An Important and Less-Than-Positive Lesson from the Conservatives (which no one really wants to admit out loud)

Over at Reformation 21, Carl Trueman has a post on the coming night of full-time ministers in America. His contention is that, as the bigger-is-better mentality continues to affect the Church, pastors of smaller congregations will eventually get squeezed out of their full-time salaries. Their churches and their positions will still exist, but in a much smaller form. Enter center stage: the liberals. According to Mr. Trueman’s liberal counterparts at liberal seminaries, this reality has already set in among liberal churches and liberal clergy. “Liberal friends at mainline seminaries tell me that bivocational ministry has become an established pattern…” According to Trueman, such a pattern might very well be the “key to survival” among conservatives as well.

At first, I thought Trueman’s post was brilliant. After all, I and my peers are currently living its truth. I am a rural pastor. I serve in a poor presbytery where the ministers are generally not well-paid. Many have other sources of income besides their pastoral salary, or they have simply learned to live on very little. I myself work two jobs in order to provide adequately for my family. In fact, I have often contemplated writing the very post that Dr. Trueman wrote. But let’s be honest: he has the credentials to be heard. I do not.

With that said, drinking Trueman’s insightful post to the dregs left me with much more sediment that I expected. More specifically, this postscript left my mental palette all scrunched up:

Postscript: A week or two before Christmas, the congregation where I have worshipped for over eight years and where I now sit on session voted to call me as its pastor from August 1 next year. If the presbytery decide to place the call into my hands at its February meeting, I will most certainly accept it. The call is part time and is, I suspect, the shape of things to come for many of the more modestly sized (i.e., the majority of) churches in the USA, given the current condition of the economy. In this instance, at least, I am hoping to practice what I preach – and indeed to do so while I preach.

With all due respect to the good docent theologiae (did I decline that correctly?), this is not what he preached. How is a full-time professor (with an adequate salary and benefits) moonlighting in the pastorate analogous to a full-time pastor struggling to fulfill the demands of his ministry while eking out a living at Wal-Mart or Lowe’s or some sort of part-time government work? It is not. Furthermore, while Trueman says his work will be part time, it is unclear whether the church he will be serving is capable of hiring someone full time. If it is, Trueman is not practicing his preaching, but rather blatantly violating it. He would be filling a position that another minister or ministerial candidate (the OPC is full of them right now) might otherwise fill. So then it would appear that the lesson of the liberals is that underpaid pastors should get another job. But the lesson of the conservatives is that they should have gotten their Ph.Ds and published something in order to double dip in both academia and the church.

Think I’m being too hard on Dr. Trueman? Think again. The Aquila Report reported today that the Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan has been elected as a regular faculty member at Reformed Theological Seminary while remaining in his pastoral position (Senior Minister) at First Presbyterian Church. “But it ain’t the same!” you say. Well, yes, that’s formally true. Trueman is adding the church to his W-2; Duncan is adding the seminary. But aren’t they both adding lots more work to already adequately paying work? Of course they are. How could the Senior Minister of an almost dozen-member ministry staff possibly be in want or bored, especially when formerly occupied with regular “national speaking engagements”? Are we to believe that an academic dean and professor of church history at one of the top Reformed seminaries in America needs a part-time call to minister at his local church in order to pay the mortgage? Of course not. Yes, Messrs. Trueman and Duncan are bivocational; but their bivocational ministry resembles very little of the bivocational pattern that I and my peers know and live.

In fact, if we are going to be truth tellers, their pattern, like mine, also has a counterpart in liberalism. It’s an open secret that while many liberal congregations are poor and weak, their denominational headquarters are well-funded and vigorous. I know, I know: neither Duncan nor Trueman work at their denomination’s headquarters. But like their liberal counterparts, they do form an elite by virtue of their respective educations and positions. And like any elite–liberal or conservative–they have more well paying work than they can probably handle. 

So I guess the lesson then is neither from the liberals nor the conservatives. The lesson is from life in a world governed by God’s providence: there are have’s, and there are have-not’s. Patronizing the latter certainly isn’t going to change anything. 

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11 thoughts on “An Important and Less-Than-Positive Lesson from the Conservatives (which no one really wants to admit out loud)

  1. Ken,

    The issues you raise here are all too true. Our small PCA church can only support 2 part time pastors on paltry salaries, but they faithfully carry out the work of the ministry week in and week out. As a mega-church transplant, I can tell you that larger churches simply are so out of touch with the yaw and pitch of the average small church that they can’t help but patronize what they view to be less successful (or even less faithful) ministries. And the celebrity mills in evangelical and (sadly) Reformed circles end up perpetuating the bigger is better mentality, and orgs such as ACE and TGC end up unwittingly siphoning off funds from denominations and small churches, only exacerbating the problem.

    Thanks for your work on behalf of all small churches who have bivocational pastors, who do what they must to be faithful to their calls.

    • Ken

      You may well be raising valid general points, but before you take cheap shots at Dr Trueman, you might want to check your facts. For example, do you know anything about the church he will be serving? It could well be that they can’t afford a full time pastor and maybe they aren’t in a position to pay him very much.

      So, before you take cheap shots that question Dr Trueman’s integrity, try checking some facts. it might not allow you to feel quite so self righteous, but It would be the decent thing to do.

      • Jacob,

        I think you should reread the post. In it, I explicitly express my ignorance of the details of Dr. Trueman’s situation (notice my use of the conditional “if”). Quite frankly, those details are really none of my business. My carefully reasoned response to his postscript–hardly a cheap shot–was meant to expose its basic fallacy, which is true apart from the details of his call. Well-employed people who take up occasional or part-time work in the church are not really bivocational in the same way as full-time pastors who must find additional work in order to survive or achieve a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. The fact that I and my peers are a part of the latter doesn’t make us any more or less righteous than Dr. Trueman. But the fact that Dr. Trueman is working part-time in his local church doesn’t mean that he’s taking his own advice.

  2. Ken

    These are your words….

    “He would be filling a position that another minister or ministerial candidate (the OPC is full of them right now) might otherwise fill. So then it would appear that the lesson of the liberals is that underpaid pastors should get another job. But the lesson of the conservatives is that they should have gotten their Ph.Ds and published something in order to double dip in both academia and the church.”

    So, Dr. Trueman is double dipping and keeping some other person out of a pastoral job? If that isn’t a cheap shot I don’t know what is.

    • Jacob, I’m forced to conclude that you in fact do not know what a cheap shot is. Again, please read more carefully. You failed to quote the sentence just before all this, which begins “If it is…” So I’m addressing the whole thing conditionally. I’m admitting I don’t know for sure. And the portion you quote uses the word “would.” In English, this is a modal verb, which includes a certain amount of uncertainty, contingency, and/or conditionality. So I’m not saying he’s double dipping. I’m saying he might be. This possibility is then supported by the example of another Reformed pastor in a situation with notable similarities to that of Dr. Trueman’s. A cheap shot would take such possibilities and analogies and make them into dogmatic assertions used to attack someone’s character. I have taken possibilities, suggested reasonable-yet-uncertain implications, and then used those implications to reveal a fallacy in someone’s thinking (a fallacy that would still be present even if the reasonably suggested implications did not obtain). That is not a cheap shot; it is playing fair.

  3. Ken

    Playing fair would be checking your facts first and building a case on the actual facts and not on your suppositions. You admit you don’t know the details of Dr. Trueman’s situation but still make a case that calls his integrity into question.

    That is a cheap shot in my book and I think most people would agree with me.

    • “…and I think most people would agree with me.” Did you come that conclusion by checking your facts first, or is it just a reasonable supposition? See what I mean.

      And you can call someone’s consistency into question without touching upon their integrity (this chapter in your book should be rewritten). I happen to think very highly of Dr. Trueman. I just think he got this one wrong.

  4. I can see that this isn’t going to go anywhere and that’s fine, but let me leave you with a couple of more thoughts. The Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms in their sections on the ninth commandment remind us that we are to be concerned for the

    “…promoting of truth between man and man,and the good name of our neighbour, as well as our own”. I wonder how your criticisms of Dr. Trueman promote his good name?

    You might also consider the impact of your comments on the congregation who has called him. The logical conclusion of your argument is that by calling him they have a] chosen him because he’s a public figure and b] that in doing this they have chosen a to reject other worthy and unemployed pastoral candidates.

    • You’re probably right about the impasse, Jacob. But I do appreciate your willingness to object. It’s the essence of the Presbyterianism. I have not taken your comments lightly.

      As far as the congregation, one other person has raised this issue with me via email. Personally, if I were a member of Trueman’s congregation, I would have lobbied for his call several years ago. He’s a wonderfully talented man, and he will do an amazing job for his church, I have no doubt. So for the record, they did the right thing in calling him.

      As far as the 9th Commandment goes, notice how the Shorter Catechism advocates both the promotion of truth AND the good names of all involved. In practice, there is usually tension between these two. So we make our criticisms without resorting to ad hominem tactics. In reality, sometimes amazingly fantastic people (like Dr. Trueman) stub their toe.

  5. >>> In reality, sometimes amazingly fantastic people (like Dr. Trueman) stub their toe.

    Words (almost) fail me! You just don’t get it do you?!

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