Chapter ONE – The Call to the Ministry

How can I know I'm called to the ministry and how important is the assurance of a special call?

The work of the ministry is too demanding and difficult for anyone to enter without a sense of divine calling. Too often people enter and then leave the ministry because they lack the sense of divine urgency that comes with a call. Nothing less than a definite call from God can ever give you success when the going gets tough in the ministry.

How do we know we are called? For some, there is a crisis experience—like those experienced by Moses at the burning bush or Isaiah in the temple or Paul on the Damascus Road. But for most of us there is simply that inescapable growing conviction that God has his hand upon us. Paul expressed it this way: "I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (see 1 Corinthians 9:16). When you are called, you have an inner conviction that will not permit you to invest your life in any other vocation.

Along with this inner confidence there is the possession of the gifts and qualifications that God requires for his workers. The candidate for the ministry had better pray over and ponder the words of Paul in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. No minister feels adequately equipped; even Paul exclaimed, "And who is equal to such a task?" (2 Corinthians 2:16). But those who are truly called sense that God has given the spiritual gifts and natural abilities they need; these gifts and abilities must be dedicated, cultivated, and used for God's glory.

Certainly pastors must have character and conduct above reproach. They must sincerely desire to serve Christ and have a love for the Word and a desire to study it and share it with others. They must love people and be able to work well with them. They must have spiritual and emotional maturity. If married, the one called must be sure that the spouse agrees with the decision.

Along with this inner conviction, and an honest personal evaluation, must come approval from those who know the Lord. This doesn't mean that we must "confer with flesh and blood" (see Galatians 1:16 KJV) but it does mean that God's people will confirm what God has already said to us in our heart. If you feel you are called to preach, then begin to exercise your gifts in your local church and wherever else God gives you opportunities to serve. Spurgeon began his ministry by passing out tracts in tenement houses; D. L. Moody began as a Sunday school worker.

It's wise to spend time with a seasoned saint (preferably your pastor) to discuss these matters and to seek God's guidance. It's significant that, in the Bible, God preferred to call people who were busy: Gideon was threshing wheat; Moses was tending sheep; David was with his father's flock; Peter and Andrew were fishing. It is difficult to steer a car that's in neutral, and God usually doesn't guide a believer who is taking it easy.

Sometimes the church will sense God's call on a member's life even before the member senses it. John Knox was called to preach at the end of a sermon delivered by John Rough in Saint Andrew's Castle, when the preacher charged him solemnly "to refuse not this holy vocation." Knox ran to his room, wept and prayed, and finally came out obedient to the call. George W. Truett had a similar experience when he was challenged to the ministry by an old deacon in a Baptist church in Whitewright, Texas. Truett said, "I was thrown into the stream, and just had to swim!"

You shouldn't enter the ministry because you have failed at a dozen other jobs, or because there is nothing else to do. The oft-repeated counsel is worth repeating again: If you can stay out of the ministry, then do so. People who are God-called will know it, if they are sincerely yielded to God's will; nothing else will satisfy them but to do the will of God.

One word of warning: If you appear to have pastoral gifts but do not feel called to a full-time ministry, then get busy in your local church and use your gifts for God's glory, but don't try to pastor the church or to appoint yourself the unofficial assistant pastor. Faithful, gifted laymen who consider themselves "almost pastors" can be either a great help or a great hindrance in a local church. If they respect their pastor's divine call to be shepherd, they can be a great help in the ministry. If they decide to ignore pastoral authority, they can create no end of trouble, particularly if they think they are more gifted than the pastor God has called.

One final word of counsel: Give yourself time to discern God's will. This doesn't mean endless excuses and delays, for that approach indicates indecision and fear. Spend extra time in prayer and in the reading of God's Word. Some of the greatest preachers determined God's leading while they were busy in other occupations. G. Campbell Morgan was a teacher in a boys' school and used his extra hours to win lost souls. George Morrison served on the editorial staff of the great Oxford English Dictionary while seeking God's leading for his life. When you are quietly obedient in the everyday tasks of life, you will hear the voice of God and know which way to go.

Once I'm sure of my call, what do I do next?

If you're not already exercising your spiritual gifts in a local church, then get busy! First Timothy 3:6 warns that a pastor "must not be a recent convert." This suggests that ministerial candidates need a time of spiritual maturing under the supervision of leaders in the local church. The deacon must "first be tested" (1 Timothy 3:10), and this policy is also good for the ministerial candidate.

God's usual plan is to let his servants prove themselves faithful over a few things before he makes them rulers over many things (Matt. 25:21). Too much too soon can lead to "too bad too late." Spurgeon began as a Sunday school teacher. One Sunday he was asked to address the entire group because the leader was absent, and he was so successful that he eventually directed the school. Because Spurgeon was faithful to his little flock at Waterbeach in Cambridge, God gave him a great ministry in London. People who are not faithful in the little tasks will never have opportunity to prove themselves faithful in the big tasks. Start where you are; do what must be done; and let God open the way.

Perhaps the leaders of your church will want to license you to preach. A license to preach is to ordination what an engagement ring is to marriage: it's the first step, and it can always be revoked. Paul warns church leaders, "Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands" (1 Tim. 5:22). Before the church lays hands on you for ordination, be sure God has laid his hand on you for a lifetime of service (Philippians 3:12-14). It's better to be patient and certain than to be impetuous and embarrassed.

Start praying and planning for specialized training. Your pastor and other mature Christians can give you guidance concerning available schools. Please don't use the old excuse that many great preachers never went to school! Charles Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody, H. A. Ironside, and G. Campbell Morgan never attended schools for pastoral training, yet two of them founded schools for preparing preachers and the other two sat on learned faculties. They knew the importance of education. If you are a Spurgeon or an Ironside, people will recognize it in a hurry; but until then, plan to get involved in training.

Watch out for the Devil's attacks during this waiting time. He often uses other Christians to discourage the would-be preacher, so maintain a strong devotional life in the Word and prayer. Be devoted to Christ; be disciplined; be busy. Claim Proverbs 3:5-6 and Psalm 37:3-5.

What really is "adequate preparation" for the ministry?

God has many ways of preparing his servants, and we should never despise or question his ways. He has a special purpose for each of his workers, and he alone knows how to prepare his tools. Keep your eyes on the Lord and not on other Christians, and let God work out his specific will for your life.

There is more than one kind of preparation for the ministry. There is, for example, general preparation that comes from daily living. Paul was a tentmaker, Peter and James and John were fishermen, and each of these men learned a great deal about life and people from their daily vocation. Many a practical lesson is learned in the office or factory, so never despise your hours of labor. Fortunate is the pastor who has learned by experience what it means to be a Christian in today's workaday world out there in the marketplace.

There is a trend today toward calling pastoral staff right out of the congregation, and in many churches this has worked well. The people called already know the church and the congregation and they don't have to relocate from another city. But it's wise for the church to provide a continuing education program so that these staff people can get the specialized training they may need.

Of course, there is vocational preparation, which includes studying the Word, acquiring a working knowledge of Bible languages, and gaining an understanding of Bible doctrine and church history. Practical training in Christian service is essential. "Able to teach" is one of the important qualifications for the ministry (1 Timothy 3:2) and it implies that a person is "able to learn." We must be receivers before we can be transmitters. People who fail to learn the discipline of study will never accomplish all God wants them to accomplish in the ministry. (See Ezra 7:6, 10.)

There are two major options available when it comes to formal education, and you and the Lord must decide which is best for you. You can spend four years in an accredited Bible institute or Christian college and then go to seminary, or you can earn an undergraduate degree at a secular college or university and then go to seminary. If you take the latter course, your best majors might be history, literature, or philosophy. Some will feel called to earn further graduate degrees, but be careful not to use school as an escape from the realities of the ministry. It is easy to die by degrees! If your undergraduate degree is in engineering or science, don't think this disqualifies you from ministry, because everything you study is useful in the Lord's service.

Whatever course of study you follow, be sure you graduate knowing how to use the basic tools of the ministry. A working knowledge of the Bible is fundamental. Try to get hold of the basics of the Bible languages, even though there are many useful language tools available and you should use them. Good courses in preaching are essential so that you learn to prepare and present organized messages from the Word. Your basic courses in theology will help you recognize heresy when you see it and will also keep you from confusion and contradiction in your preaching. History and philosophy may be dry, but they can give you perspective and depth.

You must be a student all your life. Everything that pastors experience or read can become a part of the spiritual treasury from which they can draw in the work of the Lord. You must major in the Book, but you will also read other books, both secular and sacred. You will read the book of nature and the book of humanity as well. As you live and learn, look for the places "where truth touches life" (Phillips Brooks), and there you will find the spiritual nourishment you need to feed your people.

To sum up: Trust God to lead you to the school that will best prepare you for the work he has called you to do. While you are there, give yourself devotedly to your studies, because you will never again have that same opportunity for preparation. Don't look upon formal education as a parenthesis or a detour in your life, but as part of your obedience to the will of God. Scholarship is stewardship. You minister to the Lord by being a good student as well as a good preacher, so be faithful. At some point you may be tempted to quit school and get out into the work. Resist this temptation! W. B. Riley says it so well: "If your work in school makes a student of you, one of the essential preparations for preaching will have been accomplished. If you leave school with no love of study, the background of school will be of little value" (The Preacher and His Preaching [Wheaton, Ill.: Sword of the Lord, 1948] 21).

Does God call people permanently to the ministry?

"No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). The emphasis throughout the Bible is on a permanent call. Please don't enter the ministry with reservations or with a hidden agenda. It is unwise to ask God for an escape clause in the contract. The couple that enters marriage saying, "Well, if it doesn't work, we can always get a divorce" is asking for trouble, and so is the pastor who says to himself, "If I don't make it, I can always get a different job." Ministry is a calling, not a job, unless you are a hireling (John 10:11-13). "For God's gifts and his call are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). People who are called but try to run away will, like Jonah, discover that there is no place to hide.

This doesn't mean that God never changes a servant's sphere of ministry. Many a faithful pastor has been led from the local church ministry into teaching, missionary work, Bible-conference ministry, or denominational responsibilities. Sometimes a crisis in the home requires a change of ministry. Some pastors have had to change their sphere of service in order to help care for an invalid spouse or aged parents.

Every servant of God has, at one time or another, sensed a personal inadequacy for the work of the ministry. "No day passes," wrote the great Marcus Dods in his diary, "without strong temptation to give up, on the ground that I am not fitted for pastoral work. Writing sermons is often the hardest labor; visiting is terrible." Yet Dods became a great force for God, and pastors still read his books and benefit from them.

If an hour of depression comes, and you feel like giving up, don't do it. God has called you, God is with you, and God is going to use you to accomplish his purposes. Get alone with God; instead of resigning from the work, re-sign your commission and get back to work. "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6).

Should older people consider a call to ministry?

Why not? There seems to be little evidence that the call of God comes only to young people. Amos and Moses were settled in their vocations when God called them to preach. In fact, older people have advantages that younger ministerial candidates may not possess: experience in life, seriousness of purpose, a maturity that formal education alone can never impart, a sense of values, a sense of perspective, and a deeper understanding of human nature. Many educators claim that their older students do far better than the younger ones, if only because they have to try harder.

Of course, older candidates have some special problems to overcome: the high cost of starting a new vocation in midlife, the ever-rolling stream of time, a measure of financial security, the difficulty of becoming a student again and having to sit in class with younger people, and just the pain of pulling up roots and relocating. But these so-called stumbling blocks can become stepping-stones for the person who believes God. The important thing is not your age but your willingness to obey God regardless of the cost. More and more people these days are being called into ministry in midlife and must make midcourse adjustments, so don't think you're alone in this vocational transition.

In many respects, age is a state of mind. Cultivate the faith outlook on life, and you will always be young in heart and spirit. We once read a desk motto: "Growing old is nothing but a bad habit which a busy person has no time to acquire."

What part does one's spouse play in a call to the ministry?

A very important part! The spouse must be a help and not a hindrance. A sovereign God, knowing he will call a person into his service, will also direct that person to choose a spouse who will be an agreeable and encouraging helper. The problems of the ministry are great enough without adding to them the burden of a divided household. If an engaged couple doesn't agree on the call to service, then let them break the engagement, pray for God's direction and wait until there is peace and confidence in both hearts. "Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?" (Amos 3:3).

The man or woman already married faces a more difficult problem. But if the wife is a good homemaker and a loving mate, there should be no problem; the pastor's wife is first a keeper of the home. She need not be a stirring banquet speaker, a gifted musician, or a successful teacher to be a good pastor's wife. If she can keep the home running smoothly so that her husband can fulfill his ministry, she will accomplish the most important task. The wife sensing a call to ministry must work these matters out with her husband, perhaps with the help of a counselor, so that she and her husband are a team and not in competition.

Let the wife talk and pray with some experienced "mother in Israel" before she decides whether she is truly called to ministry. There must be agreement and harmony in the home. But this should be true of all Christian homes, not just the homes of full-time Christian workers; so if a call to the ministry brings about violent reactions in the marriage, something may be radically wrong with its basic structure. Better that these things are worked out lovingly and patiently before too many changes are made, preferably under the guidance of a mature pastor. A married couple must consider their children as well (1 Tim. 5:8) and not upset the home. God doesn't usually tear one thing down in order to build another thing up.

When marriage vows precede ordination vows, the laying on of hands doesn't automatically cancel the marriage vows. If the husband and wife feel they have married in the will of God, then let them wait on the Lord until they are sure that the call to ministry is of the Lord. To conclude that full-time ministry is impossible is to limit the grace and power of God. It's especially important that the children in the home be prepared for what to them will be a radical change. Time plus wise counsel and God's grace can help to smooth out the problems. If there is still no agreement, let the couple keep the marriage together and find outlets for their gifts in their local church. David wanted to build a temple for the Lord but God assigned the task to his son Solomon. God's words to David encourage all of us: "Because it was in your heart... you did well to have this in your heart" (2 Chronicles 6:8).

I am a ministry "dropout". How can I get back into service?

After much heart-searching and prayer, start counseling with a pastor you know and trust. Some of the questions you must answer honestly are: Why did I drop out? Have the problems been solved? Am I now in the place of God's blessing so he can use me again? Have I taken the necessary steps to repair any damage I have done? Are there any character weaknesses that need to be dealt with before I can pastor again? How does my spouse see the situation?

John Mark was a dropout, and God restored him and used him greatly. Even the great apostle Paul had to change his opinion about Mark (read Acts 15:36-41; Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11). Both Jonah and Peter failed in their calling, yet God forgave them and restored them. "So he made it again another vessel" (Jeremiah 18:1-4 KJV).

Rest on God's Word, not the opinions of men. David expressed a great truth when, after he had sinned, he said, "Let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men" (1 Chronicles 21:13). Sometimes the responses of other pastors to your situation can be very discouraging and condemning, but God has promised to forgive (1 John 1:9) and to restore repentant believers to fellowship and blessing. Rest on his promises!

Don't jump into the first opportunity for service that comes your way. Be sure you serve in the place of God's choosing. You can't afford another crisis and failure. Perhaps working with an experienced pastor for a time would help you transition back into service. "Watch and pray!" Satan is out to defeat and devour all of us. It's not necessary to assume that you will fail again; in fact, a defeatist attitude will assure such failure. But it is necessary to heed 1 Corinthians 10:12.

—Answers to Pastors' FAQs