There have been some interesting discussions lately on the blogs about “pastoral succession.” Don Carson discusses this issue with Tim Keller and John Piper at The Gospel Coalition site. Anyone in the middle of this process—or anticipating it—will benefit from their sage advice. Over at Reformation 21, Carl Trueman offered some wise thoughts of his own on the conversation.
Eventually, every church has to think through the connection between faith and practice when it comes time to call a new pastor. I’d like to tweak the conversation a little bit by raising the question of paradigms. Are we looking for a certain kind of minister or, first and foremost, for a certain kind of ministry? Is our “job description” determined by the charisma, style, accomplishments—and genuine gifts—of the minister or by the qualifications that Paul lays out in the pastoral epistles?
On one hand, pastoral succession can be a time of crisis. Sometimes the crisis results from poor leadership. The natural assets that make someone a great leader in business, entertainment, or politics may also become liabilities in ministry. In the church, poor leadership doesn’t necessarily mean a failure to instill the confidence of others; it can actually be just such confidence that weighs a minister down and makes it really hard on the next guy. In the church at least, poor leadership means creating a situation in which the minister, not the ministry, becomes the means of grace.
On the other hand, pastoral succession problems can also indicate a healthy church. In my circles, we care about who follows famously faithful pastors, but we should care as much about who follows a faithful pastor down the street. We care about “succession” because we care about God’s covenant faithfulness “to a thousand generations.”
Healthy churches may hit some rough water in the interim between pastors. Even when the ministry has been faithful over many years, alas, the fruit of the flesh that the apostles diagnosed in their own church plants blossoms from a conquered but sturdy weed. After years of keeping everyone’s eye on the Word, loss of godly leadership can often disintegrate quickly into squabbles over secondary issues.
However, when discussing pastoral succession, we have to beware of following a paradigm of leadership that is not consistent with our place in redemptive history. Born in the “Jesus Movement” of the 1970s, one non-denominational denomination with which many of us southern Californians are familiar adopted the “Moses Leadership” model, which places all the power in the church in the hands of the pastor, who (like Moses) was directly accountable to God. Understandably, this rather “papal” form of government raises questions of succession to a new level.
At the same time, I wonder if we all obsess too much over pastoral succession these days. We remember Calvin more than Beza because, among other things, the former turned the church in Geneva around; yet Beza had more direct influence in the international reformation in some ways than his predecessor. There is a danger in looking for successors to a minister; what we should really be looking for is the succession of the ministry: the Word rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and the church’s doctrine, worship, government, and life regulated by Scripture.
Once upon a time there were no church marquees. You just walked to your neighborhood parish church. But even marquees used to have the name of the church and the text for the sermon that week. Now it’s pretty universal to have the name of the pastor—and the name of the minister who is preaching that week. Even in good churches, one sometimes hears people say, “Did you know So-and-So is preaching this week?” In some cases, people even visit another church to hear the famous preacher.
When it comes to pastoral succession, I can’t help but let my presbyterian colors show. At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), even when the apostles were still living, it was “the apostles and elders” who made the decision that all the churches were to receive. I’m always baffled when brothers and sisters say that presbyterian polity is “hierarchical” or “clerical.” Actually, it’s just the opposite. Spreading out the authority among ministers (teaching elders) and ruling elders, equally, both locally and in wider assemblies, means that no church or minister is more important than another. It also means that the majority of each local session or consistory consists of laypeople rather than clerics. Although ordained for their service, ruling elders are not full-time ministers. They do not preach and teach. Nevertheless, pastors do not rule and they definitely don’t run the temporal affairs of the church (the proper province of deacons).
In calling a pastor, the local session or consistory calls a congregational election to form a pulpit search committee and recommends a candidate. After congregational approval, the candidate is examined by the presbytery or classis and upon successful examination is installed as pastor. Following this covenantal logic, it has usually been the practice in Reformed and Presbyterian churches for the incumbent minister to recuse himself from the process entirely.
The apostolic ministry was extraordinary: the foundation-laying era of the new covenant church (1 Cor 3:10-11). Although Paul could appeal to no human authority higher than his own office, he encouraged Timothy to recall the gift he received at his ordination, “when the council of elders [presbyteriou] laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14). None of us is a Moses. None is a Paul or a Peter. We are all “Timothys,” not adding to the apostolic deposit, but guarding and proclaiming it (1 Tim 6:20).
Carl Trueman wisely reminds us: “The elite watchmaker Patek Philippe had a slogan at one time that was something like this: `You never really own a Patek Philippe; you merely look after it for the next generation.’” Thus it is with churches, in terms of the vibrancy of their life and their orthodoxy. Those privileged enough to be involved in the appointment of their own successors, or those who can merely shape the nature of the session which will oversee the search, need to make sure they make the right choices. They do not own the church; they are merely looking after her for the next generation.