Commentary: A difficult obedience


by Michael J. Gehring*

Adam Hamilton, in the closing session of the 2015 Leadership Institute at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, related how he and the other ministers at the church work diligently to foster a culture of call. In Sunday school classes, youth meetings, and in other venues, they encourage youth and children to consider whether they have a call from God upon their lives for ordained ministry. He shared the story of an elementary school girl who said to him, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a minister like you.”

When I heard him discuss their intentionality in helping to create a new generation of preachers I thought, “Wow, that’s awesome!” The story of the young girl immediately brought to mind an incident from my past; our parish priest, Father Columban, arranged for my family to meet Archbishop Fulton Sheen. My brother and I were children. Father Columban introduced each member of the family and when he came to me, the youngest, he said, “And here’s our little diablo.” Archbishop Sheen immediately responded, while patting me on the head, “Ah, but he’s a good little diablo.” Being the youngest I was all too accustomed to taking nonsense from my siblings, and I beamed with pride at the Archbishop’s ability to see the good in me.

I can only imagine the impact that Adam Hamilton, an incredibly gifted Methodist minister, is having upon the youth and children of his congregation. I imagine many of them are saying, “I too want to be like Adam.” Truth be told, I left Church of the Resurrection wishing that as well. But I also departed Leawood remembering talented clergy and regrets for what might have been. Over the last decade, I have witnessed an increasing number of clergy friends leave the local church. One good friend, a once successful church planter, now publicly brands himself as a disillusioned minister, disillusioned not with the Gospel but with the church as institution.

It is vital that congregations nurture the sense of call in their children, youth, and in every member. Everyone is called in God’s kingdom and God has a place for everyone to serve. For those whose sense of call to the ordained ministry remains with them into their university years and beyond, it is important, as part of their discernment process, that the culture of call is tied to a culture of honesty. Too many preachers fearful of extinguishing the idealism of their hopeful seminary candidate pull their punches. Too many preachers have soft-coated the challenges that those heading into parish ministry will face.

Truth be told, it’s not only preachers who withhold crucial information. A conversation with a graduate from an elite divinity school, who was grappling with her first parish assignment, surprised me. In the evangelism courses she had taken, there were no discussions about mainline decline—no conversations about how to deal with bishops and district superintendents, who themselves are struggling under the weight of a crumbling institution, when they cry out, “Make bricks without straw.” There were no considerations of the average age of a mainline protestant member and how that number is pregnant with tremendous financial implications.

After graduating from divinity school, young clergy are often sent off to Leadership Institutes so that they can see how it can be done, only to return to congregations with 50, 100 or 200 year old DNA and a legion of silos. Somewhere along the way there needs to be more truth-telling. That truth-telling needs to occur before they get to their first parish; and it needs to occur in such a way that they are not discouraged from ordained ministry. But it needs to be done so that when they get their first parish they are not naïve idealists who upon meeting the realities of parish life quickly become disillusioned.

Somewhere along the way there needs to be more skills given, skills in conflict-management, and how to endure the winds of resistance. Along the way there also needs to be more instruction on the current challenges of parish ministry and also a forecast for the turbulence which lies ahead. There needs to be conversations that if current trends are not reversed, the likelihood is that in 10 or 20 years there will be an increasing number of tentmakers among mainline pastors, and if they become one of that tribe, how will supplement their living in order to serve their congregations? Not everyone will be privileged to serve at a Church of the Resurrection. And most certainly there needs to be more spiritual formation on how to feed the soul when one feels like one is caught either in the eye of the storm or in the aching stillness of a desert whose expanse resembles eternity.

It would be easy to say the problem resides with how the divinity schools and seminaries are training the clergy. People tend to like solutions which place the blame on others and excuse them from responsibility. This is a problem for the whole church to solve: local congregations, ordination boards and committees, theological schools, denominations, pastors, theologians, denominational executives and bishops. But it is a problem which must be addressed for something is terribly wrong when more than one-third of those who have already gone greatly in debt, who have given 7 years of their lives in undergraduate and graduate school preparation, leave parish ministry for good after having served 7 years or less. And often times when they exit, they depart deeply-wounded and heart-broken. More needs to be done to equip and support these gifted-ones God has given to the church.

gehring portrait photo


Michael J. Gehring is Senior Pastor of Broad Street United Methodist Church in Statesville, NC.




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9 Comments on "Commentary: A difficult obedience"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Gene Bramlett
It seems to me that John Wesley and others of his time had a pretty good idea of the difficulties circuit riding clergy faced in their time. One of the antidotes to the loneliness of pastoral ministry he insisted upon was the connectionalism all clergy had with all other clergy who served the Methodist Episcopal Church. In my time, short though it has been, as a Methodist and candidate for ordination, I find that the conferences and districts and even the clergy themselves do not put much emphasis on the connection. The word is used, but the meaning has been… Read more »
Susan Eggert

Cannot disagree with anything you’ve said, Michael. A thoughtful and timely article. Hope it makes a difference.

Mary Anna deForrest-Pearce
Mary Anna deForrest-Pearce

The very hardest thing in my first appointment was the isolation. In seminary I had been surrounded by colleagues, with good discussions about what we were reading and people to bounce problems off of. Then suddenly it was just chirping crickets. That transition needs to be addressed in school, at the district and conference levels.

jimmie shelby
In this writer’s mind: ones call is VERY personal. One should not go into pulpit ministry because someone or several “someones ” have mentioned to that individual–“…..and you would make a wonderful minister. This writer has been exposed to more than one individual who has gone into pulpit ministry for mainly that reason. Those individuals seem to be uninspired by Father/Son/Holy Spirit and only serve to collect a pay check. Sad, yes, but true. What does that do to the local church/congregation that longs to be fed good spiritual food as opposed to a social gospel message? The connectional ministry… Read more »
Thirty years ago, I went through a lengthy period of discernment with our minister at the time (who is now sadly passed). My call to ordained ministry was – and remains – strong, and I embarked upon an undergraduate degree with a path to seminary. I was not successful in reaching that noble goal. What happened instead is that, upon gleaning the knowledge from the Book of Discipline I would not be ordained, I turned to my parish minister for guidance – and discovered he had been reassigned to another parish. The new minister was not interested in young adults,… Read more »
jimmie shelby

Did this writer’s comments not meet the standards you have set out?

Charles Harrison

Your post is still there. Maybe the problem is on your end, Try a reboot of your PC.

Charles Harrison

Twice you have made the exact same comment. this leads me to believe you are either having internet problems or PC problems. Your personal attack of the Bishop is still posted. We are advising you to find a new way to make your opinions known without attacking another individual.

It is also inappropriate for you to comment about one article on another article as it is confusing to our vast readership. Please be much more considerate in the future. Thank you.

Richard F Hicks
The whole idea and practice of “call” makes for sick, ego-laden, spotlight-seeking people who haven’t done deep soul work. That’s where one dives head first into the unknown of one’s own depth. Jung called it “the shadow.” Without deep diving one never finds love and grace in those parts of us which we cover in shame (Paul) yet these parts are where we find sotier, health, wholeness, holiness, salvation. Without deep soul work we merely turn out mask wearers who are desperately dismissing their Shadow which is also part of the creation which the creator called good. Let’s here more… Read more »
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