“You must be the change you wish to see in the world” – Mahatma Gandhi
One of the first questions asked of a person planning on becoming clergy is, “tell me about your call to ministry.” God seems to have a wide variety of ways to make “that voice” heard. Some can tell you the day, the hour, and the place when “the unmistakable event” occurred. Others seem to become more and more aware over a long period of time that ordained leadership is what they were meant to be. Even then “the call” can be something grasped and lost.
My journey into ordained ministry began with small, seemingly insignificant events, which over time became clearer to me as the “nudging of God”. Between the ages of 12 and 15 my family lived in Marion, Indiana. My mother had been raised Quaker and my father was brought up as a Methodist. Marion, Indiana was the first place we had lived that had a Quaker church of the variety that my mother had known as a child. It was the kind of Quaker church that had an ordained minister, and there was structured liturgy that included a significant time of silent prayer. There was significant sentiment toward pacifism, but there were two members of the church who were serving in the armed services. Our country was in the middle of World War II.
What I learned about silent prayer was that it wasn’t silent. Persons in the congregation would pray out loud. My mother informed me that those persons “had been moved by the spirit.” The fascinating thing about this silent prayer time was that God seemed to “move” the same people each Sunday for about the same amount of time. I began to struggle with the fact that no one ever prayed for the soldiers from our church. After several weeks I mustered the courage to ask for God’s protection for all those who were risking their lives for our freedom and safety. As a result of that short prayer people came up to me and said things like, “You need to think about being a minister”. I just laughed it off at the time, but looking back, the seed was planted. Later, when I was in high school, my pastor would take me to events where I heard some fantastic preaching and moving stories of the work of the church around the world. The tipping point happened when my best friend, a Presbyterian, shared with me that he had decided to go into the ministry. I decided right then that if he could do it, I could too.
If there had been no further “nudges” I am quite sure I would not have been a local church pastor very long. It was the racial turmoil of the 60’s that solidified my call to ministry and it was the realization that I would have to “be” the change I wanted to see in the world. Becoming that change can also happen over time. I wanted to be a part of the march in Washington. I had met Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was a graduate student at Boston University School of Theology. I had no inkling about who he would become, but in the early 60’s it became more and more clear that the movement he was giving leadership to was going to have to become embraced by the church if the church was to have any chance of being taken seriously in the future.
I believe it is terribly presumptuous to assume that a valid call to ministry must be a carbon copy of your own. I do believe that naming a life changing event, or a series of nudging events, as God’s call to vocation is an important understanding. Without this understanding there is a lack of commitment when the going gets tough. The reality is that whatever vocation we commit to, the going will get tough.
If a sense of calling is an important ingredient for a fulfilled life, and if God can use the most mundane events to nudge us in the direction of our vocation, then it behooves all of us in the church to make available to the best and brightest of our youth those experiences which affirm the values of compassion and service. During the six years that I was District Superintendent, supervising the work of 85 churches, I had occasion to hear complaints of dissatisfaction with the minister from a number of congregations. In the my third year on the District I decided it was time to address the issue of “a call to ministry” with every church under my care. The vehicle I used was what Methodists call a Charge Conference. It is an annual meeting when all kinds of administrative decisions have to be made, such as the election of the next year’s officers, setting the budget for the next year, setting the salary and benefits for the pastor, etc. Before these meetings I gathered the data on which congregations in my district had ever recommended anyone for ordained ministry. Without that recommendation you cannot start the journey toward ordination. One of the things I learned from this data was that most of the churches that had become upset with their pastor’s skills were also churches that had never been a nurturing community within which a young person sensed a call to ministry. Those congregations had recommended no person for ordained ministry. I told those churches that the implications of this data were obvious to me. When a congregation’s life was such that church leadership rose from within its ranks, there was far more willingness to live with the weaknesses and nurture the strengths of the pastors assigned to them.
A word of caution is needed in this process. Manipulation is never a healthy way to a vocational call. Making experiences available that have the chance of clarifying a need is legitimate but trying to manipulate the decision a person makes to those experiences is to dishonor the freedom that all of us have been given to decide the meaning and direction of our lives.
One final observation about the call to ordained ministry. When I began my seminary preparation most of my classmates were either just out of college or had served in the military. The age difference was no more than four or five years. By the time I had been ordained for 25 years that pattern had shifted. Many more persons were experiencing a call to ministry after a decade or two in some other line of work. My first impression of this shift was that it would be an unqualified gift to the church since these second career persons were far more mature than I had been when appointed to my first congregation. What actually happened was a mixed blessing. Many of the persons coming into ministry as a second career had reevaluated their vocational direction after some painful or traumatic event in their personal life. The experience could have been a divorce, a death of a loved one, a sense of meaninglessness of the former job, or some other kind of trauma. During that painful period they had experienced their involvement in the church as critical to their healing process. There had been warm support and encouragement, which gave new meaning to the role of the church. In the midst of this appreciation, some had heard these experiences as a call to enter the ordained ministry. Not all, but a significant portion of these second career clergy were then shocked to learn that the way many congregations relate to clergy is significantly different from the warm, safe, affirming relationship they remembered earlier. Some became bitter. Some became disillusioned. Some learned to embrace this experience and became powerful witnesses to the unfailing grace of God. What I realized was the importance of every “new pastor” needs an understanding mentor who has the skills of building trust in the midst of care.