CHICAGO - The O'Hare Hyatt Regency Hotel was astounded by shouts of praise as 1,400 high school and college students considering ordained ministry met for Exploration 2002.
The event is designed to nurture and assist the young, potential ministers of United Methodist Church. Students spent a weekend of worship, study, prayer and small-group discussions. The denomination’s Board of Higher Education and Ministry sponsored the Nov. 15-17 gathering.
Opening worship began with exuberant praise and worship team led by the Rev. Cynthia Wilson-Hollins, pastor of music, worship and communication at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta. She sang "Calling My Name," a song with lyrics and rhythms punctuating the conference's theme: "Is God Calling You?"
Sitting on the floor and in aisles or standing along the walls of the convention hall, young adolescents listened to the speakers share their own doubts about being called into ministry when they were younger.
God calls those who don't necessarily look, walk or act like a pastor, said the Rev. Nick Harvey, design team member and Candler School of Theology professor. "Jesus was radical, and God needs radical individuals. You may have piercing; you may have tattoos. In this day and time, many folks won't go where you will go. Who's going to preach to those on the edges of society?"
After each worship session, 128 small groups, ranging from five to eight people each, adjourned to meeting rooms, hallways and secluded areas to discuss their responses to the talks. Many students had their questions addressed in these sessions.
"At first I didn't know what to expect," said Jennifer Jacobs, a high school student from Overland Park, Kansas. "When I came, I was struggling with my faith because of being pressured at school to prove why I believe as I do. [Here], I couldn't believe people are that in to God. This is an amazing experience that shows me God is there."
The small-group leaders included seminarians, chaplains, campus ministers, missionaries, Board of Higher Education and Ministry staff and board members, and clergy from annual (regional) conferences.
Returning each day to the packed conference hall, students entered to the music of the theme song, "He Knows My Name." Each worship service included dance, mime, signing, danced Scripture, instrumental music and choral singing. As students registered, they were encouraged to find their roles in these worship activities.
Workshops addressed topics such as "Faces of Today's Ministry," "Women in Ordained Ministry," "Differently [Talented] in Ordained Ministry" and "What to Expect in Seminary Life," a question-and-answer session led by a group of nine students from United Methodist-related seminaries.
Clergy couple Susan Pendleton Jones and L. Gregory Jones were models for students who feel they can't be both clergy and married. The couple, both staff members at Duke Divinity School, were featured speakers Nov. 16. Assuring the group that ordained ministry is not where the money is, the Rev. Susan Pendleton Jones explained, "Ministry is your life, not your livelihood. You find ministry where the needs of the world and your talents meet."
The Nov. 16 evening worship included a powerful sermon by Iowa Area Bishop Gregory Vaughn Palmer. Taking his text from the biblical story of Samuel and Eli in 1 Samuel, he encouraged the students to think seriously about their call and urged, "Don't say, 'Speak Lord,' if you're not ready to go."
"I just learned that you could act out Scriptures. I'm learning other ways you can worship God and bring people to God," said Raven Alexander, a junior at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark.
Throughout the weekend, students were able to spend one-on-one time to express their concerns to Palmer, Wisconsin Area Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader, elders, deacons, campus and military chaplains, seminarians, campus ministers and pastoral counselors.
Preaching at the Nov. 17 closing service, the Rev. Grant Hagiya, of the California-Pacific Annual Conference told the young people what they need for ministry. "You don't need a 1,600 score on your SAT or a 5.0 GPA to be in ministry," he said. Smiling, he continued, "What you do need is your humanity, to get in touch with who you are as a human being, as a person and as a child of God." He told students to approach the church in humility, and the church would welcome them.
"I've gotten to worship God with so many cultures," said A. J. Powell, a senior at Alabama Christian Academy High School in Montgomery. "Meeting new people, making contacts, learning about all these seminaries, having new people to pray for has been awesome. I believe this is going to help me in years to come."
By Albert H. Lee