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Creating a Culture of Call to Pastoral Ministry

By Walter Fenton

The Rev. Emily Allen delivers a chapel address at Asbury Theological Seminary on May 2, 2023.

“It is a huge challenge and a regular topic of conversation at every level of the denomination,” said the Rev. Dr. Leah Hidde-Gregory, president pro tem of the Global Methodist Church’s Mid-Texas Provisional Conference and a member of its Transitional Leadership Council. “Congregational leaders, presiding elders, presidents pro tem, and bishops are eager to find credentialed pastors who are prepared to serve in a significant of number of our local churches.”

Church leaders point to everything from clergy retirements to reticent young seminarians trying to figure out if there is a place for them in the new denomination, and on to host of other vexing reasons they struggle to find pastors for local churches.

At just over two years old, the GM Church has neither had the time nor the staff to amass detailed statistical data on clergy and local churches during its dynamic transitional season where it has gone from a handful of pastors and local churches to over 5,125 and 4,600, respectively. However, anecdotal reports from across the denomination make it clear that a number of pastors served beyond their desired retirement dates to ensure their local churches had safely transitioned from The United Methodist Church to the GM Church before retiring shortly thereafter.

 On the other end, seminarians preparing for the ministry are dealing with circumstances unlike any in recent memory. Many started seminary in the UM Church, only to feel called to join or at least explore joining the newly launched GM Church, as their former denomination started to move through a slow-motion separation that is still ongoing. During that period the pandemic disrupted their seminary studies, and if that was not enough, momentous national and international events dramatically impacted their lives and in some instances changed the character of local churches where they might be sent to serve.

“I can’t speak for everyone my age, but I can speak to my own heart and mind, and for some of my friends and acquaintances,” said the Rev. Emily Allen, 26, a student at Asbury Theological Seminary and a recently ordained deacon in the GM Church’s Northeast Provisional Annual Conference. “The deep theological divisions that led to the separation of the UM Church and the not infrequent mingling of strong political convictions with our confessions of faith, make some of us wary of local church ministry. No one wants their first appointment to be in a tense, unforgiving environment where the only options are total theological, political alignment or bitter divisions that undermine church unity and vitality. It’s no exaggeration to say we’re watching developments closely.”

All of this comes on top of the perennial problem of financial challenges facing local churches and people called to ministry. Small congregations are doing all they can to raise the funds necessary to support clergy and their families, particularly recent seminary graduates with young children and educational debts. And people who believe they are called to serve are trying to economize and still pay their bills. Affording health insurance for clergy families remains a particular challenge for congregations of all size, as it does for non-profits and most businesses in general.

“The financial situation is one I had to think and pray about as I discerned my call,” said Pastor Clayton Tovo, 24, a graduate of The Citadel (Charleston, South Carolina), who will begin serving Mount Pleasant Church in Pomaria, South Carolina, this July. “Compared to some call stories I’ve heard, mine is a bit boring. It kind of sneaked up on me as I got plugged into the Wesley Foundation at The Citadel. I went to the school to train to be an officer in the Marine Corps, but by a slow process of being guided by the Lord, I came to believe I was called to serve as a pastor. And that being the case, well, I know the ministry is not a lucrative career path. It’s going to be challenging, and I’m sure there are sacrifices to be made.”

Like many denominations, the GM Church is working hard to identify people who might be called to pastoral ministry and then assist them through a process where they begin to serve. The Transitional Leadership Council has created various credentialing tracks that include everything from the traditional route of securing a master of divinity degree to taking an alternative educational pathway while they work in another vocation or serve in a local church in some capacity.

“At this juncture, finding people to serve in the church is a challenging yet exciting opportunity, especially in some geographical regions,” said Bishop Mark Webb, who as a district superintendent and an episcopal leader in the UM Church and now in the GM Church, has worked for decades to find pastors to fill pulpits. “Despite the struggles we face, I’m confident the God who calls the church will continue to equip the church with leaders for the future.”

Webb talks about the imperative of creating a “culture of call” in the GM Church, where foremost laity and clergy continue to trust and expect God is still calling men and women to pastoral ministry. To foster such a culture, he encourages congregations, Sunday school classes, bible study groups, and individuals to regularly pray for God to call people in their churches, districts, and annual conferences into local church ministry. Then, he says, pastors and lay leaders must create intentional systems that invest in the spiritual growth and leadership development of people of all ages, but specifically in children and youth.

“When we create a culture of call, then situations will arise when we’ll see gifts and fruit for pastoral ministry in young people and in people of all ages,” says Webb. “And when we do, we must ask them, ‘Have you ever thought that God might be calling you to become a pastor?’ And here’s an important hint: you may have to ask that question multiple times. Don’t allow other vocations to receive all the attention. Share the vital work of pastoral ministry as an opportunity and rewarding path to be considered. We have to be daily committed to building a culture of call, and constantly reinforcing it with our words and deeds.”

The Rev. Dr. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary and also a member of the TLC, says she resonates with Bishop Webb’s charge for creating a culture of call in the church, particularly the importance of being intentional about it.

“One obstacle to people hearing and answering a call to vocational ministry is the impression that being called into ministry has to look a certain way,” says LaGrone. “There’s an expectation sometimes that every person called is supposed to have a very personal kind of ‘burning bush’ experience, where they have a dramatic encounter with God and hear his voice telling them about his exact expectations for them in ministry. ‘Burning bush’ calls are wonderful, and we can be thankful for them, but surely not every call must be miraculous. If that’s the implicit standard, then we’re going to inadvertently steer some very faithful and gifted young people away from pastoral ministry in the church.”

In working with and advising hundreds of students, LaGrone says she’s come to believe a call to ministry is often, “More subtle and gradual than a single, dramatic encounter. I’ve compared it to a magnet, where we feel pulled in a direction by God. The closer we get to the magnet, the stronger the pull.”

Both Bishop Webb and LaGrone are also quick to acknowledge that financial support is also a key element of building a culture of call. Last year the TLC created the Ministerial Training Fund to financially assist people called to ministry prepare for service in the local church. It also voted to designate all profits the church realizes from sales in the GMC Store for the Ministerial Training Fund. GM Church members can also make gifts directly to the fund by visiting the church’s online giving portal and selecting “Ministerial Training” in the drop down box under “Gift Purpose.”

“There are plenty of stresses young clergy families have to deal without carrying the extra burden of major indebtedness,” said Bishop Webb. “Congregations and annual conferences must take seriously the responsibility to assist with educational costs faced by those responding to a call to pastoral ministry. A simple and immediate opportunity is to patronize the GMC Store and find other ways to grow the Ministerial Training Fund so we can free up pastors to do the ministry God has called them to do.”

Despite the challenges, the GM Church continues to attract young people who believe they are called to local church ministry. For example, Zach Dietz, 24, says he is a testament to the kind of culture of call Bishop Webb says the church must build. Raised nominally Christian, Dietz says he came to Christ at his Roman Catholic High School in Geneva, Illinois, where a faithful priest and cadre of teachers helped him to begin to discern a call to ministry.

“However, I also knew I wanted a family, so for a time I needed to process how a call to ministry and family might go together,” said Dietz. “Perhaps oddly to some people, I ended up attending Charleston Southern University in Charleston, South Carolina, a Southern Baptist school, and it was there that I came to believe I could serve in the church and also have a family.”

It was also at Charleston Southern University that friends encouraged Dietz to join them at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, where the Rev. Erik Grayson was inviting young people to join his congregation and serve people from all walks of life in North Charleston. Dietz said he was captivated by the warm-hearted, Wesleyan expression of the Christian faith and became fully convinced God was calling him to serve as a pastor in the local church, sans family . . . for now.

While he pursues ministerial credentialing via a GM Church approved alternative educational pathway, Dietz is working as the youth ministries director at what is Aldersgate Methodist Church, now a GM Church congregation. Grayson, the congregation’s former pastor, is now the president pro tem of the GM Church’s South Carolina Annual Conference and the lead pastor at Lyman Methodist Church in Lyman, South Carolina.

“I’m a living example of how important it is to have mentors, teachers, pastors, and friends in the church who help you discern a call to ministry,” said Dietz. “Because some Roman Catholics, Baptists, and ultimately Methodists, were all dedicated to creating a culture of call, I’m on my journey to pastoral ministry. I hope and pray we can create that culture for others who come after us.”

Subscribe to Crossroads to learn more about the Global Methodist Church and to stay abreast of developments regarding its convening General Conference.

The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer.

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