On a May afternoon in 2015, I walked out of Professor Dykstra’s office with the same feeling of mixed emotions which was becoming familiar for me as a seminary student. On the one hand, I had just been granted license by the seminary faculty to speak a word of edification in the Protestant Reformed Churches! Being licensed was highly significant, as it indicated that the professors judged I had the necessary spiritual and intellectual gifts, and was far enough along in the development of those gifts, to stand before God’s people and lead them in worship. The Lord had opened another door as I continued to prepare for the gospel ministry.
On the other hand, the announcement of my licensure was also accompanied by another inescapable thought—a thought which continued to creep in the back of my mind until it eventually stretched over the forefront of my consciousness—a thought which became almost overpowering as I lay face up on the living room couch at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 14, listening to the steady ticking of the second hand coming from the mantel. I knew that in an hour and a half I would walk for the first time from the consistory room to the sanctuary, down the center aisle and up the steps to the pulpit, whereupon I would turn around and behold a sea of faces all expecting me to take charge of the proceedings for the next hour and a half.
I begin this post drawing attention to my first experience leading the people of God in worship as a seminary student for two reasons.
In the first place, I think it is usually the case that young men who wonder whether they are being called to pursue the ministry are a bit frightened by the prospect of standing before God’s people in the worship service. I can testify that a good deal of fright and nervousness in anticipation of this work was my own experience. The fright is compounded by the fact known to every seminary student that preaching is the central work which a minister is called to do—if the student lacks the ability to preach, he is not called to the ministry.
But it is in this connection that I want to assure every young man who considers the call to the ministry: fright and nervousness regarding the prospect of standing before God’s people in the worship service is not only normal and to be expected, it is healthy and proper. The response of the prophet Isaiah when he was called by God to be a prophet is well-known: “Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). The prophet Jeremiah responded to his calling in a similar way: “Then said I, Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child” (Jeremiah 1:6). I imagine if one were to ask just about any minister, candidate, or seminary student in the Protestant Reformed Churches, these would all testify that they experienced some fright and nervousness when they began to pursue the ministry. In fact, I imagine that it is the case for most ministers that they still experience nerves and fright on Sunday morning in anticipation of their work for the day. The experience of fright and nerves is normal for those who pursue the ministry.
It is also healthy and proper. I was instructed in seminary that if I did not experience the sensation of butterflies fluttering in my belly before going up to the pulpit, something is likely wrong. From a purely physical and mental point of view, nerves and fright bring about an adrenaline burst which heightens the focus and recall of the mind. But much more important is the spiritual dimension—for fear regarding my own lack of ability (in Jeremiah’s words, “I am a child!”), and fear regarding my own sin and unworthiness (in Isaiah’s words, “I am a man of unclean lips!”) is the means the Holy Spirit uses to destroy any sense of self-reliance one might have before ascending the pulpit. In this way, the Spirit drives a man to prayer. Instead of seeing his work as his own, he sees himself only as a means by which God effects his work in the hearts of his people. It is exactly this sense of reliance on God alone that the minister of the gospel must have if he is to do his work properly.
Nevertheless, I would also point out that the life of a seminarian (and I expect the life of a minister as well) is not a life of constant nervousness and fear. When Christ calls a man to the ministry, he also leads him and strengthens him along the way. Early on the young seminarian is afraid that he will not be able to complete the full volume of assignments he is given—but as the pressure increases, so the Lord gives him strength to continue. Eventually the growing seminarian is faced with the reality of standing before catechism students and he wonders whether he is able to keep a classroom under control—but the Lord opens this door for him as well. Now he is confronted with the heart of his future work, proclaiming the Word of God during Sunday worship services, and his heart palpitates at the thought—but the Lord stands on his right hand and on his left through this as well. When Jesus Christ truly calls a man to labor among his sheep, he prepares that man. Then, nerves and fright become servants which make a man ready for the work and press him forward, and continue to press him forward by the grace of God until he hears those sweet words from the Lord himself: “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matt. 25:23).
I said at the beginning that I have two reasons for drawing attention to my first experience leading the people of God in worship. The second reason is that regularly leading God’s people in worship is a central aspect in the lives of third and fourth year seminarians. In my next post, if the Lord wills, I intend to reflect a bit on the third year of seminary.
This article was written by Rev. Joseph Holstege who was recently ordained into the gospel ministry and is now pastor of Zion Protestant Reformed Church, in Hudsonville, Michigan.