This past weekend the United Methodist Church (UMC) held its Exploration event. Exploration is an event that happens every other year for people 18-26. The 3 day conference brings together young people from all over the country to explore their calls into ordained ministry. During the weekend the participants attend 4 worship services, meet in small groups, and attend sessions focused on different aspects of ordained ministry and ways to become ordained. The participants also get the opportunity to meet representatives from most of the UMC seminaries, and other organizations within the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) and the UMC. It also happens to be one of my absolute favorite things the UMC does.
I was first introduce to Exploration 4 years ago in my first semester of undergrad. At the time I was 18 and had been in college for about 2 months. I signed up for the event hoping to learn more about my call to youth ministry. Little did I know that by the time I went to Exploration I would be working as a youth director and that I would have realized that youth ministry was not God’s long term plan for me. At the time of Exploration 2013 I was young and naive, I thought I knew what my future held: I wanted to go to Wesley Theological Seminary, I might get ordained but who really knew that, and to be honest I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
That first year at Exploration I was introduced to ordination, and I had my mind opened to the idea of one day being ordained (as a deacon’s kid I really wasn’t thinking about ordination for myself before that). While it was an important first step on my journey I really did not get everything I needed to out of Exploration 2013, because I was not yet at the point that I knew myself, let alone my calling.
Two years later things were different. In the fall of 2015 I petitioned (arguably I coerced) every person I knew to sign up for Exploration. I had been looking forward to going back for two years, and I wanted everyone else to get the same experiences I had out of the event. I am sad to say that may not have been the best move I ever took. Looking back I realize that not everyone I convinced to go was in a place where Exploration would be helpful to them. It was still an important trip for many of us, but I recognize now it was not what everyone else needed at the time.
I on the other hand really need Exploration 2015. To be honest I treated it as my own personal seminary fair to begin with. I went in knowing I wanted to continue my education, but not planning on pursuing ordination. This was solely a trip for my education… at least that’s what I thought. I went to most of my sessions (Also I did skip one to talk to representatives from some of the most interesting seminaries), but I wasn’t fully invested in them. I also found myself struggling with my small group. As someone with absolutely no call to be an elder I found my group of early 20 year old future elders to be immensely unhelpful. The thing is though that it was finally during the third worship service that God did a 180 on me.
During the Saturday night worship I found myself drawn to the back of the room. We had been invited, if we felt called, to go find a leader in the back of the room and ask them to pray for us. For the first time in my life I heeded a call without resistance and asked one of them to pray for me. To this day I don’t remember a word of that prayer. Almost as soon as the young man laid his hands on my shoulder I found myself overwhelmed by a vision.
I saw myself standing in a valley leading a crowd of people wearing the stole of a deacon. All at once I knew what God was calling me to: I was called to be ordained as a deacon in the UMC. My chaperone from the trip can attest that I spent the next 5 minutes sobbing into my hands in my seat, so overwhelmed by the experience… Honestly this is one of the first times I’ve told the full story because it is one of my most treasured memories…
Jump forward to 2017. Guess what: I was at Exploration last weekend too (Are you sensing a pattern?) But this time I was no longer a participant. Over the summer this year I reached out to the Admissions department at the seminary that I had committed to, but had not yet started at: Drew Theological School and asked to represent them at Exploration. Which sounds a little desperate, but I felt a tugging on my soul to return, so I emailed the associate dean and told him how important Exploration was to my decision to come to Drew (I honestly wouldn’t have even known to look into it without Exploration) and come September I was invited to represent the school.
I wasn’t necessarily sure what to expect, being on the other side of the curtain this year but I was not disappointed. This past weekend I was amazed to be a part of several 19-21 year olds journeys as they began to explore their own callings. Despite the minimal age difference I saw reflections of 18 and 20 year old me in the participants as they tried to understand what ordination could look like, and why they should try to be ordained in a church on the verge of collapse. Like a younger me my small group ended up leaving Exploration with more questions then answers, but they had also created relations with peers trying to understand the same journey.
I didn’t write all of this to talk just about myself. Like I said in the beginning I truly believe that Exploration is one of the most important events we do as United Methodists. This event is about so much more then just Exploring a calling. This is a chance for young people from all over the country to come together and meet people who are both immensely different from them, and yet of the same substance. This is an event where we fully invest in the future of our church, where we treat our future generations as if they matter in every way. Exploration is an event that opens doors for young leaders to explore how God is calling them in their lives, and equip them to go forward prepared with questions, and support. Over the years I have made connections at Exploration that have supported me, and helped me grow closer to the man God is calling me to be, and these are connections I never would have made otherwise. I cannot advocate for Exploration enough.
If you are currently struggling with a call into ordained ministry, or know someone who is I hope that you will remember Exploration in 2019. If you would like more information I invite you to go to http://www.explorecalling.org/ and learn as much as you can. As our church teeters on the potential verge of schism it is more important then ever that we invest into the young leaders in our churches. It is more important then ever that we take a step for our future and recognize these young people are no longer tomorrow’s leaders. Tomorrow has come.