I could very well have dreamed

Annual discernment retreat reshapes the way students inquire about vocation

It sounds like something out of Harry Potter: The Office of Ministry Inquiry. In reality the Office consists of two CMU Biblical & Theological Studies professors whose passion is to coordinate efforts at CMU to identify ministerial aptitudes/vocation within individual students, to help those students’ discern the call of God in their lives, and to nurture their first-fruits.

Beth Downey Sawatzky
Beth Downey Sawatzky on Mission Quest: “Together, we air many dreams: dreams of the church, dreams of home, dreams of things not at all like church but fueled by the same convictions.”

Currently, Irma Fast-Dueck, Associate Professor of Practical Theology, and Andrew Dyck, Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies head up the team.

One of the key ways the Office fulfills its duties is by organizing a biennial discernment retreat—Ministry Quest, they call it—for students who have either come forward on their own with questions to sort through, or have been encouraged by the promptings of peers, staff, faculty, or other mentors.

This year the retreat was held at St. Benedict’s Monastery & Retreat Centre, just north of Winnipeg. As they do every year, each of our crew arrived on site carrying a tousle of emotions inside: hope, fear, questions, assumptions, misgiving, enthusiasm, excitement, doubt. The balance is different for everyone.

Many students fit the imaginable profile of a “questing” young person with a desire to be useful. Others show up, as I did, protesting.

The Office and other retreat leaders deserve points for effective leadership, because everyone gets real pretty quickly. Generally speaking, a lot of the questions, hopes, and fears turn out to be pretty similar at bottom, and most everything is on the table within 24 hours. At the heart of it, most of our objections are pretty predictable: Me? Couldn’t be. I’m ordinary, flawed, really not half so spiritual as I like to pretend… Blasé, maybe, but honest. This really is what worries us.

Between large group sessions involving very creative ice-breakers and raw testimonies from the leaders, plenty of alone time for reflection, and piercing small-group gatherings for collective sharing and discernment, it’s an intensive, surprisingly productive two days. Together, we air many dreams: dreams of the church, dreams of home, dreams of things not at all like church but fueled by the same convictions. Most students agree, the retreat provides perspective more than answers, but really, that’s all we need.

Everyone walks away with some new insight to consider, or the sense that they’ve gained a new way of feeling for things. We’re each headed in different directions, but the work we are doing is much the same. We’re listening. We are listening deep into ourselves, unsure of what we want or expect to hear, but genuinely desiring to hear something, even if we say we don’t.

If the retreat leaders’ stories are anything to go on, we’re all doomed in the end; but process is as or more important than product. The monastery air seems thick with that truth, the pace of the place resounds with it—a holy hesitance, peaceful and calm. Taking some of that spirit with us, we leave slowly, quietly.

written by Beth Downey Sawatzky

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Ministry Quest Attracts Diverse Student Group

March 5, 2012 – Sharing and hearing call stories in small groups became powerful experiences for a diverse group of 21 Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) students, gathered for CMU’s Fourth Ministry Quest Retreat on January 20 – 22, 2012 at St. Benedict’s Retreat and Conference Centre, just north of Winnipeg.

Attending the weekend retreat were 10 students from Mennonite congregations and 11 from other denominations—Baptist, United, Alliance, Presbyterian, Alliance, Pentecostal, and Non-Denominational congregations.

“They quickly developed a level of trust with each other that allowed them to bare their souls and wrestle with life questions under the guidance of five wise and gifted resource persons,” says Abram Bergen, CMU’s Director of Church Relations.

Joining in the Retreat were CMU faculty, Irma Fast Dueck and Dan Epp-Tiessen; Pastor Dan Unrau, Fraserview MB Church in BC; Jon Isaak, Director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies; and Pastor Mary Anne Isaak, River East MB Church in Winnipeg.

“The growing need in the church is for more dedicated and effective congregational and mission leaders,” said Abram Bergen, CMU’s Director of Church Relations. “One way CMU is meeting this need is through Ministry Quest, a weekend retreat designed to help students gain greater clarity and confidence as they determine whether and how God is calling them into ministry.”

“How Christians hear God’s call has always been something I have struggled with,” commented Lee Hiebert, from First Mennonite Church in Kelowna, BC. “I’ve never been sure if it was supposed to be an audible voice in some kind of divinely inspired dream, or simply a direction that was inescapably apparent.

“Hearing the call stories from Dan Unrau, Mary Anne Isaak, and Jon Isaak allowed me to see the differences in the way God calls people. There is no distinct formula, but there are places we can look to for understanding,” said Hiebert. “One of the main themes that I came away with was that God calls us through the voices of His people. It is through listening to the faithful Body of Christ that we can begin to see the ways that God calls us.

“Since the retreat, I have begun to put much more faith in the affirmations that have and do come from the people around me,” he added. “Looking back on my own story, there seems to be a distinct direction that God has been opening to me through the people He has placed in my life. While I do not have a full picture of God’s will for my life, I do have a better understanding about how I can pay attention to the ways He is directing me.”

Danielle Bailey, from New Life Baptist Church, Stonewall, Manitoba, found herself eager to explore the idea of being called. “I felt open to learn and seek revelation from God on this topic. While at the retreat, I didn’t receive a lot of new information, but rather, a new way of thinking and speaking about previous ‘calls’ I have experienced,” said Bailey. “This framework was helpful. Leaving the retreat, I found my ‘call’ to student leadership at CMU reaffirmed and plan on deepening my involvement on student council committees next year.”

“I had several questions going into the Ministry Quest Retreat,” reflected Gabrielle Lemire from McIvor MB Church, Winnipeg. “Am I called to vocational ministry? How do I understand being called? Am I ‘allowed’ to be interested in ministry? Am I ‘allowed’ to say I want to do vocational ministry? Do I even want to do vocational ministry? What wisdom do my peers and teachers have to offer me with regard to this topic? What were/are their experiences?

“At the retreat, I learned how to relate understandings of ‘call’ and ‘recall’ to my current life experience. I was reminded to look for where I am called right now, in this time and place. God’s calling does not merely dictate future life choices, but also what I choose to invest in right now and what I have done so far. As a result, I feel at peace about my uncertain future because I know that God has guided me this far and is with me presently.

“My plans as a result of this weekend are to invest with confidence in places/things I feel called to,” said Lemire. “I would like to go into the future with confidence knowing ‘Emmanuel’ God is with me, regardless of where I go or what job I get.”

Students requested follow up conversations after they returned to campus. A few such conversations happened less than two weeks later with CMU’s Pastor-in-Residence, Doug Klassen, from Foothills Mennonite in Calgary as he opened students to “the Practice of Ministry” and “What Does our Pastor do Anyways?”

During their debrief, the resource leaders reflected on how this had been a holy time for them, as well, as they too had learned much from each other and from the students, and consequently enlivened their own call and vocation.

Article by Kim Penner and Abram Bergen