Around 1997, in the midst of a conversation in which someone mentioned that I was going into the ministry, one man asked me pointedly, “Have you answered the call to the pulpit yet?” To my knowledge he was asking whether I had responded in my church to the ‘altar call’ by going forward and making public God’s call in my life to the ministry. I stumbled around the answer.
At that time, I had been in an ongoing conversation with two of the ministers in my church about my desire to pursue ministry and to attend seminary for education and training. God had been tuning my heart (I believe) to desire to serve in Christian ministry and I was preparing to move away to attend seminary. Had I received a call? Had I heard some audible voice? Had I arrived upon some verse of Scripture and removed it from its context to make it “mine” and claim it was given special meaning by God for me in that moment?
I am not exactly certain how the church has arrived at this present state and the expectations we have for those who would enter the ministry. It is common, though, for the expectation to be established that there is a mystical call to the ministry which one must “experience” before moving ahead. I wonder if this way of thinking has been carried on since the era of the traveling tent meeting revivals of the 2nd Great Awakening of the early 1800’s. Much of today’s commonly used language in giving “invitations” can be pointed back to this era, but it is only speculation on my part as to the origin of the language of being called to ministry.
Closely related to this is the way that the phrases “God told me…” and “God revealed his will…” and “God led me…” are tossed around with relative ease in Christian circles. Greg Koukl (Stand To Reason) deals with the use and misuse of such spiritual “trump cards” today in a three part series of talks entitled “Decision Making and the Will of God” (available only by purchase at www.str.org.) Koukl strongly argues for the place of common sense and sound reasoning coupled with a person seeking God in his or her life as the basis for decision-making. Koukl pokes fun at the typical way in which people are supposedly “seeking God’s will” and are inclined to watch for small “clues” like license plates and subliminal words to put together the larger puzzle known as GOD’S WILL. As Koukl points out, it is somewhat silly to think that God’s will is hidden and that we have to somehow sift through little pieces of information which must be translated or else we are in danger of missing these clues and thus being “out of God’s will.”
Koukl similarly points out that the subjectivity of any person defending any decision which he or she makes by saying "I've prayed about this and God is leading me to ______________" produces a completely unchecked and unchallengeable statement in the church. When a minister makes a decision to leave a church, he inevitably will say "God has led me to this decision." If you are a minister, try that on the other end: tell a prospective church where you would like to serve that hasn't called you for an interview that God has led you to be their pastor. (They just might "call" you, but don't bet on it.)
Going back to Ortberg’s article as well as Manley’s writing on one’s call to ministry, both suggest that there is to be no “special” call which separates those who are to pursue Christian ministry as a career and those who are Christians who pursue other "callings" in life (there we go using that term again.) The objection may be raised that such a view is unspiritual and too, shall we say, practical. Does a teacher make the decision to become a teacher based on what he or she desires to do for a career and what they are gifted in while the minister is to pursue a call with some sort of blank slate waiting for God to give him a sign? Taking it a step further, are we to separate to such a great degree the position of "pastor" within the church body to say that he and he alone is "called" by God while all other members of the body and their absolutely vital roles in the body are relegated to their personal choice and current availability? (One must evidently be "called" to preach, but most churches will accept just about any warm body to teach the children's educational classes in the church. Talk about inconsistency...)
Does God guide individuals in their decisions? I think we should conclude that God absolutely does guide and direct people’s lives. However, the manner in which people try to make a formula which would spit out the answer should be questioned. I have encountered individuals who would seem to think that God may send them to do something which goes completely against their common sense and ability to think rationally. Someone who is highly allergic to cats is probably not meant to be a veterinarian. Likewise, someone who cannot teach is probably not called to be a teacher, at least not with their present ability.
In all of this, I believe the role of the church has been relegated to a meaningless position in the call to ministry. (Especially in the autonomous ways of Baptist churches.) Presently, it seems that a majority of the time an individual approaches the church and announces that he or she is being called to full-time ministry. (I guess having a bi-vocational ministry call is a separate and different calling.) What seems to be markedly absent in such a scenario is the counsel of the church. Any role in recognizing the spiritual gifts of those within the church today seems to have been removed from the church as a whole and placed upon the individual who is to wait for the call. (Again, we would agree that many other roles in the church body are fulfilled because we actively pursue people who we consider gifted in these areas.) Would a gathering of spiritual leaders in the church who wanted to encourage a young (or older) man to pursue the ministry because of the abilities they have witnessed in his life be sufficient to be called guidance from God? It would seem that such a statement should be much more weighty than a sudden feeling of restlessness that a somewhat pious young man determines to be the call of God in his life to the ministry.
In the end, I absolutely believe in the providence of a sovereign God in all things. But how are God's ways to be identified and discussed? While I do not take the following list as absolute, certainly these are a few of the things for one to consider:
- Are you a believer in and follower of Jesus?
- Do you have a strong and comprehensive knowledge of the Bible (probably not true of any newer believers)?
- Have you demonstrated faithfulness in the Christian life and even in the opportunities for ministry so far?
- Do you have skills in the specific areas of ministry that you desire to pursue (such as teaching or explaining the gospel)?
- Do others verbally and clearly affirm that you have the skills to serve in this ministry?
- Do you want to? (Yes, I do think that the desire of one's heart should affirm his decision, but there are obvious dangers in relying on one's feelings as most who in pastoral ministry would tell you that there are many days in which they find themselves wishing they were doing something different because of the nature of their work and service.)
Such an evaluation as this one might be essential for clear thinking for the individual who is considering Christian ministry and also for the church who is seeking a pastor. One who describes a fantastic experience of a call to ministry but is unable to demonstrate that God has equipped him for such a role might need continue to weigh his options with the God-given reasoning and understanding he possesses.
[In 'Part 3' I plan to examine a few additional, related topics - one being the manner of ordination to ministry, another being the number of ordained ministers in existence in our American society, and a third being the active roles of local churches in training and teaching those who would be entrusted with a role in ministry.]