Towards a theology of the call to pastoral ministry
Ministry is the heartbeat of Christianity.1 The apostle Paul affirmed that “anyone who aspires to the ministerial office, desires a good work” (1 Tim. 3:1).2 As such, a call to full-time ministry is a vocational alternative for Christians. Why then is it so demanding?
Research in East Africa highlights stress as one of the major hindrances to pastoral performance.3 Psychologist Richard Blackmon states, “Pastors are the single most occupationally frustrated group in America.”4 Dr. Richard J. Krejcir states, “After over 18 years of researching pastoral trends and many of us being a pastor, we have found (this data is backed up by other studies) that pastors are in a dangerous occupation! We are perhaps the single most stressful and frustrating working profession, more than medical doctors, lawyers, or politicians. We found that over 70 percent of pastors are so stressed out and burned out that they regularly consider leaving the ministry. Thirty-five to forty percent of pastors actually do leave the ministry, most after only five years.”5
These same pastors are then confronted by their young people seeking confirmation as to whether full-time ministry is their calling. The relevant question then follows, is there really such a thing as a call from the Lord? If so, how do we know that we have received such a call?
There are two extreme views relative to the divine call into the ministry that may be considered equally extreme. The first has been labeled the liberal view. This seeks to debunk the presence of the supernatural in the call and regards the embrace of full-time ministry as a career choice rather than a divine call. The second is the mystical view. This is where the minister supposedly “hears voices” and “sees literal visions,” such as Constantine’s “cross in the sky.”6 Neither of these views does justice to the call to ministry, because ministry incorporates both divine call and human stewardship. A call to fulltime ministry may include the following four elements:
1. The general call: public invitation. This is where all are called upon to take up the cross of Christ and embark upon a life of discipleship, hearing and doing the Word of God in repentance and faith, etc.
2. The secret call: private conviction. This is the inner persuasion or experience whereby a person feels himself or herself directly summoned or invited by God to take up the work of full-time ministry.
3. The providential call: personal affirmation. This is the assurance that comes through the divine guidance of his or her life by all circumstances and through the equipping of a person with the talents necessary for the exercise of the office.
4. The ecclesiastical call: institutional confirmation. This is the invitation extended to a man or woman by an institution of the church to engage in full-time ministry.7
There should not be any hard and fast rules as to how these elements connect, whether in importance or modes of relationship. The key guiding principle is that any clear idea of what constitutes a call to the ministry should acknowledge the need for all four calls and their relationship to be carefully ordered. Let us examine each in turn.
The general or public call. Why does God call people? Christ called the disciples while on earth, trained them, and sent them to make disciples of all nations (Mark 3:13, 14; Matt. 28:19, 20). One must therefore find Christ before one can preach Christ. The call is nullified if one does not live it. Only a crucified person is able to testify to a crucified Christ. This is the point where one’s call to be a Christian ties in with one’s “secret” call—the inner conviction that one is invited by God to take on fulltime ministry. How does one transition from the public call to discipleship to the “private” call to full-time ministry? For many, the call of God is viewed as putting one’s hand to the plow and not letting go (Luke 9:62). It is a call to lifetime ministry (Isa. 6:11). As such, any strong inclination for the ministry must not turn out to be some momentary impulse or temporary fascination with outward honors that might accompany the position of a pastor. Rather, it must be the outgrowth of agonizing soulsearching and earnest prayer. Mere infatuation with the possibility of public ministry will fade. A true call to full-time ministry will persist after attempts to fulfill other careers have failed. And a true call will be a bulwark for survival when the going gets tough.8
The inner, or private, call. The Christian ministry is first and foremost a divine calling. Both biblically and historically sound, a man or woman of faith may, through personal communion with God, feel an inner compulsion to enter the Christian ministry. Paul says that Christ extended to him the call into ministry (1 Tim. 1:12–15). He was sure of his call and could not help but respond (Gal. 1:15–17). Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips.” He then heard the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Strengthened by the thought of a divine touch, Isaiah responded, “Here am I, send me.” (Isa. 6:5–8, KJV). When the Lord calls, you will know no rest until you respond. Jeremiah said, “There is fire in my bones and I cannot quit” (Jer. 20:9).9 The need for one to feel obsessed by his or her call stems from the purpose of the call to ministry. Spurgeon says, “For a true call to the ministry must be irresistible, overwhelming craving and raging thirst for telling to others what God has done to our own souls.”10 Some have received the call and not answered it; to their own distress. Like Jonah, their lives have been riddled with turbulence, and they found peace only when they stopped running from the call of God.
The providential call. The ministry is not for those who cannot be successful in any other line of work. It is for those who say with Paul, “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16, KJV). Without the Word of God as a fire in their bones, not only would persons be unhappy in ministry, they would be unable to bear the self-denials required in ministry. But this, though worthy, is not enough. The strong desire to become a pastor should be accompanied by gifts necessary for that office. Just consider the One for whom you are working. According to Ellen White, “True ministers are co-laborers with the Lord in the accomplishment to His purposes. God says to them, Go, . . . preach Christ.”11 By and large it can be said that to succeed in the ministry a person must possess the gifts for the calling. Co-laborers with Christ ought to have an aptness to teach and an ability to preach. According to Flynn, “To that extent, preachers are born, not made.”12
It must be pointed out here that, if you are called, the Lord will ensure that you are qualified. Titles and seminary degrees may be necessary and important, but they are no proof that a man or woman has a right to ministry. Not only will there be an awareness of the gifts required, there will also be an awareness of the sacrifice required. Self-denial within the ministry is such that anyone without a love and passion for his or her calling cannot survive. The person will either need to leave the drudgery or continue on in discontent, burdened with monotony as tiresome as the blind horse in a mill.13
The ecclesiastical call. The voice of the church plays a vital part in the call to the ministry. Church historians tell us that in the reformation times, the call of the church came first.14 When others detected the pastoral gift in some young people, they would urge them to “stir up that gift.” Then, if they sensed the inner call, they would move forward with the support of everyone. In any case, the candidate’s call required a demonstration of talents approved by the church as evidence of that call. In the New Testament, the choice of ministers searched for people with spiritual qualities and the necessary capabilities for the particular tasks envisaged (1 Tim. 3:1–13).15 A person should therefore submit his or her claim of call to the scrutiny of loving, mature, and discerning brothers and sisters. An even more important outward indication of a man’s or woman’s call to the ministry would be that there should already be some evidences of aptitude and unction upon him or her as a future preacher. In other words, the crowning confirmation that one does possess the pastoral gift is recognition by others. Thus the ministry is not the result of one call, but of two. As Gaylord puts it, “Theologically, the call to ministry is from God, confirmed by the church.”16
John Calvin alluded to this when he contended that “if one is to be considered a true minister of the church, it is necessary that he [or she] considers the objective or external call of the church and the secret inner call conscious only to the minister himself.”17 Once the inner call is accepted, then comes the need for validation by the church. According to Jock Stein, the idea of an inner conviction has, by itself, very real dangers, as the history of the church has often proved. The church must have objective criteria by which the call can be confirmed and validated.18
It can safely be concluded that an authentic call will indeed encompass all the elements of a call to ministry in one form or the other. The providential call and the ecclesiastical call are inextricably bound together. Above all, the candidate’s conviction about his or her call must be paramount. For if one is not sure about the call, then, according to Jock Stein, however suitable and promising in all other respects he or she may be, the church has not only the right but also the duty to call his or her candidature into question.19 Gaylord places the onus on the minister by saying that “because the call comes from God, the minister has a calling that transcends loyalty to employer and client.”20
Church administration, chaplaincy ministry, educational ministry, and humanitarian ministry are all part of the mission of Christ, engaged in by home missionaries and overseas missionaries. I have been a pastor, a professor, and a church administrator. have loved them all, but in my present role, I lift up the calling to be a local church pastor. In an interview after the Lausanne II Conference in 1989, John Stott, rector emeritus of All Souls Church in London, said regarding his call to the ministry, “I love Cambridge, and felt attracted to the academic life, but God called me to the pastorate.”21 In the final analysis, authentic ministry is presenting ourselves as “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” (Rom. 12:1).
As pastors drop out of ministry at an alarming rate, this question of the call becomes not an intellectual issue but a survival one. According to Leslie Flynn, “The ministry today can be tough and rough. To survive, a pastor needs to know that God has called him. Otherwise, the task may be overwhelming.”22
One may meet the qualifications and be ordained by the church, but only God can enable one to fulfill the Christian ministry. As such, one must first and foremost be called by God. Once a person is called, the Lord will ensure that he or she is recognized and qualified. Walter Wiest states, “We must make allowance for the Spirit of God Who works when and where God chooses and He has worked wonders despite the limits on individual ministers’ abilities.”23 Once we are sure of our call, what remains is to surrender to the Lord and trust that He will take over the rest in terms of training, opportunities for service, and success.
I believe God calls men and women today, even as He chose Moses as His messenger. Heavy is the woe resting on those who dishonor their holy calling by lowering the high standards of giftedness, humility, service, and sacrifice set for us in the life and labors of the Son of God.24
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1 Helmut Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry: Reflection on the Aims of Theological Education (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956), 63.
2 Author’s translation.
3 Crispus Micheni Ndeke, “An Assessment of Pastors Stress Management Models Among Pastors in Presbyterian Churches of East Africa in Meru South and Maara Districts” (master’s thesis, Mount Kenya University, August 2013), https://erepository.mku .ac.ke/bitstream/handle/123456789/1351/h .pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
4 Richard Blackmon, quoted in Gary D. Kinnaman and Alfred H. Ells, Leaders That Last: How Covenant Friendships Can Help Pastors Thrive (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 14, 15.
6 Franklin M. Segler, A Theology of Church and Ministry (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1960), 37.
7 Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church,65.
8 Leslie B. E. Flynn, How to Survive in the Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1992), 23.
9 Author’s translation. 1
0 Charles C. Spurgeon, “Lectures to My Students,” Series 1 (Marshall Brothers), 23.
11 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 18, 19.
12 Flynn, 23.
14 Jock Stein, ed., Ministers for the 1980s (Edinburgh: Handel Press, 1979), 26.
15 Howard Belden, ed., Ministry in the Local Church (London: Epworth Press, 1986), 1.
16 Adapted from Gaylord B. Moyce, Pastoral Ethics: Professional Responsibilities of the Clergy (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1988), 175.
18 Stein, Ministers for the 1980s, 25.
19 Ibid., 26.
20 Moyce, Pastoral Ethics, 175.
21 John Stott, “Humble Scribe,” interview in Christianity Today (September 8, 1989), 63.
22 Flynn, How to Survive in the Ministry, 63.
23 Walter E. Weist, Ethics in Ministry (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1946), 103.