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What does it take to become an ordained pastor in the PC(USA)?

Timothy B. Cargal, who helps to oversee the development of new pastors for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), outlines the basic process for becoming a minister of Word and Sacrament.

Opening Worship of the PC(USA) 225th General Assembly. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

“How do I become a pastor?” This question is simple enough, but the answer requires serious discernment, a term that encapsulates seeking God’s will internally and externally. As a result, the path to ordination as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) takes years and involves people at the local church level. But if you ever feel curious while watching a pastor preach, baptize a baby, comfort the mourning, organize the community or seek the lost, if you ever wonder, “what does it feel like to preside over the communion table” or look at a minister and think, “I would enjoy doing that,” it is worth considering ordination as a minister of Word and Sacrament.

What does it mean to be a minister of Word and Sacrament?

A minister of Word and Sacrament (aka. A reverend, pastor or teaching elder) is someone who assists others in growing their faith and developing their own gifts for service to God and others. This is a lot of responsibility, and Presbyterians believe that being a pastor is a role to which God calls you.

Yet, because the process of becoming a PC(USA) pastor involves graduate education and professional examinations similar to those for certified public accountants, lawyers and many medical professions, people often think of it as a certification process like that for entry to those vocational fields. If you check the right boxes, you can be ordained. But that misunderstands our process at its most fundamental levels.

While we refer to this process as “preparation for ministry,” its theological foundation is discernment. That includes assessing whether a person has the necessary education. But its primary focus is spiritual discernment of a person’s call to specific forms of ministry and the gifts God has given them.

Rather than a checklist of requirements, what the PC(USA)’s Book of Order or constitution provides is a framework for engaging these paired aspects of discernment and preparation. There are four phases, although the Book of Order explicitly labels only two (“inquiry” and “candidacy”).

Application

The process begins with a period of at least six months of engagement in the “worship and work” of a PC(USA) congregation of which the person is (or becomes) a member (G-2.0602). This provides a basis for that congregation’s session (body of elected leaders or ruling elders) to assess whether it will endorse the person’s application to the presbytery to begin the formal preparation for ministry process.

Inquiry

If the presbytery decides to enroll the person as an “inquirer,” a group from the presbytery (usually termed a “commission” or “committee on preparation for ministry” [CPM]) will explore two questions with the inquirer (G-2.0603). Is that person “suited” to ordered ministry in terms of gifts, temperament, etc., and – paired with the developing understanding of their sense of God’s call to them in ministry – to which order of ministry is that person called (deacon, ruling elder, or teaching elder/minister of the Word and Sacrament)? A presbytery may have its own specific requirements to assist them in this discernment. They might require a psychological and vocational assessment from a ministry development center. They might require information about the person’s plans for graduate theological education and how they would cover the related financial costs. This process can take months or more than a year, but only when they discern the person is “suited” specifically to the ordered ministry of the Word and Sacrament would they consider advancing the inquirer to candidacy.

Candidacy

During the candidacy phase (which must last a minimum of one year), the work of the CPM shifts to focus on concerns of “fitness” and “readiness” to serve in a call requiring ordination as a teaching elder (G-2.0604). The Book of Order sets out specific markers for which the presbytery must find “evidence” in the life and experience of the candidate (G-2.0607).

The markers of “fitness” for this ministry are set forth in G-2.0607a: “wisdom and maturity of faith, leadership skills, compassionate spirit, honest repute, and sound judgment.” The CPM may require reports from specific forms of supervised practice of ministry (G-2.0606) within the candidate’s congregation, through seminary field education, completion of a clinical pastoral education program, or other documentary evidence the candidate possesses these qualities.

The Book of Order’s markers of “readiness” focus on education and professional assessment (G-2.0607b-d):

  • a baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited college or university;
  • a graduate theological degree from an Association of Theological Schools program acceptable to the presbytery, that includes the study of both biblical languages and interpretation of Scripture utilizing Hebrew and Greek;
  • satisfactory evaluations on examinations in all areas of assessment set by the General Assembly (the ordination exams currently include Bible Content, Exegesis, Church Polity, Theological Competence, and Worship and Sacraments).

It recognizes that some candidates may have obtained the competencies through experiences other than the required educational programs and tests. Or some candidates may require alternative means to demonstrate their competencies. So the Book of Order provides a process whereby a presbytery may authorize waivers or alternatives to these degrees and tests (G-2.0610).

Presbyteries often have their own additional preparation requirements that apply either to all their candidates or to specific candidates under their care. For example, they may require all their candidates to take a seminary course in Reformed confessions and theology. Or an inquirer who has low scores on the Bible Content exam in one section of the canon may be required to take a course on that portion of the Bible while in seminary. They may have specific documents that a candidate must bring to their “final assessment” of their “fitness and readiness,” such as a statement of faith or a description of their own sense of their call and gifts for ministry.

Ordination

The fourth and final phase of discernment begins once a presbytery certifies “a candidate ready for examination for ordination, pending a call” (G-2.0607). That specific language indicates discernment remains at the core of this final phase. As a candidate begins to interview for different pastoral positions (also referred to as receiving a call, a reference to the belief that God calls us to our vocational roles), they will be engaging with churches’ search committees in discernment about their gifts for ministry in that specific context. And even once a call (or job) is offered, a presbytery will conduct its own examination of the candidate’s suitability, fitness and readiness to discern whether it would authorize them to begin service as a minister of the Word and Sacrament with that community.

While the basic instruction offered in the Book of Order provides a framework and ensures that discernment is a part of the ordination process, there is still a lot of room for customization at the presbytery and individual levels. Most of the requirements will be personalized to the individual or developed through the experience of each presbytery in working with their inquirers and candidates. Such a process reflects the Presbyterian core theological conviction that in baptism God has gifted and called all those in the church to ministry. The question is to discern whether the person is suited and ready to serve within a specific ministry that requires ordination as a teaching elder.

So, if ordination is still of interest to you, the best step for you to take is to reach out to someone at your church or presbytery. They can outline the specific process of discernment when it comes to ordination in your locality.

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