From time to time, I find myself hosting one of three radio programs. This is in addition to all the other radio work with which I’m involved. This past weekend I had an opportunity to fill-in on a show called Changing Lives Through Simple Acts of Kindness and was able to interview retired pastor, Richard Holz.
Richard is a treasure trove of stories and personal history, some of which we covered while on the air. However, that was not the direction I wanted to take our conversation. I had another idea in mind.
For most of my life, I’ve covered the Catholic Church, religious faith, practice and other denominations. One common thread I see in all denominations is the shrinking number of individuals responding to the call for a vocation – pastor, deacon, et. al.
“We travel around, and as basically our role in life is spoiling grandchildren and travelling and volunteering,” said Richard. “We do a lot of volunteering.”
Though Richard is no longer behind a pulpit each Sunday, he has a story of how he came to his vocation. That is what I wanted to put our focus.
How can we increase the number of people responding to their calling? There is no simple answer. There are ideas, vocation offices and church counsellors, depending on the denomination, that can help, but doesn’t answer the question of “how.”
One way we can do this is by people entering a vocation later in life, as Richard has done.
Richard Holz was not always Pastor Richard Holz.
Richard is a “PK” or pastors’ kid. He comes from a long line of pastors going back to the 1700s. You think that would leave him open to becoming a minister. It didn’t.
“I saw the hardships of ministry through the family stories, and I said, I’m not going there,” said Richard speaking of family members going back to the 1700s who entered the ministry. “And so, I went into business and did financial services for most of a decade.”
There are more than a few people who fight off their calling because of the obligations it places you under. If you are in a protestant church, you will find yourself away from your family quite often: hospital visits, jail/prison ministry, various classes and groups at your church, and so much more. If you are Catholic, you must be willing to forgo the married life.
It’s not always a comfortable life. Richard saw that in his father’s life, in the presence of others in his family. Still, the calling was there, working its way to the forefront of all else.
“I was involved in church. [I was a] youth director and volunteering for a lot of stuff.,” said Richard. “Some people said, you know, you spend an awful lot of time here. You’d be a great example to the kids if you considered ministry. So, I did.”
Richard took the comments seriously and began to talk with his wife about possibly becoming a minister in the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod.
“We prayed a lot,” said Richard.
“I didn’t know if I’d be there because older students usually are not receptive at seminaries,” said Richard. “But I was in a period of time where their population, their student population was going down.”
Richard ended up attending Concordia Seminary.
“I’d been out of school for almost a decade, so to get back into academics was a little bit of a toughie. And a lot of the other students were much younger, and they had come up and, educationally, they knew how to take the tests and things like that,” said Richard. “So, I had to get back into it, but I had practical knowledge that they didn’t.”
“So when we sat down at coffee hours they would talk theology, and I would say, you know, this is all great, but now you’ve got to figure out how to apply it,” said Richard. “Here I am, a practice layperson up to that point and I would tell them what it’s like in the parish from the layperson’s point of view and get them to think about that and how they took their coursework.”
That is one benefit of having an older person enter the seminary. Coming with that person, coming with Richard, was a wealth of life lived. People like Richard can help those younger students see the ministry from both sides of the Communion Rail.
Another benefit, they have lived life.
I have a hard time talking to some priests about topics such as marriage, sex life, or other problems they may have never encountered in their own life.
“After my wife died, and my children were no longer in the home,” said Fr Bill, a priest I know from my days in New York City, “I began to hear that still small voice calling me to my vocation once again.”
Fr Bill, who entered the seminary at the age of 52, said his previous life prepared him for being in the priesthood.
“I am truly of the opinion that had I availed myself of that calling when I was younger and rejected the married life; I would have been ill-prepared for the reality of what many of my parishioners face on a day-to-day basis,” said Fr Bill. “I would have only had an academic outlook, such as those Mr Holz encountered when he was in seminary.”
Fr Bill listened to the audio of my conversation with Richard Holz before I asked him about his path to the priesthood.
“We need people like Mr Holz, regardless of the Christian denomination they are entering into,” said Fr Bill. “We all have the same desire at heart, to bring others unto Christ. I feel our older population should be encouraged to reconsider a vocation they once felt when younger.”
Pastor Richard Holz offers this advice for those struggling with their vocation:
“Well, I say pray about it, number one,” said Richard. “Number two, talk to somebody who is in that professional category, vocation of pastoral ministry. Ask the hard questions that they think they need answered whatever they might be. You’ve [also] got to step back and remove yourself a little bit from [the idea] because there’s an awful lot of situations where you’re getting emotionally involved and personally involved. [To] make good decisions, you have to be able to step back, look at it and analyze it. So those are some things I would tell them so that they don’t just jump into something.”
Richard also said, regardless of the denomination, seminary training is critical. Equally important is a relationship with priests or pastors so you can gain a perspective on their ministry and gauge what you might be doing in the future.
I know I’ll end up repeating this, before I close, but pray for those who think they have a vocation while young, or later in life. Prayer is important.
Conversations are happening in every denomination on just how to address the shortage of people entering the ministry. Recently, in the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis said a long-term solution would need to be found, rather than ordaining married men in some parts of the world.
Other denominations have begun to encourage high school teens to pray about a vocation, a call to the ministry, before deciding a university and career path.
In my opinion, one way to fill empty pulpits across the world is to look to our older population.
There are many, like Richard, who has had one career but volunteered within the church. In Richard’s case, others recognized the vocation he was called to before he did. I’m sure there are others we can help bring to the ministry as well.
We should be praying right along with those who are working to discern a vocation. We should pray for the wisdom to recognize a vocation in others and discover what we can do to help.
Prayer for Vocations
O God, Father of all Mercies,
Provider of a bountiful Harvest,
send Your Graces upon those
You have called to gather the fruits of Your labor;
preserve and strengthen them in their lifelong service of you.
Open the hearts of Your children
that they may discern Your Holy Will;
inspire in them a love and desire to surrender themselves
to serving others in the name of Your son, Jesus Christ.
Teach all Your faithful to follow their respective paths in life
guided by Your Divine Word and Truth.
Through the intercession of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary,
all the Angels, and Saints, humbly hear our prayers
and grant Your Church’s needs, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.