Waiting Pastors, Counting Sheep and Counting Shepherds

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I recently wrote a blog on the challenge of being a candidate in the CRC. Specifically, I addressed the challenge of being in the waiting room, hoping for a call to ministry after completing all the requirements to be eligible. A follow up question that some have asked may be worth some of our thought. The question, stated rather bluntly, is this: “Why are so many candidates from other denominations coming into the CRC when we have so many of our own candidates still waiting?”

The question is born from a concern over the 21 individuals given extended candidacy (the term for those who did not receive a call in a given year and still wanting to be eligible for a call) in 2010 and the 19 individuals given extended candidacy in 2011. Are we keeping covenant with those who go through our seminary process when we allow our pulpits to be filled with those who come in through the “alternate route” that is Church Order 8? (Article 8 is the church order article that regulates admission into CRC service for those who are ordained in other denominations.) In 2011 Synod received a report that 17 persons entered CRC ministry through this route. Couldn’t we service our waiting candidates immediately if we simply told these 17 newcomers that we have enough pastors already?

To answer this question, a variety of factors need to be noted, factors that such a questioner may overlook. First, note that not all the “waiting candidates” who are “extended” for another year have actually been available. We did a recent informal study of the past two years and found out that only 25% of the extended candidates (5 0f the 21 in 2010, and 5 of the 19 in 2011) were “fully available” – ready to go anywhere God may open a door. The other 75% still had requirements they were completing to become actually eligible for call, or they had a spouse or family that limited their mobility, or they had their candidacy “in the pocket as a convenient option” as they engaged in other activities.

A second factor, and certainly the more prominent factor, is that most of the Article 8 pastors who enter the CRC do so in order to serve ethnic congregations that cannot be served by the typical “fresh out of seminary CRC candidate.” Many are from cultural groups and language groups for whom our current training mechanisms are inadequate – so a Korean language congregation, or a Vietnamese language congregation, or a Chinese language congregation needs to look “outside the denomination” to find a pastor. As an aside, know that many of these ethnic pastors are bringing a congregation with them as they themselves enter the CRC. We have been fortifying our orientation programs so these affiliating pastors and their congregations get an adequate understanding of who we are and what commitments they are making when they join the CRC. I suppose there may be some in the CRC who feel our growing diversity is more of a problem than a blessing, but I am one who rejoices in the trend. Becoming more ethnically and culturally diverse is an answer to a lifelong prayer. I consider it an awesome affirmation that our reformed heritage and confessional commitments are judged to be so attractive by these diverse groups. We become more rich and useful to God with each one who joins us.

A third factor that I would identify has to do with our growing diversity in other senses. Four decades ago nearly every CRC congregation in the denomination could be served by nearly every CRC pastor in the denomination. That is an overstatement, but I hope you get the point. Our congregations and their ministries, and our pastors, used to be much more similar to one another than they are today. We used to be more uniform in the ministries we did, and were rooted in a common Dutch sub-culture. We now have rural and city and suburban congregations, local ministries that vary greatly, serving uniquely the diverse cultures of the diverse communities in which God has placed us. This is extremely exciting, from a kingdom perspective. It also brings real challenges to the process of searching for pastors. Thus, more frequently today than in a previous era, CRC congregations are casting a wider net in their pastor search process. This inevitably means a greater use of Church Order Article 8.

I wonder, then, if our growing use of “outside the denomination” pastors is owned as a problem, or a blessing? What is your reaction to this trend?

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I appreciate some of your points about diversity etc., David.  But I wonder about a couple of assumptions that you identified in your second paragraph. 

"Are we keeping covenant with those who go through our seminary process when we allow our pulpits to be filled with those who come in through the “alternate route”  I am not aware of a covenant process in this regard.   And I am also wondering about who the "we" is.   When a church looks for a preacher, it does not feel a covenant process with any particular seminarian, as far as I know.   There may be a covenant process after it extends a call to someone, but not before.

 

" Couldn’t we service our waiting candidates immediately if we simply told these 17 newcomers that we have enough pastors already? """"""     "

I'm confused about 'servicing candidates".   What is that about?   I thought that candidates were in ministry to service the churches.   I'm not aware that churches exist or have a primary purpose of servicing or providing a place for seminarians to serve? 

[quote=John Zylstra]

I thought that candidates were in ministry to service the churches.

[/quote]

It seems possible that this is exactly the reason why pastor's are coming in to the denomination through other routes. A potential but unpopular cause may be that the Seminary isn't adequately training and equipping the Seminarians in a way that is acceptable to the local churches seeking candidates. Therefore, they look outside of the denomination for pastors who can serve their congregation in a way that meets their particular needs.

That was addressed on an ethnic/diversity level in the article. I wonder, though, how many of the candidates for ministry going through Art. 8 are serving in an ethnic church, or a church that looks substantially different from a traditional CRC church, thereby having different needs? Is it the majority?

As you noted, I don't think that it's the local churches role to provide a place for Seminarians to serve. It may be the Denominations role, though, at least to the extent that we are preparing them for ministry to the best of our ability and sending them out fully equipped to minister so that they stand out in a crowded field.

I would suggest that it is not really the denomination's role, although the denomination can assist of course when possible.  It is more a role of the seminary perhaps, but even there, it is really the role of the seminary to provide the education, not the job.   The denomination does not have a responsibility to make sure that the number of candidates matches the number of opportunities.   It is not a union or a professional organization.   The call to ministry is not first of all a call to an occupation.   The completion of seminary education may provide an opportunity for a specific job that pays something.   But it may simply be a tool to live ones life and calling in whatever place we live.  

It might a wonderful thing to always have twice as many or three times as many seminarians graduating as there are churches to specifically call them to pastoral work.   It might help the elders and deacons more in many churches.   Something like having every young man first spend two years in ministry/missions/bible education before he goes on with whatever regular job he might pursue. 

I would like to comment on our ethnic congregations needs for a pastor. Years ago (1955),  I was assigned to minister to the congregations of Haney and Chilliwack, British Columbia. These congregations were fresh immigrants from the Netherlands. They could speak very little English but wanted to learn. So they requested that the Scripture be read in Dutch and that the outline of the message be spoken in Dutch, but that the sermon be presented in English. Why then can our American candidates not serve more ethnic churches. These churches should be encouraged to learn the language of the land they now live in. When we send missionaries we give them language training. Certainly some candidates are able to become bilingual which would be an asset to the congregation and pastor both. I believe that we should make every effort to utilize our seminary graduates before we invite ministers from other backgrounds to minister to our churches. The seminary should educate pastors who are able to minister the Word and Sacraments. We provide Classical assistance for those who need financial assistance; we suppliment seminarian's education by quota support to our seminary. I believe it is the CRC's responsibility to help every church have a minister of the Word and Sacraments and help every candidate obtain a congregation in which to minister. In one of my charges there was a candidate that had not received a call in three years. It was well known that churches did not appreciate his sermons. He did not seem to fit anywhere. People asked why the Sem and Synod even approved him for candidacy. He asked if I would help him, ( I had just become the new minister). He told me that he had applied to be a military chaplain and needed a church to call him. It was a struggle to get our consistory to call and endorse him. Some might have deemed that a mistake. However, he not only became a chaplain but rose to high ranks and served the Lord and our soldiers well for over 35 years

Thanks for the article, David!

Overall, I agree with most of what you wrote, especially the necessity for some of our ethnic congregations. However, I have some concern with your third point.

There may be cultural issues that need to be compensated for. A clear example in the CRC is the requirement for male pastors in congregations where a female officebearers is not approved of. But there are cultural issues which need to be challenged and overcome. For instance, I don't think rural congregations should see themselves as needing a "rural" pastor (whatever that is). Nor do I think that urban congregations should see themselves as needing an urbanite as pastor. 

About 2 or 3 Article 8 transfers appear on paper to be inviting pastors who will conform to congregation presuppositions rather than challenging them. I am afraid that these cases will stunt the Spiritual growth of these congregation and also marginalize them from the broader community of the CRC and Christianity at large.

  

Two other trends seem to be a factor.  One, with congregations being rather diverse, perhaps more congregations are looking for pastors with experience to see how they function in a congregation. Secondly, many pastors are purchasing their own home, rather than using a home the church provides and they wish their own children remail in the same school or high school rather than moving them around the country. These two trends makes it more difficult to find suitable pastors within the denomination.

I am one of those candidates in the waiting room.  I am available to go wherever God wants me to go.  I am not tied down to a wife who has her own career and cannot relocate or to children who cannot change schools.

First of all, I question Brother Koll's research indicating that only 25% of the candidates are actually available.  How was this number obtained?  Whereas some candidates may limit themselves to a certain geographical area, they are still certainly available for a call.  And is Brother Koll saying that after two years, some candidates still have some requirements that need to be met.  If that is the case, then perhaps the Candidacy Committee needs to do a better job of encouraging them and/or holding them accountable to get their work finished.  As for the rest who supposedly are not available for a call, why were they declared a candidate if they don't want to candidate for a call?

Second, I also question Brother Koll's third point regarding our denomination's growing diversity.  Brother Koll suggests that because we have rural, city, and suburban churches and local ministries that vary greatly, congregations are casting a wider net in their search for a pastor.  Is Brother Koll saying that some churches are so specialized and/or unique that no candidate is equipped to serve them?  Either those churches are arrogant or Calvin Seminary is not adequately preparing its students to serve as pastors.  Are those possibilities being addressed?

Finally, every month the denomination puts out a list of vacant churches.  Every month the number of vacant churches hovers around 100.  Some of those churches have been on the vacancy list for over two years.  Are they not looking for a pastor?  Actually, that indeed is the case.  Many vacant churches are content to hire a retired pastor to serve as interim for months at a time, some even for more than a year.  These retired pastors are taking jobs away from candidates.  Some vacant churches won't even look at calling a candidate.  In some cases, that may be wise.  But in most cases, I wonder why won't they?  Some vacant churches have "Specialized Interim Pastors" from outside the denomination.  Are there not enough CRC pastors who can function in this role?  Some vacant churches are ethnic churches and I agree with Brother Koll's assessment of those churches.  Not very many candidates can serve an ethnic church unless they are from that ethnic community or have had language training as Brother Van Oyen suggests as a good solution.

Considering all these factors, out of a list of 100 vacant churches, only 30 to 40 will look at a candidate or are appropriate for a candidate.  So there are 42 new candidates this year, 19 that have been extended from last year, and 20 that have been extended from the year before.  It seems to me that there are more than enough candidates that can serve these 30 to 40 churches. 

Dear David, you have inadvertedly uncover one of those sneaky "blind spots" that the CRC has about herself (every human group has them).
I will reveal to you and to your readers that secret or blind spot. I can do that not because I might be super smart or have a special channel of divine revelation or have a brain the size of those aliens from Star Trek (the Talosians). I can do that simply because I can observe the CRC from an "outsider" point of view (after all, I am sort of a Hispanic/Latino immigrant, Reformed-convert, CTS-graduate, adopted into the CRC).
Here it is: the truth is that the CRC "is" an ethnic religious group. I know that most people in the church see themselves as "average" American or Canadian, but looking it from a socio-religious-cultural perspective, the CRC is an ethnic enclave.
Let me anecdotally illustrate this. Many years ago, I was doing an intership in a large metropolitan city way south (but still in the U.S.), far away from the brain wave signals of Grand Rapids and its cultural influence. The church was "average" American, namely, it represented the sort of diverse population you might find anywhere in the country. Nevertheless, it had a susbtantial majority of people from Michigan to the point that some of the other White folks asked "why is there so many people from Grand Rapids in this congregation, and why do we talk so much about Michigan and Grand Rapids?"
They were also inadvertedly probing that blind spot. So, every time I read comments about "ethnic" groups in the CRC, I smile. Now, to be clear, some people love to say that we are growing in diversity and that things are changing for candidates so that it is hard to find a church. But, if we really look at statistics, the CRC is still very ethnic and very little has changed. So, if you are an "average" CRC candidate, you shouldn't really fear anything because a church is waiting for you somewhere.

Good insights, Alejandro.  But you missed the question that Brother Koll is addressing:  Why are so many of our candidates still waiting?  To say that the "average" CRC candidate shouldn't fear because a church is waiting for you somewhere, misses the point.  It's not the churches who are waiting; it's the candidates (many of them for more than two years).

I didn't miss the point. I just did not want to be too "wordy" and take up too many lines of this blog (research tells us that when web surfers see too many lines of text, they scroll down or click away of that page).

Yes, the candidates are waiting, that is obvious. Some of them wait for so long that they lose sight of their "vocatio." But, churches are also waiting, and taking their time exploring, searching, enjoying congregational life, cruising along with local retired ministers, et cetera. There is neither a single cause, nor a single solution.

Now, implicit in David's article is the answer already. Don't you think? Many candidates are in the waiting room because they are not fully prepare (due to multiple reasons) to take any call into any place. But, I am still conviced that under "normal" and "average" (poor word choice on my part indeed) circumstances, the candidate should be able to link with a church.

Now, another one off course: why is it that Anglo pastors can always serve ethnic churches and not always viceversa?

Alejandro:

I think that what I described above is that the CRC is no longer in a situation that is "normal" or "average."  For the first time in many years, the CRC is saturated with candidates waiting for a call from churches that are not actively looking to call them.  Yes, churches are taking their time, etc. as you correctly indicate.  And I agree that there is neither a single cause nor a single solution.

But if so many candidates are in the waiting room because they are not fully prepared to accept a call (as you indicate), then perhaps seminary is not adequately preparing them as it should.  I ask again, has that possibility been addressed?  And how has Brother Koll and the Candidacy Committee addressed the question of why so many candidates are in the waiting room (besides blogging about it)?  Brother Koll's blog seems to be (for me anyway) more defensive than pro-active.  I'm not sure that he and the Candidacy Committee realy know what it is like to be in the waiting room for two years.

I sense the frustration that Mister B has.   (I am sorry about this frustration.)    

I just want to reiterate a couple of things I mentioned before.   First, the calling must wait on the Lord.   It is not the job of any particular church to provide a job for a candidate or any other preacher.   The task is for the preacher to serve the church, to enhance the service of that church to love God and to serve God.   It is a misnomer to say that a church without a full-time preacher is vacant.  The church is not vacant, since presumably the congregation is still there, elders still lead and serve, services are still held, God's word is still preached, and people still worship.   God's spirit is still there, and thus the church is not vacant, even without an official "pastor".  

It is in thinking that the church is vacant, that the problem lies.   The candidate may be vacant without a church....

How can a hired full-time preacher enhance the ministry?   That is the question.  That is what must be specifically answered and not taken for granted.   It should not try to address the question of a quasi-vacancy, but should answer the question of purpose.  That is the question that congregations are asking themselves, I think.  

Brother Zylstra:

I agree with you totally.  Please don't misunderstand me.  I am in no way saying that the church (or the denomination or seminary, for that matter) "owes" the candidate a job.  I understand with all my heart that the calling must wait on the Lord.

But I do think that the denomination and the churches (especially the church that holds the candidates membership) need to support, encourage, and hold the candidate accountable during the waiting process.  When a candidate waits for two years, he may have a family to support and only a part-time job.  He has seminary loans to pay back.  He begins to lose his sense of vocation.  It's a trying time.

When I was declared a candidate, I was told that it was the Candidacy Committees job to oversee the candidates until they received a call.  And yet, I only heard from them twice - once to ask if I wanted to extend my candidacy after the first year and once to ask if I wanted to extend my candidacy after the second year.  Nor did I ever hear from the church that held my membership.  Nor did I ever hear from anyone connected from the seminary.  It seems as if most candidates are completely on their own.  A little more support and encouragement would be nice.  As I said, it's a trying time.

I also think that the Candidacy Committee, the seminary, and the denomination could do a better job promoting the candidates.  I agree that this is not a union or professional organization, but there needs to be better communication between these three entities and the local church.

Brother Van Oyen mentioned the story of a candidate who had been in the waiting room for three years and applied for the chaplaincy.  Brother Van Oyen gave him assistance and pursuaded his church to call that candidate to a position.  Brother Van Oyen should be commended.  Our denomination, our seminary, our Candidacy Committee, and even our local churches need more concerned, supportive persons like him.  And being in the waiting room would be much more welcome to our candidates.

It sounds like there is a bit of a mixup on expectations....   The candidacy committee keeps track of candidates the way some councils keep track of members?...   In any case, in my experience, most candidates have some contacts who are promoters, as in the example you gave.  They help to connect congregations and situations with certain candidates or pastors looking for a call.   It is necessary to make contacts, to discover appropriate potential situations, and put out feelers or let them know you are interested.   This is especially true now when congregations have become much more picky about who they want as a pastor or preacher, and they will not necessarily trust that  simply anyone will do as their pastor.   As in most occupations, word of mouth and personal connections have a much bigger impact on obtaining a job than a simple add in the paper or a simple resume.  \you may have to find or cultivate some promoters.   So that is the practical side. 

The other practical and spiritual issue is that there must be a sense of purpose beyond merely filling a role.   What is it that God has called you to do beyond what any other preacher might do, or beyond what the elders might do.   Why would you think that God called you to a particular situation?   Why is it necessary for you to pay your student loans back by being a preacher rather than a carpenter or a tent-maker or an electrician or computer technician? I know that is what you expected, but what is God expecting from you?  

Maybe a church plant?  Maybe it is your task to call others to Christ rather than waiting for someone to call you to do something?   I am not saying what it is, since i don't even know you but i am suggesting some possibilities.   Maybe patience, but that can be difficultl.   Anyway, i hope you find what God wants you to find.