The United Methodists Church expends a great deal of energy and time on its process of raising up pastors. One important, perhaps central, role of the elder is preacher. In the old Methodist movement, they had a set of questions to help them identify those called to preach.
1. Do they know God as a pardoning God? Have they the love of God abiding in them? Do they desire and seek nothing but God? And are they holy in all manner of conversation?
2. Have they the gifts (as well as grace) for the work? Have they (in some tolerable degree) a clear, sound understanding? Have they a right judgment in the things of God? Have they a just conception of salvation by faith? And has God given them any degree of utterance? Do they speak justly, readily, clearly?
3. Have they fruit? Are any truly convinced of sin, and converted to God, by their preaching?
It is this third criteria that is a challenge to The United Methodist Church today. We are treated every year to the reports that a great number of our churches do not receive even one new member by profession of faith each year. Even if we accept that every profession of faith is an actual case of conversion in the sense that Wesley meant it, we can say that a great number of our preachers bear little fruit of the kind Wesley made a key mark of preacher being called to the work.
One thing we should keep in mind, of course, is that Wesley’s list was actually devised in argument against the Church of England critics of his movement. They criticized the Methodists for allowing men to preach who had not been authorized by the church for that vocation. Wesley countered — and this is where his third criteria came into play — that a true preacher was not one who held official sanction by the church but was one who the Holy Spirit used to bring sinners to Christ.
But these three questions were far from the only criteria for Methodist preachers. They were, in fact, just the beginning.
A man (yes they were men) who felt called to preach among the Methodists, if accepted, would be put on a four-year trial period. The preacher was given a copy of the minutes of the conference of Methodists — the equivalent of their doctrine and discipline. If after reading the minutes a preacher consented to comply, he would be assigned his task. After a four year trial, the preacher might be admitted to full connexion. But the conference minutes also make clear that a preacher might be dismissed from the trial or denied admission to the connexion. Upon being admitted, he would be given a copy of the conference minutes with this inscription:
As long as you freely consent to, and earnestly endeavour to walk by, these Rules, we shall rejoice to acknowledge you as a fellow-labourer.
In musing about the weakness of Methodism in some circuits, the minutes of the Methodist conferences observe that too often the assistants in charge of the preachers were too lax in enforcing Methodist discipline.
When I attended an ordination service at annual conference for the first time, I was not aware of the historic significance of the bishop handing the newly ordained elders a copy of the Book of Discipline. I do wonder, however, whether we might be better served if we recalled the heavy charge put on those early Methodist preachers.
How many of us “freely consent to, and earnestly endeavour to walk by” our rules? Would we better stronger and would the work of God be served better if more of us did?