It’s time we talked about one of the most agonizing experiences of preparing for ministry: that of waiting for a call. Seminary graduates who are declared by synod as candidates for ministry enter into a period of searching, researching, and waiting. For a number of years they have been dreaming of serving a church or ministry. Once synod acts to declare them eligible, they enter into a period of time that may last from two months to two years, or more, before they receive a call.
Allow me to offer an image of the experience: the image of sitting in the waiting room of a fertility clinic. The experience is one mixed with a high degree of anticipation and anxiety. Before getting to the point where you sit in such a waiting room, there has been a lot of life lived. There has been the establishment of a home and a marriage relationship and the eventual hope or expectation of the miracle of parenting. A couple sitting in a fertility clinic waiting room is now focused on that miracle. They are both eager and anxious to see positive steps toward that dream.
For waiting candidates the experience is one of such eagerness and anxiety. The process now goes slower than it has ever gone in our denominational history. This is mostly due to the extremely deliberative approach of most searching congregations. While congregations used to offer calls every six to eight weeks when they were vacant, it is not uncommon these days for searching congregations to take six to eight months between calls. Other complicating factors include a larger number of seminary graduates in recent years, an economic climate that is limiting expansion of staff and full time ministry positions, a larger number of pastors working past age 65 before they retire, and a greater diversity within our congregations (creating the need for more congregations to look beyond the traditional seminary pool when needing a pastor). The net impact is that seminary graduates who become candidates are told to expect to wait.
The Candidacy Committee is actively discussing all these trends. In particular, we are concerned that the church do a good job of supporting and encouraging the waiting candidates. The experience of many candidates is that during their seminary years they have not had active relationship with their home church or regional classis. When they graduate, and move away from their seminary location, they often find themselves to be strangers with minimal relational support. This occurs during one of the more stressful periods of their lives.
The Role of the Church
What can we, the church, do to come alongside of these persons? The answers are varied. Perhaps by rehearsing a few of them we can recognize even more, and can identify actions each of us can take. First, we can note the personal responsibility incumbent on the candidate: as with all disciples, candidates must be careful to surround themselves with mentors and friends who will encourage, direct, support and pray with them during this process.
Yet the solution to the problem is certainly broader than that of “recognizing a candidate’s responsibility.“ The church also has a responsibility. The local church, when it offers a letter of recommendation for a student to enter seminary will be a blessing to that student when it continues to check up on that student, and when it comes actively alongside that student three or four years later during the candidacy process. Local churches who have seminarians attending their church, and local churches who have joyfully sent someone off to seminary can experience a grandparent’s joy when they offer such support.
The regional church, also, can be an important link in this needed network. Some of our sister denominations are much more developed than we are in having a regional system that owns responsibility for encouragement and support of students beyond the task of financial aid. I would dare say that one of the most significant actions of the regional church is to see to it that a healthy system for raising up leaders is in place. Can we discover and implement regional ways to be aware of those who are in the waiting room called candidacy, and to be a compassionate presence with them in the waiting room through active mentorship and active encouragement.
The Role of the Denomination
Finally, our denominational structures need to focus on this “waiting experience”. As a Candidacy Committee, we have been encouraging Pastor Church Relations as they are re-designing their tools for “matching” churches and pastors. We’re grateful for their recognition of this need. The Candidacy Committee has also encouraged Calvin Seminary to request the vocational mentors and faculty who have interacted with seminary students before graduation to continue their support and mentorship after graduation, until a call is received and accepted. We also are actively encouraging local classes to fortify their efforts toward the seminary students and the waiting candidates among them.
Perhaps by talking about this matter together we can come up with other productive ideas. The Candidacy Committee, for one, is eager to receive suggestions.
What are your thoughts?