By Rev Iver Martin, Principal of Edinburgh Theological Seminary
An appeal to young (and not so young) men and the Free Church at large.
One of the most serious threats to the healthy church goal is the current shortage of ministers in the Free Church of Scotland. Right now there are over 20 vacant congregations. With a group of ministers in their low to mid-sixties who are heading for retirement, and not enough Free Church students at ETS, the church is asking where future ministers will come from.
One option is that, as our needs are shared outwith the denomination, likeminded ministers from other reformed traditions may come into the Free Church. This has recently happened with several having come from conservative Anglican circles and presbyterian churches (in the UK and USA). While we’re thankful for such transfer, it’s simply not enough. Furthermore, it doesn’t answer the question about whether God is raising future ministers from within the Free Church itself.
So, this is an appeal to young (and perhaps not so young) men who are committed to the gospel, who want to see healthy churches in every community, and who are willing to consider the possibility of going into ministry. Will you please pray, asking whether God is leading you into ministry? And will you give serious thought to whether you might be gifted for this unique task.
Without doubt, ministry is different from any other profession. The kind of challenges in churches require a certain skill set which not everyone has. Neither is everyone called to ministry. But before we conclude that we’re not, it might be an opportune moment to reflect on just what we mean by a “calling”.
It used to often be advised not to consider ministry unless you “couldn’t do anything else”. The idea was that “the call” was something mystical, where God somehow mysteriously, but unmistakably, laid a conviction upon your heart to the extent that you were compelled to leave your job and apply to train for ministry.
Inward conviction is important. Indeed, a student who isn’t passionate about the message of the gospel, and has little interest in the church, just isn’t suited to the job. But inward compulsion is not the only factor that should determine this question. Unless there is an accompanying proof of giftedness for ministry, conviction alone can be a mistaken impulse.
A healthier approach is to think and pray through 1 Timothy 3, where Paul says that if anyone desires to be an overseer, he desires something noble. The starting point is thus a prayerful self-examination of aspirations, personal character and gifts, a love for the gospel and a wholehearted commitment to the work of the church.
A second step would be to confide with a trusted friend, elder or your own minister as to whether you might have these qualities. If it’s a “no”, the matter will be settled. If it’s a “maybe”, then the discussion should be widened and tested further within the church.
For some, perhaps the prospect of going back to study is too big a challenge. The ETS course is daunting, as is the financial burden of partially supporting yourself and family for four years. Our current four-year model of church and seminary training places a considerable burden on students, and with rising prices already a reality, the secure option of staying where you are is bound to be tempting.
This is of course where conviction and prayerful trust come in. As you bring your future seriously to the Lord, if ministry is on your heart, and your longing is to give your future to the work of the gospel, the obstacles can be overcome and the decision as to whether you devote the remainder of your working life to ministry rests on his guidance in leading you to preach God’s word, pastor his people and share the gospel with our lost communities.
Finally, the challenge of finding future ministers needs to be met by all of us in the denomination. Jesus directed his disciples to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send out workers into his field. Perhaps the reason why God is not creating new ministers is a wakeup call to whole church and a reminder that all of us have a role to play in fervently asking God to raise up a whole new generation of servants who will fearlessly and lovingly proclaim his word.
More information on Free Church Ministry can be found here.