Practical Divinity: The need for a culture of call in the church

By Andrew C. Thompson
Special Contributor

Our recent annual conference in Rogers featured a persistent theme that needs to be transmitted to every congregation in Arkansas.

The call. Specifically, God’s call upon the lives of women and men into ministry.

We’re all called, of course. Every one of us. Every baptized Christian is meant to be a minister of the gospel in one way or another.

I’m mostly interested in talking about the call into ordained ministry here, though.

That was the theme I kept hearing in Rogers. Our bishop emphasized it many times. It was there in the great preaching we experienced. The Rev. Adam Hamilton spoke at length about its prominence in the way his church teaches confirmation. And it popped up in video after video of our retiring clergy.

Each time, the speaker in question would comment about how important it is to recognize the call—either in yourself or in someone you know. Oftentimes a call into ministry is persistent-yet-subtle. The right kind of environment is needed so the person called can really sense what is happening. Mentors and friends are crucial in helping those who are called to discern the nature of their calling.

I don’t think the frequency of people speaking about the importance of the call into ministry at our annual conference was any accident. I believe there is a Spirit-led energy in the church in Arkansas to focus on this work. For revival to happen, raising up the best leadership will be essential.

We need strong clergy leadership for the church to thrive in any age.

The Apostle Paul teaches us that “the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him.”

Yet in order for anybody to call on Christ Jesus, we have to know him first. So Paul goes on: “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14, RSV)

The church must have preachers to proclaim the word of God, priests to celebrate the sacraments, and pastors to care for God’s flock. For those people to get where they need to be, they’ve got to hear God’s call and respond to it.

The Rev. Cornelia DeLee gave a humorous slant on God’s call when she shared her own attempts to avoid it during her retirement video: “You can run like Jonah,” she said. “But eventually you’re gonna come out dripping and puking seaweed to preach a 7-word sermon.”

Better not to run at all, of course! (If only it were that simple.)

Actually, Jonah’s story is a pretty good window into how difficult responding to a call from God can be. Because God’s call often interrupts our lives—and sometimes directs us to go places we’d never have dreamed about otherwise—it can be intimidating to say the least.

So many of those called in the Bible didn’t think they had the stuff to serve. Many of them saw themselves as people “with unclean lips,” in the words of the prophet Isaiah.

Sometimes it isn’t that responding to the call is the most difficult part. It may be hearing the call in the first place that is the challenge. This was my story, in some ways. I had many people urging me toward ministry from an early age. They saw what I could not. I also received some direct signs from the Holy Spirit, but for a long time I misinterpreted or just plain disregarded them.

The difficulty in hearing or responding to God’s call (or sometimes, both!) means that young men and women need a church around them that can support and nurture them. The right type of youth ministry is crucial. But youth group alone is not enough. The church has got to be invested in youth at every level.

Of course, some people get called at a later point in their lives. So the culture of call in the church needs to be present everywhere: in worship, in small groups, even in church administration.

We also have to do what people in our day sometimes tend to shy away from: direct engagement and prompting. If you know someone in your congregation that you believe is called into ministry—whether it’s a youth or someone older—you should start praying for that person daily. Then you should start figuring out a way to engage that person in conversation to let him or her know what you’ve seen.

Think about it: The Holy Spirit could be trying to use you to convey Jesus’ deep desire to bring another servant of the gospel into ministry. If you suspect that may be the case, then don’t delay. The Spirit and the church are counting on you.

The Rev. Dr. Thompson, Wesley scholar for the Arkansas Conference, teaches at Memphis Theological Seminary and serves as associate pastor of Marion UMC. He may be reached at athompson@arumc.org.