Why This Work Matters
The strategy we are contemplating in Calling Congregations grows out of a certain history and context. Since 1954, FTE has supported the development of the next generation of leaders for the church. FTE has, made financial awards and provided a network of support to young people who sense a call to pastoral ministry.
We have implemented many different programs to encourage and support young people for church leadership but our core mission remains the same: to identify, nurture and support the next generation of gifted leaders. Our means and methods are different and appropriately so. Every generation’s needs must be met in the particularity of their time and place. And the world today is not quite exactly as it was in 1954.
So where were these bright, gifted, faithful young people – people who want to serve the church—to be found? About this time, Lilly Endowment made large strategic investments in places where they believed young people could be influenced to consider ministry: high school youth programs and college programs. From 2002-2005, the Fund broadened its focus beyond the individual to include communities of faith in which young people formed Christian identity and learned to listen for God’s call, particularly asking how to put the question of calling the next generation of leaders before congregations. And FTE and Lilly began to explore how to put the question of calling the next generation of leaders before congregations.
Watch the Why Us, Why Now video below of church leaders sharing their stories in this important work:
One of our underlying assumptions has been that the question of ministry is embedded within a larger question of vocation. If young people were taught to ask “What am I to do with my life—my whole life—in light of my faith?” or “What is my part in God’s dream?” the question of whether those young people have been called to ministry might become more clear.
In 1969, Frederick Buechner, one of the very first FTE Trial Year Fellows, wrote an essay entitled “The Calling of Voices.” Buechner writes that although we talk about choosing a vocation, it is at least as accurate to talk about a vocation choosing us, of a call being given and of us hearing or not hearing, listening or not listening, responding or not responding. We think of our work—your work—as creating space for the hearing and practices of listening and pathways to responding. This is necessary work because it is not easy to hear and listen, much less respond. When Buechner wrote this essay 40 years ago, he cautioned us that the call is hard to hear:
The danger is that there are so many voices, and all in their ways sound so promising. The danger is that you will not listen to the voices that speaks to you through the seagull mounting the gray wind, say, or the vision in the temple, that you do not listen to the voice inside you or to the voice that speaks from outside but specifically to you out of the specific events of your life, but that instead you listen to the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us all by blasting forth that the only thing that really matters about your work is how much it will get you in the way of salary and status. 1
The “great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture” is loud. When Buechner spoke these words, there were only three networks on television and no remote control, the coolest kids had transistor radios and the places to shop were closed on Sunday—before the Internet, MTV, 24 hour movies on demand, i-everything and mass merchandizing to teenagers. How much harder is it to listen now? How much harder is it to hear what Howard Thurman calls the “sound of the genuine.” In a speech by that name, Thurman says, "There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls." 2
Our world desperately needs people who don’t spend their lives on the ends of strings somebody else pulls. We live at a hinge point in history. Technology challenges what it means to be human, earth’s survival is imperiled, and the definition and structure of church is constantly changing. You don’t need convincing that at this hinge point in history the world cries out for good, creative faithful and smart leaders to respond to its needs and the young people in our care are at risk of not hearing, not listening and not responding.
What if young people were taught to ask “What am I to do with my life—my whole life—in light of my faith?” or “What is my part in God’s dream?” We think the question of whether I am called to ministry, embedded in the call of vocation issued to all the baptized, might more easily be heard. We think of our work—your work in this emerging community of calling congregations—as creating space for hearing, learning the practices of listening and opening up pathways for responding.
Therefore, we come to this moment in time, to meet this call, rejoicing in the abundance of resources we have and the blessedness of our own limitations. We don’t have time to waste. Our children need us. The church’s future and the needs of our society depend on us. So let us share in this work together of leading new generations, and those yet born, to respond to the call and to change the world.
The FTE Staff
- Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, (New York: Harpers Collins, 2006), pg. 35.
- Excerpt from Dr. Howard Thurman’s Baccalaureate Address – Spelman College, May 4, 1980. Edited by Jo Moore Stewart, Editor of the Spelman Messenger.