Church Issues, Church Polity, Current Issues

Alternative Credentialing: Do We Need New Avenues to Ordination?

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.

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  • http://twitter.com/aquatiki Robert Murphy

    If the choice is between have many more pastors in the PCA, who are considered second-class citizens but pass theological examination; and not growing beyond our White, Sub-urban, college-educated niche, I'll take the 2nd-class citizens. You talk about putting things in context: what about how massively advanced the PCA is now, theologically, compared to when it started. We need to approve men who are on the right path, and then check them again and again. That's the way to get around “sub-standard” ordinations. Otherwise, we're like the US of A and copyrights: we broke them all when we were growing up as a nation, but now we want to hold developing nations to our grown up standards. Sometimes you have to approve a direction before you can approve a destination.

  • Paul Bankson

    To my knowledge, there are no Spanish language classes offered by any of our Reformed institutions such as RTS, Covenant, WTS, etc. The closest we have are the materials offered by Third Mill. Something needs to give somewhere. I commend the CMC for its efforts in addressing the problem.

    While on the subject, I've been a bit disappointed at some of the responses to the SP that are along the lines of “we should be committing more to a means of grace ministry”. I agree wholeheartedly with a means of grace ministry and seek to practice it in my own context. However, some specifics beyond that are needed. I find such responses to be akin to a coach eschewing a specific game plan to deal with an opponents particular challenges (strong running game, great QB play) to saying “We just need to block and tackle better.” Of course we do, but how do we deal with the unique problems this particular opponent brings? That is what the CMC is attempting to do, it seems. What are the unique problems of our time and place and what is needed to specifically address those problems?

  • http://jesusapostrophe.com Gabriel Posey

    I've actually spent a great deal of time with a friend recently who is part of a Presbyterian denom (not PCA) and have asked him what it would look like for me to consider being a planter through their Presbytery.

    His somewhat discouraging response is that I have to have a full blown seminary degree. On top of that, I must have the 'right' seminary degree. Given my current life circumstance, I am a decade late to that option. So it's either incur massive amounts of debt, kill myself and sacrifice my family or just opt not to do it.

    Quite a bitter little pill.

  • bggjr

    Another consideration is the historical realities of Western expansion in the early 1800s. One of the reasons Presbyterianism did not take off well is because it did not adapt well to the rapid migration west. As a result, Presbyterian pastors still needed to meet the requirements for ordination, which were lengthy, while less stringent groups like Methodists and Baptists did not.

    The hard part is how do we reconcile the need to rapidly expand while maintaining doctrinal fidelity among elders? We have lots of pastors, but we need more churches. We need pastors who can meet changing contexts better than before, but at the same time we must insist upon faithfulness to our doctrinal commitments.

    We have to be able to find a way for those who are simply disadvantaged from a socioeconomic standpoint to become pastors in our denomination. As I said last week, 2042 is coming….

  • bggjr

    Robert, I don't think that lots of TEs would hold pastors who did not go to seminary in a “second class” category. The sticky issue would come when pastors are looking for a call because it is likely that many search committees would see, say, a LAMP pastor as inferior to one who went to RTS, CTS, etc.

    Additionally, I wonder how committee make-up would be if we had a group of alternatively credentialed men? Would there be disparity? Would these pastors be able to be on GA level committees, Presbytery committees, etc? That kind of contradicts my first sentence, I know.

  • http://twitter.com/TimTaylor_Sr Tim Taylor

    Bobby, I tend to agree that most TEs wouldn't think in “2nd class citizen” categories. But I certainly can see churches thinking this way. I could easily see some churches saying in their pastoral searches “M.Div. required” or something to that effect. I imagine the GA might be reluctant to put a man w/out an accredited masters on a theological study committee as well. (so, like you, I've just contradicted my first sentence)

  • http://raewhitlock.com/ Rae Whitlock

    Regarding “the Unspoken BCO Problem” — BCO 21-4a requires that a man coming for ordination “present a diploma of Bachelor or Master from some approved college or university, and also a diploma of Bachelor or Master from some approved theological seminary or authentic testimonials of having completed a regular course of theological studies, or a certificate of completion of and endorsement from a theological study program as approved by the General Assembly and one of the Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in America.”

    That bolded “or” gives me pause as to whether or not the “extraordinary” clause would even need to be invoked for alternate routes like the aforementioned LAMP, or REPC, ClearNote, or Re:Train, or others. It seems to me that, if (big “if”) the General Assembly can work together with presbyteries to approve these non-traditional study programs, then there is no BCO problem after all.

  • http://raewhitlock.com/ Rae Whitlock

    We already have churches who put “Ph.D required” in their searches, do we not?

  • http://mininggrace.com/ Joe Holland

    For the sake of stirring the pot, we do already have an alternative credentialing process. It's called Ruling Elder ordination (BCO 24). I don't think we are going to see much change on a denominational level or a presbyterial level until we start seeing change on a sessional level (grass roots something or other). In terms of biblical requirements there is not that much difference between a licensed RE and a TE. It's one thing for us to say, “Hey I want to see ethnically diverse, theologically astute, Jesus-loving, pastorally gifted men planting and leading churches out there.” It's quite another thing to say, “I want to see ethnically diverse, theologically astute, Jesus-loving, pastorally gifted men serving with me on my session.” And then to take it a step further and make it a reality.

  • http://twitter.com/TimTaylor_Sr Tim Taylor

    I suppose there are a few, but I can't recall seeing that. I think I've seen some that require a D.Min. but that's not the same. Either way, it's rare.

  • http://twitter.com/TimTaylor_Sr Tim Taylor

    Robert: I think you're setting up a false dilemma. Creating 2nd class citizens isn't the only issue. I'd list others but, well, I already did. Just scroll up.

  • http://www.kindledfire.com Matt Timmons (TE)

    I agree that the current “ship 'em off to seminary” scheme doesn't work, not only for minorities, but also for the white guys too. Coming out of the monestary with a great deal of debt is not the way a man is to come to the ministry.

    Unlike our post author, I do believe that pastor discipleship is a most viable road in our day–without dumbing down the trial exams. With so much on the internet and seminary courses able to be taken by extension, much of a pastor's work can be oversight rather than personal prep. There are fantastic college/sem level history and philosophy classes at sermonaudio.com. Greek classes could be taken via community college, sem. extenstion, or another pastor in the presbytery (hey, why don't we be connectional while we are at it!).

    If a man proved his capabilities before committee and on the floor (all the while being well under the constant [and personal] care of the presbytery and personally working with a minister in that presbytery) he could easily be Ok'ed by the exception clause.

    Otherwise, I agree that the BCO is very “institutional” on this subject of training men for the ministry of the gospel. We must give more emphasis on the homeschool type method. To be sure, given our current statement it would be only by the exception clause that we could ordain one of the apostles.

  • bggjr

    I like your thinking. It makes good use of the “situation” in which we find ourselves. It's almost like adapting some of Third Millennium's ideas for the US. Not just for non-whites, but those for whom seminary is not viable for whatever reason.

  • http://joelws.com Joel S

    Great thoughts. I'm taking the non-traditional route (RTS MAR degree by distance), and I know several other people who want to be involved in PCA ministry, but are being prevented by the BA requirement prior to the seminary degree.

    It seems to me that right now there is simply the assumption that alternative methods produce inferior pastors, both theologically and pastorally. I think some research needs to be done to prove/disprove that assumption.

  • http://twitter.com/TimTaylor_Sr Tim Taylor

    Joel,
    Will you be seeking ordination in the PCA when you're done with your MAR?

  • http://twitter.com/schweissing David Schweissing

    For what it's worth:

    1) I was once in a large, well-regarded PCA church in which the senior pastor and at least one associate (I think two, actually) did not hold M.Div's; one did not hold a B.A., either (at the time). The presbytery had examined these men, found them fit, and made use of the BCO's exception clause. I assume such a situation is unusual, but I've always wondered whether it occurs more often than we know.

    2) I was asked for a copy of my seminary transcript by the first church that called me (and in which I was ordained a year later) as an afterthought, and was never asked by presbytery to provide one. Since ordination, my academic qualifications have never come up. Granted, my resume lists my M.Div, but I've never been asked about it.

    My point: Once a candidate is examined and ordained- traditional seminary route or not- I'm not sure how much of an issue is ever made as to how he got there. It seems to me that if we can train men to proficiency in their presbytery exams outside of the traditional route (and I realize this IS the question), a lack of a traditional M.Div matters little in ministry opportunities (but feel free to call me naive here).

    Sidenote: I do consider the traditional seminary route to be an advantage; much of the benefit to me went far beyond the classroom content. It was the informal conversations, seminary events & forums, and relationships with other students and professors outside of class that shaped me spiritually and ministry-wise every bit as much as the classes I took. One of my questions for alternative credentialing routes is how to provide these benefits apart from a seminary community.

  • http://joelws.com Joel S

    Hi Tim,

    That's the eventual hope/plan, yes. But I'm planning on going under care soon, and I will probably get more of a sense for whether the presbytery will require me to get an M.Div., take extra classes, etc. I've heard of a few others who were ordained with an MA/MAR only, but I'm not sure if they'll view my situation in the same way.

  • smpitts77

    Joel…

    I think that there needs to be some reform here from the denomination to the presbyteries. The M.Div. Union Card has to go.

    I too am in the same boat. I have two master's degrees. One in Christian Education and the other in Ecclesiastical History….but not the M.Div. Union Card. I am in a presbytery that has not ordained someone without an M.Div. in over 20 years. I have a call to the US Army Reserve Chaplaincy but trying to get ordained is like finding a needle in a haystack. I fulfill all of the requirements of the BCO “tests” for ordination and I still cannot get an audience with the presbytery….no M.Div. So, should I spend the additional $20K and get an M.Div. and put my family of 6 into debt to go into the ministry??? The response I get is, and I read it even in these comments, “you get more at seminary than just the education. It's the community and the sharing of ideas and working with people.” I respond that I have been in Corporate America for 8 years working side by side the lost….I think more ministers should have the same experience.

    I say this to say…it is more than the “underpriviledged” that should be able to be considered for “alternative avenues.” There is a large population of men that are in the middle of their life that feel the call to ministry bu are abandoned b/c they just can afford to go to traditional seminary. You have to be either 1) young fresh out of college with no family (then you go straight into ministry with no other experience than academia…not the real world BTW) or 2) an empty nester with disposable income. All of us30 somethings have young families to support and taking on school debt would not be “leading his family well” which is a qualification of ministry.

    That's all,
    M.Div.less

  • http://joelws.com Joel S

    Thanks for your thoughts. It seems to me that in a situation like yours, it would be helpful to get from the presbytery very specific things that you are lacking for ordination. If they think you need brushing up on an area of theology, or practice preaching, surely you could do those without going for the full M.Div.