In the matter of judging seminary applicants, there are at least three parties—not two— who have responsibility. There is the student himself. There is the denomination. And there are also the elders—who may not always realize the full responsibility that is theirs.
The prospective student must judge himself. He must have an inclination, a strong inclination, that leads him to seek admission. He loves the Lord and the Lord’s church. In his heart he senses a call. Certain gifts are his from the Lord. He has the ability and will to read, study, reason. And the Lord does not give him peace in his present occupation. If the man, younger or older, has these gifts and this sense, he writes a couple of letters to make application to the seminary.
Second, the denomination makes judgments. The churches in their synod have appointed a committee to do the synod’s work throughout the year. The Theological School Committee (TSC) is somewhat comparable to a school board, except that it is made up of elders and ministers appointed by synod. The TSC receives applications from prospective students and makes judgments. Has the student earned a bachelor’s degree? Do his official transcripts of college courses indicate that he has obtained all the prescribed course requirements and earned a satisfactory grade point average? Did he obtain a certification of good health from a physician? Then the TSC conducts a personal interview with the student. If the requirements are met and the interview goes well, the TSC will recommend to the following synod that he be admitted to the school. Synod makes the final judgment.
But there is also a judgment that must be made by the elders. The elders play an important part in the process of application to the seminary. I purposely omitted one crucial piece of the prospective student’s application process. No prospective student will even be considered for an interview with the TSC without a letter of recommendation from his home consistory.
This letter is indispensable.
But first the elders have another responsibility.
The elders’ place is not only evaluating those who ask to be admitted. The calling of the eldersbegins with seeking out and encouraging promising young men in their congregation. The Christ-appointed elders ought to look for godly and capable young men to direct towards Christ’s ministry.
The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches calls the elders to this task. Article 19 mandates: “The churches shall exert themselves, as far as necessary, that there may be students supported by them to be trained for the ministry of the word.” In addition to thefinancial support of students (generous in the PRC, we gratefully acknowledge), this Church Order article reminds the churches to “see to it” that there are students. Indeed, parents can do this; and schoolteachers involve themselves. But the churches must. The elders take the lead.
Synod asks the elders to do this. That is, the churches together remind their officebearers to be involved. My research shows that, as early as 1961, synod was calling the consistories to bring this need before their congregations. And just since 1999, synod has reminded the churches at least four times to press capable young men to consider the ministry (see Acts of Synod: 1999:74; 2002:46; 2003:53; and 2004:23, 24).
This is the elders’ solemn duty. The churches need ministers.
The elders can encourage men in a couple of ways. Just a question may be sufficient to move a young man to action. The elder may ask: “Have you ever considered the ministry?” Or, “Have you considered college courses that, although useful for other occupations too, would open the way for you to enter seminary?” The elders plant a seed.
Stronger would be a statement: “I believe that you have the gifts for the ministry. I see in you abilities that would fit well in the pastorate. I would like you to pray about and consider seriously the gospel ministry.”
But the elders may even be stronger and, perhaps by a committee visit, press upon him the need to consider seminary: “Brother, you must pray about the ministry. We judge you to have the gifts.”
About this admittedly “high-pressure” approach: 1) I use language that synod used: “press.” A question (“Have you ever considered?”) is not pressing. A mere statement (“I see in you gifts”) is not pressing. But the body of elders telling the young man that they have judged that he has gifts he ought to consider using for God’s church in the ministry—that’s pressure. 2) There is such a thing as “undue” pressure. But that’s a danger on the opposite side, and Protestant Reformed elders have not been known to be guilty of this error. Besides, consider the pressure that William Farel put on a fellow elder, John Calvin, and how God used that pressure to bring Calvin to his main work.
Are the elders busy in this? Are they even aware of this duty of their office? Have they ever spoken of it in consistory meetings—even including it as an item on their agenda? More, have they discussed certain young men they have observed to be qualified? (Wisdom dictates that the elders together make this judgment, to spare one elder from making an assessment that is not shared by the others.) Do they remind their minister to pray about this regularly, and to address the matter with the young men in catechism and at family visitation?
In my judgment, one thing must stand out above the others as the elders’ duty to promote the ministry among the young men. They must labor in prayer that the life in the congregation be healthy, peaceful, godly, spiritual—especially the life of the church in relation to her own minister. If God blesses that labor, the people will love their minister. The children will know that their parents love their minister. The young will men grow up knowing that there is a wonderful relation between the flock and their shepherd.
I have no way of knowing how many young men have aspired to the ministry who grew up in churches where there were conflicts. But the elders could ask themselves that question. And this question: How many have sought the office who matured in churches where the relation between the flock and the shepherd can only be described as beautiful? The pastor loved the flock and the flock loved their pastor. The young men saw this. If the opposite is true (although God performs wonders at times), the young man will not be able to run from the ministry fast enough (and what about the rest of the young people?). But there is a good relationship between pastor and congregation that can make the ministry attractive.
Encourage the capable young men. Even pressthem.
Then, elders also must judge the qualifications of those who, with or without encouragement, seek admittance.
Elders are involved in this. Obviously, if a young man has a speech impediment that hinders him from being understood, or leads an ungodly life, the elders will not give the letter recommending him to the Theological School Committee. But there are other areas the elders must judge.
The elders’ letter of recommendation to the TSC is no rubber stamp. It may never become so. No prospective student may think, “I’ll quickly ask my minister to write this letter, get it approved by the consistory tonight, and send it off to the TSC.” The elders must judge his request carefully.
In fact, the elders’ responsibility to judge carefully has recently increased.
The old constitution of the TSC said: “Permission to pursue the course of study at the school shall be granted by the synod upon recommendation of the TSC to such an aspirant only who comes supplied with a testimonial of his consistory that he is member in full communion, sound in faith, and upright in walk.” Notice, these qualifications are no more than any young person needs to make confession of faith: “sound in faith and upright in walk.”
Synod changed the TSC’s constitution, and now asks the elders to judge and report more. The new article says, “sound in faith and upright in walk and exhibits the qualities and personality necessary for a gospel minister. Such recommendation ought to contain the consistory’s evaluation of the applicant’s spiritual and intellectual gifts, as well as any areas of concern.” Now the elders assess and report on the man’s qualifications for the ministry.
The elders must ask themselves questions like these: “Is he a godly man?” The minister serves as an example of the believers (I Tim. 4:12). “What are his intellectual abilities?” The ministry needs capable, perceptive men. “Is he apt to teach (I Tim. 3:2)?” When a young man first expresses interest, he ought to be put in a position to be judged regarding this aptitude: for example, teaching a Sunday School class, or assisting in leading a Bible study. “Is he mature, level-headed, wise?” Godly men, gifted with intellectual and teaching gifts, do not necessarily have the discretion required of a preacher. And, “Is he a novice?” Careful thought must be given to recommending a man who is new to the faith or new to the churches. New to the faith, he is a novice. New to the churches, he is not known; the elders must know the man they recommend.
For the elders to make these good judgments will be profitable for the churches.
First, the seminary faculty cannot make all of the judgments necessary. The faculty sees the students mostly in limited, formal settings. The elders know the members of their congregations and can be a great help to the faculty and the TSC.
Second, an early intervention by the elders may spare an aspirant the hurt of a lengthy period of study, only to find out after a couple of years that he does not have the gifts for the ministry. The elders cannot do all the work of judging qualifications. The faculty must judge, too. But the elders’ early help will be of blessing to all.
Third, remedial aid can be given to others. Elders may see many gifts, recommend the man for training, but realize work must be done in some areas. They can assist the young man to develop and grow in these areas of weakness.
Elders’ involvement in the lives of the young men can only serve for long-term good. What is more desirable than ministers who, because of the elders’ careful assistance of them, esteem the eldership highly? “These men watched out for me, helped me. I love the place God has for the elders in the church.” This love and respect will show in the new minister’s pastorate, too, so that the office of elder is esteemed and elevated in the life of the whole church.