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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

The Double Presumption of Calling to Ministry

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What does it mean to say that you’re “called” to pastoral ministry?

It might mean that you like the idea of getting paid to study and teach the Bible. It might mean you think going into ministry is what mature Christians do, and you want to be a mature Christian, so you want to go into ministry.

I think the common language of “calling” to ministry is slippery and possibly misleading. I don’t think it’s necessarily sinful or unbiblical. But I do think it can obscure some important issues that men aspiring to ministry, and the churches that encourage and assess them, should pay more attention to.

So in this series of posts I’m going to dig into a few issues related to calling to ministry that we sometimes neglect. The first is that calling language carries, and often conceals, a double presumption.

AHEM

Before I get to my main point, though, here’s a little throat-clearing that should suffice for the series. This series of posts is geared toward men considering or pursuing pastoral ministry. It’s also geared toward the churches which encourage and assess them—which, in one way or another, is every church.

I’ll focus on calling to vocational, pastoral ministry because it’s probably relevant to the most people. Much of what I’ll say will be relevant to aspiring missionaries and other Christian workers, but you’ll have to tweak the details yourself.

I write as one who’s currently walking this path, not as one who’s arrived. In one way or another I’ve been training for pastoral ministry for the past eight years, but I’m not yet a pastor, much less an experienced one. But as a recent seminary grad I’m surrounded by men who are working through the same issues. So consider this a view from the middle of the pack, not the finish line.

CARRYING TWINS

Calling language typically refers to a sense of divine guidance: “I think God is calling me to do this.” But whether we mean it to or not, it also has first-person implications. To say that you’re called to ministry is to say that you desire to be a pastor. It’s also to say that you think you should be a pastor—as opposed to being a plumber or painter or school principal. Which means you think you’re qualified to be a pastor.

More specifically, saying you’re called to ministry presumes you think these two things about yourself: (1) you are, or soon will be, qualified to be an elder; (2) you are, or soon will be, sufficiently gifted in ministry that a church should pay you to do it.

Unless you’re talking nonsense, claiming a divine “call” has to imply both of these things—and it can’t contradict either. But this reveals one potential problem with calling language right off the bat: if I say I’m called, who are you to contradict?

I trust that godly, humble people who use calling language would never dream of using it as a trump card against criticism or questions. But the problem is, not everyone who claims to be called to ministry is godly or humble. And the language itself encourages us to view the matter as almost a private revelation, rather than a personal desire subject to public scrutiny.

But let’s table the issues of language and guidance. If you think of yourself as called to ministry, have you taken stock of these twins the claim is carrying?

Do you think that you are, or soon will be, qualified to be an elder? Have you carefully studied the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9? Have you prayerfully pursued them? Have you asked your pastors what they think of your fitness for the office, and where they see areas of needed growth?

Do you think that you are, or soon will be, sufficiently gifted in ministry that a church should pay you to do it? What in your ministry track record makes you think that? Have your own pastors encouraged this? Has any church ever offered to pay you to do ministry?

FEELS AWKWARD? IT SHOULD

My point in raising these questions is not—I repeat, not—that you need a perfect score on them before you should take any practical steps toward vocational ministry. Yet the answers to these questions, and others like them, can help determine whether your presumption is justified.

When you talk about calling to ministry you are inescapably talking about what you think about yourself. If that feels a little awkward, it should. It should give you pause. It should turn your attention to the qualifications of the office and the demands of the job.

It should also cause you to seek counsel, not just from friends and family, but from your church, especially your church’s leaders. Don’t be content with vague approval and happy wishes. Ask your church leaders tough questions about your strengths and weaknesses, your gifts and blind spots. Ask them if, in principle, they would ever hire you—and if not, why not?

Viewing “calling” as entailing a double presumption doesn’t just mean putting on the brakes—though many of us probably should. It also means that if you’ve got a strong ministry track record, godly counselors in your corner, and deep, meaningful affirmation from a church or churches, you should have a greater confidence in pursuing vocational ministry. If your own humility causes you to question your gifts and qualification, take your church’s affirmation seriously—again, provided the affirmation itself is serious. To brothers whose gifts and character are evident yet who’ve not yet found an open door for full-time ministry, I’d simply say, press on and be patient.  

THREE MORE TAKEAWAYS

I’ll conclude with three more takeaways. The first is that you should view all ministry, especially vocational ministry, as a gift, not a given. Every pastoral opportunity you receive—from teaching Sunday School to a full-time pastorate—is a gift from God and his church. Treat ministry as a privilege, not an entitlement.

Second, submit your desires to the Lord. You can’t be absolutely certain that you’re called to ministry until a church calls you to be their minister. So if you think God’s the one who gave you these desires, continually give them back to him, to do with them as he pleases.

Be willing to serve him however he sees fit. Embrace off-stage service as much as the spotlight. Be as eager to help in the nursery as you are in the pulpit. I know more than one pastor whose first years of ministry included cleaning their church’s toilets. So if your desire is to serve the Lord, serve him now in whatever ways he puts before you.

Third, submit your desires to the church. If you’re not sure if you should head into ministry, enlist your church’s help, and submit to that help. Be willing to slow if they flash a yellow light, and stop if it’s red. The best preparation for handling authority well is submitting to it gladly.

It’s impossible to speak to every circumstance, but if you’re sorting through these issues I hope at least something in here gets your wheels spinning. In my next post I’ll suggest some ways eldering and economics should reframe how we think about calling to ministry.

Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.