I heard a statistic a few years ago that the number of ordained Southern Baptist ministers was several thousand more than existing Southern Baptist churches. I’ve found no way to verify such information, but I would not be surprised if such a ratio is correct. Whether true or not, the relationship of the local church to the process of ministers becoming ministers has certainly evolved into a shapeless process in some denominations in our era.
What does it mean to be “called to ministry”? One of the things which D. M. Lloyd-Jones develops in his book Preaching and Preachers is that with some young men the appeal of the position of pastor is likely to cause them to want to be in such a role in the church. A person who is zealous for the Christian faith is not necessarily to pursue a “career” in Christian ministry. The tendency, of course, is to push anyone who has any great interest in studying Scripture and pursuing a devout Christian life into full-time ministry. Shouldn’t such a pursuit of the Christian life be true of every Christian man?
At least in the Baptist tradition, the authority and autonomy of the local church has backfired creating a culture where the church’s role in forming ministers and sending them into the ministry has been minimized. Churches often take a very passive role in the formation and evaluation of those who might be qualified for Christian ministry. As I mentioned before, the usual method is that a man or woman approaches the pastor in order to announce to the church that he or she is called to the ministry and seeks the church’s approval. For most, the very fact that this person has been called to ministry is enough – no further evaluation is needed. In many cases, then, the most important thing the church will do in the process is to sign a form giving their approval for the ministry candidate to go to seminary, to into missions, or serve in some other capacity.
Of course, today you can be “ordained” via the internet because the meaning of being ordained is completely subject to whatever religious organization is in question. So one of the real problems in our society today is that there can be little, if any, recognition of what an official ordination should be (or even if there should be such a thing.) One of the things I learned in doing some searching on the topic was that historically the place of ordination has held a rather low position in Protestant churches since the Reformation. Wm Lloyd Allen’s article “The Meaning of Ordination” is helpful especially in provided an historical context for the practice. As one could imagine, there is a danger is viewing those who are “ordained” as some higher religious figure which can confuse one’s understanding of the role of a pastor as compared to that of a Catholic priest or a Jewish priest. That, however, is another discussion.
The original Baptists in the first decade of the seventeenth century defended
the equality of each member of the body of Christ against the historic claims of
clergy privilege made by the bishop led Anglican Church. These earliest
Baptists formed congregations of baptized believers who covenanted to share
equal authority and responsibility in the body of Christ.
The role of the modern-day seminary may have also played a role in taking the church off course as it relates to ordination and the role of ministers in ministry. There are many great advantages to attending seminary, and I am a firm advocate of such an education for most who would desire to pursue Christian ministry. (Seminary is not for everyone, though, and should not be a requirement for a man to serve the church.) Especially pertaining to serious study of biblical languages and classical theology, the collection of skilled instructors at a seminary cannot be matched by private study or in most cases reproduced in the local church setting.
At least in Baptist seminaries, all that is required as it pertains to the student’s home church is a letter or recommendation. Once a letter is attained, the seminary student is then completely free to move to seminary and pursue an education free of his home church. While seminaries do require that students are attending of a church in the local city where the school is located, this is a soft requirement at best.
For Baptist churches, though, ordination is not linked directly to seminary. The local church may ordain whomever the congregation chooses to ordain, for better or worse. As stated before, this creates a great disparity in understanding about what it means to be ordained to the ministry, and no local church can rely too heavily upon what another church has decided in terms of ordaining a minister.
Called to ministry? I find it unlikely that individuals are “called” outside of their involvement with their local body of believers. I do believe strongly that individuals are called to serve God in the ways in which God has gifted them. Such calling by God is worked out in many ways which do not need to be mysterious, but really seem to be quite obvious and logical many times. A healthier view of the entire process is one which closely involves the church in helping individuals decide how to pursue using the gifts with which God has gifted them.