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. My call (not to ordained ministry) is often what pushes me on when things bog down or become difficult. The assurance that God is present and working in my life, providing the gifts that I need to do what I’m called to do is so treasured. I cannot imagine being without it.
    I am saddened (although I suspect the truth in it) to think that there are those in ordained ministry that do not have that sense of call, and that relationship to aide them. Not to mention the lack of people praying for and supporting their call. The demands placed on/required by ordained ministry are enormous.
    And being led by one who doesn’t have a call, also greatly limits what a congregation is getting. My pastor speaks about us all having a call to a particular ministry and gifts to help us in that area—-and that prayer and listening to God’s call will help us recognise those. (and that calling may be our career or vocation).
    It explains a lot that a pastor without a call wouldn’t be good at helping others to recognise God’s calling for them.

  2. I’m still a believer, not just from what I see in the Bible and the Christian tradition, but also in my own life. I preach on it regularly, and have even done whole series on it.

  3. Dan,

    I am among those who would have done any number of other things had I not had a powerful experience of calling… and one that was also ratified by many people who knew me in church and elsewhere.

    At this point, however, I would not say that that experience actually drives, supports or comforts me all that much when difficulties come. It’s not that I doubt the genuineness of it. It seems more like I’ve moved beyond “needing” that experience in a number of ways.

    And further, I think in many ways the “culture of call” that I keep hearing most often only means one thing– call to ordained ministry, rather than call to embrace whatever ministry one has as a disciple of Jesus Christ. The portrayal of call has, for too long, been identified almost solely with the ministry of the ordained or with “professional” missionaries– and this turns out to be a violation not only of the early Protestant principle of the Beruf of all Christians, but indeed the call of all called Christians (Protestant or otherwise) to be real disciples of Jesus, and so actual missionaries sent in his name– wherever they are, and whatever they pursue as a means of supporting themselves financially.

    So it seems to me that some of the “pushback” you may be documenting comes in part from folks who have tired of the false distinctions about calling that make the ordained out to be the only real disciples, or perhaps just the best ones, while the rest of us don’t really have such a high calling in Christ Jesus.

    I’m sure there are other reasons too– including some degree of doubting whether call experiences are anything other than a form of socially conditioned projection.

    But to me– the reason I’d want to push back is the former one.

  4. Well, yes, I would agree that a sense of “call” is crucial for day-to-day ministry. It may be something within, though, rather than something that can be readily articulated. And I wonder if a call is confirmed as one’s ministry goes along. Too, I think a call is confirmed with a study of gifts and skills and strengths.

    As has been mentioned, ISTM that it is that sense of having been called (by God) that sustains one in the dark and/or the drab days and nights.

    That Dan has found so many negative attitudes toward call might explain the lack of preaching about call and how a call can be for something other than that “full-time vocational Christian service.”

  5. A well-loved former pastor of mine was fond of saying that some people are like Paul, hit in the head with a two-by-four to be saved, turning from a reprobate’s life with a dramatic conversation. Others, particularly those growing up in the faith, just grew into their faith like an acorn into a tree.

    Perhaps it is the same with ministry. Some are Called with a capital C, whacked on the head by the voice of God and being told by random strangers that they ought to be a pastor. But others, perhaps, grow into it gently, as the currents of their lives send them into it–or perhaps they even fall into it accidentally–and who is to say that God is not at work there?

    Also, from what you wrote, 38 percent of those leaving ministry genuinely believed they were called to it–a not-insignificant number. But the 62 percent figure isn’t very meaningful unless we know the feeling-called percentage of those who remain in ministry. For instance, if 78 percent of ministers currently serving didn’t feel a “call,” then the 62 percent figure looks a lot different.

    I believe I’m called to academia, a place where my own gifts and graces are well-suited… but I do have an M.Div., and at my first academic conference, I was chatting with a stranger whose closing comment was “You need to rethink your career. You’re called to ministry.” She wasn’t the first to tell me so, but just because I give off the “vibe” to strangers and friends doesn’t mean I’m genuinely suited to it. People can be good at things (and minister-types are pegged for their depth as well as genuine love of people, altogether rare in our world), but that doesn’t mean that they enjoy them and wouldn’t burn out as quickly as a match.

  6. Serving on our Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, we talk alot about the candidate’s call to ministry. In local churches, however, that language isn’t often used. Even in Seminary, as we students talked about why we were entering the ordained ministry, some talked about a sense of call, but I vividly remember a number of folks who didn’t. One was a male who wanted and “easy” job. The other was a woman who felt there weren’t enough women in ministry, so she would try her hand. Neither of these are still in ordained ministry today.

    Didn’t our denomination have resources for “Renewing the Call” a few years ago? What happened to that? Did it go the same way as much of our flash in the pan ideas?

    I’m thankful for all who have encouraged me, from those in my home church to the members of the churches I serve today. My calling is stronger and has been renewed a number of times.

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