As part of my research on lay professionals in United Methodist churches, I analyzed survey responses from more than 750 church staffers. The survey posed the question: “What motivated you to accept a church staff position?” The desire to serve God was the top-ranked explanation followed by the job being a good use of their skills, the desire to serve the church, and then the chance to work in an environment they enjoyed. The lowest ranked reason was “the need for a job.”
The vast majority of the survey respondents had a long-term commitment to church work. In all church-size categories examined, around half of the respondent had been on the job at least five years and about a third for ten years or more. Just about two-thirds deemed it likely that they would spend the rest of the career in church work, with the major factor influencing that decision being a sense of call to Christian service.
Between 85 and 95 percent of the lay staff surveyed saw their work as a calling. While most said that they had been encouraged by someone else to consider their work a calling, about ten percent of lay staffers have come to understand their job as a calling on their own.
Unfortunately, the theology and language of call is used too often in ways that exclude lay persons. When we allow the phrase “answering the call” to be reduced to jargon for entering ordained ministry, lay staffers can easily assume that call does not apply to them. Although call theology is prevalent in the literature and language of pastoral identity, too many lay persons are never encouraged to consider, examine, or share their call.
New ways of speaking about and listening for call can encourage all people who devote their energies to the church’s mission to hear the whispers of call in the events of their lives and the quiet of their hearts. Taking great care to address the issue of clerical calling within the larger context of God’s call to all Christians prevents lay persons from feeling that God’s call does not extend to them.
In this day when the Spirit of God is calling so many lay persons to professional ministry, we can affirm the work of these committed servants by nurturing an inclusive understanding of call and calling.