Living the Question
By Susan Sytsma Bratt
The word vocation gets thrown around a lot at Calvin College. Dean Kladder remembers former Chaplain Dale Cooper unpacking that phrase one day. He said, “Your vocation is to be the best witness for Jesus Christ you can possibly be.” That definition stuck with Dean as he navigated his time at Calvin and beyond even when the path was uncertain.
Dean entered Calvin ready to explore a career in television or radio through his major in Communication Arts and Sciences. He also had a passion for music and worship, and found himself applying to the Worship Apprentice program. That decision would shift his journey. Dean served as a Worship Apprentice during his third year, planning and leading student worship. He recalls an address by Chaplain Cooper to the Apprentices. Chaplain Cooper wondered why students were saying they wanted to be doctors, teachers, and nurses but not pastors. Dean was intrigued by this question. He then applied and was accepted for the first class of the Jubilee Fellows Program, an initiative that allows second-semester juniors to explore ministry in a spring-semester course and in a subsequent summer ministry internship.
Dean’s simultaneous involvement with the Worship Apprentice Program and the Jubilee Fellows Program gave him a lot of time and space to reflect on ministry. From there a new conversation unfolded. “Many students who know they want to go into ministry start right away on pre-seminary courses.” Dean had not even considered pastoral ministry until he began the Worship Apprentice Program the fall of that third year. Then, although he was interested in music and worship, “The Jubilee Fellows Program was a safe environment to not make any commitments about being in ministry. By doing it, I felt like I was free to explore the Spirit that was leading me through.”
Dean was able to experience some of those challenges and joys firsthand as a Worship Apprentice. Planning and leading the Sunday student worship service, Living our Faith Together (LOFT), Dean found himself spending more time in the Chapel than in the Communications Arts and Sciences building. “The Fellows program was a good tandem for me while in the Worship Apprentice ministry. It offered me a good way to think about ministry theoretically and then to do things practically in the Worship Apprentice Program. It also offered me a chance to broaden my horizon of thinking what ministry looked like.” By the end of that year Dean realized that he “felt spiritually alive when I helped people connect to God in worship. I began to think, how I could make this my full time career instead of going into radio or television.”
Twelve students made up that first group of Jubilee Fellows in the spring of Dean’s junior year. Gathered around the dinner table, the Fellows broke bread together and discussed readings about ministry. Led by Chaplain Cooper and Rev. Cindy Holtrop, the Jubilee Fellows learned the rhythm, challenges and joys of ministry through weekly readings and discussion.
Jubilee Fellows end their semester course of reflection with a summer ministry internship. That summer before his fourth year Dean got a taste of full time ministry interning at New City Kids Church in Jersey City, New Jersey. He found himself empowering kids to lead worship, learning the rhythm of full time parish ministry. Dean’s internship mentor, Rev. Trevor Rubingh, encouraged Dean to consider taking a year off after graduating from Calvin to try out full time ministry.
Dean started asking more questions about ministry heading back into his final year at Calvin. How does one become a professional pastor? Where do you go to school? What seminaries were out there? How do you pick one? Mentors helped him find answers. He quickly realized that while he was passionate about worship, there were more aspects to ministry he wanted to explore. Pursuing a Master’s of Divinity degree would prepare him best for a variety of ministries and still give him space to explore other aspects of ministry like preaching, pastoral care, and evangelism.
Dean considered several seminaries for his next steps in his journey. Growing up in West Michigan and attending college, Dean sensed he needed to broaden his perspective for the next step in his journey. “I knew that growing up in West Michigan I always had an inkling that I needed to explore the bigger broader world.”
In the fall of 2004 Dean began his first year at Princeton Seminary. Sitting in class, more questions weighed him down. He wondered, “What am I doing here? Why am I here? I went, I followed, I explored who I am throughout college, and I am not feeling this is exactly where I need to be. I had a lot of doubts about being away from home, being away from community where folks knew me.”
Christmas break of his first year in seminary was pivotal for Dean’s journey. Spending time with his family, Dean risked voicing his questions to his family. By New Year’s Eve, Dean decided to check out Western Theological Seminary, located in his hometown of Holland, Michigan. By the end of Christmas break he was provisionally accepted to the Master’s of Divinity program at Western Seminary.
Once again mentors came alongside of Dean in his journey. They had confidence in him, his gifts and his calling. Spending two semesters at Western Seminary, Dean began to “get a sense of, I can do this.” Dean decided to transfer back to Princeton. He was dating a fellow classmate, Andrea, and both wanted to be together.
Dean flourished after returning to Princeton. “The last three semesters at PTS were a solidification and confirmation of the exploration I did throughout this process of discerning my call.” Dean got a chance to practice his skills and live into the questions. Facing death, as a hospital Chaplain, he learned what it means to sit with those pondering human suffering. Finding his preaching voice Dean learned the pastoral rhythm that he read about as a Jubilee Fellow. Dean also got a chance to synthesize and articulate his own theology of ministry as he reflected on his pastoral identity. Returning to the words of Chaplain Cooper, Dean passionately recounts, “We all carry a common vocation to be a faithful witness for Jesus Christ. I want to help the Church be that witness.”
Dean does not embark on this journey alone. Newly wed to Andrea Haughton in the fall of 2006, the couple realized, “Our gifts are complementary and we’re better together that any one of us can be alone.”
Looking for an ordained call, the last step in the process of becoming a pastor, is challenging enough for an individual. However, it can be more challenging for clergy couples. One doesn’t just apply for a church job one day and get a job offer the next afternoon as in other professions. The job search involves committees and months of applying and waiting. Not every church is a good fit.
In October 2007, the waiting period ended as Dean and Andrea accepted calls to serve at Second Presbyterian Church of Bloomington, Illinois. Both will be serving as full time Associate Pastors. Dean will be an Associate Pastor for Outreach and College and Andrea a Pastor for Family Ministry. “To have two full time positions right out of seminary wasn’t in our wildest dreams, but they called us to them and we praise God for that.” This next step in their journey is exciting and is bound to bring more questions about how to serve the church together. But, as with other steps in Dean’s journey, living the questions in the midst of uncertainty has opened him up to his vocation, “being a faithful witness to Jesus Christ.”