Nearly all observers of the 21st-century church in America agree that the next generation of leadership is a cause for concern. Many write, blog, tweet and generally lament the state of leadership cultivation and training, or lack thereof. Far too many congregations no longer encourage young people and laity to consider vocational ministry. Many congregations cannot remember the last time someone from their ranks sensed a call to vocational ministry and followed that call to licensing and/or ordination.
Those who study such things know that a minority of our congregations produce a majority of our clergy. What is it about the culture of those churches that encourages a call to ministry among their members? How do they create a “culture of call” that invites parishioners to consider deeply the possibility that God may be leading them into vocational ministry?
Melissa Wiginton served for several years at the Fund for Theological Education before moving to Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She, as well as anyone I know, has been a prophetic voice in this arena of call. I once heard her describe the major traits of churches that are successful at creating this calling culture.
She identified four characteristics of a “Calling Church.”
- A place where something is at stake. Calling Churches are doing more than busywork; they are engaging many people in life-changing ministry. Their members are passionate about their church and it’s mission. They invest in youth and children’s ministry that is more than fun and games.
- A church that is a seat of resistance. Calling Churches consistently sound a counter-cultural message about what matters most. They hold up a vision of being active in the Kingdom of God that stands in opposition to much of what 21st-century American culture says is important.
- A church that is a site of interpretation. Calling Churches regularly tell stories of how God is at work in the lives of their people. They read and tell the stories of the Bible. They name people’s gifts and encourage them to use them and their passion under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
- A church that provides a “good enough” home. Calling Churches recognize that perfection is not possible or necessary. They create a culture that challenges people internally (spiritual life) and externally (spiritual habits). They are committed to quality, but not perfectionism. They foster intergenerational relationship and regularly “apprenticize” their young people.
As I journey in and out of congregations, I am constantly looking and listening for these characteristics of a calling culture. All too often, congregations are so focused on survival that they have grown blind to the call to propagate and reproduce leaders. Many times our youth and children’s ministry has been reduced to a consumer model that is focused on customer satisfaction rather than discipleship.
As the ministerial son of a minister and the father of a minister, I feel this tension in special ways. As an observer of the American church, I am burdened for the next generation of leadership and the question of where they will come from. I am increasingly convinced that healthy churches are like healthy plants; they produce leadership fruit. While that fruit is complex and multi-faceted, at least part of what it must be about is a next generation of leaders who want to be involved in ministry as a vocation.
Thus, every congregation needs to ask itself the hard questions that accompany our efforts to reproduce leaders. What is your congregation doing and saying about this issue? To ignore it is to put your future in peril. To ignore it is to bypass a significant part of Jesus’ three years of earthly ministry.
On the other hand, when we are engaged in significant ministry that is balanced between an internal and an external focus, when we challenge cultural norms rather than embrace them, when we live into our status as “exiles” (Tim Keller) or “resident aliens” (Stanley Hauerwas) in our culture, when we provide life-changing mission events and sound a relentless biblical call to life-stewardship, then I believe that we will find our people responding in the affirmative to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
I am thankful for the privilege of having seen several young people and adults enter vocational ministry from the churches I have served. In nearly every case, they came out of a congregation that had made a deliberate effort to hold up ministry as a viable and fulfilling vocation. Many had been given the gift of mentors and encouragers who had called out their gifts and served as a “cloud of witnesses” for their journey.
Does that describe the culture of your congregation? If not, what would it look like to become more proactive as a calling congregation? Healthy churches need to ask and answer that question.