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Will there be pastors tomorrow?

"Come and tell me what God said to you," said Eli. "Tell me everything."

So Samuel told Eli. Samuel cried because he could see the hurt in his old friend's eyes.

It's all right," said Eli when he saw Samuel crying. "God is right. Let God do whatever is the right thing."

Samuel talked with God a lot after that. As he grew older, people began to know that he was God's prophet. A prophet is someone who helps people understand how God wants them to live.

People came from many places to talk to Samuel and hear what he would tell them about God. Samuel helped many people learn to live in God's way.

-from The Family Story Bible by Ralph Milton

Dori Zerbe Cornelsen receives a water blessing during her installation service at Hope Mennonite Church, Winnipeg. Photo by Dan Dyck


Winnipeg, Man.- Uncle Pete was a country preacher. Actually, he was a farmer too, but mostly I remember him as a preacher.

As an ordained minister, he led his flock faithfully for over twenty years, and as far as I know, he never got paid for it (though I think the congregation bought him a used car once). And when congregational conflict resulted in his ejection, he simply carried on freelance preaching and ministering in other ways, somehow knowing that one can't just stop responding to a calling. He went on to eventually open and principal a private, rural Christian school.

I wonder what Uncle Pete would think of the Samuel II Project-a research study that attempts to understand why there is a shortage of pastors in Mennonite Church Canada/USA.

Samuel II, completed in December, 2000, (Michael D. Weise) is the sequel to the Samuel Project of 1999. Both projects set out to understand the reasons behind a shortage of pastors. Samuel I asked seminary and ministry students, high school students, young adults, and Ministry Inquiry program participants about obstacles and aids to their desire and/or pursuit of a pastoral vocation (Ministry Inquiry Program: A summer practical experience program allowing students to serve under the supervision of a pastor. Five partners fund the program: the host church, the student's church, the area conference, the denomination, and the school).

Samuel II broadened the study by asking the same questions of pastors, persons preparing for ministry as a second career, and parents of high school students.

The results are as surprising as they are revealing. The study does provide some concrete direction for the faith community that seeks to inspire the pastoral/ congregational leadership vocation in its members.

Readers should note that the study presumes the paid pastoral leadership model is the preferred model of congregational leadership among Mennonite churches. My uncle Pete, on the other hand, ministered in an era when, in many rural settings, unpaid pastoral leadership was the norm.

The Samuel Project: Key Findings…What would Uncle Pete think?

1. My Uncle Pete certainly felt called to ministry. But I wonder what encouragement he got from others along the way? Samuel II suggests there is still a critical need for encouragement among those who feel called and gifted for ministry. How are ministry gifts among those in your congregation discerned? How are these individuals in your congregation encouraged? The study notes that "when a culture of encouragement is absent, gifted persons are less likely to find their way to the pastorate.

It also notes a perception that denominational church leaders are not urging the pastorate as a vocation.

2. Pastors and youth ministers carry a lot of weight when it comes to encouragement. A "tap on the shoulder from a pastor is a compelling "instigating event for individuals considering if God is calling them into ministry. Should "shoulder-tapping be left only to pastors?

3. Seeds of interest in ministry are frequently planted in youth, but may not blossom until mid-career. Can these seeds be brought to harvest more quickly?

4. Parents are passive about ministry as a vocational option when discussing career options with their children, and generally don't initiate dialogue on this option. Do our children then perceive that other vocational options are more valued? Most parents said that an external source of encouragement, evidence of a calling, or a child's expressed interest in a ministerial vocation would receive their support. How different from my Uncle Pete's upbringing, when parents fully expected at least one of their children to enter pastoral ministry.

5. Young people believe that the expectations of pastors are high, and that significant sacrifices are required. While respondents to the questions agree that pastors appear content, well treated, and respected, the impact on family, need for personal time, and compensation issues are all deterrents to considering a pastoral ministry. How happy a pastor is with his/her vocation is related to how willing a pastor is to encourage others along this path.

6. Gender continues to be an issue. There are significant barriers (real and perceived) of attitude preventing women from moving into the pastoral role.

7. While students contemplating career options don't have negative attitudes about being a pastor, it does not appear on their "vocational radar.

They believe they would have to give up the benefits of other vocations to pursue a vocational ministry. They also believe that "ministry can happen in many other ways and careers, hence there is no need to make the sacrifices perceived to be required in pastoral ministry. I wonder if pastoring is on the "vocational radar of high school counselors in the school systems (private and public).

8. Practical ministry experience, mentoring, and financial support are critical aspects of moving a prospective pastor from consideration to commitment. Congregations can be instrumental by offering young people a variety of experiences in congregational life. Second-career pastoral candidates are able to draw from a deeper well of life experience, and are perceived to excel at many aspects of pastoring.

9. The way a congregation takes care of its pastor sends messages well beyond the doors of a particular congregation. The negative impact of bad pastoral experiences "pollutes the stream of future pastors.

Conflicts at the congregational and denominational level were cited by some as a barrier to entering the pastorate. Little wonder. My own youth experience in a church with a history of dumping pastors certainly left an impression on my young mind.

10. Narrowing the gap between pastoral needs and pastoral candidates will depend to a significant degree on a "renewed culture of encouragement.

Even pastors actively engaged in shoulder-tapping agree that that young people are generally not encouraged to consider whether God is calling them to pastoral ministry.

11. Pastors effective in "shoulder-tapping tend to be individuals who are passionate about the call of God on their lives. These persons willingly share the personal and spiritual benefits of their role. Uncle Pete never questioned his calling. He shared his sense of calling through the passion he displayed for his ministry.

12. Congregations must take a leadership role in developing future pastors. Congregations must affirm the need and the importance of pastoral leadership, and work at a shared understanding of pastoral expectations.

What the study does not address is a broader understanding of the role demographics play in the broader social science setting. Baby boomers are beginning to retire, leaving a smaller human resource pool from which to draw. Statistically then, can we not expect fewer pastoral candidates, declines in church membership, and even more church closings?

And, what does this study mean in the context of a 'discipleship of all believers' ethos? What does it mean for congregations who seek an administrative leader/facilitator rather than a pastor? How does lay leadership development fit into unique models of congregational leadership? How does lay leadership development apply to church council members and congregational chair persons?

My uncle Pete died last fall, at the age of seventy-five. In his lifetime he raised five kids, milked cows, grew feed, butchered pigs, and carried out an active, vital and unpaid pastoral role in his community. He probably married, buried, and baptized more people than I know in my circle of friends and acquaintances. He died in his sleep, having just cut two cords of firewood for the winter. I wonder if he ever felt his ministry was not respected, or not adequately compensated. I wonder how he encouraged young people to consider whether God was calling them to be a pastor. I wonder how he knew God was calling him to a life of ministry.

I wonder what might happen if each church member would see themselves as called to ministry in some way. Would the Samuel Project, then, be necessary?

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Sidebar: Lay Leadership: Under construction

"What goes around, comes around in terms of congregational leadership," says Maurice Martin.

Martin of New Hamburg, Ontario, is MC Canada's director of congregational leadership-a new (half-time) position focusing on lay leadership development in MC Canada congregations. The move in part is intended to address a shortage of pastors.

In the 1960's, Martin says the church adopted a very "low slope view of pastoral leadership, afraid perhaps of owning too much authority in an age where authority was suspect. Instead the church focused on an Anabaptist concept -"the priesthood of all believers, which in fact is Lutheran.

Still, traditional Mennonites have said that baptism is a kind of ordination for ministry.

He says the church needs to "reclaim the New Testament passages about spiritual gifts (Ephesians 4, Romans 12, I Corinthians 12) and apply these to each member, calling out gifts for the ministries of the church."

The pastor's role? To lead a gifted people, to make sure that gifts are used to build the body of Christ. Not so sharp a distinction between pastor and laity, but a continuum of gifted people, gifted by the spirit

So today, when there is a shortage of pastoral leaders, we return to the possibility of "lay ministers in congregational life and work.

Martin urges, "Let's not do this by default, but by design - each of us living out our Christian vocation (calling) in our walk with God and each other."

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Sidebar: Are you pastor material?

Not sure if you're reading the call right? Here are a few signs:

  • I've sometimes wondered what it would be like to be a pastor.
  • I enjoy planning and/or leading worship.
  • People tell me they appreciate the way I've participated in worship or led prayer.
  • I like to affirm and encourage others.
  • I want to learn more about how God is at work in the world today.
  • Others actively seek my point of view in spiritual/ethical matters.
  • People tell me I am compassionate.
  • I'm interested in helping others grow spiritually.
  • I've felt a prompting in my heart and mind which seemed like the Spirit nudging me to consider ministry.
  • I'm sometimes asked to preach in my congregation.
  • People ask me whether I've ever thought about being a minister.

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Sidebar: Top 10 reasons to ask: Is God calling me to pastoral ministry?

  1. Do you hate Mondays? Pastors get Mondays off!
  2. Flexible hours.
  3. Get paid to study the Bible.
  4. Get to proofread the bulletin before the congregation does.
  5. Go to lots of weddings and funerals (the food is always great!).
  6. Hear life-changing stories.
  7. Join others through some of their most significant personal and spiritual experiences in life.
  8. See lives changed!
  9. Experience the privilege of leading worship.
  10. Meet people of all ages and walks of life.

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Sidebar: Why are qualified and called individuals not moving into the pastorate?

Pastors share the following reasons:

  • Lack of encouragement
  • Does not recognize the call of God
  • Perception that pastors are not respected and valued
  • Believe the calling the be fulfilled in other ways
  • Too much family sacrifice is required
  • Too much financial sacrifice required
  • Lack of lifestyle commitment