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What if God has stopped calling as many young people to traditional vocational ministry?

In a recent meeting with national theological educators, we were musing about the reasons for decreased enrollment among young people in all our ministry training programs (across North America and theological traditions/denominations).  During the conversation, I asked the intentionally provocative question:

What if God has stopped calling as many young people to traditional vocational ministry?  And, what might that be saying to the Church?

In our rush to solve perceived problems, we often circumvent prophetic questions with pragmatic answers.  I believe this is one of those times.  In our rush to solve a pragmatic problem (one to which I am very committed to addressing), what if we have rushed past a much bigger question (a question worthy of deep reflection)?

Before we dive into this bigger question, let me address what the problem of decreased enrolment in undergraduate ministry training programs is not (at least not completely). 

First, it is not simply a marketing problem. If this were the case, you would not see this issue across so many schools and traditions, with enrollment decline progressing at the same rates and with consistent timelines.

Second, it is not simply a distrust of academia.  There is a wider societal movement of distrust toward higher education, but I am not convinced this is the only reason for the decrease in ministry training track enrollment across North America.

Third, it is not simply a case of rising tuition costs.  Although an issue that must be addressed, tuition increases are seen in all sectors of higher education.

Fourth, it is not school or denomination specific.  Almost all denominations and traditions are experiencing a decline in young people entering ministry training programs.  Whatever is happening, it is not micro.  It is macro.

Finally, the issue is probably some combination of the above with elements of the much bigger questions asked earlier.

Perhaps…

I would like to suggest a more provocative and prophetic view of this question for us to consider. Perhaps God is calling fewer young people (directly or indirectly) for one or more of these other macro reasons…

Perhaps…We have not been faithful with the ones we have had. 

What if we have not been faithful with the shepherds God has called and entrusted to us, the church?  A quick glimpse of the pastoral health statistics will show you that being a pastor is not an easy job.  Now I am not just talking about long hours and lack of pay (all of which are often true) but about unrealistic expectations they can never fulfil (preach like Steven Furtick, counsel like Henry Cloud, lead like Carey Nieuwhof, etc.).  What if we have not been good stewards of the pastors God has called, so God is not entrusting us with more? 

Perhaps…God is answering another prayer. 

The church has long lamented the staffing ratio to church attendance/membership (if it hasn’t, it should).  This has been growing consistently for years and is a sign of the increasing professionalism of ministry.  We have prayed for a reversal of this trend for years and, yet, we haven’t changed our behaviour (it has only worsened).  Perhaps God is forcing the church to go “cold-turkey” on its addiction to professional ministry.  Perhaps God is answering our prayers by forcing more and more lay people into active ministry roles.

Perhaps, what we are doing (in general in the church) is not compelling to young men and women. 

The church has not been known for its ability or willingness to have tough conversations about complicated social issues and address issues of justice (race, disability, environment, etc.).  Often the critique of the academy is that we are too focused on these issues, but, as someone who spends time in the classroom, these are the questions young people have, and they are very passionate about them.

Perhaps, we haven’t clearly taught about the call to ministry. 

In our good efforts to talk about the call of God on all people with the invitation to see their vocations as equal acts of worship and ministry, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in this direction, and we have unintentionally downplayed the call to vocational ministry.  The Church must learn to do this intentionally as well as support young men and women who are exploring and pursuing that call.

Perhaps God is calling more women.

The percentage of young women pursuing ministry training continues to increase.  On the one hand, it is encouraging to see so many young women pursuing God’s call to vocational ministry and entering ministry training degrees and programs.  On the other hand, it is very discouraging to see extremely talented young women not given the same opportunities to lead as their young male counterparts.  Perhaps we have all the people we need for ministry positions; they are just not all men.

Perhaps God is calling more people from mid-career and vocational transitions. 

The trend of seeing fewer young men and women entering the ministry is countered by more mature adults pursuing vocational transitions into ministry. 

Perhaps young people are not ready to make significant career decisions in high school. 

This isn’t derogatory.  Young people are taking longer to decide what to do with their lives. It is a huge investment.  It is why I think Christian Universities and Bible Colleges need to design their first-year curriculum with this in mind, helping young people to discover who they are, explore their calling and discern what careers might be a good fit for them.

Perhaps, God is doing something new. 

Perhaps God is doing something bigger than our traditional methodologies can hold.  I am not saying this with resigned pessimism but with innovative optimism.  As new models and methodologies are being explored, God will lead in some creative and exciting directions.

Perhaps…

Let me know in the comments what you think might be missing here.

It’s Complicated

In the end, like most things, this issue is very complicated, and the answer is multifaceted.  I think the Church needs to speak more clearly on call, learn to care for its pastors better, partner with young people in the pursuit of vocational ministry, release more ministry leadership to women, embrace new methodologies and forms of church, etc.  And our theological schools need to address this in real ways by helping students to discern their call, building trust between the academy and the church, teaching students the needed competencies to serve faithfully in our complex world, and pursuing new models and methodologies for excellent theological education (if we trade excellent theological education for pragmatic expedience, the Church will suffer deeply) and ministry training that partners with and actively serves the Church.  Again, the answer is complex, and it will take the Church and the academy partnering together.  The problem is real, the solution(s) is complicated, and the need is now.

A Fourth Wave Prayer for Pastors

Loving Father,

As the Psalmist invites us, we enter your courts with thanksgiving. However, if we are honest, we also enter your courts exhausted and with a limp.  This season has been hard.  This fourth wave and its restrictions (including people’s reactions to them) will be the most challenging yet.  Although the previous waves were difficult, many of us felt like we got a glimpse of momentum over the last couple of weeks only to have it eclipsed by recent (needed) public health measures.  Although we may understand the importance of these measures as we partner with other sectors of society (loving our neighbours in the process), it doesn’t make it easy.

As shepherds and leaders of your flock, many of our people are tired, frustrated, anxious, and stressed.  We have healthcare workers who are exhausted, business owners who are devastated, parents who are stressed, and others who are extremely angry at the government and their decisions (some believing they didn’t do enough early enough and others believing that they are doing too much).  We need your wisdom, strength, and resolve to lead our hurting, diverse, and, at times, divided and disgruntled congregations. 

Therefore, as we lead through the fourth wave of Covid, may you grant us…

Persistence like Noah, who built an ark while enduring ridicule and abandonment of others. 

Faith like Abraham, who despite not seeing any sign of hope, trusted in you. 

Resolve like Moses, who led your people out of slavery only to have them grumble and complain the entire way. 

Ears like Elijah, who heard your voice not in the earthquake and wind, but in the still small voice. 

Heart like David, who, although deeply flawed and riddled with errors of judgement, sought after you. May we have the humility to regularly ask you to search our hearts and test our motives so we never confuse leadership resolve with prideful arrogance.

Peace like Silas, who was able to sleep in a prison cell while facing a very uncertain future. 

Trust like Paul, who led some of the most dysfunctional churches in history and did it with eyes firmly fixed on you.  May we have an abiding trust in you as we lead our churches in a way that decouples our identity from their “success.”

Jesus, you are the head of the Church and so we rest in your leadership, goodness, and grace.  If the last twenty months have taught us anything, you are good and you will see us through! Therefore, lead us into the future with persistence, faith, resolve, listening ears, soft hearts, supernatural peace, and abiding trust.

You have called us, you are faithful, and you will do it (1 Thess. 5:24)!

In your glorious name, Amen!

Six Things to Change in Your Church Re-Entry Mindset

Dear Church Leader,

As your church prepares to exit lockdown and re-engage with in-person gatherings, it is vital to prepare for the coming months with the right mindset.  As you do, consider these six things:

The Slow Re-Entry

Be prepared for a trickle, not a downpour, of in-person attendance.  As restrictions lift, everyone will not come back at the same time or with the same expectations.  Some will come with enthusiasm, some with caution, and some with apprehension.  Understanding this reality is vital in protecting your heart from potential discouragement and disappointment.  Additionally, if we expect people to all come back right away, we will not be prepared to help those who will take time to feel comfortable and reengage with in-person gatherings or to minister to those who choose to engage exclusively online.

Therefore, adjust expectations and allow for people to engage at their own pace.  To aid in this, it might be helpful to heighten regular hygiene practices, remove any stigma for those who prefer to continue wearing a mask, and be sensitive to people’s personal space by keeping designated extra social-distance seating for those who would prefer it.

The Great Migration

One of the practical dynamics of a pandemic is that although people moved geographically, we didn’t see this manifest in the local church as most kept engaging digitally after they moved. Although a small percentage may decide to stay digitally connected with their previous church after they have moved away, most will begin looking for a new church home as restrictions ease.  This will have two effects. First, it can be discouraging for pastors who will be faced with what would have, typically, been a series of losses over eighteen months, condensed into a short few. Second, it calls on the church to prepare for an unusual influx of people in the coming weeks/months as those who have moved geographically to your area are looking for a new church home.

Thus, as you prepare to welcome your congregation back, put extra energy into your newcomer strategies and hospitality ministry.  Consider ways to let new people in your community know of your church as they begin to look for a new church home.  Be sure to do this physically (signs, postcards, etc.) as well as digitally (Google and Facebook Ads).  Above all, remember that digital is the new front door.  If you haven’t done so already, be sure your newcomer engagement strategy includes, and even focuses on, your digital platforms.  Keep your website, social media, and live streams up to date with excellence and authenticity as people will attend digitally before they attend physically. 

The New Hybrid Normal

It is also important to recognize that, like most things in society (movies, education, work, etc.), people will desire a hybrid (physical and digital) approach, embracing the benefits of both.  As a result, people will engage with church physically less often and when they do, they will be looking for personal relationships and physical community.  The shift away from large performance-centric gatherings will continue and the growth of artisanal community expressions (both digitally and in-person) will continue to emerge and grow in dominance.

Thus, as you regather physically, pour increasing energy into community and relationships.  Additionally, don’t ignore digital and the unique gifts it offers your people to stay connected, foster community, and minister to people untethered by geographic restraints.

The Rebuild

As you look into the coming year, it is imperative that you begin to adopt a rebuilding mentality.  If you entered Covid with a mature church with great structure and momentum, it would be foolhardy to assume that mentality will work coming out of Covid.  As we exit Covid, your church will need to act more like a church plant than an established church.

Just as when a sports team enters a rebuilding year, you will need to adjust your mentality accordingly (change how you allocate resources, get back to the basics, simplify, adjust your expectations, focus on different priorities, etc.). Take time over the summer to review your ministry strategy and re-emerge focusing on the fundamentals that make your church unique.  If you don’t know what that is, this is a great time to discern it with your leadership team and relaunch into the Fall.  Don’t fall for the temptation to go back to what was.  Move forward engaging with a world that will look very different than it did a year, two, or five years ago.

The Great Divide

One of my brilliant colleagues made the apt observation that we will need to press into reconciliation in the coming year.  The world is increasingly divided, and the church is no expectation.  Your church cannot achieve its mission if it is divided, and Jesus wants us to show the world that we are His disciples by our love.  As a result, I believe this is our moment to be a shining city on a hill, glowing with the light of Jesus’ redemption and reconciliation.  God’s mission depends on it!

The Fall Out

As you enter this next year, I want to warn you.  It will be hard!  Not only will it be filled with rebuilding, but it will also be filled with broken and hurting people.  When disaster strikes it is not until after the devastation that people begin to deal with the internal pain and brokenness it created.  We would be naïve to assume that things will just spring back to life in people’s lives after the immediate effects of Covid are over.  People will be hurting emotionally, spiritually, and physically as we re-emerge from Covid.  Let us be prepared for the difficult times ahead by doing what we do best: pastoring, loving, and caring for people with the grace, hope, and love of Jesus.  Let us also be prepared that some of those hurting will be us.  Do not ignore your own brokenness as you care for others.

The Hope

Although our mindset needs to change as we engage in the coming months, the main things do not.  Jesus is still on His throne, and He is leading His Church.  Although the coming year will be filled with challenges, take heart.  Jesus is good, He has overcome, and He will lead us! 

As Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b, NIV) 

Five Things NOT to Miss as Your Church Regathers In-Person

As we move out of the Covid-19 pandemic and into our new normal, each jurisdiction will follow its own timing and process.  Whatever your area’s timeframe and reopening plans look like, it is important not to miss the following as you prepare to regather in-person.

Don’t Move Too Fast

Be cautiously optimistic.  The future is positive (we are almost at the end of this), but don’t put all your eggs in a fast-reopening basket.  If you are in Canada, most provinces have reopening plans that are tied to various factors (vaccinations, hospitalization, R-factor, etc.) which can change for various reasons (it would not be the first time we have had to move back a stage or delayed a plan’s progression).  Therefore, have plans for multiple scenarios and know that a delay or regression in a planned reopening is possible.  As with all things in the pandemic, be prepared to pivot fast and embrace short-term planning (recognizing the futility of long-term plans in a fast-changing environment).

Don’t Expect a Flood of Attendees as you Open

Recognize that as things open back up, some people will still be cautious (for many reasons).  Don’t be discouraged if attendance doesn’t instantly rebound to pre-pandemic levels.  Realistically, some people may not come back, and some people won’t feel comfortable for a while.  Pre-emptively protect yourself from discouragement if your attendance isn’t bursting at the seams and all your people are not as excited as you are to be back in-person right away.

Don’t Ignore People’s Concerns

As you prepare to regather in-person, know that some people will be cautious.  Handshakes, hugs, and close contact will not be as welcomed as they were pre-pandemic.  People will need increased physical space.  This will change over time, but it is key to honour people’s personal space as they re-engage.  Consider making it clear that masks are ok for those who will continue to wear them, create seating areas that honour more socially distanced spaces, and don’t push people faster than they are ready to go.

Don’t Lose what You have Gained

I can’t stress this enough!  For all the challenges of this last year, we gained so much knowledge, creativity, innovation, and new approaches in the Covid season.  Make it a point this summer to list all the things you learned, tried, and found success in and commit to keeping those learnings into the future.  Don’t lose your advancements in online ministry.  Don’t ignore all Covid taught you about congregational care and engagement.  Don’t forget all the insights about ways to serve your neighbourhood and community.  This may seem simple and obvious, but the temptation to fall back into all the well-worn pre-Covid ministry ruts is real.  Be intentional and strategic about the things you will keep doing as well as the things you will go back to.

Don’t Miss the Opportunity

As you move to regather, don’t miss the opportunity to rethink things.  Although you will be tempted to go back to the way things happened pre-pandemic, this is a time to make some systematic changes.  Use it to rethink your Sunday services, your community engagement, your children’s ministry, your youth ministry, your discipleship pathways, your congregational care strategy, etc.  In the rush to the familiar don’t miss the opportunity for change and increased effectiveness.

There is no doubt that this is an exciting time.  I am looking forward to re-engaging with my congregation in-person, but I am also aware of our human nature and don’t want to miss out on all that God wants to teach us as we move into the future on mission.