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Nurturing the Call to Ministry
An Educator's Reflection

Dennis Bratcher

I would like to share with you in just a few minutes a brief summary of some of my ideals, my vision for what I do, or attempt to do, as an educator in the Church preparing young men and women for the ministry. These are personal reflections that have grown out of my own journey of Faith. But I think that these reflections resonate what many educators attempt to do in helping young people (and sometimes older people!) respond to God's call upon their life into some special ministry.

My own call to the ministry was greatly influenced by the prophets of the Old Testament. At a significant crisis point in my life when I was struggling to decide a direction for my life, the Lord spoke to me through Isaiah 61 and said "This is who you are."  You remember the passage: "The Spirit of the LORD God is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the afflicted."  I have done much of my study and writing on prophetic books, so it is not surprising that my vision for the ministry has been somewhat shaped by the Old Testament prophets.

That being the case, I would like to use the book of Jeremiah as a context for these reflections. The book opens with an account of Jeremiah's prophetic call and it is there that I find guidelines for what I do as an educator in the church.

If I were preaching from this passage, I would have three points.

1. Jeremiah called to a mission (1:4-5)
2. Jeremiah promised a presence (1:6-8)
3. Jeremiah filled with a message (1:9-10)

These three elements of Jeremiah's call to be a prophet summarize what I understand to be essential in responding to God's call to ministry even today. And it is these three areas in which I see responsibility in nurturing that call.

I. Jeremiah was called to a mission (Jer. 1:4-5)

4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, 5 "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

Some have seen in this statement a case for predestination. If this did imply predestination, responding to a call from God would not even be necessary. A person would just end up being a prophet, or a minister or a doctor, or whatever God had decreed. Que sera, sera.

Besides not being compatible with a Wesleyan perspective, I see something else at work here. We learn from verse six that Jeremiah was a young man when he received the prophetic call recounted here. But verses one through four tell us that Jeremiah was active as a prophet during the reigns of three Judean kings, covering a period of forty years. The book of Jeremiah itself tells us about that entire forty-year period, with additional material added to the book later, probably after the time of Jeremiah. 

In other words the book itself is remembering and preserving the ministry and message of Jeremiah. So it is likely that these two verses (4-5) do not come from a young man just beginning his career recounted as they were happening. They are the testimony of from a seasoned prophet looking back on his life and summarizing his ministry.

Jeremiah had a long and turbulent career as a prophet. For forty years he incessantly hammered away at a single-minded message from God. These verses are the testimony of a mature, battle-scarred veteran looking back over a long and tortuous journey. This veteran knows who he is because he has been tested in the fire. And he has withstood. He knows who he is. He says, "I am a prophet of God! I have never been anything but a prophet. I could never have been anything else because the hand of God has been upon me." That was the only way he could have persevered throughout his ministry, just as God had promised him.

Today

I find very few young people going into the ministry who are that certain about their call. They almost always have doubts. It is not because they are not sincere or do not have a call. It is usually simply because they are inexperienced. Part of my responsibility is to help them grapple with their call, to help them pin down who they are to become. For some, this process is a very positive experience; for others, it is very traumatic. Part of my job is to make it less traumatic and a more positive experience. But it must be done.

Jeremiah could not have withstood all the crises in his life, the ridicule, the mocking, the failure, the anguish, the burden of his message, had he not been certain of his mission. While many young people coming into college are not sure about their call to ministry, they cannot go on into ministry without that certainty.

In whatever way, I must push them, however gently and however slowly, to make a solid decision. I have no illusions here. I cannot call anyone to ministry. But I understand that they will not survive in the ministry if they drift into it. They will rarely have the commitment to stick it out if they are in the ministry because their father was a preacher, or because they had a neat youth group, or because they respect a particular pastor, or because they think it's a soft job with six days a week off.

But I also understand that it may take some time for them to nail down their call. I don't insist that they bear witness to a heavenly voice. Like Wesley dealing with his preachers concerning sanctification, I am content if they are continually seeking God's will. Seekers usually find. So I push them to seek. And I seek with them.

But they must know. That does not necessarily mean that they have a heavenly vision like Isaiah or Ezekiel. But eventually they must know.

Then there are those times when a student comes to college with a "call" and then decides that the ministry is not for them. Or they take a different direction, such as social work or counseling. To me, this does not necessarily mean I have failed. In fact, these can be just as much successes as those who continue in ministry.

It is just as important for students to decide that they should not be in the ministry as to decide that they should be. I would much rather they make that decision while in school than to decide after ten years in the pastorate that they were never really called in the first place. Or worse, to allow a crisis or discouragement to raise the old doubts that were never really settled.

Part of my responsibility at this point is also to be the best educator I can be. I am concerned about students who do not hand in work, who are always late with assignments, who do not try very hard, or who refuse to see new points of view. Such behavior may partly be due to immaturity. But if it persists, they may have more serious problems.

I do not construct my classes to weed out students. But I pull no punches and do not give students free grades. If a student is lazy in school, chances are s/he will be lazy in the pastorate. If s/he consistently throws assignments together at the last minute just to get them done, chances are s/he will prepare sermons the same way. If s/he refuses to tolerate new ideas or other points of view, or becomes belligerent with students in class or on campus, chances are that s/he will be intolerant with his parishioners and fellow pastors also.

Of course, these are not fatal flaws. If so, most of us probably would not be here. God can work with them just as he has worked with every one of us. And just as God has used godly men and women to help me, and no doubt many of you as well, so I accept the responsibility, yes even the calling, to be a mentor, to guide these young people.

With humility, and prayerful commitment for God's enabling strength, I accept the responsibility of nurturing God's call to ministry in all these dimensions: sometimes simply by praying with students; sometimes by giving students Fs; sometimes by urging students to be more responsible; sometimes by suggesting alternatives for careers; sometimes by pointing out areas in which they need improvement; sometimes by just listening to their doubts and sharing with them the doubts with which I once struggled.

II. Jeremiah was promised a presence

6 Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth." 7 But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, `I am only a youth'; You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be not afraid of them, for I am with you and will deliver you, says the LORD."

Jeremiah, like all other prophets who have passed down to us a narrative about their call, confesses an inadequacy (see The Prophetic Call Narrative). None of the prophets ever saw themselves as capable of doing what they had been called to do. But always with the confession of inadequacy comes an assurance from God of His presence. Most often it is in the form we have here: I will be with you. From Moses to Paul, they understood that a person cannot be a bearer of God's message on their own. It takes the active enabling presence of God to fulfill the mission.

Today

Part of my responsibility in nurturing the call to ministry is the spiritual maturity of students. They must come to understand where their true strength lies.

This will take different directions with different students. For the one who is certain that he knows all of God's truth and has no need of any education whatever, somehow I must convince him that there may be some small grain of truth which he has not yet mastered. He needs to understand that his strength does not come from the orthodoxy of his opinions or the ardor of his prejudices. Others need to see that their personal abilities, whether musical, or speaking or intellectual prowess or administrative ability, do not insure their success in ministry.

In the opposite direction, some students are so shy or have such a poor self-image that they see no possibility of leading a congregation. And yet they feel a call to ministry. Others are so crippled emotionally by some traumatic experience in their lives that they simply cannot function well around people or in certain situations. And yet God has called them.

To all of these, my responsibility is to present God as the focal point. Somehow, I must help them understand that the only way they will make it in ministry is through the enabling presence of God permeating their lives.

So I accept a measure of responsibility for their spiritual maturity. I must help them turn outward from a preoccupation with themselves, either positively or negatively, to a concern for others and a dependence upon God. I cannot make them grow. But I can create an atmosphere, both in class and in my personal contacts with them, that will stimulate and encourage that growth.

And I must be careful that I model for them dependence on the leadership of God in my own life. I cannot expect to be self sufficient myself, the image of self confidence, and still expect my students to learn to depend on God. I know all too well that I cannot do for these students what I need to do because I am good or smart or capable or spiritual. In fact, I cannot do anything for them. I need the constant enabling presence of God with me if I am to fulfill my responsibilities to them.

III. Jeremiah was filled with a message

9 Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, I have appointed you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to uproot and to tear down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

Jeremiah had a message from God to proclaim. It was a single-minded message, a message of judgment for the kingdom of Judah, with the promise of future restoration. It was God's message, not just what Jeremiah thought needed to be said.  Jeremiah did not always know immediately how he should respond to the people and the false prophets (Jer 28).  But he knew what God's message was and proclaimed it without compromise.

Today

Here is where we must acknowledge that modern day preachers and pastors are not exactly like Old Testament prophets. Pastors are not directly given a single message from God like Jeremiah. Of course, the church does have a message for the world. It is a simple message, really. And most of our students are anxious to proclaim it.

But our world has grown exceedingly complex. The message must be communicated in a wide variety of contexts. It must be addressed to a broad spectrum of issues. It must be faithful to God's revelation as the Bible bears witness to it. And it must also be faithful to the traditions of the church, both in the broad sense and in the more narrow sense of our denominational heritage.

I cannot give my students a message. I cannot tell them what they should proclaim or exactly how to proclaim it. I wish it were that easy. Like God did for Ezekiel, I sometimes wish I could just hand them the Bible or a theology book and say, "Eat this and it will become like honey in your mouth." And then out would flow marvelous truths about God.

But I can help them better understand what they do proclaim. And hopefully I can help them, not only come to new insights, but also to communicate those new insights so other people may share them.

My responsibility at this point is to provide students the tools with which to study and to think. I cannot just teach them what I know or have learned. I must cultivate in them a desire to learn about and understand the Bible from their own frame of reference. They must be able to interpret biblical books so they will understand the message as it impacts them. And they must learn to allow the Holy Spirit to lead them into truth.

For me, they are not being faithful to their call if they do not proclaim the message adequately or if they allow their own ignorance or their own prejudices to distort the message. My task is also to facilitate their search for new insights into the nature of God and how He deals with human beings. And then I must help them integrate those new insights with their own experience and understanding so that a new truth becomes alive to them. If they can grasp a new truth or see an old one in a new way, they can become passionate about proclaiming the message.

It was Jeremiah (20:9) who spoke about God's message as a burning fire inside of him that could not be shut up. Knowing and understanding God's message brings that kind of passion. I want to kindle that kind of fire in every student I have.

Conclusion

One final thought on Jeremiah. Throughout the book, Jeremiah described the people of Judah as obstinate, selfish, and sinful. But they were Jeremiah's people! He identified so closely with them that he hurt for them and wept for them when they didn't know enough or understand enough to weep for themselves.

Part of my responsibility lies here as well. Those students wherever I teach are my students. I get frustrated at them, I am sometimes disappointed in them, I sometimes flunk them, I am often amazed at their ignorance, their immaturity, their shallowness; sometimes I don't even like them, and there are times when I don't even like the ones I do like. But they are my students. They are my ministry. They are what God has called me to do in service in his Kingdom. They are how I serve God. And so I love them! I will use all the strength God gives me to help them respond faithfully to God.

I don't know if I do all these things very adequately as an educator. But these are my ideals. And my prayer is that as I serve God as an educator, he will enable me by his strength and lead me by his wisdom to nurture the call of my students into ministry, that in some small way I may, by God’s grace, help fan into flame that spark that God has planted in them in calling them into his service.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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