This is a slightly edited version of a post I did for Parchment and Pen in 2011. These are some thoughts I spent some years in working out on the question of what it means to be be called into ministry.
One of the essays in my application to Dallas Theological Seminary required that I respond to the question of how I knew I was called into ministry. While I understood that question to be more related to affirming events that led me to apply to seminary, I find that the idea of being called into ministry has not only been a popular catch phrase but also bears some examination. I say this because I believe the call to ministry has been designated as a special call to select individuals based on God’s selection for specific ministry roles. I do believe that has some merit as I indicate below, but I think it might be different than what is commonly thought of as a call.
First, I think the ‘call to ministry’ as designated for select individuals is misleading. All Christians are called into ministry because all Christians have spiritual gifts that are to be employed for service to the body of Christ (1 Peter 4:10). That doesn’t require some specified direction but a working out of those gifts as we grow in our Christian walk and seek to serve the body. 1 Corinthians 12:12-24 identifies that everyone has a part to play in the growth of the body (also supported Ephesians 4:16). I don’t dismiss the fact that God may have specific roles or even specialized ministries that he directs us to (after all the local assembly does require pastors, elders and deacons), but it is more indicative of our progress in the faith and a capacity bear larger burdens for service.
Second, the New Testament witness to the concept of calling is predominantly related to the salvific call of election. God calls individuals into the body of Christ. It is within the service to the body that one works out there inclination. And there is much to be said for passion and desire. I heard a popular preacher say once that if you want to know what you should be doing pay attention to what drives you and what bothers you when its off. I don’t believe that should be equated with a critical, fault finding mission, but an inclination of things that God has placed within us. This is a process and it doesn’t happen overnight. But in time, we will find ourselves inclined and passionate in certain areas of ministry that we will gravitate towards. This actually factored in quite a bit in my essay.
I don’t dismiss the fact that individuals may have some kind of revelatory event that designates their direction in ministry, but I think this sets a questionable precedent when expected as the guide. And by revelatory, I mean a person believes he or she had some kind of extraordinary occurrence whereby they believe God spoke to them or gave them some kind of vision. Aside from the fact that it brings into question how God speaks to people today and if that is a requirement for being called (hint: I don’t think it is), I also believe this kind of reliance on “visions” is based on an over-use and abuse of Proverbs 29:18 as I wrote about here. Yes, desires can lead to vision and specific things we should be doing in Christian ministry. But I am not convinced that is the predominant way one is called into ministry but may give us a guide to what God will have us do.
By this point, I can hear the protests. ‘What about Abraham or Moses or even Paul? Were they not called into their specific roles?’ Paul does identify that he was called to be an apostle. But here too, I think it bears examination of why these individuals were called and how that related to God’s revelation of himself. I believe the application for us to consider that God sets in motion what He wishes to accomplish concerning his plan of redemption built on the foundation of the Law, Prophets and Apostles. In the case of these individuals, God chose them to bear witness to his progressive revelation that was culminated in Christ (see 2 Cor. 1:20). Paul apostolic witness was to transmit the mystery in Christ that was previously unrevealed but had to now be made known (Ephesians 3:1-7; Colossians 1:25-27). While it may seem exciting for one be called to a specific role in this manner, I dare say this is not the normative process.
No I don’t believe it is even the normative process for pastor/overseer/shepherd. Now I do believe these function require a special call in terms of gifts, abilities and burden for responsibility and in this sense labeling such a “call” is warranted. But it is a question gifts, maturity and the capacity to fulfill the pastoral obligations as outlined in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-9. Paul tells Timothy, if anyone desires to have these offices, here is the criteria (1 Timothy 3:1) NOT ‘if anyone feels they’ve been called’. Here too, I believe is an instance where the process of Christian maturity should identify those who have the desire, capacity and can fulfill the criteria specified in Scripture. That doesn’t dismiss that God may have intended for them to fulfill that specific role, but it is not so much driven by some special call as it is a walking out of their Christian faith. Not everyone will have this capacity or desire to bear the burden of leadership within the church.
Moreover, those individuals who lead should be affirmed by others regarding their capacity to fulfill the criteria identified in Scripture. In fact, I actually think this is where the idea of calling as a revelatory event can lead to danger, though not in all cases. How many congregations are led by pastors who felt ‘called’ to be a pastor and may be able to preach/exhort but do not possess the qualifications outlined in Scripture? Rather, they are affirmed because of a self-proclaimed feeling/hunch and have the capacity to rally people to their cause rather than a carrying out of pastoral obligations according to Scripture. In the case of poor teaching and theology, the congregation may not have any idea that person should not be leading them but relies on their persona and charismatic ability instead. I shudder to think how many congregations are led and hurt by such individuals.
While this notion of call that I’ve laid out here might be not jive with the popular understanding of what is means to be called to ministry, I am convicted by Scripture that the call to ministry is not so much a call but a walk. We step into ministry that is affirmed by our spiritual gifts, abilities, desires and identification by others. This I believe, bears much more fruit.