Call Waiting

Are we missing something?  I have worked with college and seminary students for about twenty years now, and I am alarmed that the concept of “call” is on the endangered species list.  In a recent conversation about “call to ministry,” I actually had a second year seminary student come to me and ask me what I was talking about.  This woman told me she never had a sense that God was calling her; she simply loves the Bible, the church and people so she made the “decision” to “try” ministry.  When I speak to laity about call, most of them look at me funny and say, “well, no, I don’t want to be ordained.”  What has happened to our understanding of “call” to ministry?  Laity don’t think it is for them, and a growing number of clergy candidates don’t know what it is.

A few years ago I worked with an annual conference on clergy morale.  Of the almost 400 participants in the program, over 300 expressed a sense of “call” to ministry.  We defined a “prophetic call” as, “a fundamental belief and assurance that God will use my skills, gifts and talents to accomplish God’s work and will in the church and in the world.”  This definition was crafted by the participants to describe what they felt their own call meant.  However, we explored the question: “how well do you think your current service reflects this calling?” and the majority felt that the “church work” they were doing in pastoral ministry had less to do with God’s will than the will of the people they served.  For most, it took less than three years in the local church before they felt they were pursuing something other than the original call they felt on their lives.  Countless stories of calls to ministry for preaching or healing or social transformation that were subsumed by focus on conflicts and carpets and copiers and comfort were shared.  A large segment of pastors who feel called to ministry also feel they have somehow strayed from the will and vision of God.

One study I led interviewed clergy who left the ministry before retirement.  A lop-sided 62% of those who burned-out and fled reported that they never had a call to ministry, but that it was a career choice.  One of my professors once told me, “if there is anything else you think you could do besides ministry, go do it.  The life of the ordained pastor is for those who know in their hearts that there is nothing else they would rather do.”  Would that we could all find such assurance.

Another change I note regards reinforcement and encouragement.  When I was in college, I had no fewer than seven clergy and a handful of laity approach me to ask me if I had considered ministry for my future.  These were people who knew me, worked with me, discerned in me gifts for ministry, and they encouraged me to pray — and they prayed with and for me — for God’s guidance.  For the last few years I met with Vanderbilt Divinity School students, I asked who was encouraging them in their ministry path, and I was distressed to find that most had made the decision for ministry on their own with no encouragement of affirmation from family, friends, of communities of faith.  Many seminary students report that they don’t pray about their decision (there is an unsettling attitude that prayer is not important or helpful) and that they simply feel they are going to be good at it.

Many young clergy and a large number of laity report that the concept of call isn’t talked about, preached about, or taught in their churches.  “It’s quaint,” reported one pastor who feels that a call is just a form of delusion.  “It is a carry over from a more superstitious and simple time.  God isn’t out there choosing a team.  God has more important things to do.  People who say they were “called” to ministry are just trying to validate their own decision.”  Another pastor chimed in, “Being called to ministry is just an old way of explaining the sense that this is the right thing to do.  Everyone has a sense of “calling” to things they are passionate about.”

I wonder.  I personally experienced a calling, and one of the reasons I trust it is that it was NOT what I was planning for my own life.  I do feel that this is God’s idea, not mine.  I did feel a firm, but gentle reorienting of my life into ordained ministry.  It was “real” for me, and it has sustained me through many difficult times — the kind of situations many people without a sense of calling report as decisive in their decision to “leave” ministry.  Those with a sense of calling appear to be better equipped to handle the pressures and stresses of ministry, and it worries me that fewer and fewer clergy and laity take the idea seriously.  I believe we are in trouble if we all the sense of divine call to go the way of the typewriter, the transistor radio, and the 8-track tape.  At least in those cases, something better came along to replace them.  I wonder if there is anything better than God’s own call on our lives…

13 replies

  1. Thanks for raising awareness here, Dan. In some ways we are a community with stewardship and development of the callings we are blessed with: lay, clergy, vision, mission, etc.

    For me, the call has been an anchor when the church was not able to support the stewardship of my call.

    Dan Schwerin

  2. As one currently in seminary with a mid-life call into ordained ministry, I can tell you that I have been asked about my call at every step of the way. In fact, I met this morning with our new dCOM (we were re-districted this past year) and the first question I was asked was, “Tell us about your call.” The seminary I attend has a committee that meets once a year to evaluate each student’s “fit” for ministry — or “call” — and will recommend remedial action if they feel there is no fit (this isn’t a UM seminary, btw, although it is on the University Senate’s approved list. And despite how that process sounds, the seminary would be considered liberal, not conservative).

    All that said, I find your report very disturbing, Dan. I fought my call for a while, arguing with God that I could serve just as well as a member of the laity. However, it got to the point that the call could not be satisfied any other way. As with you, I am convinced this is God’s idea, not mine. Which is good, because why else would I completely disrupt my life but to serve the God who has called me?

  3. What is the relationship between “prophetic” sense of call (as you define above) and other aspects of call? Is there a fundamental ontological connection with calling–that is, who are we called to be? Should we, as Christians…or anyone seeking to understand Christ, not have some sense of a calling to be God’s child? Should we not encourage each other to live more fully into that calling? Related to our calling to be is our sense of calling to do…what is it that God is calling us to do? Doesn’t everyone have some calling (a prophetic sense of calling) along these lines? Shouldn’t we be investing a lot of time in the local church to pursue these two dual callings? And then there’s the ecclesiastical calling–who are we called to be and what are we called to do as a congregation, as a district, as an Annual Conference, as a denomination?

    I am somewhat baffled by the results of your research. The Bishops that I have served under consistently have promoted a sense of call, as have the Board of Ordained Ministry (I have experience in more than one Conference). In addition, the call theme was at the very least in the background during my seminary days–I even remember that the “call story” was part of my application process. In fact, I got really tired of talking about my call and had to keep myself from rolling my eyes every time someone said, “Tell me about your call.” But I’m also really thankful that Bishops, DS’s, seminary faculty and others consistently trained me to think about my call…and celebrate it…and honor it.

    In light of your research, it would seem that my experience is not the statistical norm. And the more I think about it, the subject doesn’t come up in parish life as much as it should. My heart is aching for the fact that calling so often is a subject that comes up only in relation to ordained ministry. What about the work of the people? Should there not be a program of equal intensiveness to help grow the laity into their sense of calling? The apprenticeship that Paul offered to Timothy comes to mind as an example of what I’m getting at.

    As an aside, it’s providential that you wrote this article in light of the lectionary passage for tomorrow–the Acts account of Paul’s “prophetic call” on the road to Damascus.

    • As an aside, it’s providential that you wrote this article in light of the lectionary passage for tomorrow–the Acts account of Paul’s “prophetic call” on the road to Damascus.

      Yes. I had the same thought.

      Paul certainly treasured and shared his call story throughout his ministry.

    • In one historical-biblical-theological sense “prophetic” means that it is both God that calls as well as God who acts through the called. Prophecy as “God speaking God’s Word through human agents” distinguishes from those who define a sense of call as a sense of good fit or something they feel drawn to. While God might use many means to call people to many different vocations, there are many people entering ministry who don’t feel that God has much to do with it at all. My point is that a growing number of newer clergy (both younger and second career) share that they are pursuing a desire to serve God and do good work, but they don’t feel that God is “calling.” What I find saddest are the number of laity who believe they have NOT been called, simply because they don’t pursue ordained ministry. The term “call” is used in a variety of ways — I notice that a couplew contestants on American Idol and a few players in the NBA and even an AIG exec all explain that they have been “called” to their various pursuits. Prophetic? Perhaps. I’m not as interested in clarifying a single definition as I am rasing awareness that there has been a shift, and that this may be a topic for some fruitful discussion and exploration.

  4. I agree 100% that call should not mean “ordained ministry.” As a part-time local pastor that would mean I have turned my back on my call. So, if I am wrong about that, I need to be told.

    It seems to me that there are two ways people became followers of Jesus in the gospels. Many were called directly. Others had some encounter with Jesus – often healing – and picked up and followed him.

    In Acts and Epistles, it appears that having an apostle preach the good news could also get people to ask, “What then should I do?” Sometimes the apostles appear to have included a call and others it looks like they just preached the good news and people responded to it.

    So, from that point of view, call may not be the only way to find yourself in ministry (of all believers.) It seems that not everyone has a call story. But saying that is a far cry from saying “a call” is just a projection of personal desires.

    Some surely are called. It is sad to hear people deny that fact.

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