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Fall 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 2 · pp. 202–212 

The North American MB Call to Pastoral Leadership

Jim Holm

Quality pastoral leadership has always been a high value for the Mennonite Brethren (MB) in North America. During the last two or three decades, there has been a renewed emphasis on evangelism and church planting which creates a need for more pastoral leaders to emerge. 1 In an informal survey conducted in 2000 by the MB Biblical Seminary in Fresno, denominational leaders in the United States and Canada were asked to project how many new pastors would be required by the end of the decade. The results were impressive. The survey indicated that nearly six hundred pastors and associates would be necessary to staff the MB churches in North America in the next ten-year period, based on projected growth plans. 2 The importance of calling people into pastoral leadership is magnified by these statistics.

It is necessary for MB churches to return to the practice of calling people into leadership.

In the early years of the MB church, beginning in Russia in 1860, leading men of each congregation were designated elders or pastors of the local church. There was a plurality of leadership with each congregation having several “leading brethren” who exercised duties of preaching, spiritual care, and administration of the ordinances.

Over time, and especially after the emigration of many MBs to {203} North America, this practice of selecting leaders changed. As the educational level of the church members increased, there was a corresponding call for greater education and training for the clergy. Churches moved toward the single paid pastor, trained to exposit the Scriptures and to give leadership to the congregation.

While that in itself might not be a matter of great concern, what is troubling is that along the way the churches stopped the practice of calling people to consider pastoral ministry. Whether called “shoulder-tapping” or something else, the practice of encouraging young people to seek pastoral leadership essentially came to an end. Even though our seminary today actively recruits students, and seeks to work closely with local churches to encourage people to consider seminary training, there are not enough pastoral leaders emerging to meet the current need, let alone the anticipated growth that is projected.

The concern for calling pastoral leaders leads to this essay. It is necessary for MB churches to return to the practice of calling people into leadership. What is needed is a strategy that can be implemented by any local church to keep the matter of calling leaders before the congregation. This paper will outline such a strategy, beginning with a summary of the current situation and how it developed. Second, a brief review of what other denominations are doing to call pastoral leaders will be noted. Third, a biblical foundation for a calling strategy will be set forth. In the final section of the paper, the outline of a strategy will be given with attention to steps toward implementation.


The early Anabaptists did not ordain leaders. As one of their contemporaries noted, “They have no rules, one is like the other, all are equal in the service of one another.” 3 Menno Simons noted that there were two ways a person could enter the ministry. He could be called by “God alone without any human agent as was the case with the apostles and the prophets. Others are called by means of the pious as may be seen from Acts 1:23-26.” 4 The latter practice was apparently the most widely followed. The MB church continued this pattern of what MB historian J. A. Toews called “multiple lay ministry.” Churches elected several men from their midst to be their pastoral leaders. There was usually a probationary period before they were formally recognized as ministers. 5 What was clear was that the call came through the church. Toews writes, “The affirmation of the church superseded any inner call a candidate might have.” 6 Often the elders and deacons of a church would encourage those people who were recognized as having {204} leadership or teaching gifts to develop those gifts through the opportunities available to them. After these workers had proved themselves, the church would consider ordaining them for formal leadership.

Personal stories from retired pastors demonstrate that the practice of shoulder-tapping was practiced intentionally, and young men who were so tapped did not often refuse that call. I had opportunity to interview several of these men, who described the process of their “call.” It was clear that when the church called, these men listened. The practice of multiple leadership made this type of call effective. One person did not have to have all the gifts to be an effective pastor. As a result, there was seldom a shortage of pastoral leaders.

Everything changed with the move to a salaried, educated, one-pastor leadership model. Whatever strengths that model has brought to the MB church, one downside has been the increasing difficulty of recruiting young people for leadership. Over the years, the MB conferences have recognized this dilemma. A survey of conference yearbooks indicates that numerous resolutions were proposed and adopted to encourage churches to address this need. 7

Perhaps the change in the churches can be summarized in this way. In the past, the local congregation was involved in both the calling and the affirmation of persons for pastoral leadership. Today the church is involved only in the affirmation. The standard pattern today is for young people to present themselves as having been “called” by God to go on a mission trip or a summer adventure. The church is asked to affirm that “call.” However, the local church is not involved in determining who God is calling. The seminary, with staff people working full time in recruitment, has not been able to replace this essential role of the local church.

In preparation for this essay, I interviewed provincial and district ministers and leaders in person or by e-mail. I asked questions concerning their perceptions of how MB churches were calling people into pastoral leadership. The results were uniform. One district minister said, “Shoulder-tapping is not happening. Young people feel the call themselves, but they are not being called by the church.” Another commented that churches no longer have “seasons of prayer” asking God to call leaders for the harvest field. Another said, “There is no group in the church that makes an intentional practice of calling pastoral leaders.”

I also asked these conference ministers why this trend was occurring. Several of them noted that in twenty-first century North America, professionals are trusted less than in the past. This lack of trust spills over toward pastors. In addition, pastors are perceived as disrespected {205} and receiving too little compensation for the work involved and the stress of trying to keep members happy. One conference minister spoke of his conversation with a young man’s parents who said, when confronted with the prospect that their son might consider pastoral ministry, “Over our dead bodies.” At the same time, all these leaders expressed the hope that better days are ahead. They agreed that it is possible to change the current situation. For that a strategy would be helpful.


A survey of about a dozen other denominations revealed that the situation the MBs are facing relative to pastoral leadership is not unique. Some denominations have fully developed programs for calling leaders, and others are only in the planning stages, but everyone recognizes the need.

Perhaps most insightful for MBs are the results of a study commissioned by two other Mennonite denominations in 1999, and conducted by Michael Wiese of Anderson University. The study was called “The Samuel Project.” 8 Wiese wanted to ask why young people were not considering pastoral ministry, what barriers were keeping them from doing so, what the attitudes were concerning ministry in the local church, and how persons were encouraged to consider ministry. He identified four groups of people to be surveyed: seminary students, high school students, young adults, and people who had participated in the denomination’s Ministry Inquiry Program, a ministry internship.

Wiese found that in every group one of the key reasons cited as to why people were not considering pastoral ministry was that they had not been asked to do so. 9 When Wiese asked what the most significant influences were that encouraged young people to consider pastoral ministry, the results were again consistent from group to group. Those surveyed reported that “persons and relationships” were at or near the top of the list. In other words, other people encouraged them to consider this form of ministry. Wiese makes the telling statement, “Very little evidence was found that young people are commonly being ‘tapped on the shoulder’ for the pastorate.” 10 Other denominations report similar results from their own surveys.

My research led to the development of several key principles which should guide a strategy for the Mennonite Brethren. First, the call to ministry is corporate in nature. The church must be involved in the call. Second, the local pastor is a key in encouraging individuals to consider a call of God. Third, hands-on ministry experiences for those who have {206} been called is essential. Fourth, spiritual formation through some kind of mentoring is essential. These principles should be addressed in a strategy for calling leaders.

One denomination, the Lutheran Church in Canada, has perhaps the most developed plan for involving churches in the calling of pastoral leaders. Called RSVP, it encourages the local church to set aside one Sunday each year during which members of the congregation are asked to submit the names of those they think God might be calling to full-time ministry in the church. The pastor then visits with each person nominated to invite them to consider God’s call which has come to them through the church. If the person consents to further conversation, their name is forwarded to the educational institutions which also begin to encourage the person to consider pastoral ministry. The RSVP program includes bulletin inserts, sermon outlines, worship suggestions, posters, Bible study lessons, etc. The Lutheran Church reports that in four years of following this program they have had more than three hundred names submitted and every one of those persons has had a personal interview with their pastor. 11 Mennonite Brethren denominational leaders would do well to consider this program.


It is immediately clear from the Scriptures that there is no uniform pattern of calling and commissioning leaders. However, there is one Old Testament leader who serves especially well as a model for addressing the need that exists in the MB church today. Joshua went through a long and careful mentoring process directed by Moses. That process can be traced through the pages of the Pentateuch. Bobby Clinton and Katherine Haubert note that Joshua “provides a good biblical model for leadership development under mentoring influence.” 12

Joshua is introduced in Exodus 17 as if he was already known to the readers. His family heritage was impressive. His grandfather Elishama was a captain and the head of the tribe of Ephraim (Num. 1:10; 2:18). How Joshua came to the attention of Moses is not known, but Moses called on Joshua to lead the Hebrew troops into battle, as recorded in Exodus 17. This demonstrates that from the very beginning, Joshua was given tasks that tested his leadership ability. His assignments were important ones, with real consequences should he fail.

Other insights about Joshua’s training include the following: He was an “aide” to Moses, the only person who received that designation. He learned the discipline of solitude when he went with his mentor up {207} Mount Sinai where Moses received commandments from God (Exod. 24). He saw how Moses dealt with conflict in the incident of the golden calf (Exod. 32 and 33). He learned to receive rebuke (Num. 11) from his mentor without giving up. In perhaps the greatest crisis of his training, Joshua stood up against the entire assembly of Israel when the people wanted to reject Moses after the visit of the twelve spies to the land of promise (Num. 13 and 14).

In addition, Joshua was publicly encouraged and commissioned for his leadership role. Moses took the lead in this “ordination” ceremony (Num. 27:12-23), following God’s clear direction. Moses was to lay hands on Joshua, thus symbolizing the blessing which would rest upon the younger man. Then Joshua was to stand before the entire congregation, and there Moses was to publicly affirm this man and give some of Moses’ authority to Joshua. The open recognition of a new leader, especially when that recognition is given by another who is already a respected leader, is an important part of leadership calling and training.

Finally, Moses was told to “encourage” Joshua (Deut. 1:38). If Joshua was to earn the respect of the people he would one day lead, he would need to be encouraged to lead with strength. As one reads the rest of the story, it is clear that Moses’ mentoring process was a success. Joshua became the leader who did what Moses was unable to do: he led the people across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.

The New Testament contains a wealth of information on the call and training of leaders. It is clear that Jesus set out to form a community of disciples. He determined to gather around himself people who would help to fulfill his mission. Jesus enters into what can best be called a mentoring relationship with his followers. From the very beginning, he laid out a clear objective for them. They were to fish—for people. Jesus saw potential in people and called on them to develop that potential. That reality should not be missed. Jesus had eyes that looked not only at who people were but also at who they could become.

The details of Jesus’ plan for training his followers have been well documented in such classic works as those of A. B. Bruce and Robert Coleman. 13 However, at the foundation, Jesus’ intention was that his disciples would spend time with him, and he would give them ministry tasks to complete. They were to have access to Jesus, and they could watch him in ministry, asking questions about things he said or did that they did not understand.

Four lessons can be learned from the ministry of Jesus with his followers. There is the lesson of observation. He took the disciples with him. They saw him at weddings, funerals, in evangelism, and in the {208} ministry of healing. They saw him pray and watched him when he was alone. Second is the lesson of participation. They began to baptize converts early in their ministry with Jesus. They prayed with him and asked him to teach them how to pray.

Third, there is the lesson of delegation. Jesus assigned work for them to do. Luke 9 and 10 demonstrate an example of this. Finally, there is the lesson of commissioning as Jesus sent them out into the world to carry on his work. Church leaders can learn from Jesus. A plan for raising up and training leaders is essential to carry on the training of workers for the harvest. As one reads the prayer of Jesus in John 17, it becomes clear that the training of these followers was the principal focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

The rest of the New Testament reinforces this emphasis on training and mentoring leaders. Paul with Timothy or Titus and Barnabas with John Mark all illustrate that it was the intention of the early church leaders to teach and encourage those younger people who were gifted for leadership and to train them on the front lines to assume the role of pastoring the next generation.

Ron Clouzet, in a doctoral research project at Fuller Seminary, noted several characteristics of Paul’s method of training leaders. Clouzet found that the call to ministry was not the responsibility of one person, but that the church joined in the process. Second, Paul was a mentor. Following the lives of Timothy and Titus will show the time which Paul invested in them. Third, the training took place “in” mission and not “for” mission. Fourth, Paul’s trainees were put in places and positions where they had to make real decisions that had real consequences. Finally, Clouzet notes that Paul always trained his interns in the context of their ministry in a local congregation. They were trained in the body of believers. 14

New Testament leaders looked for leaders. They always had an eye on the future. Beyond that, they had a plan. They knew what they were doing, and they mentored their trainees, encouraging those trainees regularly, until the responsibility for leadership could be left in the hands of another generation.


In Matthew 9:35-38, Jesus issued a call to prayer for leaders. That call still needs to echo in the auditoriums and conference rooms of the Mennonite Brethren churches across North America. Any strategy that the church might adopt in training leaders must be founded on prayer. In addition, the denomination will have to return to integrating the {209} entire congregation into the mission of calling and commissioning leaders. The church must not only continue to affirm, but must join in the act of calling. In every church, and across the denomination, some person or persons will have to become the champions of this attempt at calling leaders.

If the leadership comes from the denomination, from the seminary or the colleges, from local church leaders who influence others, or all of the above, it must be led by those who will work at keeping this priority before the church. The strategy outlined here has three elements: the working of the local church; the role of educational institutions, such as the seminary; and the involvement of denominational leaders, such as district and provincial ministers.

The Strategy in the Local Church

As noted in the biblical summary above, the senior leader (e.g., Jesus or Paul) is the key figure in any plan for leadership development. The same is true in the local church. The senior pastor is an anchor point for calling and preparing the next generation of leaders. Part of the work of a pastor is to lead, and that leadership is needed as much now as ever. There are several ways in which senior pastors will begin to give this leadership.

In the first instance, leadership development must become a core value of pastors. The biblical example of Samuel is a profitable study in this regard. Samuel carried heavy responsibilities during his time of leadership, but he found time to be involved in establishing the school of the prophets, as seen in the books of Samuel. Leadership development was a core value for Jesus too, as for Paul.

Second, pastors will have to ask themselves what kind of image they are giving their own congregation. How does the pastor present the role of being a pastor? Here are some questions for pastors to ask themselves, or better, to ask others to answer with them: How do people see me in my pastoral role? What is the image of pastoral ministry that I am communicating? Would people see that I believe pastoral ministry is a preferred vocation? Would people sense that I enjoy my work? Would they say that I regularly encourage others to consider this kind of ministry?

Third, pastors would do well to be in a mentoring relationship themselves. Reggie McNeal, leadership consultant for the Southern Baptists, has written a useful book encouraging pastors to form “clusters,” groups of four pastors that meet regularly with the purpose of mentoring and sharpening one another. 15 In these clusters, pastors are able to {210} debrief ministry and life experiences. As they mentor one another, they can begin to reproduce their experience in the life of their own church.

The most important thing local pastors can do—and that is the center of this strategy—is to give themselves to the mentoring of others. The pastors are not the only ones who can do mentoring in a congregation, but they need to take a strong lead in working at it. Almost all, perhaps all, biblical leaders took time for mentoring. Bob Logan, church growth consultant, has a helpful diagram that focuses the priorities of a pastor (see figure). Called “Focus of Influence,” the figure consists of five concentric circles that illustrate the tasks that Jesus carried out—from “visionary teacher” to “mentor”—and the number of people that he influenced by each of those tasks. Logan suggests the same circles would operate in contemporary pastoral ministry. The greatest demand for the pastor’s time is in the outer circles. However, the greatest life change happens in the circles at the center. In other words, the greatest impact for individual changed lives through the ministry of the pastor takes place with those few people who are discipled or mentored by the pastor. 16 Pastors need to ponder this insight as they reflect on how best to arrange their time and energies.


Space does not permit a detailed description of the mentoring process, but the denomination could make training available for pastors. As to the curriculum for mentoring, there are many good resources {211} available. Simply studying the pastoral epistles would be a good beginning point. There one would learn about sharing one’s story, confronting false teaching, worship, qualifications for leadership, character of the leader, public conduct, stewardship, dealing with conflict, and how to teach.

The pastor is not the only one who can give this kind of leadership. The church board, along with other formal and informal leaders in the congregation, could also make this a priority. Training the next generation can become a core value of any congregation if the leaders are willing to give themselves to prayer and to looking for and calling out people to be discipled.

The Role of the Seminary and Colleges

The educational institutions of the MBs will need to work at implanting leadership development as a core value in their students. The schools will be doing their students a disservice if faculty members spend the bulk of their time training potential pastors to be biblical scholars or to do public ministry while neglecting to teach them to mentor the next generation. This means that the leadership of the seminary and other schools will have to make training others in leadership a centerpiece of the educational program. Beyond that, faculty at these institutions will need to become mentors themselves, so that students learn what is involved in entering into a mentoring relationship. The schools can also provide this kind of training to those already in the pastorate.

The Role of Denominational Leadership

The District and Provincial ministers have regular contact with pastors in their areas. They can regularly encourage those pastors to receive training in mentoring and to pray that God will use them to raise up leaders from their midst. The denomination should consider the implementation of a national program, similar to the RSVP program described above, as a way of bringing this need before the congregations across North America. At pastors’ retreats and workshops, training in leadership development can be given. Across Canada and the U.S., denominational leaders are right now working on this agenda. Their efforts will need to continue.

Jesus said that when people pray God raises up leaders for the harvest. The need is substantial today. Prayer is the foundation stone on which calling rests. But God has given the church the privilege of joining him in calling new people to leadership. We should not miss this opportunity. {212}


  1. A survey of conference yearbooks from any provincial, district, or national convention would reveal papers, resolutions, reports, and decisions regarding the priority of the twin commitments of church planting and church renewal.
  2. “A Ten Year Projection of MB Leaders Needed 2000-2010,” in Report to the Executive Committee of the MBBS Board of Directors (Fresno, CA: 10 September 1991), 45.
  3. John J. Kiwiet, “The Call to Ministry Among the Anabaptists,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 11 (spring 1969): 30.
  4. Menno is quoted in Kiwiet, 35.
  5. J. A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, 1975), 303.
  6. Ibid., 54.
  7. See, e.g., the 1972, 1981, and 1983 resolutions, quoted in J. B. Toews, A Pilgrimage of Faith: The Mennonite Brethren Church in North America, 1860-1990 (Winnipeg, MB, and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1993), 231-33.
  8. Michael D. Wiese, The Samuel Project: A Study of Pastoral Development in the Church (Anderson, IN: General Conference and Mennonite Church in the United States and Canada, 1999).
  9. Ibid., 43-44.
  10. Ibid., 46.
  11. “RSVP,” Lutheran Church of Canada (accessed 14 September 2002); available from, homepage; Internet.
  12. Bobby Clinton and Katherine Haubert, The Joshua Portrait (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Resources, 1990), 2.
  13. A. B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve (Grand Rapids: MI: Kregel Reprint, 1971). See also Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism (Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1964).
  14. Ron E. M. Clouzet, “A Biblical Paradigm for Ministerial Training” (D.Min. diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1997), 124-35.
  15. Reggie McNeal, Revolution in Leadership; Training Apostles for Tomorrow’s Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1998), 57.
  16. Robert Logan, “Raising Leaders for the Harvest” (accessed 29 September 2002); available from; Internet.
Jim Holm has extensive pastoral experience and has served in a variety of denominational leadership positions for the Mennonite Brethren Church. He received his M.Div. from Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, and is completing a D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He came to MBBS in 1997 where he currently serves as Interim President.

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