"Pastor, I feel like God might be ‘calling me,’ so what should I do?”
Other than hearing a confession of faith in Christ, very few things in ministry are as affirming to a pastor than the privilege of being able to counsel and guide a young believer toward vocational ministry. I always felt blessed, excited, and affirmed when one of the students I pastored acknowledged his or her call to ministry. I remember thinking, “We must be doing something right around here!” But along with that excitement also came feelings of apprehension and concern.
Preparation for a life of ministry is not a small or easy endeavor. It involves much more than simply saying to someone, “Here’s a Bible, go make some disciples!”
The Church of the Nazarene has, since its inception, recognized the importance of ministry preparation. In fact, preparing young women and men for ministry was a principal component of the Church’s early commitment to Christian higher education. The Manual of the Church of the Nazarene affirms our church’s commitment: “At the general church level, the historic practice of providing institutions for higher education or ministerial preparation will be maintained.”
In the spring of 2015, the Department of Christian Ministry and Formation at MidAmerica Nazarene University received a grant from the Lilly Endowment. This grant was designed to allow colleges and universities to offer spaces for young people to explore questions about their faith, purpose, and call to ministry. Colleges and universities were asked to design institutes for high school students within their constituency that would, “identify, ignite, and cultivate the gifts of future Christian leaders who will impact our communities.” The design of these High School Youth Theology Institutes (HSYTI) should include cooperation with other colleges and universities, congregations, denominational offices, service agencies, and youth ministry organizations.
MNU’s grant proposal was to create a week-long, residential camp specifically for high school juniors and seniors who expressed a call to vocational ministry. We sought and received commitments of support from our denomination, local churches, organizations, and institutions. We wanted a balance of practical and theological components. MNU’s ministry majors and minors are required to participate in ministry practicums that occur in the local church. All of our professors keep the local church and real-world ministry in mind as we design and implement our courses. Therefore, we designed our institute not simply to include “practices” as a part of the program, but to ensure practical theological education would be the focus of all educational experiences at our institute.
After receiving the grant, we invited a team of ministry practitioners to our campus for a brainstorming, dreaming, and planning summit. We thought the best people to consult about the design of our institute would be individuals who were actually doing ministry.
Our “dream team” included three lead or co-pastors, two youth pastors, two worship pastors, and two spouses of pastors. These five men and four women helped us move The Call @ MNU from dream to reality.
We did not want to be “just another Christian camp.” We made several early strategic decisions to help us accomplish this goal. We brainstormed ways to make The Call @ MNU more interactive, participatory, and relationally based. We wanted our students to engage, to do, and to experience, rather than simply to endure a steady stream of sermons, workshops, lectures, and activities. Our logo includes these three words: discover, equip, and send. The Call @ MNU was designed to help our students discover their call, to equip them for ministry, and finally, to send them back to their congregations to serve.
Format of The Call
Our workshops were called EXPLORE; times of personal devotional were called AWE; and corporate worship gatherings were called OASIS. We reimagined our meal, snack, and recreation times, calling them RE-FUEL, REFRESH and FLEX. We interjected relational and participatory components into each of those activities. We even added a short nap time (SIESTA) to the middle of the day, as we talked about Sabbath and our need for rest.
Each afternoon we lowered the lights in the OASIS room, played soft music, and invited everyone to find places in the room to stretch out on the carpet, benches, or platform and take a 20-minute group nap. Not everyone fell asleep, but this rest helped our students and staff members to refocus before resuming our work.
Our themes for year one included theology, ethics, the Bible, and spiritual formation. Each day, our students participated in three hours of classroom instruction that we called EXPLORE. We asked several of our professors to prepare content and teach these EXPLORE sessions. There were also two hours of directed small group discussion (FAMILY TIME), and two hours of personal Bible study, journaling, prayer, or devotion time (AWE) each day. In addition, The Call @ MNU featured eight plenary sessions. Each session featured an intentional relational component that was followed by a corporate worship time (OASIS) and a guest speaker. We emphasize diversity in the selection of our guest speakers. Each of the men or women who spoke was asked to include the story of his or her “call” to ministry. These “call stories” became the highlight of these sessions.
Our students overwhelmingly indicated that the OASIS (corporate worship) was the highlight of the institute. However, we did not expect the enthusiasm for the other aspects of The Call. We were surprised when our post-event survey indicated that students desired more classroom instruction, small group discussion, and relational interaction with professors, guest speakers, and staff—with less recreation and free time.
Making Adjustments and Moving Forward
Using the information gleaned from our post-event survey, we adjusted year two. By decreasing our recreation time, we were able to increase our classroom EXPLORE time from three to four and a half hours each day. Our themes for year two were evangelism, worship, and mission. Having the extra time each day allowed our professors to further develop their themes and interaction with students. We asked our professors to organize their EXPLORE sessions around a “Why, How, and Do” theme.
During session 1 we asked, “Why: Why do we evangelize, worship, or do mission?” Session 2 was: “How do we do?” Finally, we asked each professor to design a third session that created space for each student to actually do evangelism, worship, or mission.
In order to respond to our students’ request for more interaction with our faculty, staff, and guest speakers, we ended each day with an activity we called CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION. Each evening following our OASIS and FAMILY TIME, we created space in our schedule for our students to communicate with our guest speakers, workshop leaders, professors, and staff. We created a coffee shop atmosphere by dimming the lights and rearranging some of the furniture in our library. We provided coffee, water, and snacks, and asked our staff and speakers to be available for questions, comments, and conversations. By this point in the day, most of our staff, faculty, and even students were physically exhausted, but still enthusiastic.
In almost 40 years of ministry with young people, I have participated in, led, and/or directed a host of camps, retreats, and other events for youth. However, I can say without qualification that our work with the high school juniors and seniors across these two years at The Call is among the most effective and fulfilling. Our post-event surveys, thank you notes, and personal testimonies of the almost 100 student participants confirm the impact of this ministry. Our department has benefitted with the addition of over 20 ministry majors, and that hasn’t hurt either.