The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry in Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.
“... the Land that I Will Show You” is the blog of the Office of Preparation for Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This blog is designed to serve as a resource for those discerning and preparing for a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament as ordained teaching elders of the church. It will also provide a place for reflecting on and dialoging about the changing context of pastoral ministry in the early 21st century.
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I have recently encountered discussions in a variety of settings about candidates who have been “certified ready” but still have not received a call after a period of years. Especially among presbyteries, there have been questions surrounding working with candidates who might be described as more “waiting for a call to find them” rather than actively “seeking a call” wherever there is a need and the Spirit might lead. Should candidates remain under care indefinitely?
It may be helpful to remember our Reformed theology teaches us that “call” always involves God, the individual, and the community. And within our preparation for ministry process, “the community” is itself represented in three different ways: the congregation of care, the presbytery, and the faith communities who are looking for persons to minister to and alongside them. Ideally we would hope for a clear consensus from all these parties—the individual and the community partners clearly discern the Spirit's leading to a particular ministry. Yet experience tells us that will not always be the case.
When such unanimity is absent, it sometimes becomes necessary for one or another of those partners to assert themselves. Obviously individuals can simply “withdraw” from the process if they discern a different call—even if the community may have a different sense from their discernment.
The harder cases arise when the community discerns a different call while the individual still holds on to a sense of call to ministry of Word and Sacrament. Sometimes the community may have to take action on its own discernment—just as an individual would. Including the fuller community by having both the presbytery’s representatives and the session engage the individual in a conversation can be a grace-filled approach.
What questions might guide such a conversation? Well, if the person is not seeking a call or other communities are not seeking out the individual's gifts for ministry, what does that reveal about the person’s gifts and call for ministry? If the person and their home community are content with the forms of service the individual has found over time, what does that reveal about the call to ministry (that is, the call to ministries other than as a teaching elder fulfilling ministry functions of the Word and Sacrament)?
"Removal" is sometimes improperly perceived as 'disciplinary' action; a person is removed from the process "for cause." But that probably should not be true in most instances. Removal can simply be the community side of the discernment process saying that it has reached its conclusion. The community sees the person's gifts used in other ways than ministry of Word and Sacrament. “Removal” is the community corollary to an individual’s "withdrawal.” The community's willingness to say this may even be an act of grace for some individuals. They do not have to risk the possibility within themselves, their families, or their home congregations of a feeling that they have "turned their backs on" their call. Rather, they can hear the community affirming gifts for certain ministries while concluding they have not discerned a call to other ministries.
Neither “withdrawal” nor “removal” need be considered failure. Most often, they too are signs that the process has succeeded in discerning God’s call to use a person’s gifts in response to the needs of the community.