In his classic The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, H. Richard Niebuhr describes four dimensions of the call of God: the call to be a Christian, the secret call, the providential call, and the ecclesiastical call.
The call to be a Christian is related to our baptisms, and is the experience of everyone who hears the words of Jesus, “follow me” (Mark 1. 16-20) and acts on them. This call is also expressed in the discovery and sharing of our spiritual gifts, and participation in the body of Christ.
In the secret call, we hear God speaking to us and leading us. There is a sense of guidance and direction. Sometimes we fight the call, and yet in time we may surrender or yield to the call. It is important, for those in active ministry, to return again and again to the call experience (Galatians 1. 12).
The providential call is related to the discernment of our gifts and God’s grace. Here our varied callings in life may come into conflict: our responsibilities as parents or adult children, our needs to be located in a geographical area, the sense of timing and sequence. In the providence of God a door may open or close.
The ecclesiastical call is the journey that persons who feel led to embrace set apart ministry undertake. In the United Methodist Church, the ecclesiastical call happens in pastor-parish relations committees and charge conferences, where the laity are present and help us to hear God’s call; later this call is tested in district committees and conference boards of ordained ministries, where the clergy are more present in the evaluation of call. Finally, a clergy session affirms the ecclesiastical call, and a bishop ordains to deacon or elder, or licenses to local pastor.
As I have read and reflected on Niebuhr’s work, I sense that the fullness of call combines each of these dimensions. In a culture of individualism, it is common to claim that the “secret call” is preeminent and not to be questioned, but in fact this is an impoverished definition of call. The call of God is both interior and external; it finds voice in the human heart and the confirmation of the Church, where it is “acknowledged and authenticated” (Book of Discipline, 304.1). As a movement of the Holy Spirit, the call is both inner witness and external validation. An individual is convicted and a community receives a Pentecostal outpouring: both are expressions of the Holy Spirit. The fullness of God’s call is the resonance of the inner and outer witness.
In my role as a Bishop, the church has asked me to “guard the faith, seek the unity and exercise the discipline of the whole church”. I find that this ministry is often about reflecting on experiences of call: how a clergy feels led to remain in a congregation or itinerate; how another clergy wishes to express sacramental ministry; how an elder may have gifts for ministries of superintendency; how leaders (clergy and laity) are gifted to be in mission in ways that strengthen the annual conference; how a colleague bishop deliberately violates church law. In my own discernment, I find myself again and again returning to Niebuhr’s four dimensions of call: the call to be a Christian is foundational, but it is too important to be assumed; the secret call motivates and inspires, but is not sufficient in and of itself; the providential call acknowledges human factors and the contingencies of life; and the ecclesiastical call takes seriously the resources of scripture and tradition, and our covenant with each other.
There are Christian traditions that give much greater prominence to the secret call; the Quakers would be an example. There are Christian traditions that place the ecclesiastical call in a congregational context: the Baptist and United Churches of Christ would again be examples. United Methodists differ from these traditions in that we are connectional and episcopal. The experience of call is always lived in tension with the needs of a sending church, and a polity that insures pastoral leadership for every congregation and continued appointment of all elders. Clergy are related to one another in the orders of deacon and elder, and local pastors in a fellowship; churches are connected to one another in annual conferences; clergy and churches are placed in relationship to each other through appointive processes that are consultative. The ecclesiastical call always moves us more deeply into relationship with one another, and this is a sign of maturity.
E. Stanley Jones, in The Christ of the American Road, describes three stages of the church: dependence, independence, and interdependence. As a bishop, I am in conversation at times with clergy and churches who wish to be independent---they deny the reality of the ecclesiastical call. I remind myself, and sometimes I remind a brother or sister that we have made promises to God and to each other. This is the discipline of our shared life, and having chosen to be United Methodists, we believe that this is the way that leads to life. The path to maturity and holiness is one of interdependence, not independence. When clergy violate the discipline of our shared life, or privilege other calls above the ecclesiastical call, relationships are fractured, and indeed the result can be schism. As Bruce Marshall of Southern Methodist University has noted, “There is a faithful dissent that genuinely builds up the church, but also a false dissent that harms the church.” The discernment of this distinction lies in how we hold together doctrine and discipline, remembering that “our theological task is both individual and communal” (Book of Discipline, 105).
I offer these words as the Florida Conference Board of Ordained Ministry meets this week; I write them in anticipation of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, which meets next week. An unspoken agenda in these meetings is the integrity of the Body of Christ: we are in covenant with each other, or we are not. And underneath the covenantal relationship is the question of how God is speaking to us, and how we submit ourselves to that call.