By Blake Tommey
If you grew up in a Baptist church during the 20th century, you can probably recite these words by heart: “As we sing our final hymn, you are invited to make a public profession of faith, to dedicate your life to Christ, to join the church or to accept a call to full-time ministry and service.”
Well into the 21st century, you will still hear the first three parts of that traditional invitation, Wanda Kidd says, but the fourth has all but disappeared.
As college ministry coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, Kidd and CBFNC Executive Coordinator Larry Hovis have created an initiative called “Invitation to Call,” in which churches across the state explicitly invite young people to consider a call to ministry throughout Advent and Lent.
Through her work with college students, Kidd says she often encounters firsthand churches’ failure to provide a framework for calling and vocation.
“As a campus minister, students increasingly come to me with no sense of what calling is; that language is often entirely new to them.
“Then calling becomes a very isolated thing as these young people make decisions on campus, independently or in seminary. This initiative is an opportunity to bring that discernment back into the community of faith in celebration and affirmation. It’s a call to action.”
CBF North Carolina’s Invitation to Call comes at a time when the church is more aware than ever of the alarming realities clergy face in their role. As the church in the United States acquaints itself with a new post-Christian environment, both young and tenured ministers are experiencing new levels of burnout and depression.
In his new book For Ministers About to Start … or About to Give Up, Travis Collins notes that 28 percent of ministers report being “forcefully terminated,” 33 percent cite ministry as “an outright hazard” to their families and 75 percent experience “severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear and alienation” in their ministry role.
Earlier this year, Forbes listed the pastorate as the fifth toughest leadership role in the world, along with university president, football coach and mayor.
In December, LifeWay Christian Resources’ Facts and Trends published the story of Art Greco, a church planter in northern California who battled severe depression as a pastor and said his doctor advised him to “sell cars, paint houses, work at McDonalds, for all I care … but stay away from leadership in a church — any church.”
As communities of faith seek to create a culture of calling among young people, they are confronted not only with how to make a fresh appeal but with how to develop an understanding of calling deep enough to lead people past the “Enter At Your Own Risk” sign.
Christopher Ingram, pastor of Yates Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., and a participant in the Invitation to Call, says the church cannot ignore the realities that clergy face, yet it must begin to detach the burden of the job from the calling.
“We can’t assign to the calling the grind of the job,” Ingram says.
“[Dallas pastor] George Mason put it best when he said, ‘Sometimes it’s a difficult job, but it’s a wonderful calling.’ As a pastor, I can be honest when the deadlines and frustrations are piling up, but I also spend a lot of time publicly affirming the joy of a call to ministry.”
For Ingram, language is crucial and an invitation to listen for God’s call should simply be a standard part of Christian worship. Each Sunday at the conclusion of the worship service, Ingram issues what he calls a retooled version of the standard four-part invitation.
“That template still holds over time, because we all have to reckon with some response to worship. We must continually conclude worship with this invitation, even to the point of over-repetition. There’s just something about the repeating of it that shapes us and affirms how all people are called.”
The Baptist General Association of Virginia has also committed to resourcing congregations as they help young people listen for God’s calling. For more than 10 years, the BGAV’s “Consider Your Call” initiative has provided a spiritual gifts assessment, mentorship models, studies and other discernment resources for those considering vocational ministry.
Each fall, the BGAV hosts a “Consider Your Call” Sunday, in which its affiliated churches commit to creating a culture of calling in their congregations.
The BGAV also hosts an online blog forum where current ministers as well as those considering ministry share their stories of calling and discuss about their process of discernment.
Susan McBride, leader of the BGAV’s emerging leaders team, says that creating a culture of true calling is less about giving people reasons they “can” engage and more about helping them listen for what they “can’t” neglect.
“The question of calling is, ‘Because of who God has created me to be, what is it that I can’t not do?’” McBride says.
“Yes, ministry can be hard, it can be lonely and it can even be threatening, and yet I don’t think the path that Christ walked looks any different. You have to get clear on what God is calling you to do, and more than anything else, that means knowing yourself and what you can’t not do.”
In addition to language and fostering self-discovery, the church must continually create space for people to physically step into a ministry role and discover themselves there, says Greg Rogers, pastor of Oakmont Baptist Church in Greenville, N.C.
Within the past 15 years, Oakmont has commissioned more than 20 individuals to vocational ministry in the church or elsewhere, including CBF field personnel Eric and Julie Maas, who began as a lay couple in the church and now serve alongside those seeking basic resources in Belize through the Baptist Training Center.
It is through these kinds of partnerships, Rogers says, that churches must allow young people to engage in the work of vocational ministry and “try it on.”
“Calling begins with God’s initiative,” Rogers says.
“God invites us to join where God is already doing redemptive work. We send our young people to work with local and global mission partners. I’ve watched folks quit their jobs and go into ministry. Yes, you talk about it, but then you do some of it and you realize you can’t do anything else.”