One specific conversation nearly always emerges in my interactions with churches across the country.
With furrowed brows and a worried tone, they ask, “Where is the next generation of pastoral leadership for churches like ours going to come from?”
The concern is based upon a perception that ministry is increasingly seen as a profession that is hard on those who are called to the local church.
One resource tells us that 50 percent of ministers leave the ministry within their first five years of service, and that 90 percent of clergy will not make it to retirement from the ministry.
Clearly, anyone entering ministry faces very real and substantial challenges. However, effective and longer tenured clergy have often enjoyed the gifts of a good beginning.
Like nearly any profession, early experiences are formative, and strong role models and mentors are invaluable.
For emerging leaders, a strong sense of call, an awareness of core strengths, and an opportunity to explore ministry options in a safe and supportive environment are key ingredients for a meaningful career in ministry.
Doing this amid a team of clergy and laity who share common goals and commitments to one another is invaluable.
For me, the privilege of being mentored and guided by men and women across my formative years was a grace-gift that continues to pay dividends in my life, 40 years after sensing the call to ministry. I remain in debt to those who nurtured and affirmed that call in me.
I’m reminded that the great biblical leaders experienced something of the same.
Moses received his call on the backside of Midian, but he learned and honed his skills as part of a leadership team with Aaron and others.
Saul’s dramatic call experience on the road to Damascus led to his being taught and discipled in Saudi Arabia and at the feet of others who saw his potential and worked patiently with him.
Jesus clearly saw the value of nurturing new leaders and devoted much of his ministry to getting the disciples and others prepared to carry on when he was no longer physically among them.
Born into a pastor’s home, it was natural for me to have ministry as an option for a career. However, I was not initially drawn to ministry and felt led to many other opportunities.
Professional baseball was my first choice, but when it became apparent that my skills didn’t quite measure up to that calling, I had to reconsider.
It was on a youth mission trip to rural West Virginia that I first took seriously the possibility of a call to ministry.
It wasn’t my father who voiced that possibility, but our youth minister and my contemporaries who “called me out” and affirmed my potential.
That began a multiyear conversation with God and many others as I sought to gain clarity about my calling.
My parents, and especially my father, provided a steady presence across those years of discovery.
No one in my life has ever modeled what it means to be a healthy minister like my father.
I just assumed all ministers were the kind of man my father was: putting family first, humble, full of integrity, honest, loyal, positive, devoted to Christ, in love with the church, believing the best about people.
Only later did I discover what an exception he was. He and my mother were in love with one another and showed my sisters and me what it meant to be a healthy family.
Thankfully, I started with a positive role model and inspiration that continues to drive me today as I work to help congregations and clergy become what God intends them to be.
With that positive experience as a background orientation, I began to think deeply about giving my life to this vocation called ministry. If that was what a minister looked like, I could only hope to emulate something of that in my life.
People such as Frank Hart Smith, Jim Poole, Dewey Jones, Lloyd and Masako Cornell, Ira Peak, Ruby Treadway, Bill and Rebecca Whittaker, Tom and Rita Moody, Robert and Jean Wooddy, Randy and Betty Smith, Ray Conner, and Don and Kathy Mattingly all spoke into my life and took an interest in me.
Gradually, I found myself given opportunities and appropriate coaching as I found my voice and discovered my gifts.
Upon graduation from seminary, I was invited to join the ministerial team at a large church and continue my transition into the emerging leader phase of my ministry.
There I found mentors and friends, both laity and clergy, who nurtured me and provided opportunities to grow and to learn what it meant to be an effective minister.
Some of those lessons were exhilarating, and some were excruciating. All were valuable.
Where are our next pastoral leaders going to come from? From your church, but only if you take seriously your role in creating a healthy culture of call.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. A version of this column first appeared on the CHC blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @BillWilson1028 and the center @ChurchHealthy.