Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Convictions vs. Preferences: where problems arise in candidacy

Yesterday I discussed how we should understand different levels of priority when it comes to issues that unite and divide us in the church. Today I'd like to think about how this matters in pastoral candidacy.

One of the first things that candidates must understand is that they do not get the same flexibility with these issues that others get. Only primary issues are matters that should be required for church membership. Agreement on secondary issues, however, must be present for church leadership; a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, for example, should not have a significant dispute with the Westminster Confession, because that is the doctrinal standard of the PCA.

This, for example, is why is is crucial for a candidate to understand the core doctrines of a denomination, and whether he agrees with them or not. A pastoral candidate has an obligation to state his exceptions to doctrinal standards, and if he is not approved for ordination in that denomination-- or is not offered a a call to a particular church-- because of those exceptions, he should accept that graciously. Responding otherwise will only extend the division.

But pastoral candidates should be aware that they are being evaluated at the tertiary level, as well. While there is greater room for disagreement here-- just as there is more room at the secondary level than at the primary one-- there still needs to be a broad amount of agreement for the ministry to work. A pastoral candidate should find out what the key tertiary issues are, and determine if he is in agreement with them.

For example, a pastor that chooses to home-school his children will find that some churches want the children of their congregation to be a witness in the public schools, and therefore the pastor will lose the trust of some of his congregation. Similarly, a pastor who introduces guitar, praise choruses, and new melodies for familiar hymns will not find a congregation that prefers a strictly traditional worship service to be very open to his changes.

This brings me to the second point about how the distinction of issues matters in candidacy. Both candidate-pastor and candidate-church must take care to ensure that the issues are properly categorized. It is too easy for those issues that are particularly dear to us to migrate up the scale of importance.

In many cases, those issues that are important personally will shift from tertiary to secondary-- or even, in some cases, from secondary to primary. In my experience, this happens in churches when there is little, if any, disagreement about the issue in question; because everyone shares the same perspective on an issue, the importance of that perspective elevates.

On the other hand, when this happens for a pastor or pastoral candidate, it is more likely the result of one or more of the following:
  • He has spent a significant amount of study on a particular issue

  • He has been heavily influenced by one or two mentors/pastors/professors who shaped his life in many ways, including his perspective on that issue

  • He has met a substantial amount of resistance about his view on that issue, and this has made him defensive

The antidote to this "Creeping Priority Syndrome" is, on both sides, a good dose of humility. Proper perspective through humbling oneself is always appropriate, but never more so than when dealing with issues upon which others disagree.

At the risk of seeming cynical, however, I presume that the more ready (and more frequently applied) salve for this "Syndrome" is simply looking elsewhere. While the long-term problems of mis-categorized issues are not solved by this, in the short-term it is obviously easier to avoid facing them, instead seeking for a pastor or church that is more directly compatible with your view.

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