Monday, November 16, 2015

Seminaries, Ministry, and the Church

Allan M. Harman, Preparation for Ministry (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 2015). 117pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

How do you know if God is calling you into pastoral ministry? What should you do once you believe that the Lord is developing such a call in you? How should you to prepare for seminary and how should you act when you get there? How is seminary relevant to your future labors as a pastor, if that is what the Lord calls you to do? This book answers such questions concisely and clearly. It offers much-needed direction to anyone wrestling with the call to the ministry and to churches as they contemplate calling ministers.

Harman guides readers from conversion through choosing a seminary, studying well to the glory of God, and beginning and persevering in ministry faithfully. His chapters are brief and to the point. The author includes vital topics, such as the role of the church in the call to ministry (7), how our wives relate to our calling (10), the importance of the local church while in seminary (25-26), the need to prioritize our families in the ministry and in seminary (38), working as though we plan only to serve one congregation for the rest of our lives (41), how to begin preaching (53), and the importance of avoiding debt (17, 90). Roughly half of the book represents Harman’s reflections on such subjects. The other half includes appendices on suggested reading, “a short guide to sermon preparation,” a selection from Spurgeon on cultivating personal godliness, and Warfield’s article on “The Religious Life of Theological Students.” This material gives readers seed thoughts on a variety of important issues related to developing and pursuing a call to the ministry.

The book has some limitations both in form and content. The brevity of the work is a strength and a weakness simultaneously. While everything needed for discerning a call to the ministry is included, most students will require fuller direction regarding the role of the church in the call than Harman provides. In this reviewer’s opinion, the gifting of the Spirit coupled with the church’s recognition of these gifts are more vital than the internal call of the man himself. God’s commendation of a man through these means is a more reliable guide to developing a call to ministry than a commending himself based on his internal desires (2 Cor. 10:18). Men need to understand this dynamic well. If the church is involved properly in this process, then the situation Harman envisions where a man enters seminary without consulting his church should never happen (8-9). Moreover, he overstates the case when he writes that a wife should have “the same spiritual experiences” as her husband does in the call to the ministry (10). While a man should not enter the ministry without the support of his wife, he should not expect his wife to experience a call to the ministry since she is not being called into the ministry – her husband is. This caution applies equally to his suggestion of including wives on pastoral visits (33). This practice can be harmful to our wives and congregations, and it fosters the misconception of “the pastor’s wife” as a kind of unofficial church officer. This reviewer would also discourage readers from his counsel to use vacation time to read theological books (40). A minister should have a weekly day off with his family and he should use his vacation to rest from his labors with them. These are representative weaknesses in an otherwise valuable book.

One area of concern arises from the appendix by Warfield. Warfield runs the risk of placing the public religious exercises of a seminary in competition with the local church. He counseled men to meet for daily morning and evening prayer as a seminary community and twice together for worship on the Lord’s Day. He concluded, “You will observe that I am not merely exhorting you to ‘go to church.’ … But what I am exhorting you to do is to go to your own church – to give your presence and active religious participation to every stated meeting for worship of the institution as an institution” (107). He implies that the seminary is a “church” and that it should function like a church in order to retain its spiritual vitality. This is problematic from a number of perspectives. In the Bible, “church” never refers to seminaries, but it refers primarily to the church, invisible, local, regional, ecumenical (the whole visible church), and as represented by her officers.

Many seminary students are married men. Coupled with family responsibilities, work responsibilities for some, and being involved in Sabbath worship, prayer meetings, and other activities of a local church, adding too many public meetings at the seminary places an intolerable burden on most students. A seminary should foster full participation in local churches without trying to act as though it is a church through excessive chapel services and prayer meetings. Such practices run the risk of creating the monastery-like setting that Warfield rejected vigorously early in his article. Seminaries should add very few public services to the practices of local churches. The primary ways of retaining the spiritual character of a seminary consist in fervent prayer, faithful service in the local church, and in promoting the experimental pastoral quality of lectures. All lecturers should be ministers of the church and subject to her discipline. All students should find the primary expression of their public worship in the church. They should not be pressured to replace the church with the seminary. Seminaries should be subject to the church rather the church to seminaries. Our practices should reflect this fact.

Preparing for the Ministry is a useful tool to help men think through a call to the ministry. All Christians should know something about this process, whether or not the Lord calls them to the ministry, since the church plays a vital role in such a call. This book leads us in the right direction.

This review is scheduled to appear in the January 2016 issue of the Puritan Reformed Journal.