We use the word “calling” lightly, when the idea of a vocation to ministry has the potential to change many lives, including the lives of those called. In this feature, we call on three members of the Uniting Church to ask them what it means to feel God wants them to be ministers of the gospel.
Talking heads and God’s messengers
Rev Kevin Dobson was “about 18”, circa 1970, when God used a very unexpected intermediary to help call him to ministry.
Kevin and his youth group mates were leading a service at his local Methodist church in Ulverstone, Tasmania, where neighbouring minister John Graham was the pulpit preacher.
“We were sitting behind John, who had brought along his ventriloquist doll, Alfie,” Kevin recalls.
“As John was preaching, Alfie spun around and said to me, ‘You’re going to be a minister!’
“John Graham was taking the opportunity to challenge people to think about their futures, and I was still working out who or what I would be,” Kevin said.
John and Alfie’s prophetic suggestion started to take shape when Kevin moved to Melbourne in 1974 after five years working as a bank teller to get his VCE and commence his journey to accreditation as a lay preacher and a ministry candidate.
Kevin tested his vocation as a 23-year-old “home missionary”, which preceded his candidacy for the Methodist ministry in 1976. He was one of the last Methodist candidates accepted before Union in 1977.
“I’m 66 and I was ordained in 1980,” Kevin said.
“So this December it will be 38 years of ministry for me, and two years as a home missionary. It has been a good decision.”
Kevin has worked in pastoral ministry, serving churches and multiple congregations in Tasmania, and throughout Victoria.
Answering the call has been both difficult and rewarding.
“I’m always discovering fresh insights from Scripture and the Christian faith to share with the people to whom I minister,” he said.
“Positive and negative responses mean people are listening and wanting to grapple with what’s being said and done.
“I love walking with them on their faith journey; it’s a great responsibility, joy and challenge.”
Kevin doesn’t expect unthinking obedience to what he says, nor does he receive the automatic reverence ordained ministers used to.
“Society and the church have changed so much. I believe the good news of Jesus is still relevant and I do my best to live it and share it, while respecting other people’s beliefs and backgrounds,” he said.
“We can’t label people or put them in boxes, and one of my roles, as the old saying goes, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Callings, ordained and affirmed by God
What does it mean to be called to ministry? As head of Pilgrim Theological College, director of education and formation for leadership, Rev Dr Sean Winter is well placed to tackle the question.
“People start in different places,” Sean said.
“Everyone in the church has been ‘called’ to some degree. That is, we all have a call to discipleship; to following Jesus and exercising mutual care, and serving the community.”
However Sean said that some people experience a more specific call.
“A call to ministry is a call to a representative role, which recognises and affirms an individual’s gifts and skills. Specific people are called to lead the church and minister.”
Sean cautions that callings must be confirmed and there is no cut-and-dried formula.
“There is no one way that a vocation is recognised. For 30 years I have been working with people who have been ‘called’, and their stories have all been different,” Sean said.
“A common thread is that the person who is called experiences an inward leading, a disturbance in their commonplace life.
“Scripture and prayer have a role in confirming their calling, and a sense of conviction also comes from the core disciplines of the spiritual life and from the church.”
Sean said that being called is not just an issue between the person and God.
“There is the sense that other people have of the person called, and there is an affirmation and identification, encouragement and support as you explore your calling,” he said.
“The Damascus Road ‘sudden blinding flash’ illumination may be true for some but many people never have a dramatic, sole moment of clarity. It can be a slow, sure journey into that confirmation of being called.
“A call to ministry is a call to a life poured out, years spent representing the church’s own call. It is absolutely appropriate that the church recognise and test it.
“Any process of discernment involves accountability and guidance, you can’t sustain ministry in the long-term simply through your own enthusiasm – what will sustain you, however, is being a part of a loving community, giving you authority to serve God and serve humanity.”
Sean said that in the Uniting Church, the call to ministry is not confirmed until the church recognises you and gives you the opportunity to serve.
The transition to ministry is marked by the ceremony of ordination. Sean emphasised that it is an ongoing process of accountability, lifelong learning and continual opportunities for professional development.
Sean said that exercising the spiritual leadership of one who has been “called” actually comes back to the quality of humility.
“When you are willing to place your own sense of calling before your community of faith – that is a vulnerable place you have found yourself in,” Sean said.
“You cannot do that well, you cannot live with and listen to your community without exercising a fundamental sense of humility. The best ministers live with a sense of joyful surprise: it is a gift of grace, not something that is earned.”
Everything changed for Viola
The first Christian in her family, and now a candidate for ordained ministry, Viola Leung’s path was fixed in a quite different direction until two missionaries showed up at her university in Xi’an, China.
“Two men, one from South Korea and one from Australia, were working as English teachers when they shared the gospel with my class,” Viola said.
“This was dangerous, but it became a question of trust for me; I saw the missionaries’ lives, and they moved me with their message of Jesus.
“I committed my life to Jesus Christ in 2002, when I was 24. This was different. We were atheists but as a child I knew some Buddhists… religion was a strange thing.”
To the dismay and confusion of her family – engineers, doctors, lawyers, and government officials – Viola’s passion for the Christian faith was neither a cultural flirtation nor a momentary interest.
Viola was baptised into the faith six years later.
“There was a big car accident, which led me to return to church and be baptised,” Viola said.
“After my baptism my life changed, everything changed. My life was going to be different, and this was difficult for my family.
“I wanted to live overseas, but I did not speak English. I prayed about this for a long time and decided to quit my job. I had been a nurse, then I was a teacher, teaching Chinese. I had security and stability and respect. But it wasn’t where I felt called to be.”
Viola’s brother was living in Australia and said to her, “If you want to know more about Jesus and to explore your calling, then come and study here.”
Viola jumped at the chance.
Becoming a ministry candidate was not her immediate calling; it grew out of her theological studies and her English language studies, and her increasingly rich church life.
“I felt the call later,” Viola said.
“I came to Australia and looked at different churches, and decided to go to Uniting Church Gospel Hall in Melbourne, where we share the Lonsdale Street Wesley church building with the English-speaking congregation. I became involved in lay ministry, doing the role of pastoral care, and working with young people and aged people.”
The progress to ordained ministry has been gradual. The path, hard and exacting.
“It was not an easy decision; I felt my English was still not good enough,” Viola said.
“I have worked for Wesley Neurological Support Services for seven years, I did a year’s study in welfare work, then my minister’s wife introduced me to the Melbourne School of Theology, which has a Chinese language department.
“I told my lecturer and my minister that I want to serve God as a minister – I believe God will equip me for the future God has planned for me.”