The Noble Office in Church — Does it Repel or Attract?
Earlier this year (January and March), some articles appeared in our magazine, written by Rev. D. Quant about the number of ministerial vacancies within our churches and the longer-term prognosis. Some key findings were that it is anticipated (we know that the King of the Church can sometimes lead things very differently!) that by 2025 about 100 ministers will have reached the age of 65 and therefore be eligible for emeritus status. On the other hand there is an expected influx of 70 ministers as approx. 3.5 students per year would be admitted through the admission examination, as per the trend of the past years. This would mean that if the trend remains the same, an estimated 35% of churches will experience a vacancy by 2025. It is not hard to see that this may present a significant challenge.
“De dominee gaat voorbij …” A typical Dutch expression, literally; “the minister is walking past our house”; often used when in a company all are silent, possibly for fear of saying something wrong -trl.)
Nevertheless, we are called to reflect on this matter, for the problem is far from being solved. What might be the reason that for a number of years the number of applications for the admissions exam has been rather low?
I realize that this question can appear as all too much focused on the human perspective. After all, is it not Christ himself who calls and leads people?
And yet, this confession of God’s guidance should not cause us to close our eyes to factors that may play a role. Without pretending to be exhaustive, I will make a cautious attempt to point out a number of factors that may be relevant:
- There could be a reduced sense of calling to this office. This, in turn, may be related to a tendency that we notice in general: many (young) people do not commit themselves for life to one specific task or job, because there is much more to experience. There are young people who are willing to commit themselves to a specific task in God's kingdom for a limited period of time, but not necessarily for life. Another question that plays a role here is: How strong is the awareness that sinners need the gospel of Christ because without it they are lost forever? Is there an emotional motivation based on the love of Christ?
- How great is the love for the churches? Is there a willingness to give ourselves completely in the service of a church in which a great diversity can be experienced, and in which tensions may arise from time to time, with all the brokenness and hurt that is often connected to it? Do we believe that the church is God’s concern and that it therefore has a future? The tendency may be strong to be blinded by declining membership numbers. “You are not going to pour all your energy into a shrinking or possibly bankrupt business, are you?”
- In former times, the office of the minister was held in high esteem. It gave a certain status (you belonged to the “top ten” of the village) and people listened to the minister. It is not a question now of whether all of this was a good thing, but rather an observation: those times are past. A survey conducted a few years ago showed that ministers belong to the lowest rated professions.
- Much is asked of the minister. He is not only expected to be the proverbial five-legged sheep, but he is also expected to be a jack-of-all-trades. He should be able to preach well, to catechize, instruct, communicate well with young and old, diffuse crises, to provide leadership, to build bridges in relationships, to inspire, and at the same time he must not forget himself and his family. In short: in the perception of many you need to be just about the ideal person, otherwise you will not make the grade. It is understandable that young people think: “I will pass; let someone else do it”.
- The authority of Scripture is subject to depreciation. (Post) modern people somehow cobble together their own religion. The message that the preacher might bring is just one of many that resonate in this world. There is a spirit of relativism: everything is relative and something can be found in everything, including in other religions. Will this one person on the pulpit tell me what I should believe? And in their churches people take a look around. There is such a diversity of views, even concerning one and the same Bible. In such a culture, is there still a possibility to bring the Word with authority? As a minister, are you not at a serious disadvantage? All-in-all, not an appealing perspective!
- We see it so often that ministers can no longer cope and that they have to leave their job prematurely, for whatever reason. That makes others unsure. Who can tell me that I will be able to handle things? And: how much social security is there in the ministry of a pastor? For a young man who has the opportunity to study, there are certainly more attractive jobs to be had, which also pay a lot more...
God’s Noble Task
Would it be possible to contrast all of the above factors, which could remove a person's courage to even think about becoming a minister of the Word, with other aspects that might stimulate (young) brothers to give serious consideration for this ministry?
We do well to consider that it is primarily an inner calling from God. Wilhelmus á Brakel, in his book “The Christian’s Reasonable Service”, mentions five matters that may convince someone of his inner calling:
- An understanding of the office: what does it mean to be a servant of Christ and to proclaim the gospel?
- An understanding of one's own abilities: am I able to speak from my own experience of God's truth and do I have the gift to express my thoughts in a proper way?
- A love for Christ and for his church: a desire to rescue unconverted people out of the fire and to strengthen and comfort those who are converted;
- Being prepared for utter self-denial;
- A strong desire for the ministry, in spite of any and all possible internal objections.
But here too it applies that the Holy Spirit works through means. Therefore it is proper to also mention, in addition to the earlier restrictions, six factors that may stimulate serious consideration of this calling and vocation:
- It is a noble task. “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1—“a good work” (KJV); “a good ambition” (TLB)). The older Form for Ordination gives a detailed description of the task of the minister of the Word and then says: “From these things we can see that the office of the minister of the Word is a beautiful task, since such great things are accomplished through it; yes, and how very necessary it is to bring people to salvation.” Is that not wonderful: to be allowed to be the instrument to lead sinners to Christ and thus to salvation?
- It is a privilege to be called to be an ambassador of Christ (see 2 Cor. 5:20). After all, who am I in his eyes? A sinner, who has earned no salvation and someone who is not worthy of such a glorious office. The privilege also lies in this that there is no better Master than he is. How well he cares for his servants! Time and again, right in the midst of the difficulties in the ministry, there are the consolations through his Word and Spirit.
- The responsibility of the ministry may be experienced in dependence. Who can lead sinners on the way to eternity? To exhort, to comfort, to warn, to give spiritual guidance: who is qualified for these things? What a responsibility! The blood of our hearers will be demanded from our hand (Ezek. 33). But this responsibility can be experienced in full dependence: “Our competence is from God”. He who calls people to do this work is faithful; he will also do it.
- This brings us to the certainty or assurance of his promise: “And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). This promise is given in the context of the great commission. When we give ourselves faithfully and diligently to the execution of that commission, we may always depend on that promise, even in days when many things may disappoint us, when you observe that in a spiritual sense everything is so quiet in the congregation, or also when it is storming; when you yourself are overcome by discouragement. This is the way we can go, and this is the way we can (continue to) stand in the ministry: he himself stands behind us as the great Sender of his servants. We do not come in our own strength or person, but on his authority. That may also encourage us in a time when authority is being devalued.
- It brings profound joy in being allowed to be a friend of the Bridegroom (John 3:29). It is not about me, but all about him: “He must increase, I must decrease”. People can be disappointing; you will also disappoint yourself so often. But he never disappoints. And out of love for him you so gladly grant him many subjects. To be able to serve him gives such a profound joy that you say: “Your laws I love and hold in veneration (Ps. 119)”.
- What a great marvel when you notice that the great Shepherd uses your work as an under-shepherd to convert young and old, and to deepen and strengthen what he has worked in the lives of his own. Any labour done in his service is never in vain!
Recruitment for this Noble Ministry?
May there be positive attention to this matter:
- in the preaching, when the aspect of serving this good King is addressed;
- in catechesis, for example, about the offices;
- in the pastoral care, when we meet young brothers who have received special gifts of heart and mind;
- especially in prayer in the worship service: that the great Sower may send forth many workers into his harvest (Luke 10:2).