Gateway Seminary has a course that is required at the beginning of every degree program called P1111 Introduction to Ministry Formation. New students filter through this class as they start seminary to develop a deeper understanding of their calling and how seminary aides them in fulfilling their call to ministry leadership. Students take the class in a retreat-style format; they spend time alone and reflect on Scripture, their life, and their future of ministry leadership. Though all of the activities in this class are impactful to most students, one activity stands out as hugely impactful – the Post-It Note Timeline.[1]

Students must use various color post it notes (or a digital correlative) to create a timeline of their life’s major events. At first, the task seems overwhelming, but as students begin to assemble the timeline, events, people, and moments of critical growth accumulate into summative life lessons learned in each season on their timeline. As they stand back and look at the completed timeline, they are directed to observe how God was at work in both the negative and positive events leading them to where they are now – fulfilling their call to ministry leadership.

God’s presence is the sustaining power in suffering, abandonment, betrayal, and death.

Kristen Ferguson

I have read about 200 or more of these timeline reflections over the few years I have taught the class. The below response from a recent student is not the only similar feedback I have received:

I wanted to take a moment to drop a note to tell you how eye opening our last assignment (Post-It Notes Timeline) was. It was so eye opening that even my wife began to cry seeing where I was to where I am in my walk with Christ. It’s not often that I go back to remind myself of who I was previous to 5 years ago but this exercise blew me away. Although hard to do because of the memories it brought back, I was so encouraged to see how obvious it is that God has called me to ministry leadership! I sincerely thank you for this exercise because it did more for me than I would have ever thought!

After reading so many, I have begun to synthesize common themes that are present in the life stories of people called to ministry leadership:

First, it’s very often the tragedy, trauma, or trial in life that God develops and redeems to eventually become a critical, core passion in ministry. For example, students who have had physical pain or suffering in life sometimes find themselves with the God-given passion for caring for the sick or dying in hospital chaplaincy. Students who felt abandoned at one point in their life are drawn to care for the outcast. Students who suffered in a life of addiction or crime are likewise compelled to show the addicted or incarcerated the freedom of Christ.

Second, mentors or respected friends are often a major turning point for someone’s calling. God uses the mentor’s life model and usually simple encouragement to alter a perspective on what God is doing. Students report these simple encouragements as comments made at the right moment of their life. Statements like “You should go into ministry,” or “You have the gift of preaching” are critical outside affirmations for students who struggled to discern their internal call to ministry leadership.

Third, God’s presence is the sustaining power in suffering, abandonment, betrayal, and death. Students often say things like no one else was there, but God was and it changed everything. Our students have been through many trials – death of loved ones, divorce of parents, abuse by trusted adults, trauma of war, betrayal by friends, cancer, and many other major life crises. Those times were not lost in their journey of discovering God’s call on their lives. In fact, those moments are often reported to be the moments that they knew God was there. Their response to his presence in time of need was to follow him even more closely knowing he will not leave them.

Fourth, the church has a split role in the lives of those called to ministry leadership. For some, church can be a fruitful place of nurturing, service, and growth for developing leaders; but for others, the church can be a place of destruction, pain, and division that God uses to shape leaders to be different than the model they saw. Those who experienced the goodness of a church family seek to extend that experience on to others as they lead in ministry. Those who experienced the pain of church life honor God’s vision for the church and seek to lead it towards that end.

Fifth and finally, when God calls, he provides everything we need to faithfully follow him. Many students have come to the end of themselves in one way or the other – emotionally, physically, financially… you name it. However, in coming to the end of themselves, they learn that God is the great provider, and he takes care of their needs. Remembering God’s past provision gives them confidence to follow God in their calling, knowing that no matter what, God will sustain them.

If you have been called to ministry leadership, I encourage you to take time to look back on how God worked in your life. Then, as you identify key impact moments or people, replicate that in your current ministry to call out the called. There are emerging leaders under your care who might be experiencing that life-changing trial, need that simple encouragement, or be reflecting on the health of the church you lead. You might be part of God’s overarching plan to use them in strategic ways for his kingdom expansion around the world.

[1] This activity is from Walling, Terry B., and Gary Mayes. Focused Living Retreat Workbook. Anaheim, CA: Christian Resource Ministries, 2001.

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