Sunday, April 06, 2008

Approaching the final year, part 3: Know the hurdles

What stands between you and your first pastorate or ministry? If you think it is only graduation and candidacy, you may be in for a big surprise.

If you're affiliated with a denomination or other ecclesiastical affiliation-- or if you intend to serve in ministry in one-- there are probably additional requirements beyond the simple academic exercises. Most denominations have some sort of formalized process for ordination wherein a pastoral candidate is examined and tested in his readiness for ministry. Some denominations do a better job of shepherding ministerial candidates through the preparation for this than others. There may also be requirements that your seminary has beyond classroom study, such as field education.

My advice: make sure you understand the process before you, and know what your part in all of it is.

For example: in my denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America), ministerial candidates must go through a series of steps in order to be "ordainable"-- and in most cases the available ministry positions require (or at least prefer) ordainable candidates. Here's a summary of the steps between first sensing a call to ministry and final ordination in the PCA:

  • Becoming a "candidate for gospel ministry" under the care of your presbytery: to do this, you must have met with the Session at your church and discussed your testimony of faith and sense of calling to the ministry. They must then write a letter to your presbytery (which is the regional affiliation of the churches and pastors in that geographic region) on your behalf, asking that you be placed "under care" of the presbytery as a "candidate for gospel ministry". The presbytery will also examine you (usually through a committee first) and hear your testimony of faith and of your call to ministry. Once you have been approved at this stage, you are officially under the care of a presbytery (which, in some presbyteries means almost nothing, unfortunately-- but others do a very good job with it). According to the PCA's Book of Church Order (BCO), you must have been a member of your PCA church for at least six months before you may come under care of a presbytery, you must apply to come under care at least one month before the next meeting of presbytery, and you must be under care to become an Intern of presbytery.

  • Becoming an "intern of presbytery": the difference between a candidate and an intern is that, while a candidate is "under care" in the sense that the presbytery has assumed some level of responsibility for the development of the candidate for ministry, the intern is supervised in fulfilling specific tasks to gain experience for ministry. Every presbytery has a slightly different set of tasks and expectations, but all of them have the same goal: to give interns a comprehensive set of experiences that will expose them to all aspects of pastoral ministry. According to the PCA's BCO, an internship must be at least one year long; most interns will find that it will be difficult to fulfill every requirement within a year, and would prefer more time. Your internship will be done in conjunction with your local church; your pastor (or possibly a Ruling Elder) will oversee and supervise this stage of your training. (For more about this, see my former post here.)

  • Candidacy. Typically (and minimally-- if you're looking for the least number of steps), the next step after completing your internship is to find a pastoral call. In the PCA, you cannot be ordained unless there is a specific local church who has called you to be a pastor. Thus, the next step is to find placement (and that's what this blog is all about!).

  • Ordination Trials: After you have a call, the presbytery where the church that calls you is a member will begin the process of examining you for ordination. These will begin at a committee level, where you'll likely taken both written and oral exams on areas of knowledge including theology, Bible content, church history, PCA history, and the Book of Church Order. You'll also be required to preach before presbytery, and there will be oral exams before the entire presbytery as well. I won't spend a lot of time on these, though there's much to tell-- I've blogged about them before. (And here, and here.)

  • The ordination service. After you're approved by your trials, the ordination service is the final step. A "commission" from presbytery (like a committee, but with acting authority) will fulfill this function, administering your vows, giving a charge to you and to the congregation, and laying hands on you to complete this momentous event. This event has a similar significance to a marriage, and will be a great time of celebration and worship.

So what? Why am I telling you all of this? Because it's important to know the hurdles.

A classmate of mine bumped up against this very problem about 4 months before graduation. I knew he was entering his last semester, and I asked him how his search was going. To my surprise, he reported that he had quit searching for now! It turns out that no one had ever told him about the required internship, and he knew that he was stuck until he completed that crucial step-- yet he had not even become a candidate under care of his presbytery! He was forced to take an additional year AFTER seminary to work through the lingering steps to be ready for ordination.

Don't let this happen to you. Make sure that you know the required steps to obtain the credentials and approval you will need to fulfill your calling in ministry.

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