The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry in Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.
“... the Land that I Will Show You” is the blog of the Office of Preparation for Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This blog is designed to serve as a resource for those discerning and preparing for a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament as ordained teaching elders of the church. It will also provide a place for reflecting on and dialoging about the changing context of pastoral ministry in the early 21st century.
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I’m currently on the road visiting a couple of seminary campuses to meet with Presbyterian students, the faculties, and administrative support staff. As always these visits have included many stimulating discussions. But as I was reading through the passages for this morning in the Daily Lectionary, one of those conversations immediately came to mind.
The observation was made that any process that requires a person to demonstrate God’s call on her or his life to others runs the very real risk of excluding some who are genuinely called but simply cannot provide the particular “evidence” (see G-2.0607) identified by the requirements. Perhaps no one reading this blog will be surprised that the standard ordination examinations were quickly offered as an example. Anyone who has been involved in seminary education or the preparation for ministry process for any time at all can name examples of people who were never able to satisfy either the standard exams or alternative means, but nevertheless began wonderful ministries of the gospel. They can name others who sailed through both the exams and the process, but whose subsequent endeavors in ministry were disastrous to themselves and others.
In today’s epistle reading, Paul challenges the Corinthians (and us) with this reminder:
Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and lowlife—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human being can brag in God’s presence. (1 Cor 1:26-29, Common English Bible)
Is Paul indicting the exams as human standards of wisdom? Is he warning against looking for evidence of leadership skills in what he says about the powerful? What would he make of efforts to identify “the best and the brightest” and encourage them to consider vocational ministry given his remark about “the upper class”?
Given the way that Paul rails against some who saw themselves as doing valid gospel ministry but whom he appraised very differently (see especially 2 Cor 10-13), I don’t believe he is suggesting that we exclude wise leaders in favor of the “foolish,” the “weak,” and the “low-class and lowlife.” Rather, I think Paul is engaging in a bit of hyperbole (he was known to do that sometimes—see again the end of 2 Corinthians) to make a different point. We must always be careful that our standards of judgment are aligned with God’s standards. What the world considers wise, powerful, and to be admired are not always what God would choose.
But beyond that there is another lesson to be drawn, especially in this Lenten season. Consider again the final sentence quoted above: “So no human being can brag in God’s presence.” In the end, those who satisfy the exam requirements, are certified ready through final assessment, are sustained in their examination by a calling presbytery, and ordained to service as teaching elders have nothing to brag about. All that they have achieved (as human standards would characterize it) is nothing more than God’s gift to prepare them to answer God’s call. Their abilities are “talents” entrusted to them by God to use to further God’s purposes (Matt 25:14-30). Their opportunities for education are blessings made possible by countless gifts of God’s people who will never be known to them. No one enters ministry apart from the enabling that comes ultimately from God.
All that being said, Paul’s reminder to the Corinthians is also a cautionary reminder to all who are asked by the community of faith to discern with particular individuals their gifts and callings for ministry. In light of a faith-full reflection on our “own situation when [we] were called,” let’s be sure that our work is joining in a careful listening for God’s call and not a mechanistic application of standards. Our faith and confidence only rightly belong to the Spirit who is at work in the process, never in the process itself. God may even sometimes choose those “the world … considered to be nothing” just to make that point—both to the world, and to us.