LAKELAND – Answering the call to walk with God carries an assumption of divine guidance, but it can still leave clergy candidates hankering for some human camaraderie and advice.
Take Ivan Gonzalez, 24, of Titusville, who recently received his master’s degree in mental health therapy from the University of Central Florida. He thinks he would like to use his talents and skills to “bring people closer to God,” and he plans to pursue a deaconship in congregational care.
One of 40 clergy candidates starting the six-month certification process for ministry through the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church, Gonzalez said none of his friends is following a similar career track.
“I’m excited,” he said, as he attended a retreat July 27 at the United Methodist Center to kick off the certification process, which now includes mentoring groups.
“I haven’t been around the church culture that much,” Gonzalez said. “I want to learn the system and meet people who … help people discern their call. I feel like I’m not so alone in the process.”
That’s one of the benefits of a certification process that was revamped about two years ago, said Rev. Emily Oliver, associate director of the Florida Conference’s Center for Clergy Excellence.
Instead of assigning each budding minister a mentor from among practicing clergy members statewide, the Conference chooses two mentors from each of its nine districts to shepherd candidates from their district through the process with a series of small-group meetings.
|Rev. Melissa Cooper helps open the clergy candidate retreat by recounting her "call story" of feeling led to work in camp ministry.|
The new method helps reduce logistical headaches, cuts down on the time candidates must wait to receive a mentor and allows the Conference to recruit only clergy mentors who feel called to nurture others to follow in their footsteps, Oliver said.
With the change came a more specific outline of the curriculum to be covered, which comes from The UMC’s “Fulfilling God’s Call: Guidelines for Candidacy.”
Topics to be covered include ministry options, educational and psychological requirements, the Methodist itinerant system for elders, how church service can affect family life, and a description of the steps required to be certified by the candidate’s District Committee on Ordained Ministry.
Before the group mentoring program, a lot of candidates became frustrated by the length of time it took to become certified, and many dropped out or went to another conference, Oliver said.
She and Rev. David Dodge, the center’s executive director, said feedback from candidates who have been through the redesigned process has been good.
“The biggest payoff for the candidates is they’re less likely to get lost in the process,” said Dodge, noting that problems connecting with a mentor sometimes derailed candidates in the past.
“The other real benefit is they begin to establish relationships with other people they’re going to be in ministry with right from the beginning.”
Oliver said the Florida Conference mentoring program was adapted from models in Texas and Kentucky. The 2012 General Conference recommended the approach for all United Methodist conferences, and Oliver has been invited to present information about Florida’s program in a nationwide training opportunity for others interested in developing a similar program. The session is sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM).
About 220 people have gone through Florida's group mentoring program since the first session in January 2011. The vast majority have achieved certification and continued on along their chosen career track in ministry, Oliver said.
Miranda Harrison-Quillin, 26, of Tampa trekked to Lakeland to start the certification process a second time. She is among those who stalled in the process under the old method, though not necessarily because it was taking longer than she anticipated.
“I came up against some uncertainty and some fear,” she said. “I was feeling ill-equipped and insecure in my own abilities.”
A recent graduate of Duke Divinity School and the daughter of two Army officers, she has her heart set on becoming an Army chaplain. She said she is drawn to a profession of spiritually counseling and consoling soldiers and their families.
“I decided I can’t let that [insecurity] stop me from answering God’s call in my life,” Harrison-Quillin said.
Rev. Bob Brown, senior pastor at Coronado Community UMC, New Smyrna Beach, and a veteran mentor, said associating with others contemplating ministry is the best improvement in the certification program, as candidates find that others have similar questions and concerns.
A lifelong Methodist with 41 years as a pastor behind him, Brown said he particularly enjoys sharing the joys and demands of the job as he contemplates his own retirement.
|Rev. Bob Brown|
“It’s a different kind of career than most,” Brown said. “It’s all-encompassing. People need some help in understanding the totality of what they’re going to be doing.”
The UMC has been trying to bolster its young adult membership and leadership, and Florida is no exception. The Florida Conference last year sent more young people exploring ministry options to a national GBHEM event in St. Louis than any other conference.
Likewise, the mentoring program has been designed largely to accommodate young people in college and seminary, Oliver said. But older people seeking new careers in ministry also are welcome and regularly join the mentoring groups, she said.
The next certification program starts in January. Candidates must register by Dec. 1 and complete some steps by Dec. 15 to participate. For information, visit www.mycallfl.org.