Going to seminary can come with a number of challenges. Seminary is not for the faint of heart, at least, it shouldn’t be… There are spiritual challenges. There are intellectual challenges. There are financial challenges. There are questions about church order and how to seek a call. Trying to learn in an academic environment and in the environment of the church at the same time can also present challenges.
After four years of seminary and almost a year in the ministry, I am convinced of the centrality of the local church in the preparation of students for the ministry. This of course is stated while fully recognizing the importance of seminary education contrary to those who might minimize the intellectual aspect of preparing for ministry.
1. This is where authority over the student lies
In Article 21 of the church order of the URCNA, we make this statement: “The Consistory is the only assembly in the church(es) whose decisions possess direct authority within the congregation, since the Consistory receives its authority directly from Christ, and thereby is directly accountable to Christ.” This principle is laid out practically for the journey of the seminarian into the ministry in Articles 3-6 of the church order. One of the ways that the Church, in subjection to Christ, keeps out the thief and the robber is to ensure that a ministerial student enters into the ministry under authority (Jn. 10:1). I once heard a pastor encourage young women to evaluate the godliness of a man in part based on whether he is willing to submit to authority. In the same way, a church should evaluate a potential minister based on his relationship to the authority of the local church. Is he a thief and a robber or a shepherd?
2. This is where the student should be known the best
This is important. The natural process of things in this world is that some people become more powerful than others. A man should never enter the ministry based on the people he knows and who he becomes friends with. That is a dangerous form of politics. It is the consistory which has the primary responsibility to develop the closest relationship with a man and to evaluate his life and doctrine as best as they can. This then takes stress off the student, to do the work that he needs to do in seminary and in service to the Church, under the oversight and authority of his council.
Of course, the relationship of the seminarian to the church can also be a very rich and rewarding relationship. As the council works in coordination with the seminary and other churches, the opportunities abound for learning pastoral work and preaching, how to train the youth, and bring the gospel to the lost. Life in the congregation can also be very rewarding, presenting opportunities for evangelism, speaking, preaching, learning, fellowship.
Rather than the student being spread out across the federation, the local council can and should then bring a good report to classis and to churches in need of a minister, which will then be affirmed by the classis at classical examinations.
3. This is where the student should be headed
If you are a seminarian, you are headed into local church ministry. A presbyterial form of government is at odds with the positions of bishops and/or bureaucrats. We confess this in the Belgic Confession, Article 31: “As for the Ministers of the Word, they all have the same power and authority, no matter where they may be, since they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal bishop, and the only head of the Church.” There are often times when the teaching ministry of a pastor spreads beyond the local church, or when a pastor is called upon to serve at a classical or a synodical level (in the church courts) or to teach in a seminary, for the sake of the local congregation. This can be a good and positive thing. But the authority in each case is always grounded in the authority of the local congregation, whether the local congregation is at its beginning stages, or more established. The starting point should be the local church, as expressed in the local ministry of the congregation.
A Few Examples…
Since my membership was primarily in Rehoboth URC in Hamilton, ON during my seminary years, I will mention a few examples of how helpful they were. As a student preparing for ministry, I regularly met with elders and deacons in the church. I met on a monthly basis with the pastor. Even though I interned in other URCNA churches, they took primary responsibility to ensure the quality of my training. I was interviewed by my ward elder and then the whole council before approaching classis for my candidacy exam. The council reviewed around 10 sermons that I preached in my home church. My ward elder and pastor checked in to see how my family was doing and how I was doing in my personal life. My deacon would regularly check in to evaluate financial need. Even though I did a lot of preaching around Ontario, I found opportunity for fellowship, and to be involved in various ministries in the congregation over the course of my four years there.
I found these points to clarify and ease a lot of tensions as I forged my way through the seminary of another federation and as I approached my classical examinations as well as a call to serve in another local congregation. I am sure that it might create more tensions for the student if a given local council does not understand its role in the education of the seminarian or its role and responsibility within the church courts (classis and synod). But I will always be thankful for the role that the local church (Hope Centre URC and then Rehoboth URC) played in my preparation for the ministry. I love this work of the local church as it serves in subjection to Jesus Christ and brings the good news of Jesus Christ to the next generation and to all nations.