Across the UCC

Across the UCC

April 30, 2003
Written by Staff Reports

Carol L. Pavlik

How does one discern God's call to ordained ministry? Sometimes it's through the mentoring of a pastor, sometimes through the support of an entire congregation. Here are some stories of mentors who are encouraging church members to follow God's call.

The Rev. Bob Tucker participates in the communion service at the ordination of the Rev. Kathy Flarity (right), whom he mentored.
Church members respond, ÔHere am I, Lord. Take me.'

The Rev. Bob Tucker, five years into retirement, still remembers asking particular 15-year-old confirmation student at First Congregational UCC in Houston, "Have you ever thought of going into the ministry?"

It was the first of many times Tucker posed the question to the boy, who grew up, attended college, and pursued a different career. "Every time he came home, I'd see him and say, ÔHave you ever thought about É ?' We'd laugh about it, then go on. I never pushed him on that, but I knew he was still searching," says Tucker. The gentle prodding, over the span of nearly two decades, has paid off: the young man is about to graduate from Princeton University, M. Div. in hand.

"He's going to be great," says Tucker proudly.

Tucker has an entire flock of clergy men and women to be proud of. During his 28-year tenure at First Congregational, he mentored an astounding 24 individuals who eventually were ordained, commissioned or received privilege of call.

Recognizing persons with the "gifts and graces" is something Tucker feels compelled to do. Born to parents who rarely attended church, Tucker credits his boyhood pastor from a congregational church in St. Paul, Minn., for encouraging him to become a minister. Tucker was the first of five young men in the parish to become ordained.

"Most parents wanted their children to be doctors and engineers. Ministry was not high on the income level," says Tucker. "I think his example set it into my mind that it could be done."

Tucker exudes contagious enthusiasm. He loves his job. "In the corporate world, you're limited to your professional group. In a young family, you're around mostly small children. In my job, I interacted with 80 year olds, men and women, gays and lesbians," he says. "I was with people during important times of their lives, like baptisms, weddings, funerals. I always found it an engaging and growing kind of life. Maybe that helped, if people saw me as someone who didn't have tired eyes."

Passing the torch of ministry likely won't end with Tucker, who says he wishes there were more resources at the conference and national settings to help ministers exchange ideas and thoughts about recruiting. But as always, he sees an opportunity.

"I think I'll write a letter," he says thoughtfully. "A general letter to all of [the clergy I recruited] saying, ÔThis happened to you. Start looking around and make it happen for others.'"

Participants in Trinity's Ministers in Training program attend a breakfast meeting in July 2002.
Training program prepares members for ministry

For some church members in the "Ministers in Training" program at Trinity UCC in Chicago, it all starts during the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's yearly sermon about God changing your life. The subsequent altar call urges men and women to come forward and finally heed the voice inside beckoning them towards a life in ministry. The Rev. Wanda Washington, associate pastor at Trinity, says Trinity's commitment to helping future clergy and theologians is so significant that the one altar call a year is really the only recruiting done at Trinity.

"The word is out," Washington says with a laugh. "We have people coming out of the walls."

One dangling carrot may be the extensive financial assistance provided by Trinity to its own members. Over the past two years, qualifying ministersin- training at Trinity were awarded more than $500,000 towards tuition fees. In exchange, the recipients attend monthly meetings with Wright, attend church regularly, and stay active in outreach ministries at the church.

At any given time, Trinity has 25- 50 students attending seminary, and an additional 12-25 students taking part in SCUPE (Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education), a program out of Chicago's North Park University, designed for exploring seminary-level courses for the purpose of deciding a direction of study. Most Saturdays, some 100 seminary and SCUPE students come to Trinity for classes, where much of the focus is placed on African and African-American theologians, a topic Washington says is mostly ignored at many mainline seminaries. Whenever possible, prominent African- American clergy and theologians are brought in to speak on topics of interest to seminary students.

Washington says that Trinity helps its seminarians with the biggest challenges facing African-American clergy today.

"The definitions are suddenly changing," she explains. "No longer can you say ÔThe Black Church' and just mean black Baptist people. African Americans are in every denomination you can think of, and there's not just one way to worship. The Black Church has many different faces now."

By providing a forum to ask questions and connect the teachings of the Bible with their own experiences and culture, Washington hopes Trinity's sons and daughters find new, meaningful ways of making God's word relevant in today's world. "Most young people don't want to hear what church people have to say," she says. "A big challenge of ministry is how do you reach the young people? How does the gospel compete with [rap star] Tupac?"

It would appear that Trinity has found a way. Washington theorizes that most ministers-in-training know from an early age that they were meant to be in ministry. "People see ministry in action here," she says of the 10,000-member congregation. "The more involved they get in our ministries and the outreach components and they begin to do the work as lay people, that calling is brought to the forefront."

ÔWhat took you so long?'

During the 1950s and 1960s, Union Congregational UCC in Montclair, N.J., was the place UCCrelated Union Theological Seminary students came to do their field education. The bustling congregation was alive with membership and activities. Things slowed down during the '70s and '80s, but the tradition of fostering seminarians has been resurrected with renewed energy.

Today, five men and women are in the process of becoming ministers, and a sixth, the Rev. Cathie Wallace, recently was ordained and is getting settled in her new parish, First Congregational UCC in Farmington, Maine.

"Our church works at having full programming and also at compensation, so it looks like a viable vocation for folks who are here," says the Rev. Stephanie Weiner, pastor of Union Congregational. "But like everything in ministry, it's a combined effort of the church and the clergy and the spirit," she continues. "You do everything you can. We keep theological education in front of folks, and opportunities for ministry, whether lay or ordained."

It was five years ago that Cathie Wallace woke up one morning and suddenly knew that she had to go to seminary. "Somebody at [Union Congregational] said, ÔWhat took you so long to realize this?'" she says with a laugh.

"During my in-care time, I had tremendous support from them," Wallace remembers. "They made sure I was taking care of myself and my family." Even now, living in Maine a year after her ordination, she still hears from her church family at Union. "A few of them came to visit me here," she says. "They're very much a part of who I am. They are an incredible church for recognizing people's gifts."

"One of my goals is to identify somebody every year and say, 'Have you ever thought of [the ministry]?'" says Weiner. Weiner herself remembers the financial and spiritual support given to her by her home church, Bethel UCC in Evansville, Ind.

"I came out debt free because of the support of my local congregation," she says. Her sense of responsibility defines her own ministry.

"People see the church as a place where they can be not only nurtured individually, but where you can make a difference in society," she says. "I think it's a blend of that ol' personal faith and social responsibility that Union has been pretty good at fostering."

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