Many pastors recall that it was another pastor who first invited them to consider their call to ministry. Yet it seems fewer and fewer pastors today feel comfortable initiating these conversations. This paradox has promoted the Lewis Center’s Religious Workforce Project Research Team to wonder who will be God’s agents of pastoral calling?
In interviews with scores of pastors, we have observed an interesting dynamic or tension within the pastors’ autobiographies. Many of them tell compelling and even inspiring stories about how they ended up in ministry. A common feature of the pastors’ call stories is the presence of another pastor who explicitly invited them to consider becoming a pastor. In fact, many pastors speak glowingly about the influence of these mentors and role models.
And yet, when we ask pastors how often they talk to others about becoming a pastor, we have been surprised by how infrequently pastors self-report taking such a step. For some, it appears they have adopted a broad vision of ministry, so broad in fact that congregational ministry is left out. (“You can do ministry in any profession!”) For others, it appears that pastors expect others to come and speak to them or otherwise “make the first move.” And perhaps our recent season of pandemic ministry has even further discouraged these kinds of conversations.
This paradox begs the question: Who will be the future agents of pastoral callings? If it is not pastors now who are inviting others to become pastors, who will it be?
A voice-activated system
The call to ordained ministry is often understood as a private communication with God, and it is. But the call is almost never heard without others who teach us to listen and wait, and who help us know how to respond. While God surely calls, God does not work alone. The Rev. Dr. David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary, likes to say that the call to ministry is a “voice-activated system” in which someone usually recognizes the call in others. God calls, but it may be that people need to provide additional nudges.
Name, notice, and nurture
Elizabeth Mitchel Clement has written that “calling congregations that send people into ordained ministry tend to do three things — notice, name, and nurture. They pay attention to young leaders in the congregation; invite them to hear God’s call by naming their gifts; and nurture them in the congregation and beyond, supporting and empowering young people for ministry.” (See Congregations Nurturing Future Leaders.)
Clements says calling congregations tend to have these characteristics:
- They are rich in relationships to support grace, growth, and development of people over time and in all life circumstances. They apprentice people as they grow toward the fullness of life.
- They are known as places where something important is at stake for creation and each other. They invest time, money and opportunity in discernment and response to life choices.
- They actively resist what thwarts the fulfillment of God’s vision of shalom and abundance. They invite and prepare people for discipleship, especially ministry.
- They make “God-sense” of life and what people do. They name people’s gifts and work as God sees them and set them free to flourish.
- They are healthy places for pastors and those who lead the church. They care for clergy and share leadership.
Supporting and nurturing potential new clergy leaders
If more young people are to answer the call to pastoral ministry, both pastors and the congregations they serve must be more engaged in helping future leaders hear and respond to God’s call on their lives. We need only look to the example of Jesus, who invested most of his earthly ministry in developing the leaders who would follow him. Pastors and congregations can cultivate a culture of call so that people of all ages learn how to listen, discern, and respond to God’s call. To do this, call and vocation should be incorporated into all aspects of ministry with children, youth, and adults so that everyone is empowered to listen for God’s call and faithfully use their gifts for ministry. Congregations should provide opportunities and resources for future leaders to listen, discern, and respond through worship, small groups, retreats, and participation in denominational programs focused on call and vocation. Appropriate ministry leaders should be trained to participate in the discernment and ordination process.
As congregations develop a culture of call, they can also prepare to support and nurture those who answer a call to ordained ministry. To do this, congregations should to the following:
- Connect future leaders with denominational opportunities to explore their calling.
- Establish scholarship programs to help future leaders pay for their education.
- Prayerfully support future leaders answering the call to ministry.
- Send care packages to college students and seminarians.
- Celebrate future leaders as they move forward in the ordination process.
- Ask candidates for ministry how they can best support them.
In an era when fewer and fewer young persons are responding to call to ordained ministry, if today’s pastors don’t take seriously their responsibility as agents of God’s calling, who will?
The Religious Workforce Project is an unprecedented effort to understand the nation’s religious workforce in a comprehensive way. The Project is made possible by a generous grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. Learn more at religiousworkforce.com.
- Number of Young United Methodist Elders Hits Historic Low by Lovett H. Weems Jr.
- What’s Keeping Younger People from Ordained Ministry in the United Methodist Church? by Ann A. Michel
- The Crisis of Younger Clergy in the UMC: Young Clergy and Candidates Speak Out, a Lewis Center panel discussion video
- Congregations Nurturing Future Leaders by Elizabeth Mitchell Clement
If you would like to share this article in your newsletter or other publication, please review our reprint guidelines.