It seems an impossible task.
Seek out and train leaders to bring a dynamic Christian witness to a generation often disillusioned or polarized by ethical, economic, political and even religious differences. Do this in a world that is changing at the speed of light, using tools that are often obsolete before they can be mastered. Above all, stay relevant in a world in which events that happened an hour ago are old news.
To be sure, there are challenges, but the story of hearing and answering the call has always been a story of determination in overcoming obstacles. As Paul reminded the early church: "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:14, NRSV).
Identifying emerging Christian leaders and equipping them for service continues to be at the heart of the mission of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. In the past, the institutional model served the church well: Identify young people who are called to ministry, tap them, train them, ordain them, appoint them, promote them, thank them and retire them.
But in an age of complex movement-centered ministry in which denominational loyalty is at a low and a passion to make a difference is high, diverse models of leadership training are needed. A synergy of ordained and lay leadership is essential. Both lifelong and time-limited commitments are vital. Local churches must find ways to engage in global movements. Disciple making and congregational care together with local and global social, mercy and justice ministries and ecumenical and interfaith dialogue form a matrix of ministry in the world, and all are hungry for leadership.
Developing called leaders
"As the agency of the church that is totally focused on leadership development, Higher Education and Ministry is working to ensure that every United Methodist has the opportunity and support they need to lead and make a difference in the world," says the Rev. Kim Cape, general secretary. That includes a renewed focus on the call to ministry, including the development of "Called" (www.explorecalling.org/called).
A new resource for local churches, "Called" includes worship helps, liturgy and curriculum for kindergartners to 12th-graders that emphasizes the call to serve belongs to every Christian.
The Rev. Myron Wingfield, associate general secretary of the Division of Ordained Ministry at Higher Education and Ministry, sees a shift in thinking among young adults considering ordained ministry as their vocation.
"Many young people who sense a call to ministry are making it clear they are not climbing the pastoral career ladder," he says, "but instead are interested in a genuine ‘called-apart' ministry that grows out of a response to God's spirit at work in their lives."
Wingfield says the key to aiding their discernment is to provide local churches, annual conferences and other points of connection with the tools to help establish mentoring relationships. "In the best circumstances, people are truly trying to determine the leading of the Spirit," he says. "Sometimes that is inside the church, sometimes outside the church. The key is to ask the right questions, and that's what our resources can provide."
Redefining the call to Christian leadership
The ways of defining and discerning call are changing. At one time, a call to ordained ministry was thought of only as a call to preach or teach and provide pastoral care. Today, the list of occupations one might fill as an expression of one's vocation — response to God's call — is growing. Also changing is the idea that a faithful response to God's call will look the same throughout one's lifetime. Discernment continues.
That understanding could signal a shift from institutional to movement-centered ministry that calls for asking who are the people who can reach millennials and other younger generations, where are they, what are their passions and their skills.
Answering such questions requires what the Rev. Matthew Charlton, collegiate ministry executive for the agency, calls "deep listening."
"Listening for the call of God in the midst of the roar of modernity is quite difficult," says Charlton. "Having a trusted person to help sort through that noise is crucial. Deep listening permits something other than an expected answer. Deep listening expects the heart's answer to the deepest longings of the soul. What are you passionate about? What brings you joy? What causes in you the deepest sorrow? Discernment in the context of Christian vocation is finding within yourself what God calls you to for the sake of Jesus Christ on behalf of the world that God loves and seeks to redeem and make whole."
Technology and relationships
The agency's plan for developing Christian leaders blends technology and mentoring and other relationships.
Relationships have always been at the heart and soul of ministry. For leaders in ministry, technology presents both the challenge of strengthening, not supplanting, relationships and the opportunities of ever-emerging solutions.
Recognizing the imminent shortage of ordained clergy within the denomination, the 2012 General Conference established the Young Clergy Initiative (YCI). Cape takes pride in the program, which Higher Education and Ministry administers.
The grants go to "innovative programs that support young clergy or work to increase the number of young clergy in the church," she says. "A total of 78 YCI grants totaling $5.5 million have been awarded across every jurisdiction."
As part of a larger strategy, GBHEM sponsors "Exploration," a biennial event aimed at reaching potential clergy. In early November, nearly 300 young adults attended workshops and worship, met with seminary representatives and "were encouraged to examine their calling in an atmosphere that offers a more robust idea of ministry," says the Rev. Trip Lowery, director of young adult ministry discernment and enlistment. More than 50 small groups let participants ask personal and professional questions.
"The types of leaders we see rising up are different," he says. "Some are more entrepreneurial, some focused on social justice, and some that are outside the current structure, and we're trying to respond to that."
Creating community is a vital component of that response. MyCallStory.org is a new website where people can share their call experience via video stories. "It's one of the ways we're helping to create a larger culture of call," Lowery explains.
The agency's support of emerging Christian leaders goes beyond those considering ordained ministry.
UMC Cyber Campus holds the potential of being a potent tool for leadership development. A project of Higher Education and Ministry and United Methodist Communications, it provides lay and ordained church leaders with access to online lectures, videos and live webinars. The Rev. HiRho Park, director of clergy lifelong learning, calls it "a campus to nurture grassroots leadership from a distance and empower local leaders."
A program to identify, support and equip young ethnic thought-influencers and future church leaders has made grants totaling more than $52,000 to six organizations for projects that depend heavily upon community-organizing techniques, which require intentional relationship building.
Cynthia Bond Hopson, head of the Black College Fund and ethnic concerns, states, "These grants allow those institutions to dream bigger than their normal budgets and serve people they might not be able to reach."
"Even in this rapidly changing world of ours, we know that the Holy Spirit continues to call people to leadership," Cape says. "The responsibility of the church is to equip and support people to use their gifts to make a difference in the world. We are continually looking for ways to support smart, innovative programs around the world that help people identify and follow their call."
Vince Isner is a writer, media producer and founder of PowerTools™ for Fathers, who lives in Franklin, Tennessee.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, November–December, 2015.