Randy Varcho | United Church News graphic.
When the Rev. Kathi Martin reflects on her call to ministry, she's blunt.
"I could remember a day, sitting on my stairs, sipping out of a bottle of scotch, and it was just a turning point. Everything seemed to be wrong in my life," says Martin, who is the founding pastor of God-Self-Neighbor Ministries, a UCC church start in Atlanta. "I crumbled up my cigarettes and put down my bottle of scotch, and I said, 'OK God, I'm not running anymore.'"
"That really confused me—that feeling of being called—because I so much did not like the church, but then I had to make a separation between 'the church' and 'God.' Ministry is about loving God and spreading the gospel, and when I came back to that, I could stop running," she says.
Martin is one of eight persons who discuss their journeys into vocational ministry through video testimonies offered on a new UCC website designed especially to help those discerning God's nudge in their lives.
Askthequestion.org, an interactive, flash site sponsored by the UCC's Parish Life and Leadership (PLL) Ministry and designed by the UCC's web team, contains personal stories, study materials, prayer and meditation resources, and answers to just about any question one could ask when considering authorized ministry—ordained, commissioned or licensed—in the UCC.
"The purpose is to identify gifted men and women and help them explore vocations in ministry," says the Rev. Lynn Bujnak of PLL. "We are asking individuals to ask the question, 'Am I being called to ministry?' and to ask congregations to be bold in asking their members, 'Are you being called to ministry?'"
The Rev. Andrew Warner, associate pastor at Plymouth UCC in Milwaukee, Wis., says, when exploring one's call, the answers come best through active engagement.
"It's a question [that can't be] answered in a weekend, or in a day or in an hour, but is a question to live with, to struggle with and to pray about," Warner says. "One of the best ways to get some answers, besides just sitting in silence with our questions, is to find some ways to get some practical experience in doing ministry."
Askthequestion.org provides opportunities to explore the nuances of different ministry paths, such as chaplaincy, counseling, Christian education, youth ministry, social activism, missionary work and, of course, pastoral ministry.
Hopefully, Bujnak says, Askthequestion.org will spark new interest in ministry as a vocation worthy of consideration, especially in light of new data that reveals a steadily-decreasing and ever-aging pool of pastors. According to the 2003 Statistical Handbook, only 6.3 percent of all UCC clergy are under the age of 40.
The Pension Boards of the UCC estimates that, in the next five years, 1,800 UCC pastors will reach retirement age; however, only 600 persons will enter pastoral ministry.
Already, the numbers are impacting congregations that are searching for pastors. At present, the UCC has 435 churches looking for ministerial leadership, but only 300 pastors are actively seeking placement.
The Rev. Darryl Kistler, pastor of United Christian UCC in Miles City, Mont., recognizes that choosing ministry as a vocation is not easy. "That first step into ministry as a career, but even more so as a lifestyle and a lifechanging event, was so difficult but so rewarding, and each step since then has just been easier," he says.
Borrowing advice once offered by theologian Frederick Buechner, the Rev. Tisha Brown, associate pastor at Brookfield Congregational UCC in Wisconsin, says that the goal in life is to discover what you do the best and enjoy the most, and then apply those gifts to the world's greatest needs. "That's how you'll know that God is calling you," she says.
The Rev. Wanda Harris-Watkins, pastor of Pakachoag UCC in Auburn, Mass., says, "Ministry is when you close the books and you get your fingernails dirty and you go places that no one else wants to go. You only know ministry when you do ministry."
Nellie Rosado, a member of Las Piedras UCC in Puerto Rico who works as a local church missionary to the Dominican Republic, says ministry is an exercise in trust.
"In our life, we have the opportunity to do something, but we are scared to do it, to go forward," Rosado says. "But with the Holy Spirit, I just say, 'Here I am. Lead my way.'"