For the past three years, Kristi Buurma has often felt slightly uncomfortable, the way one might feel if being regularly pinched.
That's how Buurma describes her calling to ministry. “Since my freshman year I've felt these little pinches that I should go into ministry,” Buurma said. “I just didn't think I had gifts in ministry, in speaking in front of people.”
For senior David Song, the calling was slightly different. “In high school I knew that I would go to seminary,” he said. “When I got to college, I tried some other majors, but I changed to religion because that is where my heart is.”
Matt Landheer's story is different still. “I didn't feel called to ministry,” he said. “I went into the religion program thinking I would teach.”
While each of their journeys is different, the road to their destination is the same: the Jubilee Fellows program at Calvin.
Begun in fall 2002, the Jubilee Fellows program was designed to provide the opportunity for Calvin students to explore a call to church ministry. Students first take a semester-long seminar under the tutelage of Dale “Coop” Cooper, director of the Jubilee Fellows program and longtime college chaplain; his wife, Marcia; Ren Broekhuizen, a 47-year veteran of the pastorate; and his wife, Elsa Prince.
In a relaxed atmosphere at the Coopers' home, Jubilee Fellows study historical ministry leaders, read current authors' writings on spirituality, gain a sense of the multiple roles of ministry leadership and confront issues that they may face in the summer internship.
“We've been doing internships at Calvin for more than 20 years,” said Shirley Roels, director of the Lilly Vocational Project, through which Jubilee Fellows is funded. “We offer them in business and many other fields, but we did not offer a structured internship opportunity for students interested in ministry.”
The Jubilee Fellows program is the college's “internship program” for ministry, a chance for 12 students each year to participate in and learn from a real-world work experience. But, added Roels, it is actually much more than that.
It is an articulation of the mission the college has had for many years. “We are a college of the church,” Roels said. “Nurturing church leaders for the future should be a priority, and, in 2001, we sought affirmation from the board of trustees that this indeed is a priority.”
That affirmation was also a response to change in the perception of ministry as a vocation among students.
“I come from a generation that believed that you could do none better than becoming a minister of the gospel,” Cooper said. “In 1961 when I told of my plans to go pre-sem, as with one voice my entire church said, ‘This is wonderful.' My community believed that what Dale was aiming to do was good; they were enthused about it.”
Much has changed in the last 45 years. “There are a whole series of pressures—some subtle, others direct—on young people today. They're being encouraged to shoot high, to get a ‘good job,' to make lots of money,” Cooper said.
“In addition, Calvin College has done a good job of promoting the message that everybody can be a kingdom worker—engineers, advertising executives, business managers,” he added. “That has, in part, tended to depopulate the set of people who consider pastoral ministry and has led to fewer and fewer who look at ministry as a fruitful and fulfilling way to live their life.”
So when Calvin assembled a team to apply for a Lilly vocational grant, part of the application called for a way to equip young students to pursue a calling in ministry.
“We needed to create a setting in which we hold before young people the idea that [ministry work] has great potential for you to live a wonderful life and be a strategic difference maker,” Cooper said.
The participants believe that Jubilee Fellows accomplishes that goal.
Buurma, a senior from Celeryville, Ohio, said that without Jubilee Fellows, she would not be considering seminary. An education major, Buurma was placed at New Life Community Church in Artesia, Calif., this past summer.
While there, Buurma led portions of vacation Bible school, performed a liturgical dance, delivered a children's message, preached a sermon, attended a classis meeting and learned about the inner workings of a church.
“I had no idea how much a church can do,” she said. “I thought it was just the pastor and the secretary—that's all a church needed. I was given the opportunity to try anything I wanted to try. The biggest change in my character from this experience is that I have a lot more confidence; I'm not afraid of speaking in front of people.”
For Buurma, her “aha moment,” as she described it, was delivering a sermon. “That's when I discovered that I could be a pastor and really enjoy this type of work. After a little taste of it, I know that's what I'm meant to do.”
Landheer, a senior from Caledonia, Mich., also was placed at New Life Community Church. Unlike Buurma, he initially felt less inner prompting to participate in the program. “When I heard about the program, I thought, ‘That's not for me. I don't even like to leave home.' I missed the deadline for applying, and then somebody just happened to drop out. After I met with Coop, I felt God telling me to join this program.”
Landheer, too, experienced many aspects of church ministry. One of the most compelling was his relationship with Harry Reed, a man stricken with cancer and nearing death.
“At first I felt a little awkward,” Landheer said. “I wondered, ‘Do I have the right to step into this guy's life right at the very end of it?' But I was amazed at the way he was interested in my life. He asked me a lot of questions, and he gave me some general life advice about the importance of family and faith. That really meant a lot to me.
“The second time I went it really felt like an honor to be with him in his final moments on earth. He was still able to share his faith and his joy. His peace was so evident and self-proclaimed, and he was so secure in his hope. I'm really grateful to his family for welcoming me there.”
That experience along with several others opened Landheer's eyes to his gifts. “I think I'm being called to ministry of some kind,” he said. “I need to do some more praying and thinking to find out exactly what that is. I do know that no matter what I do in my career, I'll always be involved in ministry. This definitely solidified that.”
Keith Tanis '71, pastor at New Life, makes a point of illuminating as many aspects of ministry to his interns as he can in 10 weeks.
Tanis sees his role as a mentor more than a supervisor. “I share things with them, ask for their opinions as if they are colleagues on my own staff,” he said. “I think they have to experience the weight of ministry and see how that feels to them.”
Tanis encourages the students to become involved in any way they wish. “Both Matt and Kristi had a remarkable eagerness to try to do things,” he said.
But beyond just participation, Tanis encouraged them to do some theological reflection. “I want them to ask, ‘Where is God in this? How does this experience reflect my theology?' I challenge them to talk and think about the practice of ministry. The whole experience is the integration of functional theology with ministry.”
And while a learning one, the experience is usually affirming to the student, as well, he said.
Having a student preach at a senior-laden evening service provided the stage for an “intergenerational blessing,” Tanis said.
The same was true, he said, of Landheer's relationship with Reed. “To be walking on that holy ground of someone dying was inspirational for Matt. For a saint in the church to be making a mark on a young person like that is gratifying.”
Song, a senior from Aliso Viejo, Calif., found his experience equally affirming, though his decision to follow a call to ministry was already made.
“I was always involved in youth ministry,” he said. “But this internship took me beyond what I was expecting.”
He was placed at Sa-rang Community Church, an 8,000-member congregation in Anaheim, Calif.
“I didn't expect to be leading worship for 300 people,” said Song, who became the praise team leader, organizing and practicing with four different teams each week. He also spent time in the office doing administrative duties and speaking with people looking for a church connection.
As the son and grandson of pastors, Song said that growing up he was sheltered from the harsh issues of the church. “I only saw the joy and the rewards,” he said. “When I saw senior pastors running a church and leading it spiritually, I was blown away by that. I have a new respect for how tough ministry is; you have to give so much. When I worked with associate pastors setting up chairs or taking out the trash, I learned from that, too. As a pastor, you have to be humble enough to do the dirtiest job in the church.”
Far from being unsettling though, this new insight developed a new passion in Song. “It is so encouraging to see God using you in so many ways,” he said.
Discovering the wide range of opportunities available in the ministry field is another benefit of the program, Cooper said.
“This program gives [the participants] an appreciation of the diversity of the church and a bigger glimpse at the ways in which they can be used,” he said.
For Laura Sizemore of Sheboygan, Wis., it was an introduction to counseling, pastoral care and youth ministry at Rosewood Christian Reformed Church in Bellflower, Calif. “For anyone who's thinking about participating in this program, I would say that your eyes will be opened, and you'll be blessed,” she said.
Eight others spent time across the country and Canada at Sanctuary Christian Reformed Church in Seattle, Wash.; All Nations Church in Halifax, N.S.; Granite Springs Christian Reformed Church in Lincoln, Calif.; Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, La.; New City Kids Church in Jersey City, N.J.; and LaSalle Street Church in Chicago, Ill. Throughout the years there have been other locations as well.
The program works, according to Roels, who has been tracking Jubilee Fellows upon their graduation. “From the first three years of the program, 75 percent of the students were either in seminary or seriously planning for seminary,” Roels said. “The other 25 percent are very active layleaders in their congregation or have taken the experience of Christian leadership into other professions.
“In one conversation I had, one of the students currently in seminary said, ‘Jubilee Fellows was the nudge I needed to seriously think about this call to ministry.'”
For Cooper, the program meets its goals simply by giving students the opportunity to discern their calling. “If at the end of the summer, a student comes back and says, ‘I've looked at it and honestly, no, this isn't for me,' then Jubilee Fellows has accomplished its purpose. If a student comes back, and takes a step forward towards ministry, well then it accomplishes its purpose as well,” he said.
Though retired from the chaplaincy, Cooper will continue on as director of the program. “I would rank this program as among the top three or four things I've been privileged to have been part of during my years at the college,” he said. “It's given me opportunity to live out the psalmist's prayer: ‘Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come' (Psalm 71:17-18). The Lord has blest my own life so richly by having called me into pastoral ministry. I'm eager to share this grand and strategic vocation with the next generation.
“For Elsa and Ren, for Marcia and me, Jubilee Fellows is itself something of a ministry. We consider ourselves accomplices of God, people who become friends with a few young people and encourage them to try church ministry on for size. To tell them, ‘We spot in you some gifts and character qualities in you that we think you ought to reflect upon, to pray about.'”
Added Cooper: “It's the very kind of thing that happened to me as a youngster—the power of intergenerational encouragement.”
— Lynn Rosendale is the managing editor of Spark.
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“The older I become, the more I realize that I don't have time to do everything and anything before the Lord takes me home,” said Dale Cooper. “But identifying and equipping the next generation of leaders for the church He so loves is vital, and I aim to give my best energies to doing it.
“The gifts that we bring to this task differ, of course—the gifts of prayer, of encouragement, of teaching, of money, of hospitality, to name but a few—all of them are vital. I'm eager to enlist others in this rare adventure, too. So get in touch with me (email@example.com), if you're aware of the Lord's beckoning.”
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