Friday, January 16, 2009

Candidate Care

I spent the morning and part of Wednesday afternoon at the meeting of our presbytery's Committee on Preparation -- not on my behalf, but rather on behalf of two members of our congregation who are candidates. One is certified as being ready for a call and the other can be certified as soon as she decides that the needs of her family can be balanced with the requirements of seeking a call. Having seen these two candidates pass through adolescence and young adulthood, I am thrilled at the prospect of seeing one or both of them ordained. They are both products of Princeton Theological Seminary and have clear gifts in ministry and a strong sense of their calling.

Since the inquirers and candidates were not present, the committee and the session liaisons were able to discuss a wide range of issues concerning the process, including the bumpy road that many candidates take along their way to clarifying their sense of calling.

One fact in our presbytery is that nearly all inquirers pass to the candidate phase, which concerns many on the committee. This arises from a pragmatic assumption that a certain percentage of people who think ministry is where they'd like to be will eventually decide that that is not where they want to be. There are statistics that suggest that many such decisions are made following ordination and a few years of ministry. Many feel that it would be better to "change majors" while in the inquirer phase, rather than as a minister of only a few years experience. One solution seems to have been to make entry to the inquirer stage more rigorous. To my lay point of view, this seems to go against the whole idea of "inquiry". Here is where they begin the process and start learning what ministry of Word and Sacrament is all about. The trend in thinking in our local CPM is to make sure that inquirers understand that moving to candidacy is not a guarantee. It is a decision mutually arrived at by the inquirer and the committee, and that there is no stigma attached to deciding that God is calling one to different service. This makes more sense to me than to administer a rigorous examination at the outset.

Other issues revolve around the heavy financial burden borne by the seminary student. Many candidates go into their first call with upwards of $30,000 in debt and little prospect of paying off quickly unless they can find themselves in a more affluent congregation. The small, often rural congregations find it difficult to call full-time ministers, and when they can do so, are not able to pay much more than a basic living wage. I understand there are programs in some presbyteries whereby those who serve in one of the "wee kirks" can have a portion of their indebtedness forgiven, but such programs generally require that they have attended a PC(USA) seminary.

This was a long-overdue meeting, and I certainly appreciated the information we received regarding our duties. It turns out that I am a little unusual, since I was appointed session liaison for one of our candidates while I was between active service on session, and remained liaison during a term of active service and now am not on active service. Other congregations tend to rotate the liaisons as they rotate on or off session or the candidate care committee. Personally, I think that the continuity is beneficial, and I am more than happy to continue in this service.

On another topic, somewhat related, I have just begun a three year stint on the presbytery Commissioned Lay Pastor committee, so I will get a bit of a different perspective on the various issues related to how people answer the calling of the Lord.

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