I’ve been preparing lectures for “The Minister and His Ministry” course at PRTS this coming semester. One of the subjects I’ve been re-visiting is how a pastor knows when to leave a congregation and accept a call to another. I could only find scattered references to this huge challenge in the standard pastoral theology books. However, last week I came across a superb little book by David Campbell that is focused on that question alone. It’s called Handle that new call with care and is published by Dayone.
David has gathered together many biographical accounts of past and present pastors who have faced this dilemma, and talks the pastor through the whole process by providing reasons for staying, reasons for going, how to decide, and what to do and expect if you decide to go. I’d also recommend it for congregations who are going through the experience of “losing their pastor.” It might help those who are confused or suspicious or angry about their pastor’s decision. As someone said to me once, “When you decide to accept a call away from your congregation some will be glad, some will be sad, and some will be mad!”
As I read through this book I was repeatedly reminded of the tumultuous days and weeks of four years ago when I finally decided that it was the Lord’s will to leave my congregation in the Scottish Highlands and come to teach at Puritan Reformed Seminary. And although I didn’t have the benefit of David Cambell’s book to help me then, I do believe that the Lord did guide me by many of the biblical considerations that David highlights in his book.
After completing the book, I looked out the letter of explanation that I gave to my congregation when I decided to accept the call to come to PRTS. Although it’s “old news,” and although it does not cover all that I weighed in my decision, I’ve posted it below as it might help other pastors who are facing the emotional and spiritual dilemma of a call to serve elsewhere.
Isle of Lewis,
2nd June 2007.
I would like to try and explain my reasons for accepting the call to serve the Lord in Purtian Reformed Theological Seminary (PRTS), Grand Rapids.
The Lord has been so good to me throughout my ministry, and especially over recent years in Stornoway. I have a wonderful congregation who listen to sermons prayerfully and attentively. The pastoral work is demanding, but often very satisfying. I also have a united Kirk Session of 12 godly men. Shona, the kids and I love living in the Isle of Lewis – not only because of its spiritual heritage, its godly Christians, and its widespread respect for the Sabbath Day, but also because of its inspiring natural beauty. In addition, most of Shona’s family live here. I have often exclaimed with the psalmist “The lines have fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea I have a goodly heritage” (Ps.16:6). I have frequently hoped that the Lord would allow me to spend the rest of my days in Lewis serving Him in my beloved congregation, and, as long as He sustained me, in preparing our Free Church (continuing) students for the ministry.
It was, therefore, a considerable shock when I was asked by Joel Beeke last August if I would allow my name to be added to a shortlist of candidates for interview in connection with a Professor’s position at PRTS. Despite all my ties to my congregation, my denomination, and my nation, I found myself being “pulled” by this possibility, mainly because of the enormous potential of PRTS to train and send out iinto the world large numbers of ministers and missionaries with Reformation truth and the Puritan emphases of experiential preaching and piety. Also, over the previous 18 months I had got to know both Joel Beeke and Jerry Bilkes through their visiting our home and also speaking at our annual Bible conference in Stornoway. Since then I maintained regular contact with Jerry by phone and email and a real spiritual oneness developed between us. In addition Shona and I have enjoyed a number of vacations in the USA and we home educate using American curricula. All this exerted a strong pull on my heart.
However, I found it very hard to contemplate the possibility of replacing my greatest passion – preaching the Gospel to my beloved congregation – with full-time Seminary work. Also, the Free Church Seminary had just lost one of its five lecturers, and I felt it would be very damaging to our students, and demoralizing for my remaining colleagues, if I also left at that time. As I prayerfully considered this, and tried to examine the objective circumstances as well as my own motives, I came to the conclusion that my duty then was to stay. I informed Joel of my decision, and I thought that would be the end of the matter. However, Joel and Jerry invited me to come and lecture for a week in Puritan Seminary in the spring of 2007, and also asked me to keep my mind open in the longer term regarding the possibility of being interviewed for a full-time position in the future.
The consequence of this has been that the last 8-9 months have probably been the most tumultuous period of my ministry. Outwardly everything has been going very well. Indeed, it has been the most fruitful period of my entire ministry. However, inwardly I have had a great and, at times, exhausting struggle as I weighed up my present happy circumstances on the one hand and the “call” to PRTS on the other. It has been the hardest decision I have ever had to make in my life. There have been so many combatants – the flesh, pride, the desire for the familiar, my beloved congregation, my passion for preaching, my happiness in Stornoway, etc. And, above all, there has been fear – the fear of offending God by doing the wrong thing. I was, therefore, moving towards the conclusion that the safest option would be to simply stay where I was.
However, a few weeks before going to Grand Rapids to lecture in April of this year , I was deeply convicted by the Parable of the Talents and the Christian duty of maximizing usefulness that it teaches. One phrase “jumped out” in particular and pierced my heart. It was the reply of the “one-talent-man” who had failed to use the opportunity God gave him. When asked why he did not use the talent he said: “I was afraid” (Matt.25:25). I saw immediately that this fear was my fear – a rational fear, yet a sinful fear. I saw that this man was “playing safe” and hoping to hold on to what he had. However, he was punished by having even what he had taken away from him. I was sure God was speaking to me in this, and warning me that there was no “safe” option if it involved disobedience to the heavenly call. I could not presume to think that if God was calling me to use the “talent” or “opportunity” he was extending to me through PRTS, and I “played safe”, that I would keep all the happiness and usefulness I presently enjoyed in my congregation and in the Free Church Seminary.
As I meditated on this passage over some days, and confessed my fears to God, I found that much of my fear ebbed away and I began to view the PRTS opportunity in a much more positive light. I suppose I had been “looking for a verse” that said in some way or other, “Go/Don’t go to PRTS”. However, in reality, this rarely happens. Usually God shows us a biblical principle and asks that we prayerfully think it through and apply it in faith and obedience. And here, in the Parable of the Talents, was the principle of “maximizing usefulness” staring me in the face and saying, “Use me, apply me, obey me.” From my own limited perspective, no matter how useful I may be in Scotland, it would appear that the place to maximize my own usefulness through training other ministers and missionaries is PRTS.
In some ways it seemed strange that God would lead me to this conclusion before even setting foot in Grand Rapids. However, in another way I was glad that He was leading me independently of any subjective impressions I may have gained from a short visit here.
I would like to conclude by dealing with false reasons for following this course, and then to outline my true reasons.
False reasons for going to PRTS
1. I am unhappy in my congregation
I could not have, and doubt I ever will have, a better congregation. I could not imagine myself happier in any other congregation. I count myself to have been truly blessed over these almost seven years. The Lord knows how deeply I love my officebearers, the members, and the adherents. Also the last 12 months have been the most encouraging period in my whole ministry. The thought of leaving has torn me apart over recent weeks. I would do anything, apart from disobey God, to avoid it. However, my happiness and comfort is not my rule. This decision has required me to deny myself, take up the cross, and follow Christ in a way that I have never done before.
2. I prefer the USA to Scotland
We have always enjoyed the USA as a holiday destination. And, there are aspects of it which are attract me as a place to live. However, when put in the balance with the Isle of Lewis there is no match. This especially struck me during my 3 weeks in Michigan when I was looking at it as a possible place to live. Leaving Scotland, and especially Lewis, will be very hard for the whole family.
3. I want the prestige of being a professor
As God is my witness, far from attracting me, this terrifies me. I have seen the dangers of these positions, and I would far prefer to labour away in relative obscurity than have any prominence in the church. Although there will be many opportunities to preach, and there will be a significant pastoral role among the students, I would far prefer to preach and pastor in a local congregation than lecture in a Seminary and preach here and there. However, I am not here in this world to follow my preferences. As our Master said, “Not my will, but thy will be done.”
True reasons for going to PRTS
The biblical principle and Christian duty of maximising usefulness as demonstrated in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). PRTS now have 50-60 students and hope to increase that number in the future. There is a huge opportunity here to pass on the spiritual heritage of the Free Church of Scotland to these men who are coming from all over the world, and who will be sent out into all the world. I have been asked to teach Old Testament and Practical Theology. The former will allow me to instruct men in preaching Christ from the Old Testament and also in the Psalms. The latter includes Homiletics (Preaching), Counselling, and Leadership. I have also been asked to teach the Westminster Standards, and a course on Worship. There is a four-year teaching schedule, which means that each course will come round every four years.
2. Single Candidate
I was the only candidate for this post. The professors and the Board of Trustees were unanimous in recommending me. The fact that so many godly and prayerful men were so united in their belief that I was the one to call to this post weighed heavily with me. This circumstance has frequently guided me in the past. When I went to my first congregation in Lochcarron, they were the only congregation who wanted me. When I came to Stornoway, I was the only person realistically available at the time, and I received no other call. When I was asked to take on the Old Testament work at the Free Church Seminary, I only agreed after being persuaded that no one else would do it.
3. Providential Preparation
God has providentially prepared me for this. Having reluctantly accepted the Old Testament role at the Free Church Seminary, I have experienced wonderful divine help in motivating and energising me to prepare the lectures. I have also found unexpected but enormous satisfaction in the role. What about our own FCC Seminary, though? Well, I am sure someone will be found to carry on the work I have been doing. All the 3 courses I teach are complete and available in electronic form for easy distribution. One of the motivations I had in preparing the Old Testament courses the way I did, was so that whoever came after me eventually would simply have to administer the courses.
4. Stable Congregation
By the time I come to leave I will have been in Stornoway for about 7 years. The congregation is strong and stable and will be able to withstand my departure. The officebearers are united. We have our own church and manse, and the loans on these buildings should be paid off in the near future.
5. Opportunities to Preach
I will not be giving up the preaching of the Gospel. I could never do that. Indeed I have been assured that I will be able to preach every week in various congregations that support PRTS. This, of course, will never replace preaching to my own congregation.
The hardest thing to face for me has been the knowledge that my decision would cause sadness and sorrow among those I dearly love, and even that many people I deeply respect would think ill of me. However, I have to bring these things to the throne of grace, and say “Lord, thou knowest.” Perhaps this narrative will help a little to explain my decision. I don’t expect to be overwhelmed with good wishes. However, I would hope that the response might be something along the lines of Laban and Bethuel when they heard the narrative of God’s leading Isaac’s servant to take Rebekah home to Jacob: “The thing proceedeth from the Lord: we cannot speak unto thee bad or good.”
David P Murray.
Comment: As I reflect on this four years later, I believe that my letter (although not my thinking) placed too much emphasis on the “maximize usefulness” principle. It may have suggested that it was the main or only factor I considered, whereas there were a number of other issues I weighed. It also might imply that we are infallibly able to predict our usefulness, which of course is impossible. A man may be far more useful in God’s eyes in a small congregation than than in a large congregation or in a seminary. However, in my own particular situation, the Lord used that one-talent-man to expose my sinful fear of change and to make me confront my “reasonable” disobedience to God’s call.
Sometimes I’ve even wondered about the wisdom of trying in this way to persuade people that God has called us to a certain sphere of service. Of necessity it is impossible to divulge or explain all of God’s private dealings with us in His Word and providence. That leaves frustrating blanks for both the writer and the readers. Maybe in some circumstances it is best just to say, “God has called me,” and leave the consequences with God. What do you think?