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Vocational Christian ministry: Who is the Spirit calling?

27 June 2024 By Gordon T. Smith

Reflecting on talk of a pastor shortage, Gordon T. Smith encourages churches to cooperate with the Holy Spirit calling people at mid-life to vocational ministry.

It is a common observation among denominational leaders that we have a looming shortage of qualified pastoral leaders for our congregations. The key reference point is that there is a flood of upcoming retirements as more and more pastors reach that key marker – 65 years. And they do not see enough replacements coming through the pipeline, as one denominational leader put it. The common assumption seems to be that we are not doing enough to persuade young people to respond to the call to vocational Christian ministry.

Consider the possibility of a different narrative. Let’s assume the Spirit of God is well aware of this potential shortage and further that the Spirit is actually calling men and women into ministry. Therefore we don't need to ask what is the problem or the lack but instead ask how and where and who is the Spirit calling into ministry?

Perhaps we should also stop assuming that 65 is the defining marker of when a person concludes their pastoral service. I'm not saying 75 is the new 65; but many will serve into their late 60s and perhaps even longer and do so quite effectively. So if we assume the Spirit is tending to this question and if we can stop assuming 65 is the key retirement marker, this frees us to see this situation in a different light.

First, let's recognize most young people in their early 20s simply lack the emotional, social and intellectual maturity to provide pastoral leadership for a congregation. This is often spoken of as deferred or delayed adolescence. Responding to the call to vocational Christian ministry is very much an adult decision. In the past this demographic was the primary source for new pastors, but perhaps that is not where the Spirit is giving primary attention today. Further, nothing – nothing – is gained by speaking of pastoral calling as the most sacred or highest of all callings. This may mislead some into vocational Christian ministry when it is not actually their calling.

Second, consider also that more and more are being called into ministry in mid-life – perhaps after a career teaching public school, or a focused work in the business world, or perhaps parents who in their 40s see their children grown and having left home as a new freedom to attend seminary. Could it be that increasingly we will see that the majority of those called into vocational ministry are those in mid-life? They will bring maturity and experience to the role and will likely serve into their late 60s or early 70s.

And third, consider also that many of those called in mid-life will be women and that this will be a huge advantage to those denominations that affirm the calling of the Spirit on women for vocational Christian ministry. Further, many of them will be women not of European descent, as more and more people from the global south come to Canada and respond to the opportunity to provide pastoral leadership for diverse Canadian congregations.

The point is this: The Spirit is calling women and men into vocational ministry. In the past we've assumed the pool of candidates would be young people in their late teens or early twenties. But that has changed and is changing. Rather than bemoaning this as a problem or a lack, let’s attend to what the Spirit is actually doing – no nostalgia for the good old days when scores of young people responded to a call to the Church, but rather a celebration of this new work of the Spirit and all that it means for the life of the church.

This will include equipping pastors to recognize who within their congregation has this potential – conversing with them about the possibility, giving them opportunities for ministry experience and coaching them to pursue quality theological education so that they can assume a pastoral role at some point.

Gordon T. Smith, PhD is professor emeritus of systematic and spiritual theology at Ambrose University, Calgary and a teaching fellow at Regent College, Vancouver. Website: Read and subscribe to his writing: Opening illustration adapted from Ken Cook.