The first time I remember hearing of a shortage of pastors was over 35 years ago. I was in the process of completing my Bible College degree, and a conference leader was encouraging me to consider a career in pastoral ministry.
While uncertainty about leadership for the church is not new, the task of calling forth leaders is especially challenging during changing times. Shifts in society and the church have changed the place of biblical education and the viability of ministry as a career choice for young people. Many congregations are smaller, with fewer full-time pastor positions. When there are vacancies there are fewer candidates to fill them. These realities affect churches of various denominations and types.
As times change, the church needs new approaches to ministry and to the way it calls people into leadership roles. At Canadian Mennonite University’s ReNew conference this past winter, Kathleen Cahalan of St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Minnesota identified several considerations for developing leadership in the church today.
First, Dr. Cahalan noted the importance of nurturing a sense of vocational calling for all within the faith community. There are many gifts and many ways to live out one’s commitment to Christ, regardless of whether one’s gifts or calling relate directly to church leadership. When we see God’s calling as a given part of Christian discipleship, we invite all to consider the place of faith in life decisions.
Second, vocational calling is not only a question for early adulthood but for all ages and demographics. At every stage of life, we are tasked with asking what God is calling us to do with our time and abilities. Thirdly, we are called “as we are, because of who we are.” Our interests, experiences, and stage of life are part of what makes us suited for particular roles.
For the church to live into these priorities, Dr. Cahalan offered characteristics of what she calls “a community of calling.” These characteristics include some familiar practices:
The practice of discernment. While good decision-making skills are important, discernment recognizes the role of God’s Spirit. Dr. Cahalan noted that discernment involves listening for God’s guidance as we reflect on God’s calling for us, seeking God’s direction as we test options and confirm choices, and waiting as we trust God to reveal the way forward. By placing vocational choices within the context of discernment, we invite the presence of God and community into what is often seen as an individual task.
The practice of prayer. The medieval writer Julian of Norwich said, “The whole reason why we pray is to be united into the vision and contemplation of God to whom we pray.” Individually and collectively, prayer and spiritual practices involve releasing control as we seek alignment with God’s leading. While prayer may take many forms, it ultimately provides a means to live out the discernment steps of listening, seeking, and waiting.
The practice of storytelling. From the biblical text to the sharing of testimony, story is a central aspect of faith. Through story we share how Christ is present in our lives as individuals and as a people. When we share how faith has led us in the past, we inspire each other to seek God’s guidance today.
While this may not be radical, I am encouraged at how renewed commitment to practices like these provide fertile ground for church leadership to emerge in a changing world. As we seek to faithfully respond to God’s calling for the church today, I trust the God in whom we place our hope to provide the church with the leadership it needs.
Tim Wiebe-Neufeld is the executive minister of Mennonite Church Alberta.