Lessons from a Letter of Call to John Owen
At some point in every local pastor's ministry he is going to experience an inquiry and even a call to serve in another congregation or area of service. I know for me, the first time this happened I had no idea what to do. I certainly was not prepared in seminary for this!
Thankfully I like old books and a lot of pastoral ministry of pastors can be learned in them. A while back as I was reading through The Correspondence of John (1616–1683): With an Account of his Life and Work, ed. Peter Toon (Cambridge and London: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1970), I was fascinated to read letter 71, "From the General Court of Massachusetts," dated October 20, 1663 (pp. 135–136). This letter is what we call a letter of call from one congregation to a minister, seeking to impress upon him their desire for him to come and serve in their midst. There are several lessons in this letter that the local church doing the calling can learn. Normally, we as pastors consult each other about what to say, how to say it, and what to look for in a potential congregation.
Here, though, I want to use this letter to Owen to exhort elders, sessions, consistories, and congregations as to what to say to a potential pastor.
First, the congregational church of Boston asked Owen "to come over and help us," alluding to the Macedonian man's call to the apostle Paul (Acts 16). You need to remember that this is not a perfunctory matter of resumes and CV's; this is no mere business acquisition. A calling process is a spiritual task as you are seeking the spiritual minsitry of a man of God.
Second, especially to those of you from a congregation in an average place without great attractions, sites, or a big city scene, listen to what the leaders of Boston said to Owen: "We confess the condition of this wilderness doth present little that is attractive, as to outward things." Again, you are not trying to wine and dine a new CEO. You are calling a pastor so be honest about your congregation, your surroundings, and your opportunities.
Third, continuing this theme of honesty, listen to how the writers described themselves to Owen: "the persons that call you, are unworthy sinful men, of much infirmity, and may possibly fall short of your expectation." Wow. You don't hear that these days. Every church search committee wants to put their best foot forward with their attractive prospectus. But speaking from experience, I know I would be more impressed by the kind of sheer honesty Owen received concerning the sinfulness of man than with all the song and dance I've seen out there.
In short, as a Reformed Christian who is an elder or search committee member involved in the calling process of a potential minister, be honest, be realistic, and be sincere.