As mentioned in previous posts, we interviewed over 40 religious leaders from different Christian traditions for this project. Each religious leader in our study had a “call story” to share—a story of how they came to understand a calling to vocational ministry. We observed three types of call stories:
- Sense of call followed by challenges: in these stories, ministry leaders had a clear sense of calling but spent years overcoming obstacles to respond to the call.
- Someone else telling them that they are called: in these stories, ministry leaders had been serving a church in some way and had someone else, such as a pastor/mentor, point out that they should consider ministry as a vocation.
- Sense of call followed by a traditional path: in these stories, ministry leaders had a clear sense of call that may have come younger in life and followed a traditional path through college, seminary, and then to serve their first church.
The third type of call story may have been more common in the past, but religious leaders in our study overwhelmingly followed one of the first two types, which created a form of tension that the religious leaders needed to manage throughout their careers. In what follows, we will focus on two call stories of the first type: a sense of call followed by obstacles. We will explore the other patterns in future posts.
The first example of this type of call story from our interviews is Michelle (a pseudonym), an African American woman and the co-leader of two small urban Mainline Protestant congregations. Michelle did extensive volunteer ministry work in her churches as a child, teenager, and young adult, and sensed a call to serve as a pastor, even when she was still a child. However, the denomination in which she was raised does not allow women to become pastors. Her family made that clear from the time she was a child:
… I remember at the age of seven telling my mom I wanted to be a pastor. And I remember the kiss on the forehead [and her] just saying, “you have to be something else because girls can’t pastor.” And so, I had to deal with that struggle… and understand during the spiritual formation to knock down those doors…[and] redeveloped a theological framework of how is it that, “God, I know you have called me, but yet this [denomination] says I can’t?”
Later, despite knowing that she could not become a pastor in her own denomination, she attended seminary with the hope of pursuing her call to serve the church in some other way, as she had been doing grassroots ministry work. Here, she heard the nudge from God once again: “And I remember sitting in class one day…and I remember saying, ’Now, I operate in the spirit of a pastor, but not the office of the pastor.’” Her seminary instructor asked what Michelle meant by that, and then explained to Michelle that she could become a pastor in the United Methodist Church. She would need to become a United Methodist. Even this confirmation was not enough for Michelle, and she called her pastor/mentor from her childhood denomination, who encouraged her, saying, “If God has called you to fight an entire denomination…and if you can be who God says you are, then I’m with you.”
Like many second-career pastors, our second example, Jennifer (a pseudonym), pastor of a small suburban Asian American church, took some time to respond to the call and retire from her government job. She often provided pastoral counseling to friends and family. When Jennifer decided to plant her church, she knew that she would have to overcome obstacles:
…So honestly [I] tell you when I started this, I work[ed] against these three odds. Number one, I was old at the time, age-wise. Number two, I’m a woman. A woman is not welcome in the Christian world…I have [a] very, very narrow network. Number three, in this country I am a minority.
However, it was clear to Jennifer that this was her calling. Regardless of the many challenges she faced, Jennifer successfully planted her church by centering her ministry on the needs of her Asian American and immigrant community, accepting that her church would start small and remain small. This church does not offer the many activities for various age groups that large churches have. In the end, she decided to retire at 54 from her government job and went into full-time ministry. Jennifer and her small congregation had to figure out where to plant their church and decided that with the financial resources they had, they could only afford a place in an industrial area where prices are more reasonable. However, this also meant that everyone commutes to church from the suburbs in Virginia and Maryland, making it nearly impossible to establish youth and children’s ministries apart from during Sunday morning services.
These two women exemplify the call-story pattern of sensing a call but having to overcome challenges to respond to it. Michelle overcame the challenge of not being allowed to pastor as a woman by switching denominations, while Jennifer knew the answer was focusing on the needs of Asian Americans as well as immigrants. She had to accept that their church would start and remain small, because it was demographically homogeneous and located in an industrial area not conducive to growth. The implication of these women’s stories for ministry leaders is that we never know who will be called to serve by God or when. Ministry leaders should be aware of the growing proportion of pastors whose call stories follow this pattern and be ready to have conversations about the next steps in preparation for ministry with those who are sensing God’s call to professional ministry work, regardless of their age or gender.
— Hale Inanoglu