A Fishy Story? Can we be Evangelical and Presbyterian and Study for the Ministry?

Jackson Clelland is the minister of Zion Church, Angus, Ontario.

A New Fishing Hole

I placed the phone down in its cradle and began to write down the last order I would ever receive on this job — 40 pounds of cod, 10 pounds of sole, and a 50-pound box of red spring salmon. For an eternal two-and-a-half years I had been selling seafood into chain stores across Alberta and British Columbia. I would not be at my desk tomorrow to see if the order I was placing now had made its way onto the late-afternoon delivery schedule.

The fish business is notoriously inconsistent. One day you catch fish, the next you don't. And when you are dealing with thousands of pounds of fish and numerous buyers, the problems compound. One day you have a thousand pounds of fish ready to sell and no customers, the next day you can't buy a single pound for all the orders you are receiving. The fish are simply not being caught. The inconsistencies can be frustrating.

I take my consolation from Simon, whom Jesus later named Peter, who understood the frustrations of the fish business from the inside — "Master, we've worked hard all night and haven't caught anything" Luke 5:5. But his frustration did not make Jesus' command any less clear: "Cast out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch." You know the story; their boat almost sank with the weight of all the fish in their nets. They had to signal their partners to come and help them.

Everyone caught something that day. But the most valuable catch was the frustrated fisherman, Simon. He had been caught by Jesus. And as he wriggled and squirmed in his unworthiness Jesus spoke to him and said, "Don't be afraid; from now on you will catch men." And they pulled their boats up on the shore, left everything and followed him.

Jesus calls people from all walks of life, but I am a witness to the fact that he still likes to get out his fishing rod from time to time and reel in a fishmonger. After two-and-a-half years of frustration and fear Jesus had shown me time and again that he could fill my net and take away my fear. Now it was time to go fishing with Jesus. So I put down my order pad, turned off my computer and followed him.

I knew that I was being called to study for the ministry of Word and Sacrament. But the question of where to study was not yet resolved. For many, the choice would have been clear; if you are a Presbyterian you have a choice of studying at one of the three Presbyterian schools in Canada: Knox College in Toronto, Presbyterian College in Montreal, or Vancouver School of Theology (VST). My calling led me directly to another school, Regent College, in Vancouver, just a few blocks from VST.

A part of Jesus' call to pastoral ministry that had developed in me was a thirst for reading. I was surprised to realize that a number of books that had influenced my life over the past year were authored by men and women who taught at Regent College. Eugene Peterson's book, Under the Unpredictable Plant was especially formative in my call; a book that compared the call to pastoral ministry to Jonah's being swallowed by a big fish. (Some books are just written for some people!) I was also surprised to discover that there were many Presbyterians teaching or on staff at Regent. Regent College's evangelical ethos and ethnic diversity was very attractive and so, after prayerful consideration, I soon found myself signing an application.

After a brief discussion in my home Presbytery over why I was going to Regent College instead of one of "our own" schools, I was certified by my Presbytery as a candidate for ministry within the Presbyterian Church in Canada. I assumed I was now free and clear to study.

In Deep Water

I was quickly made aware that the Book of Forms had more to say on the matter; especially section 205.2. My case would be taken up the ladder to the General Assembly's Life and Mission Agency Committee on Education and Reception. This sounded serious. This committee would make recommendations to the General Assembly as to what to do with me. I soon found out that in most cases, students who graduate with a Master of Divinity degree from colleges other than our own are required to take an additional two years of study at one of our own schools before being allowed to be examined for ordination. This information was not in the Book of Forms. I had to dig back into the Acts and Proceedings of the 1989 General Assembly to make this discovery.

Immediately, I sought out an advisor at VST who could tell me what I would be missing by attending Regent instead of VST and devise a plan to make up the requirements. This advisor would also serve as the liaison between me and the Committee on Education and Reception. I believe that the relationship that existed between me and my advisor was the crucial link in the process of negotiating my educational desires with the denomination's requirements.

After receiving a letter from my advisor, the Committee on Education and Reception recommended a year-and a-half's study at VST. These courses could be taken simultaneously with my Regent courses.

The registrar at Regent also allowed me to transfer many of the VST course credits toward my Regent degree. There was some overlap in the two programs, as well as some options in the Regent degree that were quickly filled by VST required courses. The end result was that I graduated with a Master of Divinity from Regent College a half- year after I would have, had no additional requirements been added. I was ordained by my Presbytery last November and inducted into my present congregation two weeks later.

Fishing Lessons

Over the last four years I have met with numerous students and "would be" students who were considering ordained ministry within the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Some of these students have found themselves in the same awkward position that I found myself in. They consider themselves to be both evangelical and Presbyterian. They would like to take courses in evangelism, prayer, and missions, but they are not offered at our colleges. They would like to know that most, if not all of their teachers, approach the Bible without a hermeneutic of suspicion (i.e., that we cannot fully put our trust the biblical witness because its human writers were sexist, racist, or otherwise flavoured by the times in which they lived). At the same time these students see great truth in the Reformed worship, tradition and history and want to stand within it as a Presbyterian.

It appears that students in this situation have three choices:

1. Attend one of the three PCC-approved schools. This choice has the obvious benefit of not bucking the system. It also has the benefit, as I have seen, that students have a much better understanding of our church's polity, and what it means to be Presbyterian. The student may however find him/herself frustrated with the different epistemological starting points (the assumptions that lie behind our knowledge and how we come to knowledge) that are embedded within the curriculum. A radical feminist, liberation theology, or historical-critical reading of Scripture carries with it many assumptions that evangelicals will likely find untenable.

2. Leave the Presbyterian Church and be ordained elsewhere. Many Presbyterians find themselves studying at Regent College, not initially for the ministry of Word and Sacrament, but for marketplace ministries. In the course of their studies they find themselves feeling God's call to a ministry of Word and Sacrament and begin to work toward a Master of Divinity degree (MDiv). They love the Presbyterian Church, and begin to look at the requirements for ordination within it. Of course the "additional two year" clause comes into play. Having completed nearly half of their studies already, they decide that the PCC's extra demands are too costly both from a time and a financial perspective, and a frustration perspective. I have sadly watched three very gifted students leave the PCC, and the pew where they worshipped every Sunday, to pursue ordination elsewhere; one in the Christian Reformed Church, the two others through the Presbyterian Church (USA).

3. Attend another theological college other than the PCC approved schools. This is the option that I chose. I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly, but it seems to me a good compromise within a system that does not favour Presbyterians who are also evangelicals. This choice has the benefit of placing students and teachers with similar epistemological and theological assumptions together in the same room. More learning takes place than in the situation where student and teacher have to constantly refer back to their assumptions to justify their point. The obvious drawback is the two extra years the student will likely have to study after they have received their MDiv to complete another school's MDiv requirement. The costs and risks involved in making this choice are considerable compared with the benefits and rewards of an additional two years of study.

Some additional words of warning and advice seem to be in order at this point:

If you find yourself in this position, contact one of the Presbyterian Colleges as soon as possible. Don't wait until you are half-way through your program at another college if at all possible. The church has a process for candidates for ministry, whether or not they are attending one of its colleges. You need to be involved in this process from the outset of your education.

Second, find an advisor at one of the Presbyterian Colleges. This person will be your liaison to the Committee on Education and Reception and will make recommendations as to the courses you will need to take. There is some negotiation involved between the colleges and the committee. Be sure to get all commitments that are made to you in writing.

Last, if you choose to go to another college, maintain a teachable attitude in every institution you attend. This is especially applicable to the final two-year stretch. This may seem a moot point, but I have seen far too many evangelicals who have approached our Presbyterian theological colleges with an axe to grind after attending other schools. If you have two years to study, don't alienate yourself from your teachers and your fellow students with an arrogant attitude. There is much to learn even from those who you may disagree with from time to time.

At present evangelicals who are also Presbyterians have some difficult choices before them if they are to seek ordination within the PCC. All three choices I have listed above require a great deal of compromise, a quality I am sure most students are hoping to avoid when pursuing a theological education. I am hopeful that the General Assembly will at some time in the near future revisit the issues surrounding the theological education of students preparing for ministry within the church. I, for one, will be there fishing for answers to the question; how we can be evangelical and Presbyterian and study for the ministry?