By Christa Meland
When Rev. Judy Zabel was in high school, she was given the opportunity to work alongside an adult mentor and teach Sunday school classes at her church. Later, she became the pianist who accompanied the church choir. These experiences provided valuable leadership skills and ultimately helped her discover her passion for ministry.
“They planted seeds that got me thinking about how God was calling me to use my gifts to build the kingdom,” said Zabel, superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference’s Twin Cities District.
That’s essentially the goal behind a formational retreat and summer internship that will be available to college students within the Minnesota Conference starting in 2015.
The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry recently approved a $60,000 grant for the Minnesota Conference through the global United Methodist Church’s Young Clergy Initiative fund. This $7 million fund, created by the 2012 General Conference, aims to “increase the number of young clergy among the jurisdictional conferences.”
The Minnesota Conference program will be geared toward students who are exploring whether they are called to ordained ministry. It aligns with the conference’s Journey Toward Vitality, a roadmap that presents a vision to increase vitality in our churches and outlines the strategic pathways that will get us there—one of which is developing missional leaders.
The first component of the new program is a weeklong retreat at which participants will experience various forms of ministry, reflect on public church leadership, visit seminaries and learn about seminary education, and engage in formational spiritual activities.
After the retreat, each student will be placed in a healthy, vibrant church or ministry setting and given the opportunity to use their passions to lead over the course of a summer. Mentors will walk alongside them, answer their questions, and affirm their gifts. The goal is for 12 students to participate in the internship program in 2015.
The funding awarded to the Minnesota Conference was approved during the second round of Young Clergy Initiative grants. A total of 49 grants ranging from $5,000 to $100,000 were announced last week. The Minnesota Conference applied for $100,000, but the grant team was thrilled about the $60,000 awarded.
Rev. Rhodie Jacobson, pastor at Monticello UMC and co-chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry, points out that many companies and industries offer practical experiences to help students get a taste for a profession they might be considering. Churches need to be doing this same thing in order to present ordained ministry as an option at the time when young people are choosing a career path.
“This new internship program can help people actually and specifically and tangibly…get their feet wet and do real ministry,” said Jacobson, a member of the team that designed the program and applied for the grant. “We are talking about a privileged labor—being a pastor. Internships are an exciting way to help people discern this unique call.”
Grant money will cover the cost of the internships (which are paid), the retreat, and staff to run the program—and the funding will last through the end of 2015. The program is somewhat of a pilot, and next year, conference leaders will assess what’s next.
Leaders at all churches within the conference will be asked to identify college students who might be a good fit for the program. Zabel said it’s critical for churches to make an intentional effort to identify the gifts of the young people in their congregations, affirm those gifts, provide an opportunity for those gifts to be used in a leadership role, and ask the question, “Do you think you might be called to ordained ministry?”
“We know that the harvest is great and the laborers are few,” said Zabel, a member of the team that designed the program and applied for the Young Clergy Initiative grant. She noted that a large percentage of Minnesota clergy are expected to retire within the next five years. “We need articulate, talented, thoughtful, open-minded individuals to lead our congregations.”
Zabel said those who become ordained earlier in their careers also have longer pastorates, which helps in terms of being able to grow churches over time and apply wisdom gained over years of experience.
Rev. Andy Keck, a deacon from the North Carolina Conference who is on loan to the Minnesota Conference, was part of the team that designed the program and was the primary writer of the Young Clergy Initiative grant application.
“We really want to develop a culture of call,” said Keck, who serves at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. “Part of the young clergy piece is that Minnesota and the church generally need people to navigate our church and culture…We need young adults to help us reach young adults.”
All United Methodists are called into ministry on behalf of Christ when they are baptized. But the type and setting for ministry is different for everyone.
The group that designed the new program for the conference pointed to the biblical story of Hannah, Eli, and Samuel when illustrating the importance of helping young people explore their call.
Hannah, desperate for a child, commits Samuel to the Lord well before he is conceived. Eli, witnessing Hannah in prayer, blesses her by saying, “And may the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked from him.” After Hannah’s son Samuel is born, she and Eli help him recognize God’s call more directly. Hannah places Samuel into positions of ministry with Eli so that as Samuel hears the voice of God, Eli is there to help him fully hear and respond to it.
“We need to help people hear clearly the voice of God,” said Jacobson.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.