Gatekeepers or Shepherds?

ZuulterrordogI staff the Commission on Preparation for Ministry which is the denominational group that oversees those preparing for professional ministry.  We are charged with being both Gatekeepers and Shepherds.  We are expected to keep people out who should not be ordained and support those who should.  It is a powerful task.

In my Presbytery, the first step towards ordination is a meeting with the person in my position, so for now, that would be me.  At that initial meeting, I share with those feeling nudged by God to serve in professional ministry a couple of important truths:

  • Everyone is called to ministry in our theology, but not everyone is called to professional ministry.
  • You will be told, in this process, things that are not easy to hear.  That’s our job:  to share constructive criticism that will help you become a better minister to the glory of God.
  • Your journey will not be like anyone else’s journey.  If your family of origin died in a fiery crash when you were ten years old, you will probably be required to have some serious counseling, unlike your seminary classmate who had a different childhood.  If you have always been in suburban congregations, we will ask you to get experience in a rural or urban church.
  • This is a time of figuring out what God wants.  This is not about what you want, what your mother wants, what your favorite professor wants.  This is a time of holy discernment.  It might not be easy.  But it will be glorious.
  • If ever this process feels like fraternity hazing, bullying, or Princess Bride-ish torture, please let me know and we will make some changes.  God doesn’t demand that we must be crucified.  We already have a Savior.

The Commission for Preparation for Ministry (CPM) often has a terrible reputation.  Seminarians compare notes on how terrible CPM has been to them.  Horror stories are told.  Ordination exam readers are condemned for not allowing creativity.  CPM liaisons are shredded privately for not being – in any way – cuddly.

But here’s what I’ve learned after having this job for a couple years:

  • It’s a problem if CPM doesn’t see that you are teachable.  Please don’t roll your eyes when we ask a simple question.  It makes us think you will be one of those pastors who treats lay people like they are stupid.
  • It’s a problem if you cannot articulate your call.  It’s okay if God spoke to you via your cat, if you can articulate this experience with authenticity and wonder.  (Okay, maybe God speaking through you cat would be a concern.)  But, honestly, you can tell us your story – if it’s real – and we will be grateful.
  • It’s a problem if you can’t handle the material.  Seminary classes can be challenging, especially if you are dyslexic and are then expected to read Hebrew.  But we will help you in any way possible.  Just let us know and, I swear, we will do everything in our power to make it work.
  • It’s a problem if you are unwilling to stretch outside your comfort zone.  So you hate the smell of hospitals? Welcome to Clinical Pastoral Education.  You have no interest in parish ministry?  Welcome to youth group.  God-willing, you will be ordained to Professional Ministry and who knows what God will call you to do next.  We want you to be as well prepared as possible.

I figure that we are gatekeepers about 20% of the time and shepherds the other 80% – if everybody is on top of things and there are no glaring issues.  What gives us all this Power?  Honestly – serving as people who guide future pastors is humbling.  We want to know you.  We want to support you.  But very occasionally we need to say, “no.”

On a final note, sometimes CPMs are unfair, uncaring, and out of touch with reality.  I’ve heard of seekers who have been told to quit their jobs so that they can focus on seminary (although they need to work to pay their bills.)  I’ve heard of inquirers who have been asked to re-do Field Education because they did it without official approval.  I’ve know candidates for ordination who are asked to take an extra unit of Clinical Pastoral Education in a specific site because they need more bedside manner training, even though they have degrees in nursing or social work.  It frustrates me too.  And yet, ministry is always – always – frustrating.

It’s also worthy of the best trained ministers we can possibly prepare.

Image of Zuul – “The Gatekeeper” – from Ghostbusters.  Most CPM members are not this scary.

2 responses to “Gatekeepers or Shepherds?

  1. In my tribe I served on the committee that had the same function as your CPM. We had no staff to help us and we only met a couple of times a year since we are a small tribe. I can’t prove it but on at least a couple of occasions I am pretty sure we had pastors try to deal with “fervent but annoying” members by dumping them on the committee. Often without explaining the basics of the process to them. Dumping may not be the right word but I can’t think of a better one now.


  2. Oh my gosh, ceema, I know this tactic. “Let’s remove this troublesome (Sunday School teacher, clerk, committee chair, etc.) by getting her involved in the Presbytery.” It’s better, it seems, to face the member head-on and share the issues of his/her behavior more directly.


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