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Hearing the Call: Vocational Reflection Gets Renewed Attention

Nevell Owens remembers when he first felt called to pursue a doctorate in theology. He was working as a criminal prosecutor when he looked into the eyes of a 13-year-old boy accused of murder. He saw that they were empty, and he wanted to know: Where was God in the life of this boy?

“I knew the boy’s mother was active in church,” Owens says. “I wanted to know, why isn’t the minister here? Why aren’t members of the church here?”

With help from the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE), he was able to pursue those questions.  Next year, Owens, 46, hopes to complete his doctoral dissertation from Atlanta's Emory University and find a job teaching theology on a college level. For the past three years he has been a recipient of doctoral and dissertation fellowships from FTE, one of many programs offered by the 51-year-old organization to support the next generation of pastors and scholars.

The need to strengthen vocational reflection and identify a new generation of talented pastors and theologians has recently begun to receive considerable attention. In addition to supporting the FTE, the Lilly Endowment has awarded grants to private colleges and universities in the past few years to help them develop opportunities for students to explore ministry. The Forum for Theological Exploration has designed attractive Web sites with individual testimonies to encourage young people to explore their vocational calling in life.

It’s no secret that mainline denominations are facing a potential shortfall of ordained clergy. Of the students enrolled today in accredited master of divinity programs, only 60 percent plan to be ordained as pastors, according to a study by Auburn Seminary. On top of that, only 7 percent of clergy in mainline churches are under the age of 35.

Combined, the two forces don’t bode well for the life of the church.

Ann Svennungsen, former president of FTE, says part of the problem is that society privileges higher-paying professions such as law, medicine and business over serving professions such as nursing, social work and the ministry. But another, more fundamental problem is that the old pipeline that supplied young candidates to seminaries and divinity schools is disappearing.

Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead captures how the culture has changed. The book’s protagonist, John Ames, is a pastor in 1950s Iowa. His father and grandfather were pastors too. But today, whether in rural or urban areas, it’s increasingly hard to find families with successive generations serving in ministry.

Add to that a decline in the age-old tradition of cultivating caring and committed young people for the vocation of ministry. It used to be that pastors and lay people would identify young people in their church and suggest they consider ministry. For a variety of reasons, that’s not happening. As a result, said Svennungsen, people often come to ministry later in life.

“People at age 50 will say to me, ‘I wish someone had been there for me when I was 20,’” Svennungsen relates.

To help churches identify and nurture young and gifted pastors and theologians, FTE — through the support of the Lilly Endowment — created a matching grant program (now ended), which enabled a congregation of any denomination to provide support for a young member's first year of seminary. FTE also worked with seminaries to have tuition reduced or waived entirely during the student’s first year. The Congregational Fellowship program has supported more than 50 students so far.  In addition, FTE supports fellowships for African-American and other minority doctoral students, such as those Owens has been receiving.  These and many other supportive efforts are run by FTE and can be found on the forum's site.

At the college level, 88 private schools have been the recipients of Lilly Endowment grants aimed at developing programs to examine vocation. Each school designed its own program by introducing the subject of vocation in courses, enhancing worship on campus, or offering summer theology institutes for high-school youth, to name just a few examples.

The initiatives have been extremely popular. “These programs have succeeded beyond the imagination of the funder and the colleges,” says one of the program directors.  For example, at Maryville College in Tennessee, parents wanted to participate in the program. At Notre Dame, alumni wanted to take part. And at Boston College, law school students were clamoring to be included.

Now there is hope that the ranks of pastors and theologians will grow.

Helping prospective ministers is a long tradition. The Forum for Theological Exploration has assisted such Christian leaders as the Rev. James Forbes, former senior pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City; the Rev. Peter J. Gomes of Harvard University’s Memorial Church; and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary.

"Good preachers are essential for the health of Christianity," Svennungsen says. “We need good preachers and leaders in order for us to be challenged and faithful to our own vocations,” she adds, “whatever they may be."

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