The church is precious to God, and because it is, he has blessed it with gifts necessary for its well-being in this age. Among those gifts are leaders. Leaders in the church do not appoint themselves, nor is their appointment based on ultimately on the authority of a church or denomination. Rather, leaders are gifts of the risen Christ to his church: “And he [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). Because Christ loves his church, he cares for it by providing shepherds to nurture, lead, and guard it until his return.
And so the task of identifying those who are called to lead the church is, ultimately, the work of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, whom Christ has given to the church as the preeminent blessing of the new covenant. As Paul said to the Ephesian elders, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
In confessing the biblical truth of God’s care for his church, we must then ask the question of how we as churches, leaders, and potential leaders can walk faithfully in discerning the call of God to ministry. In doing so, we must be aware of false assumptions inherited from our age and be sure to test all things by Scripture. In my own experience of discerning a call to ministry and in helping others do so, I can identify three dangers to which our age may be prone concerning the idea of calling:
The Danger of Unquestionable Subjective Authority
Many churches operate on the assumption that if one of their members claims an internal sense of a call to ministry, that internal call must be the authoritative voice of God, to which our only proper response is affirmation. As a result, many churches give little or no attention to training and testing men who sense this call to discern if they have heard God correctly. We would not trust the care of our health to doctors who had not been trained, evaluated, and certified for their profession. Why should we imagine that the care of souls should be taken any less seriously?
It is dangerous to allow subjectivity the greatest weight in evaluating a call to ministry. Churches (and, where applicable, denominational structures) should take seriously the responsibility to evaluate the life, convictions, doctrine, and abilities of any man who claims he has been called to lead in the church. By the same token, any man who senses an internal call should gladly submit himself to the wisdom of mentors and, preeminently, the authority of a local church in testing and evaluating his call. Too much is at stake to leave church leadership to the discretion of individual feelings.
The Danger of an Over-Spiritualized Call
Many men have described the call to pastoral ministry as an overwhelming inner compulsion, perhaps even one that runs counter to their desires. They describe it as the realization that, in spite of fears and misgivings, they know they could never find joy in any other pursuit. While I would affirm that some men may be called to ministry with this kind of inner compulsion, nowhere does Scripture teach that such a compulsion must be the norm. To assume so would be to over-spiritualize the call.
Scripture is remarkably commonsensical in its instructions: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). Paul speaks of a simple aspiration, a desire, to serve the church in the role of overseer, and then he provides a list of qualifications that are remarkably ordinary: solid character, good family life, and the ability to teach (vv. 2-7). Do we tend to make this issue more complicated than it is? Do we expect that God will always work in mysterious, extraordinary ways, when he has told us that his means of making the call known are usually, in fact, quite ordinary? If a man is a faithful church member with strong character, who leads his family well, who may have an aptitude for teaching, and who aspires to the office of overseer, that is sufficient reason for the church to seek to evaluate his call. It need not be any more mysterious or “spiritual” than that.
The Danger of an Over-Professionalized Call
Because I did not know any better at the time, when I first began to evaluate my call to ministry, I assumed that I was making plans for the kind of employment I would have for the rest of my life. Americans tend to define ourselves primarily by the activity at which we spend most of our waking hours, earning money to support ourselves and our families. As a result, it is difficult for us to fathom a call to ministry that does not determine a narrow pathway for future employment in a church or an institution oriented toward Christian ministry.
Scripture teaches the responsibility of churches to financially support their pastors (1 Tim. 5:17; Gal. 6:6), and refusal to do so, requires rebuke and instruction. However, the fact remains that not all churches will have the financial resources to support a full-time pastor, and very few churches may have the financial resources to support all of their pastors/elders with sufficient pay for full-time work. Also, when we take into account the fact that the apostle Paul normally refused financial gifts from the churches he planted and instead relied on a tent-making profession, we must acknowledge that the call to ministry is distinct from a call to a particular kind of employment. If you pursue a call to ministry, that does not necessarily mean you will have a full-time job in ministry. Perhaps you will, or perhaps you won’t, but more likely, you will go through seasons of life when you have one and seasons of life when you don’t. If your assumption through those seasons is that being called to ministry entails working full time in ministry, you may feel unnecessary guilt over the fact that, at any given season of life, you may not have a ministry job, and thus you might perceive yourself as unfaithful to your call. But where Scripture does not condemn you, you must not condemn yourself. Unnecessary self-condemnation that stems from an overly professionalized view of the call to ministry could lead you to abandon the very place to which God has called you to serve him joyfully while earning money from other employment.
With these three dangers in mind, how should we navigate the process of discerning the call to ministry, both as individuals and as churches?
At my own church, we look for men who indicate a desire for ministry and may demonstrate some level of gifting for it, and we take that as the starting point. A number of our members, as students and alumni of Union University’s School of Theology and Missions, have a desire and potential for leadership in the church. Over time, we seek ways to train them while evaluating their lives, their marriages (where applicable), and their abilities. One primary avenue through which we are able to train and evaluate is our formal pastoral internship, which is a year-long process of reading, study, conversation, and service to the church that often helps set trajectories for the future. Some interns hone their preaching skills considerably during the internship and begin to gravitate toward pastoral ministry. Others may develop a passion for urban church planting. Others look for ways to volunteer in the church for ministry to youth. Whatever specific trajectory, the internship allows us the opportunity to train and evaluate men for future ministry paths.
Many of our interns remain at our church for several years after completion of the formal internship. These post-internship years are valuable for ongoing seminary training (which can be done in our city), as well as continued preaching, teaching, and leadership opportunities in our church. We have found that, for most young men who stay with us, a period of 3-5 years total provides sufficient time to shape their doctrine, train them in the skills of ministry, and evaluate their lives and abilities to the point that we have the confidence either to recommend them to a particular place of service or direct them toward another path. As a result, in our church, ordination to ministry is not a rite of passage for anyone who senses an internal call. It is the end of a fairly slow and careful process, as we take very seriously the weightiness of giving our public endorsement to any man for the purpose of church leadership.
You don’t need an extraordinary subjective experience to discern the call of Christ to ministry. Do you have a desire to lead his church? Do you have at least some preliminary indications that you have gifts to carry out that task? If so, seek training from those who are older and wiser than you. Submit yourself to the guidance of mentors and the authority of a local church that will help you discern whether you are called. These are the ordinary means by which Christ reveals his will for providing gifts to the church that he loves.
Aaron O’Kelley, Ph.D., Vocational Elder at Cornerstone Community Church; Director, SBTS Jackson, TN, extension center; Adjunct Professor, Union University