Reframing “Calling”: Words to Churches and Aspiring Pastors

Article
08.27.2014

You’ve found yourself at the end of a series in which I’m attempting to reframe how we think about “calling to ministry.”

In my first post I pointed out that “calling” language carries a double presumption. You’re saying you think you are, or soon will be, (1) qualified to be an elder and (2) sufficiently gifted in ministry that a church should pay you to do it.

And in my second post I drilled into those two points, eldering and economics. To say you’re called is to say you desire to serve as an elder, and you want to do so as a full-time job. But it’s in God’s and a local church’s hands to decide if either of those will ever happen. So I suggested that, in light of 1 Timothy 3:1, “aspiring to elder” can serve as a more biblical frame for our thinking, and even our speaking.

In this final post I’ll round the corner and apply this perspective to how churches and aspiring ministers should assess the aspiration to pastor.

EXHORTATIONS FOR CHURCHES

I’ll start with a few exhortations for churches. Some of these land on all Christians, and some land especially on pastors.

First, don’t treat someone’s sense of “calling” like a third tablet from Sinai. A subjective sense of calling on their part does not constitute an obligation to recognize that calling on your part. Instead, equip, encourage, assess, and be patient with those who aspire to pastoral ministry.

  • Equip: Pastors, create training grounds in your church for developing more teachers. Adult Sunday School and shorter Sunday evening sermons can be great contexts for this. And think about how you can personally disciple men who aspire to ministry.
  • Encourage: Members and pastors, rejoice in others’ ministry and growth in ministry. Delight in the fruit others bear for the kingdom. Encourage the good efforts of young men who aspire to ministry, as halting and flawed as those efforts may be.
  • Assess: Church members, and especially pastors, give your aspiring ministers feedback that is as honest as it is gracious. Elders, don’t be afraid to counsel a man to push pause—or even stop—on his vocational ministry plans.
  • Be patient: Give young men time to grow and bear fruit. Be patient with faithful but clunky teaching. Who knows? Your willingness to listen to a developing teacher could bless your own church or others for decades to come.

Finally, highlight and celebrate “lay elders”—that is, pastors who work other jobs full-time. Certainly, churches should pay as many of their pastors as they reasonably can. But I don’t think Christ’s gifts to his church (Eph. 4:11) are limited to those they can afford to relieve entirely from other work (Acts 20:34-35).

But don’t just have lay elders, spotlight them. “Senior pastors,” encourage your lay elders to teach publicly, regularly. Find ways to empower your lay elders, to give away some of your authority so they’ve got more to spend. Members, seek out lay elders, not just your full-time pastors, for counseling, weddings, funerals. A pastor is a pastor whether he spends his week in the church office or an insurance office.

I think one of modern evangelicals’ most damaging, widespread assumptions is that the only real ministry is done by those who do it full-time. That couldn’t be more wrong. In a fundamental sense, all Christians are called to ministry: to speak the truth in love, to make disciples, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. And as we saw in the previous post, all elders are called to pastor.

If churches highlighted and celebrated their lay elders, and if lay elders were equipped and encouraged to truly pastor, a weight would lift from many men’s backs. They’d see that, in principle, they don’t have to choose between a career and “doing ministry.” Of course there are only so many hours in the day, and a full-time pastor’s life is radically different from a lawyer’s. And of course some men should pursue full-time pastoring. But the Bible’s fundamental category for pastor is “elder.” How you earn your paycheck is another question, based on your gifts and desires and a church’s needs and resources.

WORDS TO ASPIRING PASTORS

Next, a few words to aspiring pastors. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: treat your sense of calling as an aspiration, not an infallible divine mandate. I’m not saying subjective guidance can’t play any role, but it’s far from sufficient.

Paul doesn’t say, “If anyone feels called to the ministry, a church is bound by God to call him.” Instead, he says if anyone desires the work of an overseer, he desires a good thing (1 Tim. 3:1). And then, for the benefit of both the aspiring elder and the congregation, he lays out the qualifications for the office. So focus on them. Prioritize them. By God’s grace, build your life from the stuff Paul says an elder is made of. Be more concerned about God’s requirements for the office than what a church might want on a resume.

Further, think of pastoral ministry more as a spectrum than an on-off switch. Pastors are not super-Christians, and having a full-time job other than ministry is not failure. God did not make us all mouths, and a foot should not feel guilty for being a foot. If we view other callings as inferior to pastoring, we lie about the body of Christ and dispute God’s wise design in arranging the members the way he has (1 Cor. 12:12-26).

Another takeaway: I’d suggest that some men who think they’re called to ministry should aspire to be lay elders instead. Or at least, aspire to eldership and let God handle the rest. If you want to teach the Word and help Christians grow spiritually, great! Sounds like you want to be an elder! If you don’t have the desire, gifting, or opportunity to do it full-time, so what?

Not everyone who wants to do ministry should change their career. Not everyone who enjoys teaching the Bible should quit their job and move to seminary. Your responsibility to provide for your own and your family’s needs is a divine given (1 Tim. 5:8). That you will do so by pastoring isn’t.

How then should you go about assessing a “call” to ministry? Every man is different, and so is every situation. But in short I’d encourage you to assess your desires, opportunities, abilities, and character—all filtered through the local church.

Do you desire the work (1 Tim. 3:1)? How strong and durable is that desire? Does your desire measure up to the actual work of ministry your own pastors do, or only the fun, shiny parts? Do you want to do the work of ministry, or enjoy the esteem of ministry?

Consider your opportunities. What pastoral opportunities do you have now? What’s there for the taking? Are you the kind of person who creates pastoral opportunities regardless of whether someone gives them to you? And has your church seen fit to give you any opportunities?

What about abilities? Are you able to teach? To lead? To shepherd? You’re not necessarily looking for fruit in full bloom, but you should at least see seeds and saplings.

And consider your character. How well do you embody the character qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1? What are your besetting sins, and how hard do you fight them? Are the fruits of the Spirit evident in your life? Are any conspicuous by their absence?

Especially concerning your abilities and character, let the church speak loudly. Consider letting others’ assessment of you outweigh your own, especially if that assessment is from your elders or the church as a whole. Be willing to hear hard things. If you’re ever a pastor, you’ll hear much harder.

As much as possible, seek the meaningful affirmation of a local church before heading off to seminary or redirecting your career. Work as hard as you can not to set out as a self-assessed, self-affirmed, self-sent pastor-in-waiting. What I’m aiming at here isn’t always possible, but the aim itself turns your heart in the right direction.

BACK TO CHURCH—TO LISTEN

In this series I’ve written from a concern that “calling to ministry” language, as evangelicals commonly use it, tends to mask some crucial presumptions. And, at least in the wrong hands, it can lead to a dangerously individualistic, subjective approach to assessing an aspiration to ministry.

I’m not sure it’s necessary or even possible to scrub “calling” language from our vocabulary altogether. So instead of banishing the term, I’ve tried to simply redirect our attention to the more demonstrably biblical category of aspiring to elder.

Whether you’re a pastor, aspiring pastor, wondering whether to pursue being a pastor, or just a “plain old” church member, I hope you’ve found something useful here. Raising up pastors is the church’s work—the whole church. So if anything, I hope this series sends aspiring pastors back to church: not just to serve or speak, but to listen.

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Editor’s note: 

For more on this topic, consider the following resources: