Questions & Answers

Link What is a "call" to ministry?
Link Who is called to ministry?
Link How do I know if God is calling me?
Link What are the basic qualifications for ordination?
Link Can I get help from the community?
Link What does the church look for in a minister?
Link Do I always need a formal education?
Link Can I transfer ministerial standing from another denomination?
Link What kinds of ministry can I pursue?

What is a "call" to ministry?

When Christians talk about a "call," we mean that God is calling us—in our mind and heart—to take an action or make a choice with our lives. The Latin word for "call"—vocatio—is the root of a word often used to describe a call that leads us into a way of life: a "vocation." A call to ministry includes the community's recognition of and calling forth gifts for ministry. One of the distinguishing aspects of ministry in the United Church of Christ is the affirmation that ministerial leadership is always defined by an ongoing sacred covenant among the minister, the congregation and the denomination; thus ministry is more communal than individual, and the call to authorized ministry is always discerned with others.

A great theologian from the early days of the United Church of Christ, H. Richard Niebuhr, identified four aspects of a vocation.

    • The call to be a Christian is the beginning of any call to ministry, including yours.
    • The secret call between God and you, when you feel an inward invitation to become a minister.
    • The providential call when you recognize that God has given you specific gifts--intellectual, spiritual, psychological, and moral--that God wants you to use in ministry.
    • The ecclesiastical call (from the Greek word ekklesios, meaning church or assembly) when the community affirms your call, helps you prepare for ministry, and then ordains or commissions you for that ministry.
Exercise: The United Church of Christ has developed a list of “marks” identifying faithful and effective authorized ministers. While no individual will display all the marks all the time, this list forms a set of expectations for what the church is looking for in authorized ministers. Read slowly and prayerfully through the list. Do you find evidence of a “providential call”? Are there marks that others (your pastor, leaders of your church, trusted friends and relatives, for example) have identified in you? Can you identify any marks that might be a challenge for you, or might need further education, training, counseling or guidance to develop?

Exercise: Throughout history, women and men through history have tried to express in their own words what it means to be called or pulled by God in some direction. Read some of these descriptions of call and ask yourself if any correspond to your own experience.

 

Who is called to ministry?
All members of the Body of Christ are called to ministry through their covenant of Baptism. God calls all of us to follow Jesus Christ and proclaim the Gospel in our lives. We are all called by Baptism to minister, or serve, others in Christ's name. In that sense, all members of the church are called to be ministers. The UCC Constitution affirms that "the United Church of Christ recognizes that God calls the whole Church and every member to participate in and extend the ministry of Jesus Christ by witnessing to the Gospel in church and society. The United Church of Christ seeks to undergird the ministry of its members by nurturing faith, calling forth gifts, and equipping members for Christian service."

The apostle Paul taught that God gives all members of the Body of Christ "gifts" to serve others. "To each," he wrote, "has been given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good...." (I Cor. 12) The imagery of this chapter reminds us that as members of the Body of Christ we have gifts that differ from one another in form and function so that, working together, we can be faithful witnesses and disciples of Jesus the Christ. Wherever your road to ministry may lead you, you will always be able to discover one or more gifts, one or more ways that God has called you to serve "the common good."

Exercise: As you read the wording of the UCC Constitution, where do you see similarities and differences with Niebuhr's understanding of call? Have a discussion with your pastor about how (s)he experienced a "call" to ministry. What was the role of the church/faith community in discerning and authorizing her or his call?

Although every member of the church has some call or vocation for ministry, some members are set apart by the church for particular authorized ministries. In the United Church of Christ, these fall into three categories: ordained, licensed, and commissioned.

    • A commissioned minister is authorized by an Association of the United Church to perform "specific church-related ministry which is recognized by that Association but does not require ordination or licensure." (UCC Bylaws) Typically, commissioned ministers do not perform sacramental ministry but are engaged in ministries (e.g. education, music, nursing) that the denomination values as part of its mission and ministry. Commissioning is dependent upon a recognized call to an organized body. A commissioned minister is a representative minister in the United Church of Christ, and one's commission is transferable to another Association when there is a new call within the same "specific church-related ministry."
    • A licensed minister is authorized by an Association of the United Church of Christ "to perform specific duties in a designated local church or within that Association, mainly preaching and conducting services of worship for a designated time." (UCC Bylaws) Licensed ministry is frequently authorized by an Association, for example, when a local church needs pastoral and sacramental leadership but an ordained minister is not available. The Association, in consultation with the local church requesting a person's licensure, determines the specific duties and length of time for which the license is granted. A license is not transferable to another ministry setting or Association.
    • An ordained minister is authorized by an Association of the United Church of Christ to preach and teach the gospel, to administer the sacraments and rites of the church, and to exercise pastoral care and leadership. An ordained minister is a representative minister of the United Church of Christ and is in covenant with the local church where (s)he holds UCC membership, the calling body where (s)he is engaged in ministry, and the Association acting on behalf of the United Church of Christ. Once granted, ordained standing is ongoing and transferable to another Association; standing is always subject to review and requires a mindful relationship between the clergyperson, Association and ministry setting.


 How do I know if God is calling me?
For some, discerning a call to ministry feels like stepping stones on a journey in a straight line. They experience the movement towards ordained or lay professional ministry as a growing sense of "rightness."

Others experience call more like a labyrinth—a journey in circles. Their path to vocation has many twists and turns, times of certainty and uncertainty, times when their goal seems close and other times when it seems far off. But the journey itself still has meaning. It feels like a journey towards God.

Others feel that God is pursuing them. Perhaps we might call this the hound of heaven experience. It echoes the experience of poet Francis Thompson who wrote a poem by that title in the late 1800s about feeling pursued by God as if God were a great hound.

Exercise: Spend time walking a labyrinth and meditating on your sense of vocation or questions about call. Many retreat centers and even local churches have labyrinths. If walking a labyrinth is not an option for you, try using the image of a labyrinth on this page and trace it slowly with your finger. Or, you can experience a labyrinth online at www.labyrinthonline.com.


In the African American tradition, the experience of vocation is described in many ways. In his book, God's Yes Was Louder Than My No, William H. Myers notes that call involves several stages:

• direct experience of the divine call that can be articulated to others
• struggle with self, God and the community
• search for answers and human validation
• surrender and acceptance of call

Others experience call as coming directly from a community of faith. Perhaps we might describe this experience as: "The Church Wants You!" In some traditions—such as Native American and Hawaiian—God raises up pastoral leadership from within the community itself. When the community needs leadership, they search for someone in their midst who has the right gifts. Small rural and urban congregations are also starting to look to this way of finding pastoral leadership. Of course, those who are called in this way must then listen for God's inner confirmation as well and, if the call is confirmed, seek the training, study, support, and mentoring needed to respond.

 What are the basic qualifications for ordination?
In the United Church of Christ, ministerial formation and authorization are overseen by Committees on Ministry in local Associations (and Conferences acting as Associations). It is important for those who are exploring God's call to partner early with their home congregation and a local Committee on Ministry. Once an individual is in covenant with a local church and a Committee on Ministry, the person is designated by the Association to be a Member in Discernment.

The basic qualifications generally required of ordained ministers include:

    • acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as the sole Head of the Church;
    • membership in a local church of the United Church of Christ;
    • demonstrated knowledge and affirmation of the history, polity and practices of the UCC.

In addition, many ordained ministers in the UCC hold a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Divinity degree or have pursued a course of study and formation that prepares them for service as an ordained minister in their context. Many Associations, through the work of Committees on Ministry, use the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers to assess a candidate's qualifications regardless of education path. For more information about ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ, contact the Conference or Association where you hold UCC membership and review Section 3 of the Manual on Ministry describing ordained ministry.


 Can I get help from the community?
Yes! Discernment is not a solitary spiritual discipline. One way to explore whether God is really calling you to authorized ministry is to invite others to work with you as a "discernment committee."  Modeled on the Quaker tradition of the "clearness committee," this group's specific task is to help you listen for God's voice and find some clarity about the nature of God's call in your life.

The committee should be small. Ask people who know you reasonably well, for example, your pastor (or another member of the pastoral staff), lay leaders in your church, and a friend or two. Look for people who listen deeply for God in their own lives and can ask insightful questions that will help you clarify your sense of call, your gifts for ministry and those places in you that may need further growth or development.

How often should a discernment committee meet? This is flexible. In the Quaker tradition, a clearness committee meets only once for three hours. However, you might want to spend more time with the committee: quarterly meetings over a year or two works well for some. For others, a useful timetable would be more frequent meetings over a shorter period—once a month for six months, for example.

What does the committee do? Their most important role is to listen! They are listening for the voice of God in your life. They will ask questions to help you focus on your discernment. They also might choose to engage in Bible study with you. The committee's purpose is not to tell you what to do or even to give advice. Instead, they should help you find your own clarity about whether you should proceed to the next step: becoming a Member in Discernment.

When this happens, you will have moved on to another stage of discernment. Now your companions on the journey will be your local congregation and the Association. Their task will be to help determine whether the particular call of God in your life is to authorized ministry in and on behalf of the United Church of Christ.

 What does the church look for in a minister?

Everyone brings his or her own unique gifts and style to ministry, and churches prioritize different skill sets according to theier various contexts. Overall, churches tend to look for candidates for ministry who:

• Are spiritually alive. Pastors and other church professionals need to cultivate their lives with God. Practicing spiritual disciplines helps us not only nurture our own lives with God but also helps us to minister more effectively to others. Ministers must first and foremost be in love with God!

• Have a sense of wonder. Are you someone who can attune to God's presence in great and small things? Do God's creation and God's people fill you with thankfulness, curiosity and awe? Spiritual awareness and joy are essential foundations for ministry.

• Pursue life-long learning. It's not about the number of diplomas you can hang on an office wall. A commitment to continued learning is a sign of a minister who is not stagnant in faith formation or in leadership skills.

• Are emotionally mature. Professional church leaders must be willing to do their own inner work so they can be fully present to those with whom they minister. Ministers must also be able to recognize, set and maintain appropriate boundaries so they and their congregations can be healthy and safe.

• Have social skills. It is important that a minister truly like people. Getting along with people, interacting in a variety of settings, and understanding and facilitating group dynamics are some of the qualities needed by successful clergy.

• Take UCC identity seriously. If you want to serve as a pastor or in any other authorized ministry in the United Church of Christ, you should be able to say honestly that you love our denomination. You should know UCC history and polity and be willing to communicate your knowledge and enthusiasm to others. Being connected and staying connected to the whole UCC family as well as our ecumenical partners is part of what it means to be a minister in the UCC.

 Do I always need a formal education?

As a denomination, we increasingly recognize that there are multiple meanings of “learned,” multiple paths of education, and multiple ways to be formed for ministry.  Seminary study remains a centerpiece of ministerial preparation, but many Associations utilize the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers when considering authorization, regardless of a candidate's education path. 

The United Church of Christ is closely related to seven seminaries, in addition to these historically-related seminaries. Various scholarships are made available through the national ministries of the United Church of Christ for those preparing for ministry. Additionally important resources for ministerial formation are regional education programs.

 Can I transfer ministerial standing from another denomination?
If you are already an ordained minister in another tradition or denomination, but are drawn to ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ, transfer of your credentials to a UCC Association may be an option. You should begin that consideration here.

 What kinds of ministry can I pursue?

Many women and men who are attracted to ministry have a deep desire to make a difference. Ministry happens in many locations and contexts. Here are just a few possibilities:

 Local Church Pastor: These pastors make a difference through day to day contact with their parishioners. Whether serving in a rural farming community, in the suburbs or in the midst of a busy and diverse city, there is always ministry to do. Local church pastors: baptize and celebrate communion, stand with people in times of great joy and sorrow, lead worship and preach, work with children, youth and adults, help people relate their faith to their daily lives, teach … the list goes on and on!

 Chaplains: There are a variety of settings for the ministry of chaplains. Some serve in the military or VA hospitals, some serve in hospitals and hospice programs, some minister to fire fighters and police officers, some work with students on college and university campuses. To learn more about these types of ministry, contact the Rev. Stephen Boyd, Minister for Government and Professional Chaplaincies, at boyds@ucc.org.

 Pastoral Counselors: These ministers seek to combine the skills and insights of psychology with the resources of faith. They minister to individuals and families in times of crisis as well as times of growth. Specialized training beyond the basic Master of Divinity degree is required.

 

 Youth Minister: Some people feel a special calling to minister to youth and young adults. They enjoy the honesty, energy and enthusiasm of youth and want to help young men and women to grow in their faith in God and be leaders in the church now.

 Missionary: Some people feel a call to minister in other places in the world and witness to their faith. Missionaries not only share faith but often stand with people around the world who are fighting injustice and are in need of the basics of life: food, shelter, clothing, medical services and education. To learn more about mission in the United Church of Christ, please visit Wider Church Ministries page on www.ucc.org/wcm.

 Christian Educator: The educational ministry of the church is filled with opportunities to help people of all ages grow in their understanding and practice of their faith. Some Christian educators are ordained, others are commissioned ministers and still others are lay people.

These are just a few of many ways of being a minister in the United Church of Christ. Whether as an authorized minister (ordained, licensed, commissioned) or simply as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, there are many ways you can live out your call and make a difference.

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. Kathy Clark
Minister for Members in Discernment
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3842
clarkk@ucc.org