THE question what to do with your life is as alive, as ever, for young Christians, and has many possible answers in the church community.
Alongside the paths of ordination or lay leadership, there are other ways to support those discerning a vocation, from sowing the first seed to providing opportunities to test it out.
For the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, at least some of this begins with those in leadership in a church being intent on encouraging vocations. In his book The Great Vocations Conversation, co-written with Magdalen Smith, the aim was, he explains, “to encourage church leaders to have conversations with people who they saw as potential lay or ordained leaders — to be more proactive, rather than waiting for somebody to come and say, ‘I think God might be calling me.’”
Community of St AnselmMembers of the Community of St Anselm group together in the courtyard of Lambeth Palace after this year’s Commitment Service (at which the members make their promises for the year), held last month
Although ordination is just one path, the number exploring it appears to be increasing: in 2020, despite the interruptions of the pandemic, 591 people were recommended to train for ordained ministry — the highest figure for 13 years, according to a Church of England report. Of these, 431 are planning to take a stipendiary path.
The culture of a church can be crucial to lighting that spark, Bishop Watson says: “Where we’ve seen significant numbers of young vocations coming, both into lay or ordained ministries, have tended to be either churches that have a lot of young people and young adults anyway . . . and then it can almost become a bit contagious,” Bishop Watson says.
“But also, what’s been interesting is the number who’ve come from churches with very few young people, where the minister or vicar has given real opportunities for young people, often from children upwards, to take part in the ministry of the church — whether that is leading services, preaching, playing in the worship band, doing the intercessions, or whatever else.”
The Revd Emma Coley, a young-vocations officer with the national ministry team of the Archbishops’ Council, agrees, and emphasises the need to be flexible in allowing young people to serve in ways that are authentic to them. “I think young people want to be themselves, to express their relationship with God. If they see a sort of rigidity that says, ‘In order to do this, you need to do it in this particular way and from this life experience’ . . . that can really put people off.”
She also underscores how much role-models make a difference: “If people see somebody who looks like them leading, then they feel that, ‘Well, if that person can do it, I can maybe do it.”
In some respects, Mrs Coley feels that the pandemic allowed young people to shine. “This is maybe slightly stereotypical, but, generally, it’s been the younger people who’ve had the technological skills to keep churches worshipping, online,” she explains.
“The downside is that it’s a kind of invisible role. . . So I think churches have a really good opportunity now to ensure that the younger people who were involved in ministry in this way are encouraged to continue it, even if it’s more visible, and not have this [expectation] that it has to be done in a particular way.”
ACCOMPANYING young Christians on their faith journey takes time, the Revd Dr Sharon Jones, an Anglican chaplain at Birmingham University, says. “I think what’s important with university folk is [that it’s] a long game.”
The Revd Dr Sharon Jones, an Anglican Chaplain in the Multifaith Chaplaincy at the University of Birmingham
One advantage of working in a university setting is being able to see how students may already manifest signs of a vocational path.
“We get to see them in the round. It’s a really good insight that sometimes even parish folk don’t get, because they’re in leadership roles at university rather than being the token young person. You develop a good vocations radar, and I think it’s about not being afraid to just say [eventually] ‘What is it you’re going to do with your life?’ and see what they say.
“Quite often, if I’ve got an inkling that someone has a vocation, they’ll go, ‘Well, actually, I was thinking about ministry. . .’ And then it starts. And I think it’s about giving them time to think things through.”
The Vicar of Christ Church, Yardley, the Revd Lydia Gaston, used to run monthly pub sessions while working as a young-vocations champion in Birmingham, besides meeting people one to one. “I feel like it was really important to spend time with people to hear their stories,” she says.
The pub sessions were partly to provide support, and also so that those attending could meet others going through the same thing. “I found, when I was a young vocation, it was good to chat to others who were on the journey with me.”
In the same vein, Mrs Coley sees a need for some church members to be “on high alert” to the gifts that young people bring, in the context of congregational relationships that are already there.
“I think there has been a rigidity in the past: if you want to grow in your leadership, you need to get ordained. I feel we’re moving away from that and embracing creativity, and we need to be able to say to someone, for example, ‘You know what? You lead our intercessions beautifully. and I can see that people could really benefit from you maybe running the occasional prayer group.’”
RELIGIOUS communities can also provide a framework for young people to explore their commitment — if not necessarily in the context of full vows, then perhaps by joining a Third Order, being part of a dispersed monastic community, or simply by visiting to experience a pattern of a life radically different from their own.
Brother Finnian outside the Society of St Francis, in Alnmouth, Northumbria
“My own feeling is that there’s a lot of people seeking community,” Dr Jones remarks. “They get community through the church, but they really want an extended family, and religious orders give that.”
Brother Finnian, a member of the Society of St Francis, based in Alnmouth, Northumbria, has noticed an increase in enquiries in recent years. “I think people are looking to be authentically themselves,” he says. “Some people have been successful in a variety of ways, but . . . they feel called to give themselves more [to God]. They want to meet someone who understands — maybe not fully, but who has gone through discernment.”
He has, however, had to develop ways of transmitting the message: “We have a tent at Greenbelt every year as Franciscans and as Anglican religious, and we meet loads of young people who come in during our prayer life, and hang out with us.”
During their 2017 visit, they found that many teenagers didn’t know Anglican religious communities existed; so Brother Finnian set up a Twitter account, and also monthly meetings (on Zoom since the pandemic), in which participants from all over the country can hear the stories of Franciscan speakers, and see “that we’re real people, we exist: we’re not in the Middle Ages. We move around and live in multi-generational communities.”
At the Community of St Anselm, 20- to 35-year-olds of different denominations and nationalities can consider their calling more intensively through a year’s formation at Lambeth Palace. The community was founded by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2015, and the choice is to become either an immersive member, living within the community, or an integrated member, doing a part-time programme that runs alongside working life.
While on the programme, members can grapple with questions of life choices that might be radically different from other people’s. Among these is the issue of singleness.
The Dean of St Anselm’s, the Revd Simon Lewis, observes: “What I’ve seen quite strikingly is that the community [here] provide people an opportunity . . . to rethink the whole way they’ve looked at their understanding of what it means to engage with the world, and make choices about their future.
“Many have never considered the possibility that they might not have a partner, that they might choose to commit themselves in a different way. . . It’s not even in people’s imagination. And there’s something amazingly liberating about encountering people who’ve made that choice.
Helen took part in the Leicester Ministry Experience Scheme in 2019/20, and served her placement in a church-plant in city
“In terms of signposting those who are considering vocation in any sense . . . being exposed to [others] who have undertaken different forms of vocation is hugely valuable in expanding people’s horizons of what might be possible.”
Simply finding the language that enables people to express a sense of their calling — which is not always in ecclesiastical terms, particularly for individuals who are not from a church background — can be enormously helpful.
In Dr Jones’s experience, this often emerges in the context of “long, free-form conversations”, such as those provided by spiritual direction.
MRS COLEY also talks about the value of mentoring. “If you are 16, for example, and you are thinking you might want to get ordained, or licensed as a Reader, or that God is calling you to some kind of ministry, it’s so helpful to have somebody walk with you on that journey.
“It can make you feel isolated, and as though you’re the only 16-year-old in the entire country who is thinking about this; but actually having a mentor to say, ‘You’re not the only one: there’s lots of you,’ is really important,” she says.
Of course, not every young person will want to follow an ecclesiastical path. Mrs Gaston refers to a practice at some churches whereby congregation members regularly talk on a Sunday about what they will be doing “this time tomorrow”, and what their faith looks like in that context. “It gets people to think about, ‘Yes, this is my mission,’ whatever they’re doing in their work. It’s good to hear other voices, to be inspired.”
FOR those who do want to test their calling in a church setting, the Church of England provides a ministry experience scheme (MES), set up in 2013, for 18-30-year-olds. Dioceses can opt in to a national network, which enables participants to spend a year on placement in ministry, usually in a parish setting.
Denhams DigitalLizzie took part in the Blackburn Ministry Experience Scheme in 2017/18, she has since worked as a youth worker and now works in a school
The type of activities involved varies according to the context, but the scheme provides a theological-training element and an opportunity to continue conversations about discernment along the way. There are also usually three to four other participants on placement in the same diocese in any given year, adding a community aspect, with networking and support.
“The MES really wants to be. . . a gracious space to explore your sense of calling and vocation,” the MES administrator, Vic Wilson, explains. All the schemes are linked to the vocations teams in the diocese, so that participants can reflect on where God might be leading them, whether to ordination, youth work, pioneer ministry, or something else. As Mr Wilson says, “it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Perhaps relevant to all the forms of vocation which a young person might be exploring is Brother Finnian’s perception that “Religious life is, I think, at the cusp of a genuine renewal — I think because it’s a gift of God. It’s not about better advertising or a better website, but when we live out our lives with integrity, then people will join us. I think God still speaks and God still calls people.”