I remember when I first felt the tug to enter ministry. I was probably 15 or 16 years old, and somehow the pastor from my church convinced me and then my parents that I should be allowed to attend the Presbyterian Youth Triennium in Indiana. And so somehow I found myself on a plane, and then on a college campus, running wild with other Presbyterian teenagers from across North America, and in the midst of the endless sound and fury of that experience, I found myself wondering, “could I possibly be called to serve the wild, breath-taking, diverse, spirit-filled church that made this experience possible?” And later when I worked up the courage to tell my pastor what I was feeling, and when he convinced me to take those thoughts seriously, and to pray on them, and later act on them by entering the process for ordination in the PCUSA, I found myself excited and at the same time scared to death of what I was signing on for… because for me, in that moment, the church was a place of safety but also one of great responsibility. To serve God as a pastor seemed, well, intimidating.
And so I went to seminary, with all of my hopes and fears and energy and anxiety, and while I was there I learned and grew and experimented with what ministry could be, and found myself hoping and dreaming of the moment when it would be my turn to serve.
I remember crying as I was ordained, overcome with joy at the incomparable mystery of this calling to which i was being confirmed and blessed. And I remember wondering, will it always be like this?
Of course it wasn’t. It isn’t. And it couldn’t possibly always be. But I find myself wondering, almost 4 years into my service to the church, whether it is possible that the church is failing its newest ministers in some crucial ways.
Let me explain. What I quickly learned as I searched for a call was this: when you are new, and have not yet been ordained, and swimming in a sea of potential ministers that is admittedly crowded, you find that the opportunities available to you are often churches that have experienced financial, cultural, structural distress, and often many of the before mentioned at once. They are churches that are in crisis. Churches hemorrhaging members. Churches with ailing buildings weighted by deferred maintenance. Churches that have lost their sense of vision and God’s call somewhere along the way, and don’t know how to get it back.
And these are the churches that, more often than not, my denomination makes available to first-time ministers.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of exciting opportunities to learn at the feet of more experienced ministers! I hear that Lilly Foundation funds like, I don’t know, 24 spots a year across the country? And there are a few associate positions out there. But by and large, we leave our neediest congregations to our most inexperienced ministers, and we give these ministers little support structure or opportunity to learn from more experienced ministers as they muddle their way through messes not of their own making.
No wonder so many of us burn out and leave the ministry so quickly.
Now, I consider myself lucky. My first call was a blessing–a church with limited funds, yes, but one that was beginning to pick itself back up before I came along. A church with start-up energy and faith in itself, that emerged from a decade of difficulty and was able to shine in its community. But I also know that this church was a gem in an otherwise depressing set of opportunities. So many other churches that cannot afford a full-time, experienced minister are the same ones who might benefit most from someone with the experience and wisdom of a long ministry. And too many of us young folks would love to believe we can answer all the problems of ailing churches, but find that we are more often stymied by the sheer weight of everything that is going wrong.
I’m not sure what the answer to this problem is, but I find myself wondering what it might look like if the hierarchy of the PCUSA took more seriously the responsibility to support younger ministers in difficult calls. I wonder what it would look like if we prioritized the needs of struggling churches, directed our resources to more creative solutions in these communities. I wonder what it might look like if the church were to encourage a culture where our wise, experienced, long-in-the-field pastors were able to share their wisdom with new pastors, rather than being given the pass of “I’m too busy to go to Presbytery” or “My schedule is too full for one more meeting.”
I hope this doesn’t come off as bitter, because it isn’t. I desperately love this church I call home. But I also worry that we are failing God’s call to be the Body of Christ if we don’t support one another and look out for the least of our churches as we minister together. Because we are in this together, right?