How Do We Care For Future Church Leaders?
By Joel Hathaway
Alumni & Placement Services Director
For MDiv students who wish to pursue ordination, they must come under care of a presbytery. When pastors, churches, and presbyteries invest in the process, it proves very meaningful and beneficial to these future church leaders.
The initial identification and subsequent training of future pastors is an issue that every denomination must address. In some traditions, simply expressing the desire to preach is enough to land someone in a pulpit. In other traditions, pastoral candidates have to be identified and selected by existing church leadership. Still others simply require interested people to complete the necessary training—usually at a seminary or divinity school.
Within the reformed and Presbyterian circles, the issue is more unique and complex—as individuals, churches, presbyteries and training institutions each bear some part of the responsibility to see pastors trained for ministry within the local church. What role each of these participants plays actually varies from church to church.
Officially the process works like this: Men who have received an internal call to vocational ministry submit themselves first to a home-church session and then to a presbytery. These candidates come “under care” the purpose of encouragement, accountability, and confirmation of an external call. Candidates then report to their home presbytery throughout their ministry training, and finally submit themselves the receiving presbytery when applying for ordination. As the denominational seminary of the PCA, Covenant Seminary enjoys a special relationship with, and plays a significant role in, the formation of current students and future pastors.
As easy as this process sounds, the reality involves a great deal of time, prayer, and commitment on the part of the Seminary, sending presbyteries, and (local) home churches. Sometimes, the results of the process have fallen short of the intentions going in. For that reason, many churches and presbyteries are prayerfully overhauling their candidacy process—even as the seminary considers ways to strengthen its efficacy in the training and mentoring process. Dr. Dennis Bennett (MDiv ’79) shares, “Our presbytery is working closer than ever with the credentials committee to see this process through from start to finish.” Dennis is employed with Christian Education and Publications (CEP)—a ministry of the PCA. He serves on the Christian Education (CE) committee of the Metro Atlanta Presbytery. Explaining the retooled process, Dennis says,
The CE committee receives the applications, evaluates them, and then meets with candidates before they are brought to presbytery. A letter from the candidates’ sessions must state their willingness to actually do the mentoring. Only the sending church is truly capable of evaluating someone for the ministry as they give him opportunities to put his gifts into practice. One member of the committee must then follow-up with the candidate and his mentor during this time. A second member is assigned to the candidateonce he formally enters into the internship. Additionally, we are now working on a change to require a man to be licensed before starting his formal internship. Because preaching is required during that time—and technically a man must be licensed before preaching—then the exam has been made more accessible, with more in-depth testing done at ordination.
“We might even start a series of exams along the way,” Dennis says, in reference to hopes for an examination process that is more in step with the progression of a call to ministry. An additional element that Dennis has suggested that Metro Atlanta implement is assigning a mentor to each intern. “But,” he says, “to do this we must have men who are trained to mentor, and few of us have had that experience.”
Some presbyteries have already adopted similar practices of partnering an intern with a teaching elder (TE) or a ruling elder (RE) in the presbytery—as Rev. David McIntosh (MDiv ’99) attests. David serves as the church planter of Hartsville Presbyterian Church in Hartsville, South Carolina, located in Palmetto Presbytery. Reflecting on his candidacy, David says, “I personally had a wonderful experience being under care. I came to Covenant Seminary under care of Calvary Presbytery (in South Carolina) and was assigned to ruling elder Bill Stenhouse. Bill, who has now gone on to be with the Lord, was a model of shepherding concern for me and my family. I got married my first Christmas break at the Seminary, and when we returned home we had a long message from Bill on our machine introducing himself to my wife and then praying for us. We left the message on the machine for a month. Bill, by the way, continued my ‘under care’ status long after I was ordained—until his dying day, in fact.”
What is the role of the local sending congregation—after initially identifying individuals who sense a call to vocational ministry? Some churches invite candidates back to preach at several points along the way, giving the congregation a first-hand look at the progress of preparation. Others recruit a local family to follow up with and pray for ministerial candidates. When asked,, many students indicated a desire for a phone call–just to know that someone at the church is faithfully praying for them–and to receive occasional correspondence reminding them that they are not forgotten.”
Additionally, Covenant Seminary has developed a free curriculum track as an online resource for pastors and elders to use in the pre-seminary period. Additionally, the growing empahasis on Covenant Groups as part of Covenant Seminary’s training model has resulted in greater level of interdependency—vulnerability and accountability—among candidates. Finally, the Seminary has created the MENTOR (Ministry Enrichment Through Ongoing Relationships) program, which seeks to partner recent graduates with graduates who have at least eight years of pastoral ministry experience. This gives them a forum for processing those early ministry experiences.
The benefits of churches and presbyteries taking a more active role for in the ministry preparation of future pastors are immense. These pastors enter the ministry with an eye toward the pace and patience of ministry, the process of sanctification by grace, and the tender and firm application of the gospel to the lives of men, women, and children in a congregation.
David McIntosh states, “Throughout this entire process, it is really a case of presbyteries needing to take seriously Paul’s exhortation to ‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood’ (Acts 20:28 NIV). When we realize—as churchmen, as pastors, and as presbyters—that this is not our house and this is not our business, that we are just servants here fulfilling the calling of our faithful benefactor, then we will do just what Jesus said in the just way he said to do it.”
Speaking once more of his mentor, David concludes, “I know this was the case with Bill. To him, it was not a business but a ministry, and that was true not only of his shepherding of me, but also of his shepherding in his congregation as well. And because of that, I have known the sweetness of God’s Fatherly care and the joy of not just being told that I must imitate it, but actually being shown how to do this as well.”
This is the call before us: to meet people where they are and to illustrate through a life of sacrifice, service, and love the person and work of Christ. It is a call taken serious by these men, their presbyteries, their churches, and the Seminary responsible to them and answerable to the Savior.