An article by John Ortberg at leadershipjournal.net brought me to a topic which has often been brought up not only for my life personally but in the lives of several friends and also several within the church where I serve. Ortberg touches on the commonly held views today of a "calling" in regard to ministry which is so often described in very sudden, mystical, and vivid terms. Even among people who have a fairly sound theology concerning God's speaking through Scripture tend to promote such a view that being called to ministry is the one time in life in which a real, audible-but-not-audible, voice of God speaks in some sort of direct revelation. The article, God's Call Waiting, does not necessarily debunk the notion so much as establish that such is not absolulely the norm, as Ortberg, a pastor, identifies for his own life and experience.
"But I never got marching orders. Partly, I think, it may have been because God knows that I will grow much more as a person if I have to figure things out and exercise judgment and make a decision and accept responsibility than if I just got a postcard and followed directions. Another reason may be that I don't think God separates people into "pastor" groups that have to get calls and "non-pastor" groups that are call-free."
Nearly all churches, many seminaries, and many mission organizations today place such a high emphasis on "calling" that other skills with which one may be gifted are only secondary. An expectation has developed in this regard which seems to be something of a product of our times and Christian culture. I have often used an article by Basil Manley, Jr., written over 100 years ago to bring peoples' thinking back to a strong point of reference. The lengthy article by one of the founders of The Southern Baptist Seminary, is titled "A Call To the Ministry." In Manley's detailed description, nowhere does he refer to a moment or some mystical instance in which a man is called by God to the ministry. Rather, Manley focuses on the abilities that God has granted to each person and the way in which each person should employ these. Some should employ their gifts of learning, communication, and piety in the faith to the ministry; some should pursue other "careers" equally in serving God and with a biblically-founded, gospel-centered purpose.
Manley does clearly debunk the "mystical" call to ministry as he writes:
"To make the call to the ministry consist in some supposed indubitable, irresistible, divine afflatus, of which no evidence is found except the confident impressions and assertions of the candidate, is clearly to open the door to all kinds of extravagance, imposture, and fanatical abuses. Nor is it sustained by a single passage of God’s word."
Wow! How many pastor search committees and seminary admissions offices act in agreement with that statement?! Manley suggests, rather, that the call to ministry should be quite logical and in keeping with common sense as to one's abilities.
I think that many would agree that the language we use is misleading at best. However, a paradigm and an expectation has been established that requires ministry candidates to claim such a call or else forfeit what makes them credible in the eyes of many. In addition, the language of "God is leading me..." has become the spiritual trump card especially for those in ministry or pursuing a position in ministry. (I will explore this aspect more in Part 2.)
Against the backdrop of such a system, Ortberg's practical explanation of his experience and "calling" is helpful.