While editing the recently published book, Call Stories, I had the privilege of reading dozens of unique testimonies of women and men God had called to pastoral ministry.
These stories prompted me to revisit my own call experience at the early age of 16. I am grateful and indebted to my church family and my pastor for the support, affirmation, and encouragement they provided for me. During those early days,as I navigated that divine nudge toward ministry, I was surrounded by an army of the faithful who helped me flesh out my calling.
I didn’t fully appreciate that early support until I encountered other young ministers who did not have the generous support system that had launched me into a positive direction in ministry. Throughout my years as a pastor, I have tried to lead individuals in my congregations to offer that same kind of enthusiastic support to those who sensed God’s call to vocational ministry from within our church family.
While I believe that every follower of Jesus is called to serve with their best gifts, whatever their vocation, I also understand that the call to vocational ministry is more than a career choice. It is a mysterious summons to a unique lifestyle that requires devotion, transparency, and self-sacrifice.
What are some practical and healthy things churches can do to provide support and encouragement to those who hear and respond to God’s call to serve in vocational ministry?
- Pray for them. I don’t say this tritely or mean this hyper-spiritually. What a blessing it was for me to have individuals from my home church continue to assure me of their prayers! Pray for a clear sense of direction, for their decisions regarding education and training, and for doors to open for them to serve.
- Offer words of affirmation and support. After announcing a “call to ministry,” individuals who experience such a call may be overwhelmed with anxiety andperplexed with questions. Some even wrestle with self-doubt. A note of encouragement or a few spoken words of affirmation certainly can help boost a newly called minister in the right direction.
- Create available opportunities for them to serve and “try on” their call to ministry. My pastor invited me to preach my first sermon two weeks following my call experience. Then, with the endorsement of my church family, he recommended me as a counselor at a Christian camp for the summer. Maybe your church can offer specific ministry assignments or an internship for those who are exploring ministry, or a residency program for those who are preparing for their first call. There is no substitute for “on the field” experience in ministry.
- Provide scholarship assistance and encourage their education and training. This may mean providing support for those who follow a traditional route to ministerial training by completing a bachelor’s degree followed by a residential experience at a seminary or divinity school. Or, as more and more churches call staff members who are “in process” with their education, this may mean making a way for a minister to serve in the local church while completing his or her theological training in some combination of a virtual classroom, a seminary extension center, and a residential campus experience.
- Give them a few tools for ministry. Shortly after I announced my call to ministry, individuals in my home congregation showered me with books. One couple gave me a Strong’s Concordance, one family gave me a Bible Atlas, and another individual gave me an extremely dated book entitled The Young Minister. Nowadays, it might be helpful to give a minister an Amazon gift card where they can purchase books in hard print or digital format. A Bible software package or theological journal subscription is another helpful resource. If your church provides a group software subscription for your staff, consider providing the login to your ministerial students.
- Celebrate their progress. Not long after I announced my call to ministry, my church hosted a service celebrating my call to ministry by presenting to me a “Certificate of License and Affirmation” and a new Thompson Chain Reference Bible (one of the most popular and expensive editions in 1977). Later, when I was called to be pastor, my first church held a service of ordination. And all the churches I served celebrated and affirmed the completion of each stage of my theological training. Every celebration marked a progressive step in my ministerial journey.
- Network with them throughout their ministry. This could include endorsing the ministers by recommending them to places of service, communicating with the ministers throughout their careers, and inviting themback home periodically to preach or teach. Not every experience in ministry is pleasant and not every venture bears obvious fruit. Sometimes conflict arises within congregations or ministers make costly mistakes. A proactive and redemptive “home church” may be called on to assist and support a minister called from within their church family if that minister happens to have a bad call experience. I know of home churches that have provided such ministers a temporary place to recover, refresh, and retool in order to prepare for their next chapter in ministry.
One of the reasons I was fairly well prepared and equipped to enter pastoral ministry is because I was surrounded by a community of encouragement both in my home church and beyond. One of the characteristics of a healthy church is that they nurture a culture of call, and then they support and encourage those who hear and respond to the call.
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