What is a "Congregational Vocation?"
The Vocation of First Call Congregations Project (2005-2009)
Examining Congregational Vocation
In the Lilly Endowment project, “The Vocation of First Call Congregations,” we in the ELCA Vocation & Education unit set out to examine congregations that had a synod reputation for being healthy contexts that would provide a good start for a newly ordained pastor. We wanted to see if we could discover any common threads in their stories that could explain these positive behaviors. We wondered if behind specific actions and programs of these exemplary congregations would be a sense — implicit or explicit — that they had a mission or calling to help shape a new pastor that would have long-term benefits for the church; hence the title, “The Vocation of First Call Congregations.”
What we found was a more complex or nuanced picture of congregational or corporate vocation. Most first call congregations are small and financially unable to call a seasoned pastor. This awareness can lead to a negative attitude and identity, forged out of a sense of inadequacy or defeat. As a result, a congregation might dig in its heels when any change is suggested or display a lack of enthusiasm when something new is tried. After all, “The pastor won’t be with us very long and we can go back to what we like after she leaves.” However, the 14 exemplary congregations we studied had a different spirit. They didn’t allow negative attitudes about these realities get in the way of moving ahead with trying new ideas.
Members we talked to in these congregations expressed surprise that they were identified as “exemplary,” feeling they were just ordinary. But they approached calling yet another first call pastor with an attitude of what new things they could learn. They also realized they had a log to contribute to the forming of their new pastor.
When researchers probed such responses with questions to elicit a deeper sense of a vocational call, they were often met with blank stares. But with a little explanation, people seemed to catch on. As one member exclaimed, “It’s in our DNA, in our bones, to have a mission of first call hospitality.”Vision of a Congregation Vocational Call
In the ELCA, we have talked a great deal about the importance of establishing a “habit of the heart” for lifelong learning. In our First Call Theological Education (FCTE) program, written into a congregational call document is the expectation that the newly rostered leader will participate in the synod’s three-year FCTE program of “structured theological education designed to assist newly called leaders in the transition to rostered ministry.” This program often includes participating in a colleague group or mentor relationship, several synod or regional retreats and other elective continuing education. Learning opportunities are focused on assisting new leaders to hone their ministry skills, understand their congregation’s context and culture and become clear about their ministerial identity.
To date, we haven’t established or formalized the role that congregations can play in these transitional learning challenges. The case study project was designed to probe this role — this side of the equation of what constitutes a healthy, life-giving first call congregational ministry context, one that receives a fully educated candidate for public ministry. Thus, we are taking another step in reinforcing the vision of establishing a habit of the heart for lifelong learning where theological learning, reflection, and ministry commitments can thrive.
We think that a clue to a congregation’s sense of vocation
in the context of calling a first call pastor — or perhaps any pastor — is the importance of “ministry partnership,” an underlying principle behind the case study findings. In the practical sense of establishing effective ministry relationships, both lay leaders and the pastor are dependent upon each other. But we believe there is more to this than merely the practical or pragmatic motivation to become partners.
In a real sense, the first call congregation can offer opportunities for extending everyone’s theological education. If the congregation is relatively healthy, open to new ideas, ready to give helpful feedback during the pastor’s learning curve, it can offer a context for praxis – a culture where the pastor and the people learn together how faith, hope and love are lived out in the practice of ministry. Some lay people in our case study congregations had a piece of this idea when they would say things like, “We help the pastor become a pastor who understands us,” “We especially like her preaching when she gives examples of how the Bible connects with our daily lives,” or “The pastor trains and empowers us and then lets us go and just checks in with us from time to time.”
We have endeavored to provide resources lifting up our case study findings in ways that encourage congregations and synods to continue working on the arts and practices of developing healthy cultures of mutual learning and support for the ministries to which they have been called. First call congregations (and those open to this calling) can become aware of what they have to offer and how they can mentor, support and encourage these pastors new to public ministry. In this process, congregations would not only become healthy and effective ministry settings, but also have much to teach others about responding to God’s vocational call to be the Body of Christ to each other and to their communities.