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Fall 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 2 · pp. 193–201 

Rediscovering the Calling and Sending Church

John Neufeld

Good ideas are sometimes prominently spoken while rarely acted upon. This is certainly the case when it comes to the practice of calling people into vocational ministry and the intentional discernment process required to achieve this.

Consider the college student I had lunch with recently. He is in his fourth year of studies in a ministry preparation major, and no one in his church or school has yet taken the initiative to create a formal discernment process that would function as a blessing for ministry and indicate his readiness to receive a call to minister in the local church. Our churches have encouraged ministry preparation and our schools have diligently instructed our students, but something is missing. That something is the identifiable call of the church.

We, the church, have become cautious and even resistant to placing upon youth the weight of the question, “Are you called to a ministry vocation?”

Hearing the Call is a set of mutually-supporting programs designed to encourage Canadian and U.S. youth from Mennonite Brethren (MB) churches, and other congregations served by Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (MBBS), to open themselves to God’s call on their lives. In particular, the emphasis is on pastoral ministry and other church vocations. It is the desire of MBBS to use the funds provided by the Lilly Endowment for this project to engage select youth in theological {194} reflection around the themes of Christian leadership and vocation. Using a program called Ministry Quest, MBBS seeks to support congregations in their ministry to youth and to partner with other agencies (camps, schools, and short-term mission programs) in identifying and nurturing young leaders.

Encouragement and instruction alone do not constitute the full responsibility of the church for calling out leaders. The Hearing the Call project and Ministry Quest seek to take the good intentions of the local church and form them into an experience whereby a youth finds his or her way to a clear sense of the call to ministry, and wherein a congregation rediscovers what being a calling and discerning community means in practical terms.


Our culture’s individualism has fundamentally changed the way we call people into ministry. While in high school, many youth are making decisions to pursue trades or professions which require very specific educational and practical learning tracks. High school educators have become increasingly sensitive to the expectation that graduating students will be acting on career choices which are being made during the high school years. Early decisions regarding which high school courses to take are career-making decisions. Further decision making is supported by various career aptitude inventories (none of which include ministry vocations as an option) and a range of academic achievement tests whose results open or close the doors of educational opportunity.

Who is speaking into a teenager’s life about church-related vocational choice? The baptismal covenants of the early church, for example, included a commitment not to engage in professions that supported the Roman cult. Until fairly recently within the MB church, it was common to hear sermons that not just challenged us to support missions, but asked us to consider a call to being a missionary. In fact, reflecting on the mission preaching of my childhood, the call to vocational choice is the primary feature I remember.

Today a wide range of professions are actively recruiting among our youth for the best and the brightest. The youth around us are in a stage of life when the question of career is front and center in their thinking. Yet we, the church, have become cautious and even resistant to placing upon youth the weight of the question, “Are you called to a ministry vocation?”

I have regularly posed this problem to parents and church leaders, and I am struck by the complete novelty of the question. Some are surprised—they had not even thought of challenging their youth that way. {195} Others are taken aback—“That’s a lot of pressure.” Some feel that the question of vocational ministry is too big, that youth are not ready for it. And a few candidly admit that “we just don’t do that kind of asking anymore; it’s more of an individual’s choice now.”

This admittedly unscientific gathering of opinion in our churches deserves our attention. It seems that we feel the weight of ministry is so great that high school students, though they are able to choose from a myriad of professional-track education programs, are unable to count the cost of ministry and pursue it. Perhaps a church which is hesitant to make the commitment required for discernment is understandably nervous about asking a teenager to consider the price of vocational ministry.


The church’s unwitting acceptance of the culture of individualistic choice has resulted in a loss of the practice of the church being a discerning community. In the significant matter of identifying our leaders and calling people into ministry, we have adopted a marketplace model of hiring whereby we hire pastors based on résumés, references, and interviews rather than first discerning how God has gifted our local church with the spiritual gifts needed by the body.

I am not suggesting that we abandon the pastoral development and placement patterns we currently practice. However, I am suggesting that they are not adequate. They are not adequate biblically, and they are not adequate practically. To provide a corrective to our current pastoral development and placement patterns, we need to renew the culture of discernment in the church.

Biblical Concerns

The suggestion that our patterns are not adequately biblical and practical requires some explanation. We have long held that spiritual maturity involves a combination of moral/ethical maturity, a vibrant relationship with Jesus, and the intentional exercise of spiritual gifts for the building up of the body of Christ. These things we couch in the context of the great commission (Matt. 28:18-20) and the great commandment (Matt. 22:37-40). We expect our pastors to be spiritually mature disciples who actively model these directives.

How is it that we have come to assume that the spiritual gifts required for pastoral leadership have not been given to those already in our congregation and that we must look outside our local church body to fill our pastoral needs? This runs contrary to the teaching of 1 Corinthians 12 that everyone in the body is gifted for the benefit of the whole {196} body (v. 7) and that this is the determination of the Holy Spirit (v. 11). Renewing a culture of discernment considers that the Holy Spirit endows the church with all of the spiritual gifts it needs.

I urge that the biblical discipline of discernment of spiritual gifts be renewed in our churches for the benefit of all believers and the body as a whole. One of the benefits of such a renewal of discernment may be that those with the gifting necessary to serve as pastors would be found already in the local church. This is the biblical ideal and has happened in many cases. When those persons are identified, next steps include a gathering of experience and education as emerging leaders are equipped for the ministry vocation to which their gifting has called them.

The Inadequacy of Present Practice

Practically, our pastoral preparation and placement patterns have lead to another sort of problem. As a pastor friend of mine has said, “Candidating is a lot like going to bed on the first date: a lot of action based on attraction rather than on depth of relationship.” This kind of problem arises when we overlook the discernment and development of spiritually gifted people in the local church.

However, when we foster a culture of discernment that assumes that God has already gifted us with what we need within the church, we will look for leaders who are already among us. We will know their foibles and follies and embrace them anyway. Their histories will taint them, but then again our history, as a church, taints us all, and we do not walk away from each other because of it.

When we discern who will lead us, we do everything in our power to prepare, equip, and support that person in the call that God and the local church extend. I have no illusion that this is easy. In fact, I would suggest that it is much more difficult than our current patterns of hiring pastors externally. But I believe it is by far preferable to a hiring process that has at its core a series of assumptions and accommodations that defer to our culture’s addiction to individualism.

Roots of Resistance to a Culture of Discernment

I suspect that our greatest resistance to renewing a culture of discernment comes in a constellation of related issues. I will not develop these issues here but will name some of them.

  • Hesitance to understand the gifting of the Holy Spirit as determinative in the life of the believer and to accept the corresponding “loss of individual choice.” {197}
  • Hesitance on the part of the local church body to take responsibility for discerning, calling, and equipping a person for ministry because of the real costs it implies for the church and for the individual.
  • Hesitance on the part of the local church to invest themselves in the nurture of an emerging leader, and a preference for hiring a “finished product” for a pastor.
  • Hesitance on the part of individuals to invite or accept the “discernment” of the church as authoritative in their lives, and a corresponding hesitance on the part of the local church to speak with words of specific blessing or direction towards any given individual.


A call to vocational ministry has three elements which complement each other: an individual’s inner call/divine awareness; the call as discovered through spiritual gifts, skills, and aptitudes; and the call of a faith community. While there may be exceptions to this three-fold pattern, Hearing the Call initiatives affirm and seek to strengthen opportunities for participating churches to engage in such leadership gift discernment. Youth are given the opportunity to explore ministry as a vocational choice, and thus to become sensitive to the various general and specific calls/claims God has made on their lives.

Developing a culture of discernment comes only after much practice. Initially it seems awkward and sometimes even artificial. Yet after a time it can become the chosen route for seeking and developing another generation of leaders. Becoming a leader has always required individual initiative. Yet we know that the call of God still finds significant voice in and through the local church. Those in leadership regularly illustrate this by pointing to the advocates, supporters, sponsors, and mentors who have opened doors of opportunity and windows of understanding for them.


The Hearing the Call project is comprised of three related priorities. The primary project activity is Ministry Quest, a program which directly engages high school youth in a two-year journey exploring pastoral leadership, congregational leadership, and missional leadership. Ministry Quest activities may be briefly described as three leadership retreats supporting a two-year mentoring relationship in the local church. A significant secondary activity is supporting our congregations by helping to renew a culture of discernment and leadership development. Our hope is to work with every congregation that has youth {198} participating in Ministry Quest. A third purpose is to strengthen communication between our denominational ministries working with youth-in-training and the sending congregations of these youth.

While none of these project purposes is particularly original, implementing them has not been seriously undertaken as a denominational effort. A glance over our past indicates that we have taken ministry preparation very seriously. Individual congregations have strong histories of calling and sending people into ministry. Our schools and mission initiatives have had a strong entrepreneurial bent with significant regional ownership.

In spite of this positive history of calling, training, and sending people into ministry, relatively little communication takes place between our denominational ministries and the sending congregation about the ongoing development of our youth. Too often youth have moved among the congregation, the camp, and the school and had to begin the leadership development process as if they had no previous experience. Some will continue despite this frustration, while others will disengage and find a context where their leadership skills will be more readily embraced.

If we are serious about developing more and better leaders we must become more intentional. We must create an expectation that our denominational ministries will communicate the ministry growth of our youth to their home churches. We must likewise create an expectation that our churches will take into serious consideration the leadership training provided by our camps, mission initiatives, and schools. Further, we must be quick to embrace and give opportunity to these youth for gift development within their local congregations.


Following are some of the participation targets for Ministry Quest. We are anticipating that annually sixty to seventy-five high school youth will enter the first stage of our two-year program. We are hoping that every camp, mission agency, and MB Christian high school will conominate, with the local church, the youth leadership in whom they see the potential for vocational ministry. We anticipate that we will have broad participation from all our district and provincial conferences, resulting in a wonderful ethnic and gender diversity. More generally, as a seminary-based project, we anticipate that our staff and faculty will resource the leadership teams of ninety to one hundred twenty churches over four years as we seek to strengthen the culture of discernment in our congregations. {199}

Between the high school years and possible enrollment in seminary education are the college years. Our colleges serve a significant ministry training role in the life of the church. By involving our college faculty and staff in Ministry Quest retreats, we strengthen the content provided for the youth and create connections to the logical educational opportunities for them as they grow as leaders. Additionally we have invited partnership with all of our colleges in facilitating leadership forums that will increase the capacity of our churches to become congregations that send many more people into ministry than is currently the case.

A number of questions are regularly posed to MBBS and the Hearing the Call staff. One is, “Why high school students?” This question does not have a simple answer. The first and most obvious answer is that the generous grant of the Lilly Endowment specifically restricts participation to high school youth. However, our work with youth is not simply defined by a grant criterion but is rooted in the belief that our high school youth are regularly making significant decisions regarding life direction. We believe we must provide them with the language and concepts necessary to consider the call of God and the church upon their lives. If we fail to make ministry a vocational option for our youth, who do we expect will make it an option?

A second question often asked is why the seminary is working with high school students. Would it not be more logical for our colleges to fulfill this role? Those who ask this question are concerned about the age and education gap between a high school student and a seminary student. My response to this is that our work in Hearing the Call and Ministry Quest is not primarily about student recruitment but rather about the development of ministry leadership. That is the seminary’s unique and primary mandate. Although MBBS is the custodian of a significant financial gift for this purpose, the church and not the school is the true recipient of the Lilly Endowment grant.


In conclusion I want to note the excitement that this project has generated among the youth who are participating in Ministry Quest. The leadership capacity evident in them has been huge. Their faith is both vibrant and curious. In an era when we are inclined to be suspicious of postmodernism and the youth who are growing up in the twenty-first century, I am very optimistic. God has always loved the church far more than have you or I, and has promised to endow believers and the church with every gift needed to further advance the gospel. {200}

The opportunity to participate in the lives of people whom God and local congregations are calling from across North America is a rare privilege and one that I personally treasure. In the process, I challenge congregations to think with me about our collective vocational responsibility. Whom will my congregation nurture into ministry leadership, and whom will yours nurture into such leadership? If we are to be calling and sending churches, we must together ask and answer this essential question.

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  • Clinton, Bobby, and Richard W. Clinton. The Mentor Handbook: Detailed Guidelines and Helps for Christian Mentors and Mentorees. Altadena, CA: Barnabas Resources, 1991.
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  • Oswald, Roy M. Finding Leaders for Tomorrow’s Churches: The Growing Crisis in Clergy Recruitment. Washington, DC: Alban Institute, 1993.
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  • Willimon, William H. Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained {201} Ministry. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2002.
  • ______, ed. Pastor: A Reader for Ordained Ministry. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2002.
  • Wright, Walter C. Relational Leadership: A Biblical Model for Leadership Service. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2000.
  • Zaragoza, Edward C. No Longer Servants, But Friends: A Theology of Ordained Ministry. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1999.
John Neufeld is Director of Hearing the Call and Ministry Quest, initiatives of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, where he previously received his M.Div. Prior to this assignment he was on the pastoral staff at McIvor Avenue Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
More information about Hearing the Call and Ministry Quest can be found at or by calling John Neufeld at (204) 487-3300 or Rick Bartlett at (800) 251-6227.

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