By Bishop Robert Schnase
Driving down the interstate the other day, I pulled into a roadside rest stop. As I stepped from my car, a long bus pulled up with a sign that ran nearly the length of the vehicle. It identified the group as a United Methodist church from North Carolina. A herd of youth poured out and headed for the restrooms as exhausted, sunburned sponsors joked and bantered with the young people. They were returning from a mission trip and still had many miles ahead of them.
I’m always deeply gratified to see the commitment, hard work and love that so many adult sponsors pour into the lives of young people to teach them the faith and model how to serve, pray, give and treat one another in the name of Jesus Christ. Sponsors and youth pastors like those I saw on the road that day helped form me and shape me. Without them, I might not now be a Christian, and certainly would never have discerned God’s call to the ministry.
A direct connection lies between strong local congregational youth ministries and the call to ministry. Obviously, there are tons of other benefits that result from strong youth ministries — lives changed, faith taught, young people supported through hard times, ethical shaping, community bonding in Christ, etc. Still, if your church wants to impact the number and quality of future pastoral leadership, begin by having an effective youth ministry, even if it’s small.
Recently, our Board of Ordained Ministry and Cabinet studied the ministry supply patterns for the Missouri Annual Conference. We analyzed who is coming into ministry, by what channels and means, into what status and order, at what age and for how long, of what gender and ethnicity, and how they leave (transfer, withdraw, retire or die). We learned much about the “streams” that flow into the river of pastors — elders, deacons, local pastors, associate members and lay ministers — who serve our conference. It was fascinating. There were some hopeful signs, like the increasing number of younger pastors entering ministry, and some cause for concern, like the huge number of pastors eligible to retire in the next few years.
As we talked about the streams that feed ministry and the channels by which people discern the call, what do you suppose is the greatest source and setting for people exploring the call at an early age? Camping? Campus ministries? Parental influence? Conference youth weekends? Mission experiences? While all are important, we identified two major predictors of young people entering the ministry. The greatest predictor is participation during the high school years in a high-quality youth ministry in a local congregation. The second is having a pastor/mentor during the high school years who encourages, supports and interprets the call for the young person. Being part of an active, positive youth ministry likely involves mission experiences, camping, conference youth programs and may lead to campus ministries. But the most significant common element is the local congregation’s youth ministry.
Want to assure that your church has positive, high-quality, committed, effective clergy leadership during the years to come? The first and best thing your church can do is have a great youth program — a ministry that teaches young people how to worship and pray, grow in faith and feel comfortable with Scripture, serve others and make a positive difference in the lives of people, and give generously. A positive youth ministry and an encouraging pastoral mentor make all the difference.
As I got back in the car at the roadside rest stop, I wondered about all those youth. Some will return from this summer mission trip and move on to their next adventure. Some are being formed by the spirit of God through this experience into people of faith who will lead our churches as people of integrity and prayer. For a few, this summer may mark a turning point in their lives, a moment graced by the spirit of God for special change and growth. And for a very few, this summer may be the season when God tugs on their hearts toward the high calling of full-time Christian ministry.
Schnase is resident bishop of the Missouri Area of The United Methodist Church. This commentary was adapted from an article in “Leading ideas,” the online newsletter of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, available free at www.churchleadership.com.