In the fall of my senior year of college (2011), as I entered the ELCA candidacy process to become a rostered leader in the church, I was intimidated by all the steps I needed to take and I didn’t really know where to start. One of the biggest parts of beginning candidacy is writing the entrance essay. This 4-6 page, 2500 word essay is to “provide an honest assessment of your current self understanding” including discussion of life-shaping events, family of origin, personal faith journey, and current life situation.
I’m posting my essay here in the hope that others beginning this candidacy journey may find it useful. Obviously my essay is reflective of my own life, but it may be helpful to others just to see someone else’s essay. I found this essay to be helpful as I was beginning the process, just to have a sample.
Since this is my first blog post on this version of my website, this also serves as an introduction to who I am. Again, this was written in the fall of my senior year of college. I’m currently a Master of Divinity student at Wartburg Theological Seminary.
My ELCA Candidacy Entrance Essay
Hello, I’m Daniel, and I believe that I am called to serve as an ordained pastor in the Lutheran church. Ok, great. So what does that mean? What does it mean for me to be called? I haven’t seen any burning bushes recently, I haven’t gotten a supernatural cell phone call, and last time I checked, there wasn’t a billboard with my name on it outside my window. What does it mean to be called? I know that I believe in a living, active God who calls all people to a meaningful life of vocation, but what is my unique call? How and why am I called to pastoral ministry?
Since I was blessed with parents committed to raising me as a Christian, I’ve grown up in the church. I don’t have any dramatic conversion stories with flashes of light in the sky. Rather, God has been shaping my faith throughout my entire life. Likewise, there isn’t a single moment where I suddenly discerned a calling to ministry. As I was getting ready to work on this essay, I was glancing at some old documents on my computer, and I realized that being a pastor has been a possibility in my life since at least sophomore year of high school, when I mentioned it in my application to a leadership development camp. Through my home church, camp, and college groups, I’ve had many fantastic opportunities for discernment throughout my faith journey.
I grew up on a horse farm just outside of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where I was homeschooled along with my sister until my junior year of high school. Being homeschooled has had a substantial impact on my life and faith. Since I wasn’t involved in public school activities, my parents did an excellent job of getting me involved in church activities, and many of my friendships were established through my church family. I remember being in the children’s choir, in Christmas programs, Sunday school, and pretty much every possible church activity.
Another advantage of being homeschooled was the opportunity to take religious classes. I remember that at the time, I hated some of my theology textbooks, but looking back, it is clear that they were quite helpful academically to my faith development. When I started at Luther College, many of my peers were thrown into faith crises when they were first forced, in Intro to the Bible classes, to consider what they actually believed, and to reconcile that with challenging historical evidence.
Thanks to my previous theological education, I was already familiar with some challenges to blind faith. Certainly my faith has many questions, but, thanks to excellent exposure in my youth, I was not blindsided in college into abandoning the foundations of my beliefs at the first hint of academic challenges to religious doctrines.
I have been involved in church leadership roles for much of my life. I served as the youth representative on church council during high school for a couple of years, which introduced me to practical challenges of church life such as the annual budget process.
In junior high school, while I was going through confirmation, my church started doing a program called Alpha, a video-based study intended as a basic introduction to the Christian faith. Although it was meant for adults, I and a couple other youth went through the course, and I led a number of subsequent youth small groups through Alpha. Alpha was probably the time when my faith became my own, when my relationship with God became consciously real to me. While I would define myself as a Christian before that, as a child I hadn’t really put a lot of thought into what that meant for my life. Going through Alpha, and especially serving as a small group leader facilitating discussion about others’ faith, was a tremendously formative experience for me. I didn’t have any particular great conversion moment, but I did start taking God much more seriously in my life. Alpha was also the first time I’d served in a teaching role, which in turn was probably when I first began considering that I might be called to pastoral ministry.
Around the same couple-year period that I was going through Alpha, I was beginning my introduction to public school by taking one class a day at the local high school. Going to public high school was eye-opening. I encountered so many people who seemed to be going through life without a sense of purpose, value, or hope. And yet, I did not feel the same sense of hopelessness. At first, it was totally incomprehensible to me that people could not care about church, about who God is, or about what God is up to in their lives.
In 9th grade, as I was preparing to be confirmed, I wrote about the difference that being a Christian made in my life. I wrote that when I looked at those around me who lacked a sense of hope, a sense of purpose, I saw myself without Christ. Since then, I have known that part of my calling, no matter what I’m doing, is to try to share the sense of purpose, of hope that I have through faith in Christ.
At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I made probably the toughest decision I have ever made in my life. I decided to enroll as a fulltime student at Fond du Lac High School. Now, I realize that may not sound like a huge decision, but being homeschooled was part of my identity, part of who I was. I’d never gone to school for an entire day, I’d never had to deal with a teacher who might not understand everything that was going on in my life, and frankly, it was kind of scary to think about. But at home, I’d reached the limits of what my parents could teach me in mathematics (trying to teach yourself pre-calculus is hard!), I wanted to take an advanced chemistry class, and I was really interested in taking a class in computer programming.
So, in the fall of junior year, I officially became a public high school student. If I thought going to a class a day, or to confirmation with public school kids was an eye-opener, high school was a whole new revelation. So many people were lacking motivation to learn, were there just because they had to be, and, once again, even seemed to be lacking any sense of purpose in life. Personally, I loved high school, largely because I had made the choice to be there, to want to learn.
And, of course, once I started getting involved in school and meeting people, I found other great friends, people who were motivated to learn, who cared. Looking back from the perspective of my college experience, going to public school was the right choice for me and I’m grateful to have had that opportunity. I’m not opposed to the American public education system, or anything like that, but I am also extraordinarily grateful that I was homeschooled for most of my early life.
Throughout middle and high school, I stayed actively involved in youth group at church. With my youth group, I went on seven different mission trips, to locations such as Belize, inner-city Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Chicago, the Red Lake Reservation, and the Appalachia region of Kentucky. Mission trips have given me two things that have been formative for my call. Through mission trips, I have been exposed to poverty and physical need on a level I would not have otherwise experienced. I remember the experience, on my first mission trip in middle school, of being in inner-city Minneapolis, the Metrodome in view, in a neighborhood close to where some of my relatives lived, and realizing that there were people living without homes, people who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.
These mission trip experiences have exposed me to different forms of poverty, and I have been challenged to ask how such need can still exist in our modern society. I believe the church is a huge part of God’s solution to poverty, and while I certainly don’t have all the answers, I believe I am called to be part of the social justice solution through the church.
Beyond exposure to poverty, mission trips have also shaped my passion for walking with people in their faith journeys. The best part of mission trips for me is not usually the physical service; it is the opportunity to listen to people’s stories. I’ve come to realize that some of the most valuable ministry takes place in the van on the way to and from the destinations. I love the processing and faith discussions that occur between group members on mission trips.
Beyond my home congregation’s youth group, another organization I’ve been involved with is Badger Teens Encounter Christ (TEC). TEC is an ecumenical ministry hosting biannual weekend retreats for high school students, focused on the story of the death and resurrection of Christ. The first time students come on a retreat, they are weekenders, and they come to hear talks, have small group discussion, experience living Stations of the Cross, and worship together. After the first time, students can come back and serve on team for future retreats.
Since my weekender experience, I’ve served on team twelve times, including as a student co-director, and I have given talks (basically sermons) to the weekenders on several occasions. Friends I’ve met at TEC have been encouraging, both in prayer and discussion, as I’ve been discerning a call to ordained ministry. Through TEC, I’ve seen the real impact that God can have when Jesus breaks into people’s lives and helps them see that they matter and are loved.
Since coming to college, I have continued to be actively involved in ministry through Luther’s College Ministries department. I have a work-study position maintaining the College Ministries website, and another work-study job serving on the leadership committee for Luther’s Church Youth Fest high school retreat event.
One of my passions is planning and leading effective worship services. During high school, I had been part of our youth praise band, including a year as the student leader, giving me my first experience planning worship services. In college, I have served for seven semesters on the Vision Team leadership committee for FOCUS, a student-led contemporary worship service.
Through Vision Team, I’ve been able to continue serving in leadership and even pastoral roles, as we meet each week to plan worship for our congregation of students. Since we have guest speakers each week, it can be challenging to create a cohesive, intentional time of worship while balancing the concerns, likes, and dislikes of a transient student community with diverse backgrounds and expectations. There is a constant tension between leading the congregation in worship and putting on a performance, which I think everyone in worship leadership wrestles with.
For me, worship is a time to focus both on praising God as well as on teaching and sharing the good news of Jesus with the congregation. I love being a part of leading worship!
My experiences with Crossways Camping Ministries have also given me excellent opportunities to grow my own faith and explore ministry as a career. Through going to Crossways camps as a camper for 10 years, I had some great experiences and faith conversations outside of a traditional church setting. Before my senior year of high school, I participated in Crossways’ Y.E.T. (youth enrichment training) leadership program, which helped me develop some of my ministry and leadership skills.
In college, I’ve gotten some great memories and practical ministry experience through working for two summers at Waypost Camp, part of Crossways. Beyond the obvious growth I experienced from living in a Christian community and working in an environment consistently focused on God, working at camp also helped expose me to the wider church, beyond my home congregation. I love the opportunities I’ve had through camp to experience how other churches do worship, and to learn from a variety of pastors by observing how they lead Bible study and interact with different people.
By the end of my junior year of college, a number of other people, including my home pastor, my camp director, and my campus pastors had encouraged me to consider seminary, and attending seminary was beginning to look like a realistic possibility. On campus, I’ve participated in a pre-ministry discernment group, and I’ve gone to vocation visit days at several seminaries. However, I was still struggling a lot with whether or not I was really being called to ordained ministry.
As I was starting to consider what my vocation after college would be, I struggled to discern which of my two majors, computer science or religion, I was called to pursue, a question I’ve wrestled with since starting college. During junior year, I was starting to wonder if I was only considering ministry because I was somehow afraid of doing a different job.
So, last summer, after junior year, I interned as an application developer, programming in the IT department at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. After working as a cashier at Fleet Farm in high school, and working in outdoor ministry for two summers, working in a computer-programming job was a necessary step in my discernment journey. While the job and the company were great, and I successfully proved to myself that yes, I can be successful as a programmer, I also realized that there was something missing, that working as a programmer – as important as it is – is not my call at this point. I need to be doing something with my life that is more explicitly focused on serving God.
I think that I have now gotten to the point in my life where trying to fit myself into a vocation other than ordained ministry would merely be me running from God’s call.
I have spent a lot of time discerning in the last year or two (which I’m sure will continue for the rest of my life!), and I believe that now is the time God is calling me to be a pastor. I will graduate from college in May 2012 with a bachelor’s degree from Luther College, which has given me excellent preparation for the academic challenges of seminary. I have been dating my fiancé Christin Ferch for almost five years now, and we became engaged this fall. She has majored in Religion and Sociology, and plans to work in youth ministry. I’ve also been blessed to have many discernment conversations with her, and she has been a fantastic partner in my own discernment process.
We will be getting married in July, and we are both excited and open to going wherever God is calling us to be. As students graduating from a private college, money is a concern. Looking at our combined student loans, while they are manageable, to meet the cost of seminary education I will need scholarship support from whatever school I attend. Both of us are financially responsible, and I am confident that if God is calling me to ministry now, as I believe God is, then God will make a way for that to happen.
Serving as an ordained pastor is both exciting and terrifying for me. It is terrifying in the sense that I know I cannot do it on my own. I am a decent public speaker, but there are many who are better. People have told me that I’m easy to talk to, but sometimes I don’t know what to say to people. Sometimes, I struggle with theological issues that I would expect pastors to have figured out. I don’t have all the answers.
And yet, I don’t believe that I’m called to do anything on my own. My confirmation verse is from Romans 8:38-39, which talks about God always being with us, loving us no matter what. I don’t know exactly how God can or will use me. I am under no illusions that God only uses perfect people in the church. Every time I think about it, it blows my mind that God would leave the Gospel message or the church in the hands of fallible humans.
But that is exactly what God has done… except with the incredible promise that God will be and still is here with us. I’m excited about planning and leading worship, about walking with people through the crises of life, about helping to show people the hope that is found in our living Savior. I don’t know the details of where God is calling me, but I do know that God has a plan, and I am excited to take the next step on this journey of faith!