I rarely identify myself as a pastor. Other trades I inhabit — writer, nonprofit administrator, professor — require less explanation. They come with lower expectations and fewer inhibitions. If you meet me where my vocational identity isn’t already established, I might defer to one of those labels first before trusting you with the hard reality of my pastoral call.
It was 20 years ago this month that I first took on that call. It’s not a response I have regretted, but it’s also not a call I expected. On occasion I still look to escape it.
The beginning of this vocational existence was shaped through the Ministry Inquiry Program, which I still think is one of the best seeds Mennonites have sown in cultivating pastoral leadership. Ministry inquiry allows Mennonite college students to serve for 10 weeks in learning roles with a congregation.
Between my sophomore and junior years at Eastern Mennonite University, I worked as an inquiry participant at my home church, Carpenter Park Mennonite near Johnstown, Pa. I worked alongside Pastor Marvin Kaufman, and while I loved the experience, I told myself I didn’t ever really want to do the pastor thing. While it was fulfilling, it looked hard and complicated.
Unexpectedly, four years later, my home church called me to join their pastoral team. I remember trying to present to the discernment team the top 10 reasons why I would be a lousy pastor. I also remember leaving that meeting feeling affirmed and with a sense of call so strong that I knew that if they invited me, and if I believed in God at all, I would have to say yes.
I am grateful for their willingness to invite a 24-year-old with a lot of questions to become their pastor. My call and work in the church will forever be connected to the community of people who gathered at Carpenter Park.
The past 20 years have been challenging, with over half of that time spent in working at conference-level leadership. Pastoring is still really hard work. I admire the strength, courage and deep faith I see in the pastors I work alongside. Among Mennonites, you don’t do this job for the prestige or pay. It must be a labor of love. We all do it slightly differently, out of our strengths and weaknesses, but the work is always more than we can bear on our own.
These days I work often alongside the pastoral search processes with congregations. I see those who feel deeply called to pastoral ministry as well as those of us who are reluctant pastoral leaders. The path to the role is not the same. For some of us it is serendipity. For others, all too often for women, it is an arduous and difficult path.
I also get to watch senses of call develop. Often there is an element of surprise, humor or irony. Often the person must overcome barriers of the heart and soul. The process requires others who can help birth a response through questions, invitation and friendship.
We are now calling pastors of the millennial generation (born since 1985). They are smarter and better prepared than I was in my 20s. I love the hope and possibilities they bring, but they also bring challenge and energy that the church is sometimes not really prepared to engage. We need them to help us find our way, to help us keep moving. Their courage could shape the pastoral role in new ways — so much so that I might not hesitate to identify myself as a pastor.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.