What is the call to ministry? This is a question that is pertinent to every aspiring seminoid.
It is becoming popular these days in certain circles to become bolder in claiming that God audibly called you to the ministry. Being from South Africa, I am often curious as to which English accent God employs. From the aggregate location of the claims, I’m guessing it’s North West Coast American. (If you are curious about my views on these claims, read Heaven is for Real, Well Duh.)
Other than from my distracted guidance counselor in high school I’ve never personally heard an audible voice telling me what to do with my life. I merely have the inspired word of God with all things pertaining to life and godliness in it to help me determine if I’m called to teach. So for those of you who don’t have the red telephone some claim to use, I hope you find this helpful.
There are four widely recognized aspects to the biblical call to a teaching ministry in the church.
Aspiration is the subjective part. “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1). “Aspires” in Greek is “to reach out for.” Desiring the office is a part of the burgeoning call, but not the only one.
At this larvae stage of the call you are a wannabe. We’ve all endured wannabe singers shattering wine glasses with ungodly vocal tangents at karaoke. We cringe when we meet them on American Idol, wagging our heads in wonder how anyone could function in society with so little self-awareness.
I appreciated our seminary choir director telling the tone deaf vocal dissidents to focus on the “video” aspect of their performance at seminary graduation, and leave the audio to people with pitch. Men who feel called to teach, can get frustrated when their spiritual leaders don’t immediately proffer the keys to the kingdom and a pulpit of their own. This happens when one ignores the 3 other aspects to the call.
You’d be surprised how shocking it is for some young men to hear that they need to be skilled to do this job. They think that since the harvest is plentiful and the workers few, they are literally God’s gift to the kingdom, and anyone offering preaching advice is a mere speed bump to their mega-church aspirations and must “get behind me Satan.”
But “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2) is the only requirement of an elder/pastor that is not required for other positions in ministry, like that of deacon. The ability to teach involves having a mastery of the material, and the skill-set required to communicate it. You don’t need to be a Greek ninja, but you do need to know theology enough to teach it accurately to others.
If you are going to defend the faith against attackers, counsel couples making life decisions, comfort doubters or those grieving, or if you are going to exhort others to holiness using the authority of the Bible, then you need to know your way around the Scriptures.
Theological training prevents (or at least delays) you from morphing into a Dr. Phil or cult leader. You need to know which part of the Bible deals with which issues, so that when a devastated divorcee comes for insight, you can flip directly to Matthew 19, and not just start reading in Genesis 1 hoping something on divorce turns up soon.
The skill to communicate truth can manifest in different ways. If you want to be a preacher, then you need to be able to, you know, preach. But those who aspire to the office of overseer/elder can manifest their teaching gifts in other ways too. Truth can be taught through one-on-one counseling. Or in a class setting with dialogue teaching. Even writing articles, books, or counseling by mail could be ways you may be gifted to teach. But if you have nothing to say or no way to say it, you are not called to be a teacher.
Disabusing unskilled aspirants of their illusions of Spurgeonesque grandeur, is one of the kindest things leaders can do for a future flock. Conversely, for those who are truly called to ministry, there is a reassuring confidence that comes from the affirmation of said leaders.
The biblical qualifications for pastors and elders are objective standards that need to be affirmed by others. They are primarily moral credentials. You need to live a life worth following and have a message worth proclaiming. And those who know you need to affirm those things.
None other than Charles Spurgeon, in Lectures to My Students instructed ministerial candidates with these words:
Mere ability to edify, and aptness to teach, is not enough; there must be other talents to complete the pastoral character. Sound judgment and solid experience must instruct you; gentle manners and loving affections must sway you; firmness and courage must be manifest; and tenderness and sympathy must not be lacking. Gifts administrative in ruling well will be requisite as gifts instructive in teaching well. You must be fitted to lead, prepared to endure, and able to persevere. In grace, you should be head and shoulders above the rest of the people, able to be their father and counselor. Read carefully the qualifications of a bishop, given in 1 Tim. 3:2–7, and in Titus 1:6–9. If such gifts and graces be not in you and abound . . . as a pastor you will be of no account.
A recognized opportunity, i.e. the appointment to a position of teaching, is the final punctuation point on your call. This is how God’s sovereignty is consciously given the final word. You may want to teach, you may be able to teach, and your gracious church leaders may tell you they think you should teach, but until God gives you a group of people willing to listen to you, you are not yet called. A leader with no followers is just a person taking a walk. Appointment can be by other elders ordaining you, or a congregational vote, or some other objective system of recognition.
I was not sure God wanted me to be pastor even after I graduated seminary. I was sure I wanted to be a pastor. I was trained to be one. And I was told by the ministry I was involved in that I had an ability to teach. But until a (pretty patient or desperate) local church appointed me to be their preaching pastor, I was a not yet a pastor.
Commissioning is an important step. Some churches do official ordination, others simply appoint you. But a self-appointed preacher is a rogue voice in the kingdom of God. There are other avenues to use your gift, not everyone is called to be a preacher.
Remember that the church belongs to Jesus and he has a plan that you can part of in the way that he appoints in his timing. Don’t try to circumvent his wisdom by appointing yourself like a sheriff with a plastic badge.