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Nurturing The Call — A Lifelong Responsibility

By Michael B. Ross

“List pastoral ministry’s three biggest surprises.”

Those were the instructions I gave 25 senior pastors attending one of five discussion groups I was hosting to better understand 21st-century pastoring. All of these pastors were ordained and had been in pastoral ministry more than 4 years. I was hoping to learn which responsibilities of pastoring they felt most unprepared to handle.

Many of their answers were predictable. Several cited uncooperative lay leaders; others bemoaned having to give so much time to administrative duties. A few mentioned the unreasonable amount of energy required to lead their congregations.

Another common answer surprised me, particularly since many of the pastors had avowed earlier in the meeting that their call from God is a lifetime responsibility.

“That I have sustained,” they said.

I probed. “What do you mean, sustained?”

“That I didn’t give up and leave pastoral ministry. I often wanted to,” they added, “but I hung in there. I didn’t buckle under pressure.”

No one knows for sure how many are leaving pastoral ministry each year, but denominational leaders seem to be discussing pastoral sustainability more these days. It may be a matter of supply and demand. Some small congregations, particularly in rural areas, are having difficulty finding and keeping a pastor.

The phenomenon of pastoral attrition also may raise theological questions. There is a widespread view that the call to pastor is irrevocable, that a clergyperson changing careers should not be compared to leaving a retail management or teaching position.

Sustaining is more than just hanging in there. Many pastors who would never consider voluntarily leaving their ministry careers have slipped into ineffectiveness, biding their time until retirement mercifully comes. The routine, if not the boredom, of pastoring is interrupted for them only by relocating to another church.

The Trophy On The Shelf

The Pastors Institute, of which I am executive director, received a grant from the Louisville Institute, a Lilly Endowment program for the study of American religion, to better understand why some pastors do not sustain. The project, “Murmurs From the Outside: What Former Pastors Are Saying to the Church,” included writing a report comparing six national studies on pastoral attrition.

The final report to the Louisville Institute included a narrative that gave a collective voice from thousands of pastors reflecting on the circumstances that had fueled their exiting ministry. The studies noted that the former pastors included in the research believed their exiting career ministry was the result of a stream of causes.

Those causes mostly mirrored what the pastors in the above-noted discussion groups cited as the biggest surprises of their pastoral ministry. Unresolved conflict and too many demands were included as some of the major causes of pastoral dissatisfaction and attrition.

There was an unexpected factor, observed mostly as a common thread in the studies’ qualitative feedback. It was highlighted in my final report to the Louisville Institute:

“This may be the most important thing we need to tell you, but it also is the most difficult. Our ministry began with a call — for some mystical, for others an awareness formed by time and circumstances. We felt we were affirmed, encouraged, educated, and empowered by the church and its institutions. We were not, however, led into times of evaluating and understanding our call. We did not realize that our call should not only be validated and reaffirmed, but also continually redefined. It was what it was, a trophy on the shelf, and that seemed good enough for us, our families, and the church.”

Ironically, the former pastors stated that one of the factors in their not being able to sustain their ministry was the experience that had resulted in their becoming pastors in the first place — the call. For them, the call had become a trophy on the shelf.1

Understanding the call to ministry as a trophy on the shelf has value. For many, the call becomes a pivotal point serving as a source of courage, purpose, and self-differentiation. It is not uncommon for pastors to find the strength to continue by glancing at the trophy on the shelf.

There are some inherent concepts in the trophy-on-the-shelf view of the call, however, that suggest the call needs more than a prominent place and an occasional polishing. The call to ministry needs to be continuously nurtured and redefined.

Let Your Call Speak

The Louisville Institute study evolved into a closer look at how pastors understand their call. A follow-up grant from a global corporation gave the Pastors Institute the funding for the project, “Let Your Call Speak: A New Model for Pastoral Development.” The project included probing into how pastors, their spouses, and laity understand the call to pastoral ministry. Two of the tools we used, small-group discussions and an online questionnaire, provided insights into the call experience.

The impact of the initial call is often underestimated. My own transition from pastoral ministry 10 years ago resulted in my realizing how much of my life had been formed by a call.

I clearly remember as a young boy leaning over to draw water for a bath and sensing God’s presence. I knelt by the bathtub and immediately said yes to God’s call. I ran to tell my mother that God had chosen me. At age 13, my path had been marked by an interruption of God.

Other than my childhood family — parents, siblings, and other relatives — my life has been shaped by that 2-minute encounter with God. Where I attended college, who I married, my friends, and most of my life experiences can be traced back to that moment. It was, to use an over-used phrase, a life-changing experience.

Many pastors describe their call as being a peak experience. Psychologist Abraham Maslow first used this term to describe sudden and self-validating experiences that often include an awareness of an ultimate truth. Even pastors who define their call as being a process admit to having a specific moment when the call was accepted.

Pastors frequently compare their call to other peak experiences. One’s hearing and accepting the call often is coupled with a moment of full surrender, sanctification, or being baptized in the Holy Spirit.

The voice of the initial call to pastoral ministry for most is clear and personal, both formidable and formative. Its purpose, however, is generally limited to being an entry point into pastoral ministry that is required and verified by ordination approving bodies. Its continuing value rests mostly in its visibility for an occasional glance that would produce a boost of energy and determination.

What would be the outcome if pastors would hear their call speak again? What would be the result if pastors went back and listened to their call? What if they rehearsed it and began to describe it more in terms of an ongoing story not yet finished? What if that initial call was then nurtured into life and it began to speak again? Would there be a restored freshness to ministry, a new imagination, and a humbling excitement?

A New Setting

I have been surprised at the extent of details pastors recalled when they reflected on their call. Many include what has now become for them a sacred place. For some it was a church building or a youth camp altar; others describe being in a college dorm room or alone in the woods.

It is obvious that the call immediately takes on a form that is structured by its immediate context and history. Ministry by its nature must be understood in context. Places, times, and feelings are parts of a call to ministry.

Unfortunately, the original context of the call often becomes a fixed template for ministry. Satisfaction in ministry is determined by one’s success in fulfilling the call as originally imagined. Circumstances and people who seem to hinder the formation of a context that would result in fulfillment of the initial call are viewed as burdens or roadblocks.

It has often been noted that full-time pastors are not aware of laypeople’s common experiences in the home or at work. It is also true that many pastors who relocate do not see the value in learning the history of the new church. The call embraced and valued by some ministers has little connectedness to the congregation they now pastor.

I was invited to preach for a weekend at a church in the South I had formerly pastored. I agreed to come after the current pastor assured me that my coming would help him and the church.

When I arrived, I soon realized there was a hidden agenda. The pastor began to tell of his frustration with some of the men who were pressuring him to join them for coffee on Saturday mornings. He asked if I would speak to them and help them understand his loftier goals.

“I have a church to pastor,” he told me. “I don’t have time to drink coffee.”

I reminded him that the Saturday morning coffee event had been a longtime tradition, one in which I had participated when I was the church’s pastor. His response made it clear that he intended to break the tradition. In the end, he was the one broken.

Would the outcome have been different if my pastor friend had nurtured his call until he heard it invoking him to pastor in the here and now? Would he have been able to set aside some preconceived ideas of pastoral ministry and realize that God had chosen him to serve this small-town congregation whose men just happened to enjoy drinking coffee on Saturday mornings?

A nurtured call demands new contextualization that allows pastors to fulfill their call more easily in their current setting.

The narrative report to the Louisville Institute included this reflection by former pastors: “Our imagination was cradled in naiveté and disproportionate zeal. Our call was absent of a setting and a future that would reconstruct it. Our imagination was not reality, and we became confused about our role.”

A Focus On Character

Many of the pastors who participated in our studies described their call primarily as one of doing. When asked to define their call, they often used verbs such as preach, teach and lead. Seldom were nouns, such as presence, compassion, or suffering, included. None told of a call to live incarnationally.

In its early days of formation, the call can take on a skill-based identity. More than half of the pastors in our discussion groups remember at least one friend or family member not being surprised by their call to preach. When I asked what they thought others had seen in them that indicated their pastoring potential, they responded with: “I was good up front”; “I was a powerful speaker”; or “I knew how to plan an event.” None of the pastors said their observable qualities had included holiness or servanthood.

It is clear that successful pastoring is becoming increasingly defined by criteria focusing on skills. A review of the curriculum offered in more than 125 seminaries offering doctor of ministry degrees shows that pastoring seems to be becoming more of a proficiency centered career. A high percentage of the courses offered are how-to classes.

Many congregations have expectations for their pastors that highlight proficiencies. Teaching, preaching, and directing the organization are often listed on official and unofficial job descriptions. Congregations want pastors who do things well.

My wife is the dean of Anderson University’s School of Education that now offers a specialization in teaching character development. Leaders of public schools nationwide are recognizing a character-gap in many of their students. They want instructors who can teach the sciences and the arts, but they also want teachers who can develop honesty, kindness, and respect in their students.

Congregations also hope and deserve to have pastors who can both model and teach Christian graces. While it smacks of the old double standard, it remains that congregants expect more of their pastors than they do of themselves. They want a pastor who has closed the character gap.

A nurtured call speaks of more than what a pastor should know and do. It forms a self-realized need for the development of character. It speaks of humility and sacrifice. Leadership is more defined as servanthood than as motivation.


One of my favorite gospel songs as a child growing up in a holiness church was “Look and Live.” Written by William Ogden, the song refers to Moses’ instructions to those bitten by poisonous snakes to focus on a bronze snake mounted on a pole. To look at the bronze snake meant the venom would lose its effect and victims would survive (Numbers 21:6–9).

I’ve a message from the Lord, hallelujah!
This message unto you I’ll give;
’Tis recorded in His word, hallelujah!
It is only that you “look and live.”

Ogden understood the account of the bronze snake lifted high as a precursor to the death of Jesus on the cross.

“Look and live,” my brother, live;
Look to Jesus now, and live;
’Tis recorded in His word, hallelujah!
It is only that you “look and live.”

Pastors hoping to sustain an effective lifelong ministry might find strength and wisdom if they would “look.” There is value in rehearsing the call and renewing the vows. Some of the early zeal and even the naiveté could be invigorating.

An occasional glance toward a past experience, as life changing as it may have been, may not be enough, however. The grace needed to sustain pastoral ministry may come from not only looking, but also listening. Staying power’s best source is in the words of the One who modeled leadership for us all. Christ’s instructions to feed and care for His sheep were not directed only to Peter, but serve as a commissioning for all who are called.

What would the outcome be if a pastor took his “call trophy” off the shelf and began to relive its initial impact? What if he traced its history through centuries of the church’s recognition of God’s intentional choosing of men and women to preserve the gospel and announce the arrival of the Kingdom? What if that pastor then retreated into a time of wilderness to pray and listen, and then to pray some more?

The call might speak again. If it did, it would be the words of Christ reminding the pastor to feed the sheep, even the burdensome ones. Holy imagination would be rekindled allowing him to see a renewed church impacting the community and the world. A fresh compassion coupled with a mandate to live a holy life exemplary of the One who first called and now calls again would take root and grow. Then I believe the strength to continue would suddenly appear.

Michael B. Ross, D.Min., Anderson, Indiana, is executive director at the Pastors Institute and adjunct professor at Anderson University.


1. The call in this article refers to the experiences or processes through which pastors come to an awareness that God is invoking them into career ministry. The call is presumed and hopefully verified by most ordaining bodies. It seems to be a standard expectation of pastors both by denominations and congregations.


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