Some time ago, I heard a radio interview with a medical doctor who has written extensively on the topic of medical care as a calling. She argues that when doctors miss the sense of their work as a calling and see their function more as a job or a career, they lose their enthusiasm and eventually experience burnout.1
Our spiritual profession and the work connected to it are rightly deemed a calling. It has always been about a calling. The compound Greek word ekklesia (translated “church”) literally means an “assembly,” and the two root words are ek (out of), and kaleo (called). Therefore, the church is made up of those who have been called out.
We ministry professionals must retain our sense of calling. We must see every job performed in our daily lives, in churches and institutions, as part of our calling. Often, we refer to our calls in terms of the moment when we felt God was telling us how He wanted us to serve. We speak about the moment of decision when we committed ourselves to Jesus or chose to serve Him in ministry. I happen to remember the moment when, while watching a Billy Graham Association evangelist preach to thousands on television, I felt strangely moved by the realization that my church was not reaching the world with such success. The compulsion was so strong that it brought me to tears, and within a year, I had abandoned my plans to be a biology teacher and enrolled in a ministerial program. For many, the call may be more of a process, which eventually leads to a commitment to ministry.
Could it be that with time we start allowing our sense of calling to be diluted by the perception that we are working a job like everybody else? For the past 20 years, I have had wooden statues of Don Quixote and his friend Sancho Panza on my desk. Don Quixote, published in two parts (1605 and 1615), is considered by many to be the most influential work in Spanish literary canon. This famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes, tells of a middle-aged hidalgo (gentleman) who decides to live out his fantasy of knighthood and pursues a life of honor to win the favor of a peasant girl he imagines as a noblewoman. It is a sense of calling that feeds healthy idealism.
The opposite also holds. While medical professionals who lose their sense of calling will eventually burn out, the ones who hold on to their calling will accomplish much more and have a higher sense of life satisfaction.2 Ministry professionals can expect the same results.
We have a calling. God’s call to you and me is as distinct as we are unique. In the Bible, people were called to come out, stay still, worship, hide, march, walk on water, repent, forgive, and trust. Your call is yours only, especially crafted in God’s mind for you.
However individualized our callings may be, there are common elements in the call to ministry. Let us ponder a few of these:
1. The call comes to a person from a personal God.
God knows us; He knows our hearts, deepest fears, and fondest dreams. He knows if we are timid, gregarious, obsessive, or fearful. He also knows what we can accomplish in partnership with Him if we allow Him to lead in our lives.
Author Ellen White says, “The weaker and more helpless you know yourself to be, the stronger will you become in His strength. The heavier your burdens, the more blessed the rest in casting them upon the Burden Bearer. The rest that Christ offers depends upon conditions, but these conditions are plainly specified. They are those with which all can comply. He tells us just how His rest is to be found.”3
2. The call to ministers is for ministry.
There may be a specific angle to your ministry, but it is always about service and representing God’s interests and character. You may have some criticisms of The Purpose Driven Life, but the beginning statement rings with biblical authenticity: “It’s not about you.”4 Yes, our human envelope is fraught with needs and weaknesses and cries for affirmation, but we also have an all-consuming message filled with power and efficacy. Christian ministers are not meant for self or others’ adulation. We are not to be corrupted by fame or its trappings. It is the love of self that produces fatigue; defending our egos can be exhausting work.
In a time of social media, likes, and followers, the cult of personality has become easier and more ubiquitous. Let’s instead enjoy the reinforcement that comes from a job well done—the delivery of a strong and inspiring sermon, the tactful handling of a delicate issue, the sympathetic support of a grieving family.
Pastors who have left the ministry report significant feelings of personal and professional inadequacy, feelings of professional entrapment, family problems, and illness.
The calling of the disciples by the Sea of Galilee was an invitation to “follow” and, as a consequence, they (the disciples) would be made into “fishers of men” (Matt. 4:18–21). Ministry should always be the result of following Jesus, the great Fisherman; that’s our job. His job is to make us fishers of humanity in His image. We are gatherers of fish, harvesters of precious souls to the side of salvation and hope.
3. He who calls us is in charge of the work.
For ministers, as with many other service professions, the possibility of debilitating stress is very real. I did an extensive study of clergy stress for my dissertation some years ago, and the literature review confirmed what I had surmised as a pastor. According to a study of 9,000 persons admitted to mental health centers in Tennessee, clergy ranked 36th among 130 professions represented; ahead of teachers at 47th, policemen at 70th, and physicians at 106th. Among professionals, clergy rank third in the number of divorces granted each year, and 75 percent of the pastorate experience periods of major stress.5
Pastors who have left the ministry report significant feelings of personal and professional inadequacy, feelings of professional entrapment, family problems, and illness.6 One obvious difference between the ministry and other professions is the added pressures of spiritual expectations, such as modeling a strong faith, dealing with personal guilt, and feeling that recognizing failure is not an option for a representative of God.7
Let’s remember that the healing message of the gospel is also for ministers. There are infinite grace and love in the arms of the Savior. He is responsible for saving, healing, and transforming lives, including ours.
4. The call to ministry is powerful.
Charles Spurgeon quoted Joseph Alleine, famed Corpus Christi College scholar and chaplain, as saying, “Do not enter the ministry if you can help it.”8 In other words, you should be in ministry only if you firmly believe you have been called. This compulsion is Spirit driven, and it calls us to a higher plane of love for God and His children. Ministry is a vocation, not a job; a holy calling, not a profession; a way of life, not a way to make a living.
This level of professional intensity in the ministry would be overwhelming if not for God’s enabling power embedded in His call to pastors. There is power in living our lives in response and connection to our calling from God. We can do much more because we live in partnership with a powerful God. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31, NKJV).
Napoleon Bonaparte’s archenemy, the Duke of Wellington, admitted that Napoleon’s mere presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men.9 The early disciples conquered the world with the battle cry “Christ is Lord!” Always remember who has entered the battlefield as our Commander. In Romans 8:35, we are told that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. The acceptance of our call allows us to bask in His love, to have blessings that only come from being with Him.
Disney World has what is called Fast Pass, an app-based system whereby you can reserve up to three fast passes per person or party on the app, which then allows you to wait in a much faster line. Our son-in-law Jason became our de facto leader by becoming the master of the Fast Pass. He registered our names on the app, chose the rides, and guided us through the maze of enchanted streets and throngs of people. He would come to the Fast Pass lane, scan his ticket, smile, and say to the Disney employee three magic words: “They are with me.” As if on cue, we would appear next to Jason and go on to amusement-park grandparenting fun.
Ministry and life itself can be hectic, challenging, and sometimes disappointing, but “we are with Him.” Let us remember that we have been called, we are being blessed, we are loved, and we are being empowered to accomplish what He is asking us to do.
- Andrew J. Jager, Michael A. Tutty, and Audiey C. Kao, “Association Between Physician Burnout and Identification With Medicine as a Calling,” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 92, no. 3, (March 2017): 415-422, https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196 (16)30770-4/fulltext; see also Pamela Wible, “Living Your Spiritual Calling,” Ideal Medical Care, March 13, 2019, https://www.idealmedicalcare.org/living-your-spiritual-calling-in-medicine/. Note: A earlier version of this article was published as Miguel Valdivia, “Keeping Our Sense of Calling,” NADMinisterial, July 18, 2017, https://www.nadministerial.com/stories/2018/7/18/keeping-our-sense-of-calling.
- “Association Between Physician Burnout and Identification With Medicine as a Calling,” 415–422.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 329.
- Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 17.
- “Experts Say Clergy Stress Doesn’t Have to Result in Burnout,” Christianity Today, November 9, 1984, 71, 72.
- H. Newton Malony, “Men and Women in the Clergy: Stresses, Strains, and Resources,” Pastoral Psychology 36, no. 3 (1988): 164–168.
- G. J. Jud, E. W. Mills, and G. W. Burch, Ex-pastors: Why Men Leave the Parish Ministry (Philadelphia, PA: Pilgrim Press, 1970).
- Charles Spurgeon, Lecture 2, “The Call to Ministry” in Lectures to My Students, vol. 1 (independently published, 2017), 33.
- Andrew Knighton, “7 Ways Napoleon Celebrated Battlefield Courage,” War History Online, October 16, 2017, historyonline.com/napoleon/7-ways-napoleon-celebrated-battlefield-courage-m.html.