God calls teenagers, too

by
15 September 2010

Vocations work needs to start younger, argues David Ford

ONE glance through the photos of Petertide ordinands this year (Or­dinations, 9 July) confirms that there is a shortage of younger voca­tions being nurtured through to theo­logical training. Our motivation to address this may be driven by the ageing profile and numerical decline of our congregations, but it should be stirred more by the desire to enable younger people to respond to the call of God.

In scripture, God frequently talks direct to young people — Samuel and Mary, for example — and many will remember experiencing God’s call on their lives during their teenage years, or even earlier. There is no reason to think that God’s ways have changed in this generation.

Here is a simple threefold strategy that every diocese could implement to help teenagers respond to God’s calling them towards ministry. First, make the nurture of young vocations a priority in secondary-school min­istry.

There is hardly any mention of vocation in the literature on schools ministry. The main reason for this is that churches lack the resources required to engage with schools at a more substantial level than the de­livery of collective worship. Accom­panying young people on their spiritual journeys is time-intensive.

In some dioceses — including here in Ripon & Leeds — the great work of independent Christian or­gan­isations helps to augment other contributions. Leeds Faith in Schools (LFIS) has experienced workers help­ing to develop the spiritual life of pupils in nine secondary schools. In my school, the Leeds Youth Cell Network also provides mentoring for peer-led cell groups at lunchtime.

Experience suggests that the nur­turing of vocations in schools is likely to be most successful where there are individuals whose commitment to the school extends over a number of academic years and is substantial week by week. This calls for a com­mitment to half- or full-time school chaplaincy, whether lay or ordained.

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External ministry groups such as LFIS do great work, but the time it takes to accompany young people in their spiritual development is rarely available to those whose remit is limited to timetabled pastoral, as­sembly, or liturgical functions. Chap­lains need space in their day simply to be around and build trust with young people.

Despite the huge expansion of school-chaplaincy posts in recent years, there remain church secondary schools without formal provision. Dioceses need to ensure that there is a lay or ordained chaplain on the staff of every one of the C of E’s 220 secondary schools.

Of course, this emphasis on school chaplaincy should not under­value the important work that many parishes do to nurture young voca­tions. But some of the many thou­sands in schools will hear God speaking to them, whether or not they have ever entered a church.

It is one of the ironies of schools ministry that many of the most active young Christians on a Sunday in church choose not be active in the Christian life of their school. Sim­ilarly, some young people who come to faith in school have no desire to become involved in the life of their parish church. For them, school is their parish, and their Christian friends in school are church.

IF WE wish to take young vocations seriously, then we must also involve diocesan directors of ordinands (DDOs). One member of every DDO team needs to have specific respons­ibility for those under 21. This might mean recruiting a youth pastor or chaplain to the team, perhaps as a vocations adviser. The person ap­pointed will need to work closely with school and college chaplains, the leaders of youth congregations, and parish clergy. There will be train-ing implications, of course.

This strategy would send a strong message to the whole Church, and particularly to teenagers, that their desire to serve God is recognised as imperative for them now, not at some point in the distant future when experience has been acquired. Jesus said: “Follow me,” not “Come back in a few years.” Teenagers touched by the Spirit understand the directness of this command, and want to respond.

THE third part of this strategy would involve each diocese’s holding an annual vocations event for teen­agers. I never cease to be amazed by the commitment of young Chris­tians, but they need role-models. In the absence of these, they cannot see what possibilities might lie ahead.

A vocations event that brings together the breadth of ministry opportunities can help bridge this knowledge gap. We need to expand students’ horizons be­yond the ob­vious possibilities of ordained paro­chial ministry, and introduce them to the religious life, chaplains to hos­pitals, the military, and prisons, mission­aries, NGO staff, and other church-grounded vocational careers, including teaching.

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THE third part of this strategy would involve each diocese’s holding an annual vocations event for teen­agers. I never cease to be amazed by the commitment of young Chris­tians, but they need role-models. In the absence of these, they cannot see what possibilities might lie ahead.

A vocations event that brings together the breadth of ministry opportunities can help bridge this knowledge gap. We need to expand students’ horizons be­yond the ob­vious possibilities of ordained paro­chial ministry, and introduce them to the religious life, chaplains to hos­pitals, the military, and prisons, mission­aries, NGO staff, and other church-grounded vocational careers, including teaching.

THIS strategy deliberately creates a new working relationship between those in schools and those in vocations min­istries — two discrete areas that interact too rarely. Obviously, how this is modelled in practice will depend on local circumstances.

It is crucial to bring together those experienced at working with teen­agers with those trained to discern calls to ministry. Such collaboration may still be unusual, but it could prove invaluable as the Church seeks to make the most of its limited re­sources and respond more effectively to the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of young people.

As a boy, Samuel was afraid to tell Eli what he had heard. When God speaks, it can be terrifying to hear, and even more terrifying to share with others. “Can God really mean me? Who will believe me?” Teenagers need to hear affirmation of their experiences of the divine. We need the imagination and the humility to help them say yes to God.

The Revd David Ford is the chaplain at Abbey Grange C of E High School Humanities College, and Assistant Curate at Leeds Parish Church.

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