What a Call to Ministry Looks Like

I’ve never actually met Author Rochelle Melander, though we both swim in the relatively small ELCA Lutheran pool of women clergy. I no longer remember exactly how we were introduced, but I’m glad we were. She sends me brilliant posts about the writing life and hosts call-in events where we can hear from the pros while sipping coffee in the comfort of our own homes or offices. Because writing many books, coaching others, raising children, and keeping up with a busy household weren’t enough – she also started a program to introduce young children to the joys and gratification of putting one’s thoughts into words for others to read. Read all about it here.

What a Call to Ministry Looks Like

by Rochelle Melander

It was my first year of seminary, and the theology professor asked the class: Is the call to ministry an external or internal one? Many students told stories of a deep inner call that began in childhood, igniting in them a desire to serve God through the ministry of word and sacrament. The professor talked about the necessity of external call—the community of faith must see that the candidate possesses a clear call to ministry.

I was confused. I had a strong external call—the pastor from my home church, my college Religion professors, and even my grandmother had told me I was called to ministry. But an internal call? I hadn’t heard the same messages from God that my classmates experienced. I’d gone to seminary as the first step in what I imagined would be an academic career. Get my MDiv, then a PhD, and find a place to teach. But seminaries tend to grow pastors, not academics, and after 5 years and two master’s degrees, I needed a break. My professors assured me that taking a call was a good step—to be a seminary professor, I’d need parish experience anyway. So I set off for my first call in rural Pennsylvania.

It didn’t take long for me to discover I wasn’t cut out for parish ministry. While I loved teaching and preaching and found great meaning in nurturing the faith of youngest members of the congregation, I didn’t do well with the politics. I was serving a two-point parish—two congregations who’d been connected by the synod 20 years before, and not happily so. Some members were still angry, and it came out in squabbles over joint efforts, like worship services and the pastor’s salary. By the end of my time there, I wasn’t sure if I had any call to ministry—external or internal.

I married, moved to Wisconsin, and worked as an editor, church consultant and professional coach. I had children and wrote books. And I kept trying to find my place in the church. In 2005, and idea came to me while worshipping with my family in an inner city Milwaukee congregation. I pushed it away and focused on the worship service. But the idea persisted: you need to teach writing to the tween and teen girls in the parish.

After several weeks of being chased by this idea, I wondered if this was the internal call my colleagues had spoken about in seminary. I set out to teach writing to young people. Nothing was easy about the endeavor. Because it was a busy congregation, we struggled to find a time and space to meet in the church. Sometimes, we’d show up to find the church locked and empty. At other times, the building was so packed with people that we’d gather in the hallway, writing in the midst of chaos. Most of the young people lived in homes without phones, so connecting with them was hard, and they sometimes forgot about meetings. Still, we persisted and wrote.

IMG_1354After a few years, the call came again. This time, I felt the nudge to move the writing group, now called Dream Keepers, out of the church and into a public place. We’d already attracted a few boys, and I wanted to see if more boys would join us out in the world. I approached a public library in the neighborhood, and Dream Keepers was welcomed. We met there weekly for several years. We added a playwriting unit, led by a local actor and arts educator. We participated in local contests and won a few. And most importantly, we expanded the number of people we served. Then the library got a new director who wanted to open up the use of the community room for more groups. Within a few weeks, we were homeless again.

We quickly found a space at another church—and after meeting there for a few years, things changed at the library, and we were welcomed back—not only to that library but to many libraries across the city.

Since I started Dream Keepers in 2006, we’ve met at urban and suburban churches, served afterschool and summer programs, met at most libraries in the Milwaukee area, and have brought our writing to the Milwaukee Art Museum and area schools. Currently, I’m doing an artist residency at a local school.

IMG_3633Throughout my many years of teaching writing to young people, I’ve experienced a strong internal call. But the external call has been harder to hear. I’ve faced many external obstacles: leaders who don’t welcome us, tight budgets, and a shortage of time. In addition, not all of the students I’ve worked with are interested in writing—and they let me know it. I’ve wondered if I’m really called to this ministry.

After years working in ministry, first as a pastor and now as a writing teacher for at risk youth, I know to expect obstacles and challenges. I also know that the difficult days and impossible situations do not define me or negate my call. I look for rays of hope. In the midst of complaints, a boy says to me, “I really like that book you read.” A student stays after a particularly wild class to talk about her experience at the school and thanks me for the writing assignment. A young student makes me a fortune that says, “Don’t pay attention to students or to people who don’t accept your talent.”

I framed the fortune. It reminds me that God calls me to teach, even when I can’t hear it.

4_ppRochelle Melander is an author, speaker, and certified professional coach. She is the author of ten books, including the National Novel Writing Month guide—Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It). Melander is also the founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop for at risk tweens and teens in Milwaukee. Visit her online at www.writenowcoach.com, follow her on Twitter, or like her on Facebook.

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