves a great deal more than just completing all the courses and passing through all the administrative gateways. It involves the growing of a pastoral heart and minda pastoral character. This growth requires consistent attention and nurture over a long period of time. The process ought not to be confined to formal internships of limited duration. Rather, strong pastoral character is best developed over time through the means of ongoing relationships between those who are capable and experienced pastors within the denomination and those who are interested in serving the church as competent and equipped pastors.
The OPC is blessed with many experienced men who could provide extremely valuable guidance in this way. I suspect that there are many who would be happy to serve in such a capacity. What remains to be done is for someone to take the initiative and make it happen.
3. Seminary advisors
One of the first things I learned after my arrival at Westminster was that the seminary does not assign students to faculty advisors. I was surprised about this, because I had never been in an educational environment in which no one was identified as a point of contact for advice and counsel for the individual student. I would have benefited significantly from the advice and counsel of an advisor not only at the beginning but throughout my seminary experience. I feel that others would express the same sentiment.
In view of this, it seems to me that there is an opportunity for the OPC to step forward and provide this needed service to both those seminary students who are already in the OPC and others who express an interest in our denomination. It may be impractical for a number of reasons to expect the few OPC members currently serving at Westminster to take on this responsibility by themselves. It may be necessary that OPC men not directly affiliated with the seminary also become involved. This need not frighten anyone, however. There are a number of men who are currently sufficiently acquainted with the seminary to be able to do this effectively and others could learn. Indeed, taking on this responsibility might encourage OPC men in general to become more familiar with Westminster. This increased interest might, in turn, actually strengthen the voice of the OPC within the seminary community. There is an opportunity here both to help those who need advice and counsel and also demonstrate OPC interest in what is going on at Westminster Seminary.
4. Meaningful Under Care Status
I was brought under care of the Presbytery of Philadelphia at a point in my pastoral training. However, in my experience, this amounted to merely an administrative designation with no real significance. Very little, if anything, changed when I came under care.
Being under care should mean that a man preparing for ministry receive some objectively discernable and measurable care. But what is care? This is a question that should be addressed. To me, being placed under care ought to mean that an individual receive assistance, encouragement and active oversight from the presbytery on a regular basis. Care may include elements of some of what has been mentioned in the preceding paragraphs. It may involve other forms of support and nurturing that have not been discussed. But whatever it involves ought to be real and tangible. It should not be merely an administrative designation.
5. OPC Housing Assistance
When a man is called to be pastor of a church, provision is made to ensure that he is free from worldly cares and concerns. This is done to enable him to concentrate on his responsibilities as undershepherd of the flock God has entrusted to him. It seems to me that a man who is preparing for service in the church ought to have the same sort of relief. By this, I do not necessarily mean that he be relieved from his duty to support himself and his family, if he has one. What I do mean is that he ought to have the benefit of being able to prepare for Gods work free from concerns about housing conditions that may be unduly uncomfortable or even dangerous for him and his family.
One of the greatest challenges a seminary student may face when he comes to Philadelphia is locating affordable, decent housing. This is especially true of students with families. The OPC could provide a real service in this regard by either assisting in locating housing for seminary students or, more ambitiously, by establishing and supporting a low cost denominational housing facility in the vicinity of Westminster Seminary. For instance, a large house could be purchased and used as an OPC House. This would provide denominational students a place to live and study in the company of others with a like mind. The importance of this particular issue must not be overlooked or understated. It is important.