This post marks the first in a new series of discussions on Vintage73 focusing on the PCA’s proposed strategic plan. We’ll provide both pro and con positions on different aspects of the plan. To benefit most from these posts we suggest you read the plan itself first. We’re thankful to the Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC) for their hard work in creating this proposal and pray that our efforts here will help sharpen their work as iron sharpens iron.

The proposed PCA strategic plan has rightly identified a major problem in the denomination: too many people look like me. I’m an educated, white Southerner who grew up in the suburbs and is married with 2.5 kids (no, really – I have two kids and one more baking in the oven). As the face of America is changing, no longer requiring SPF 50, so should the Presbyterian Church in America.

The sticking point is how to effect such change. Our seminaries aren’t exactly overrun with minority students passionate about bringing the Reformed faith to their ethnic communities. Why not? And what can we do to encourage more ordained minority leaders in the PCA?

What’s the Real Problem?

The first step in solving a problem is identifying its cause. As a Calvinist resurgence sweeps across the nation it’s not just Anglos who are discovering/re-discovering the Reformed faith. Many seeking biblical Christianity are finding it in the Reformed faith.

So why then aren’t more of them gravitating towards ministering in the largest Reformed denomination in the country? Unfortunately, the strategic plan doesn’t even begin to answer this question. The CMC has identified the problem but hasn’t told us why it exists. Without understanding the why we cannot move on to how to resolve it, yet that’s exactly what the SP suggests we do. The target recipients of alternative credentialing – a path to ordination other than what our current standards require – are defined as “disadvantaged constituencies.” Disadvantaged in what way? Are they unable to attend a traditional seminary due to socioeconomic barriers or are there other issues?

The only clue to answering this is found in Dr. Chapell’s video presentation in which he speaks of “hispanic, urban, immigrant pastors” and how unfeasible it is to expect them to move to a different city to attend seminary. I’m sure that single demographic isn’t the only group the CMC has in mind, but it at least gives us somewhere to start. Why is it unrealistic of us to expect hispanic, urban, immigrant candidates to attend a traditional seminary, even if that means moving to another city for a few years to do so? Is financing such a life change the issue? If so, then perhaps we should talk about how to develop special financing for minority church leaders to attend seminary. MNA is already working on this to some degree. It would be nice if the strategic plan at least made mention of their efforts. Perhaps bolstering ongoing efforts are better than creating new ones.

The “Alternative” in Alternative Credentialing

Another difficulty in dealing with the question of alternative credentialing is defining it. The CMC calls it “credible and rigorous,” and says it seeks to “establish certification standards for non-traditional clergy preparation that includes formal & prior earning assessment.” That’s the extent of its description. With virtually no details given, we’re left to speculate as to what this new process might look like. Again, we can look to what MNA is already doing through their LAMP program to give us some idea of what an alternative route might include, but nothing concrete has been proposed.

When the PCA was founded, there was talk of a “2 + 2” ministry preparation process in which candidates would receive two years of formal, academic theological training and two years of mentored, practical preparation under a local pastor. But this wasn’t a new idea even back in 1973. In 18th and 19th century Presbyterian and Reformed churches (as well as Anglican churches) this formal/informal training was common. However, this alternative route was no walk in the park. The men who mentored these candidates were often classically trained at institutions like Princeton and Yale, and even the alternative route candidates were required to submit their theological and exegetical papers to their presbyteries in Latin. Of course, since they had been studying the works of Turretin and others in Latin already, this was no daunting task for them. Their ordination examinations were no less rigorous than the ones given to the men who had been formally trained. Their path was different, but the way was not easy.

Fast forward to today and, well, frankly most PCA pastors are not adequate substitutes for seminary professors. Gone are the days when ministers are expected to be classically trained. Studying under a pastor is certainly better than no training at all, but it’s also far from the level of education one receives in a proper M.Div. program.

The Unspoken BCO Problem

How exactly could we create a whole class of men who could be ordained w/out an M.Div.? Our current constitution doesn’t allow it except for what is known as the “extraordinary” clause (BCO 21-4a). In some limited situations a presbytery, upon 3/4 approval, may ordain a man who doesn’t meet all of the BCO’s stated educational requirements. But if we create a whole new class of men who we bring in through the extraordinary clause, don’t we in effect negate the exception and make it a new rule? The better route would be to amend the BCO to include an alternative path, but the SP doesn’t seem to suggest this. Again, the lack of detail offered makes it difficult to say, but it seems the SP only suggests that the GA approve of “guidelines” that presbyteries may follow. No formal BCO change is mentioned. To set up a process where we intend from the beginning to invoke the extraordinary clause seems to violate the original intent of the clause, effectively making the extraordinary ordinary.

And if we do create an alternative route, how do we determine who may have access to it? If a man sees two options, one of which is easier and doesn’t require him to submit to the expense and time commitment of seminary, could we really say to him “no, you must pick option A.” If so, on what grounds do we deny him access to the alternative? “You have too much money” or “you’re of the wrong ethnicity” hardly seem like viable answers.

Second-Class Pastors

The SP explicitly recognizes the very real possibility that we could effectively (and almost certainly would) be creating a new category of ministers who would be viewed as second class. They wouldn’t be as well-respected or as sought after as the men who took the traditional route to ordination. I really don’t see any way to prevent this kind of prejudice from occurring, nor does the SP offer any suggested safeguards to keep this from happening.

The Ethics of an Alternative

Finally, we can’t consider an alternative that is in any way inferior to our normal practice without asking what we’re communicating about those who walk its path. Are we not guilty of the soft bigotry of lowered expectations when we look at minority candidates and say, “We don’t expect as much from you?” How is that anything other than a racist attitude? It seems at best paternalistic, and isn’t that exactly the kind of mentality we’re trying to move away from?

If Not This Then What?

I know I’ve raised a lot of critical questions here, so I want to end by saying that I still do very much appreciate that the CMC is raising these very important questions at the denominational level. They must be asked, and we would be unwise, uncaring and naive not to think about how we can better minister to those not like us. I want a strategic plan to improve our ministry in and among disadvantaged constituencies. Unfortunately I just haven’t seen much of one yet. I appreciate the effort so far and I hope that together we can answer the questions raised here so that we don’t, as Dr. Chapell so wisely warned against, become the new Amish.