How does a minister react when her offspring chooses the same vocation? First and foremost, I’d be filled with hope and joy that God calls each new generation to serve. Then, a sense of trepidation would creep in because I know this call has never been easy, and it’s becoming harder.
I was ordained weeks before my 24th birthday, trained and mentored by professors, colleagues and congregations who knew how the United Church worked. They were extravagant with their prayers, wise counsel and willingness to clean up after youthful exuberance.
Anyone who thinks that young ministers miss the opportunity to experience “the real world” knows nothing of those early years when people old enough to be our parents trust us with secrets too dreadful to be spoken at home. What is the world of business next to a calling that takes one — in a single day — from mourning at a deathbed, to feasting and dancing at a wedding banquet, to rising bleary the next morning to bless a newborn with the waters of baptism? Who else experiences their own humiliating inadequacy in the maw of human pain, or the feeling of awe when the Spirit bridges that void with words and wisdom far beyond one’s own?
If ordered ministry were a profession like other professions, I might tally the pros and cons on a ledger.
Pro: Employment prospects are favourable for young people willing to leave major centres. United Church ministers are leaving the pastorate faster than congregations are closing, creating job openings that promise steady employment — plus pension and benefits — for many years to come. How many career tracks are open to graduates of the humanities? (I might also cynically observe that many congregations are so scarred by ministers whose personal neediness and lack of social skills and faith in God make it easy for others to look good just by being functional, caring persons of faith.)
Con: Too many congregations are barely viable, and yet they’re searching for someone to refurbish them to vintage glory. They will tell prospective ministers, “We seek a strong leader who will not change what we do; a minister who will attract young people to worship in the style of seniors; a biblical preacher who will not stretch our beliefs or challenge our habits; an outgoing personality who will lead others to faith, but not through evangelism.”
More cons: low financial return for years of education; the prospect of living far from home for decades; social loneliness; and no clear concept of what professional success looks like in an institution that is rudderless, diminished and out of energy.
I dream of another kind of church for my children and their generation: one that is untainted by the politics and power plays that have marred our ironically named denomination; where the preservation of real estate and pensions is not the highest good. I dream of leaders who, like the merchant in Jesus’ parable, would give up everything for a pearl of greater price. I dream of the church of Saint Benedict and Saint Francis, of John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr.; the kind of church so close to the front lines of life and faith that one may be felled by live ammunition.
If my child said that she wanted to be a minister, enter discernment and seminary, and seek church employment, I would try to hide my disappointment.
But if my child confessed a call from God to create a new future of faith connected to the crucified one, I would add my breath to those dreams, like dandelion seeds blown off their stem, to watch with fear and delight wherever they might land.
Rev. Connie denBok is a minister at Alderwood United in Toronto.
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