Promoting the ‘culture of the call’

As The United Methodist Church struggles with a clergy shortage, Mandarin UMC in Jacksonville has successfully applied simple steps to boost the “culture of the call” among its 1,000 attendees. In less than a year, the church has seen 23 children and teens profess the call to ministry.

The church has been dedicated to involving young people in the life of the church and to nurture an atmosphere in which many young people have felt God’s direction to ministry. The leadership has come from associate pastor Rev. William Wold and senior pastor Rev. Debbie McLeod.

MAC Track team, left to right: Back row: Rev. Barry Lane (retired pastor from the Florida conference), Lauren Langley; Front row: Rev. Will Wold, William Anderson, Derek Langley, Sarah Gilbert, Grace Rogers, Amanda Norris

“It started with our senior pastor (Rev. Debbie McLeod),” said Wold, who has been on staff less than a year.  “She has really developed the culture of the call. Once I got here, I just joined in. It’s my calling, my passion.”

McLeod herself was called at a very young age—10 years old—but had no one to talk to about it; she postponed her ministry journey until adulthood. Then, in 2012, McLeod prayed to God to show her who she should speak to about a ministry encouraging young people to consider the call. The program began when she met with those people God put on her heart, and the church sent a large group of children and youth to Warren Willis Camp each summer to foster their call.

“When Will Wold joined us as one of our pastors last September, we gave him the job of figuring out what to do next,” she said. “Will is really good at taking the faith and call of these young people seriously and designing experiences to help them hear from God and to provide information about what ministry is.”

Pastors need to be more intentional in talking to the laity of all ages about the call to ordained ministry, and at the same time, remember that God does call people when they are very young, she said.

In his role, Wold, 25, borrowed the curriculum developed by the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Mo., called MAC Track, or Ministry as a Career, and put his own spin on the program designed to give young people a guided path to serve. He meets once a month with the group and prepares them for the steps to realize their calling. Not all kids show up every month, and Wold realizes that not all will become pastors; but he believes he is among future church leaders, he said.

“We are just thrilled with their program,” said Wayne Wiatt, the director of the Florida United Methodist Conference Office of Clergy Excellence.

Since many clergy in the Conference are retiring with fewer people entering seminary, Mandarin’s program is good news.“ They have been very intentional in their efforts,” Wiatt said. “Debbie shares this passion and has helped her congregation realize it.”

In addition to the educational aspect of the program, Mandarin has incorporated the youth in every aspect of the church,  serving on the Church Council, singing in the choir, serving as ushers and sometimes even preaching, according to Wold.

“They are an integral part of everything we do here,” Wold said. “That starts with the senior pastor and the nominating committee and seeing the value (the youth) have to offer. They add a different perspective.”

Screenshot from 2012 informational video by First UMC in Lakeland.

The MAC Track program has been around the Florida Conference for a number of years and has been used sporadically in the state, but according to Wiatt, “Mandarin is our prototype.” He said, “We will be visiting and meeting with the children and youth in the near future.”

The Conference is paying attention to the success of this program and trying to improve efforts to raise up the next generation of clergy and church leaderships, Wiatt said. They are looking to make pathways to ministry easier and less expensive and time consuming. He said the church needs to provide more connections with people who can walk beside those who are beginning their path to seminary and develop more curriculums for local churches and in undergraduate institutions.

Wiatt is optimistic that the shortage of clergy will begin to turn around. After several years of decline in ordinations in Florida, he is starting to see an uptick.

“The Holy Spirit is definitely moving in the Florida Conference,” he said. “The quality of young adults answering the call is amazing.” At Mandarin, Wold’s first meeting with these young men and women helped them identify their spiritual gifts and how that will drive their next steps, he said.

Wold can relate. It was just a few years ago that he was a young man in a church youth group when he felt the call. He was encouraged by his youth pastor, and it was then, as a teen, that he felt God move him, he said.

In his role at Mandarin, Wold encourages the future clergy in new ways of thinking.  “I have been doing church in a very different manner than traditional models.” And he doesn’t think that his congregation is the only one capable of producing so many youth called to the ministry. Instead, he feels it is more likely that there are people in every church feeling God’s direction but they just don’t recognize it or know what to do about it. And that is why it is important for the local church to put effort in the culture.

“Don’t be discouraged when you think about your congregation if you have just one or two people who feel the call,” Wold said. “Those people are so crucial. And it’s okay if the program doesn’t work the right way. There are people in the congregation…notice them and see them.  It might not be just the young people. It might be the older folks.”

Wiatt’s also hopes that other churches will develop similar programs to the one in Mandarin. “With mentors like Will—who is relevant to the culture—they will help a whole new generation and show that being a pastor is pretty cool,” he said.

McLeod also encourages other churches to create their own program to lead people in their flock to ministry.

“It is okay to start small,” she said. “Pray about it. Watch people serving. You don’t have to be serving a large church to watch your people and observe their gifts and have one-on-one conversations about how they hear God calling them to serve.”

It is critical for more churches to develop the culture of the call, Wiatt said.

“We are at a crossroad,” he said. “Are we going to live and thrive or are we going to just wither away?”

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