Book Review: Handle That New Call with Care, by David Campbell
Few decisions in a pastor’s life are more important—or more difficult—than whether or not to accept a call to a new congregation.
Yet, as David Campbell points out in the introduction to his book Handle that New Call with Care, very little has been written on this subject (9). Campbell, who was the pastor of Geneva Road Evangelical Baptist Church in Darlington, England for fourteen years before becoming the senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, writes as one who has personally wrestled through this question. This book was written to help pastors, their fellow elders, and church members consider the issues that arise when a pastor receives a call from another church (10).
A NARROW FOCUS
At the book’s outset, Campbell clearly delimits the scope of his discussion: “Its starting point is the call itself: a pastor serving a particular congregation has received a call to another. Nothing is going to be said about the steps leading up to such a call” (10). While Campbell does the reader a great service by clearly defining the scope of his work, one could wish that he had at least offered a few reflections on the steps which tend to precede receiving a call, since these steps offer more than a few pitfalls for pastors. (For some helpful reflections on the whole process of leaving a church, see “Leave Your Church Well: An Interview with Michael Lawrence”).
A COMPILATION OF PASTORAL WISDOM FROM THE PAST
After a brief introduction, the book consists of seven short chapters. Apart from chapter one and several short scriptural discussions elsewhere, the book is mainly a compilation of pastoral wisdom from the past. He finds much of this in ministers’ letters and autobiographies and their record of wrestling with whether or not to accept a call to a new church.
In chapter one Campbell briefly discusses the biblical role of pastors, whom he places within the larger category of “ministers of the Word.” Chapter two asserts the sovereignty of Christ over all pastors, which means he has the authority to move them to another church or keep them in one place. Chapter three examines the reasons for uncertainty, the pain it causes, and the confidence we can have in God’s faithful guidance. Chapters four and five explore good reasons to stay and leave, while chapter six provides practical guidance for actually making the decision. Finally, chapter seven looks at the sorrow, difficulties, and excitement which may all attend a move from one church to another.
A HELPFUL RESOURCE—WITH JUST A FEW QUALIFICATIONS
This book is a generally helpful resource for a pastor who’s considering going to another church. As with a number of other intensely practical subjects (suffering comes to mind), this is a topic best thought through before you have to experience it, and pastors certainly stand to profit from working through this little book.
Some highlights include a useful discussion of the preciousness of “pastoral capital” as a good reason to stay in one’s current church (46-47), several helpful exhortations about how to make the final decision (ch. 6), a good list of questions to ask one’s potential future church (71-72), and a balanced discussion of the potential pros and cons of leaving (chs. 4 and 5).
Some Faulty Precedents
My most serious concern with the book is that at several points Campbell sees too much continuity between modern-day pastors and the apostles and their appointed delegates. The explicit point of continuity he identifies—that all are ministers of God’s Word—is of course legitimate (14). But he frequently derives precedents for pastors from the apostles or their delegates which seem to run afoul of other biblical principles.
For example, after a long and favorable discussion of the Free Church of Scotland’s former practice of having a man’s Presbytery determine whether or not he should accept a new call, Campbell suggests that, “It is clear…from the instances of Titus and Timothy moving on Paul’s instructions that, in principle, a minister’s decision to move from one place to another may properly be taken by those who have lawful authority over him” (77). I understand the New Testament to teach, however, that a pastor is not under the authority of any extra-ecclesial body or individual. While he should certainly seek counsel from fellow elders and other trusted pastors, this means that no body or individual outside of his local church has the authority to command him to go or stay.
Sheep Without a Shepherd?
A couple less significant issues are also worth mentioning. First, concerning a pastor’s responsibility to ensure a successor if he moves on, Campbell writes, “If, therefore, he has no colleague to step into his shoes and there is no immediate prospect of a replacement, he may well be uncertain as to whether it is right for him to leave” (36). Campbell is surely on the right track here but I wish he’d go further. If a shepherd had no colleague to step into his shoes and no immediate prospect of a replacement, would he be merely uncertain about whether it was right for him to leave?
A Little Soft on Secrecy
Regarding the decision itself, Campbell suggests that some men will choose to involve their fellow elders in the decision, but this will depend on a number of situational factors (78). Certainly, there may be circumstances in which a man’s fellow elders will not be the most helpful counselors when considering a call to another church. But, assuming a certain level of maturity and like-mindedness among the elders, wouldn’t we all agree that a pastor should seek the counsel of his fellow elders about a matter as weighty as this? As it is, I’m afraid that Campbell’s neutrality at this point leaves the door a little too open to the kind of self-serving secrecy which too often governs pastors’ approaches to deciding whether or not to accept a new call.
A USEFUL STARTING POINT
Despite these relatively minor issues, Handle that New Call with Care provides a useful starting point for thinking through in advance how to respond to another pastoral opportunity which may arise. If you’re a pastor, I’d happily recommend that you read this book.