Nancy Kauffmann is denominational minister for Mennonite Church USA.
A conference minister reflecting on a congregation’s search committee process where a number of potentially good pastors were passed over blurted out to me, “I would like to tell them ‘pastors don’t grow on trees!’” I laughed, but later it got me to thinking of where pastors do grow.
Presently the “Pastor Opening List” on the Mennonite Church USA website, has 64 congregations looking for at least one pastor. On the “National Registry” of potential pastors, there are 24 names of persons looking for positions anywhere in the USA with an additional 20 persons looking for a position in a particular region. Obviously there seems to be a shortage of pastors.
At one time a congregation would tap a number of persons within the congregation who had a deep faith in Christ, the skills, gifts and character to make for a good pastor and then use the process of the lot to select the pastor. There was the assumption that God had already placed within the congregation the next pastor. At its best, it was the congregation tapping and the Spirit selecting the one chosen for that particular time. Choosing by lot had its strengths and its weaknesses and maybe it was because of the weaknesses that we as a church moved away from that method of selection. I never witnessed the process of the lot, but read some of the stories — the good, the bad and the funny. I am not advocating for going back to that method. But I have been wondering at times if we might be missing one possible piece from when the lot was functioning at its best that we want to reclaim — the piece of calling from within the congregation.
Is there a time when a congregation might be best served by calling one of her own to serve as her pastor? Especially when a congregation has been looking for a long time and has not found anyone “out there” to be her pastor. Might God be saying, “You are looking in the wrong place.”?
Recently I learned of two congregations who called someone from within the congregation. In each situation it was a person who had been filling the ministry position well as a volunteer while the congregation continued to look outside the congregation for a pastor to fill that position. As members benefitted from the work of the person, they began to see that the person had the gifts, skills, character, and presence needed to be a pastor. Neither person had thought about being a pastor, until they were tapped on the shoulder by the congregation and affirmed for their skills and work. It was exciting for me to hear their journey and what it meant to them to be tapped on the shoulder and affirmed for ministry. Both excitedly talked about how it stirred something deep within and allowed them each to hear God’s call to pastoral ministry.
But for a congregation to look within to see who has the potential to be a pastor isn’t just for the congregation’s own benefit. It is also for the benefit of the wider church. With the disparity between the number of pastoral openings and the number of persons presently looking for a position, congregations need to take up their responsibility to grow pastors. There is a need for congregations to look within to see who might potentially have the ability to be a pastor, then nurture them, given them opportunities to develop their skills and their understanding of ministry, and to encourage and support them to go on to seminary for additional training to prepare for pastoral ministry.
I benefited personally from just such a congregation, Orrville Mennonite in Ohio. I was nurtured in my faith through Sunday school, and through the youth group. As a teenager I was given opportunities to teach Bible school, speak on a radio program, serve on committees, and participate in service projects and other ministries of the congregation. Many adults including two of my pastors, I. W. Royer and Lester Graybill, helped me hear God’s call. I continued to be nurtured through Goshen College, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) to think broader and deeper about God, my faith and the church. Then finally one congregation, College Mennonite in Goshen took a chance on me and called me to serve on their pastoral team and that first day on the team turned into 35 years of ministry for me. Ministry has been a rich experience. I am so grateful to my home congregation for tapping me on the shoulder.
I celebrate that there are hundreds of stories of journeys into ministry similar to mine where an attentive and nurturing congregation tapped someone on the shoulder to consider the call to ministry and then helped to grow them into a pastor to serve Christ and the church.