And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me. Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant hears.’” 1 Samuel 3: 8-9
Eli, the aging spiritual leader of Israel, offers us of a vivid reminder of what it means to mentor others, especially youth and young adults in our churches. Eli, the older man and Samuel’s teacher and mentor, recognizes Samuel is being called by God. Samuel is youthful and obedient, but doesn’t yet recognize God’s call on his heart. Eli helps Samuel become aware of God’s call at great personal sacrifice. Eli knows he will lose his position of authority and his family is to be punished for the actions of his sons. Eli, in effect, allows his family to die off as servants, knowing a new generation must move into the leadership of the church.
We, “the old white men” of power, and those in control of the church, could learn a lot from Eli. Are we actively affirming and looking for the next generation of church leadership, or are we clinging to power? Are we helping to create an environment where youth and young adults are made aware of, and can respond to, God’s call? Are we helping to create a “habitat of call”?
The concept of “habitat” speaks to an environment or an ecological system where different species of plants and animals coexist and flourish. The soil, the weather, and the seasons all cooperate to allow certain species to thrive, while others live elsewhere, or don’t seem to thrive in a particular habitat. Young plants and animals are protected and raised in the habitat and mature to become part of the environment. There is a sense of discovery and wonder for what lies outside the habitat and there is a profound security and rhythm within. Habitats must be preserved, nurtured, and protected. So it is with the habitat of call.
The habitat of call moves to the rhythm of the Spirit. The habitat is attuned to the call of all creation and flows with the energy of the Divine. In a habitat of call all people live into their role as mature members of God’s kingdom and each person is called to ministry: we are all part of the spiritual ecosystem. God calls each of us toward wholeness and community: God says grow! The more “mature” members of the ecosystem need to teach and nurture others toward God’s call on their lives.
Vital local churches provide the soil and plant seeds to create and develop leaders for a vital and sustainable denomination. Youth leaders, pastors, lay leaders, and all adults in the church ecosystem serve as “horticulturalists” to protect and nurture the growth of new leaders. This tender care begins in Sunday School, matures in Youth Group, and must be reaffirmed post-high school. Youth camps and mission trips are crucibles of call discernment and growth. Efforts toward helping youth and young adults discern their call tie inextricably to the renewal and revitalization of the church. But the habitat also needs to grow leaders of all ages and backgrounds, not just care for the young.
A habitat of call is about developing leaders for the church who provide strong and healthy stock on which to graft new growth. We have to intentionally look for a new stock of leaders, help them discern their call and grow, affirm them and let them bloom, and continue to support them and encourage their growth. Those in clerical and lay leadership roles should always be searching for the next generation of leaders. We should have a continual process of training our replacements. And leadership development and support doesn’t end when they say “yes”. It is an ongoing process.
Creating a habitat of call means we have to commit for the long haul – this will take decades, not years. This effort requires a change in priorities and some serious pruning. We need to put our resources where we claim we want to go – which areas get water and fertilizer? We may have to get rid of a few species that refuse to thrive. In the end, however, we just may be able to save the environment we call the United Methodist Church while leaving a legacy for future generations.
John Wesley could have been thinking about maintaining a healthy habitat when he said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist should ever cease to exist…but I am afraid they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to the doctrine, spirits and discipline with which they first set out.”