by Robert Earl Houston
In 99.9% of all baptist ministers that I’ve ever come in contact with there are two “levels” of credentials – there is the license and the ordination. Because we are baptist, every church is autonomous and every pastor may do it differently, but across most pulpits they are still the same – the license and the ordination.
When I came up in ministry 35 years ago, licensure was not automatic. At my home church, New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, licensure was never a matter for church vote (as it is in many churches), but it was a judgement call by the pastor. I preached my first sermon on April 30, 1978, however, it wasn’t until September of 1979 when Dr. A. Bernard Devers, I, licensed me. It was some years later, in December 1984, when I was ordained by Dr. Johnny Pack, IV, after serving as Co-Interim Pastor of New Hope.
There seems to be some confusion today about the Baptist Ministers’ license. Generally speaking, a license is the church’s (or the pastor’s) approval for an individual to serve in ministry until that individual is qualified for ordination. In the black baptist church, that usually comes after the first or “trial” or “initial sermon.” I recently attended the first sermon of a minister in Lexington and that individual was licensed, by church vote, immediately after the sermon, not preached from the pulpit, but from the floor.
I’ve been re-thinking licensure because some young ministers frankly abuse the privilege. It seems that when some individuals receive that Lifeway printed “Certificate of License” there is a change in demeanor. I recently changed my pastoral stance and said that a minister must prove themselves and in the future I won’t grant automatic licensure or even consider the same for at least one year – there should be a “proving ground” at the church.
What many ministers don’t understand is that your license is akin to the Deacons license – which means that it’s tethered to the local church. For example, if you’re licensed at Second Baptist Church and then you leave to join Third Baptist Church, your licensure is not transferrable (that is the call of the Third Baptist Church or their pastor). In some cases, Senior Pastors have been known to “call in” (meaning you have to return it) a license because it is not the property of the minister, it’s the property of the church – it’s that church saying “we support you and grant you opportunity to minister.”
Sadly, we’re in an age of some malfeasance in the ranks of clergy. I’m not even sure that ministers who have served under me since my pastoral ministry began in 1989 and left understand that their license is no longer valid. I personally wrestle with this issue – that I may not be able to recommend a minister who is not under my direct visual supervision – because the licensure suggests that they are still in the apprentice mode and my signature on their license is not an automatic endorsement especially if they are not fulfilling their assigned tasks or take their ministry seriously.
In most cases, a licensed minister cannot perform weddings. In most cases, a licensed minister cannot perform funerals. In most cases, a licensed minister is not (without pastoral or board approval) allowed to speak on behalf or represent the local church. Licensure basically says this: “I am submitted to the pastor and church where I hold my membership.” Period. However, if the pastor allows, a licensed minister can perform weddings or funerals – but only with the Pastor’s blessings.
There was a time that when a minister visited another baptist congregation that he always kept with him a full-size or pocket-sized copy of his licensure or ordination. In some cases, the pastor wouldn’t even let you into the pulpit unless you were licensed. I was amused to read recently that a minister had been “ordained” without ever being licensed or being in an apprenticeship program – to me, it seems like a disservice to the future ministry of that minister.
One big difference between licensure and ordination is examination. Generally speaking, there is no board that licenses a baptist minister; there is no public catechism in use as used in the ordination service. However, with some of the issues that have arrived in churches lately, I would not be surprised to see some second thoughts on this procedure – and it’s realistic to expect that background checks, examinations, etc. may be on the way in generations to come.
I hope that this will cause us all to re-think the Licensure process. I know I have over twelve associates at my church and have two ministers – one under watch care and one who just announced his calling – waiting in the wings. My job as pastor is to mentor them, teach them in the hopes that they won’t be as good as I am – but that they will be better and do more.
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOMED