A clear call to ministry isn’t optional—it’s essential. Only a clear call from God kept Isaiah true to his task to render hearts dull, ears heavy, and eyes blind (Isaiah 6:10). Only a supernatural call drove the apostle Paul to remain faithful even as he suffered for the sake of Christ (Acts 9:16; 2 Corinthians 11:24-12:10). Indeed, gospel ministry is a grueling task that involves great personal sacrifices. Dealing firsthand with the realities of sin, wrestling with fallen souls, and pleading for salvation is not for the weak of heart. Only a sure calling will sustain a minister through it. Erwin Lutzer wisely claims,
I don’t see how anyone could survive in the ministry if he felt it was just his own choice. Some ministers scarcely have two good days back to back. They are sustained by the knowledge that God has placed them where they are. Ministers without such conviction often lack courage and carry their resignation letter in their coat pocket. At the slightest hint of difficulty, they’re gone.1
If a sure calling is prerequisite to Christian ministry, how then does one know that he is called? Although other factors sometimes exist, it seems that a genuine call to ministry involves two necessary components: an internal compulsion for the task, and external confirmation by the church.
Charles Spurgeon claimed that the “first sign” of the calling is “an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work.”2 Indeed, a deep, irresistible urge for gospel ministry represents one component of a genuine call. In Jeremiah 20:9, the prophet says, “there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:16, claims, “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”
What the prophet and the apostle experienced finds repetition in every generation of Christian ministers. John Stott, the stalwart evangelical pastor and theologian in the Church of England, surrendered to a call to ministry during his college days. His parents were seemingly unhappy with his decision and, in reply to them, he wrote,
Whatever you may think of it, I have had a definite and irresistible call from God to serve Him in the Church. During the last three years I have become increasingly conscious of this call, and my life now could be summed up in the words “separated unto the gospel of God.” There is no higher service; I ask no other.3
A genuine call to Christian ministry can withstand the challenge of my boyhood pastor (“if you can do anything else and be happy, do it”) because one called to ministry simply cannot do anything else. A holy constraint binds him. In his famous Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon asserts,
If any student . . . could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fullness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit but that for which his inmost soul pants.4
This internal compulsion to enter ministry, though, must not be merely impulsive or reactionary. A fleeting thought, a single pondering, a convicting encounter, or a “what if ” moment does not constitute a call to gospel work. Compulsion has roots. In most cases (though not all), a sense of call rises from intense personal Bible study, exposure to biblical preaching, and connection to a faithful, local church. Kevin Smith describes his call to ministry in terms of internal compulsion rooted in Scripture and church ministry. He says,
I knew I was called to “preach the Gospel” as I began to be discipled under the expository ministry of my local church in my mid-twenties. . . . After having a season of Isaiah 6 exposures to God (from His word), I sensed the burden to share His word (and subsequently His glory) with others as my purpose in life. I knew I could pursue nothing else and have the peace and joy of the Lord.5
All of us are prone to misinterpret our feelings and experiences, so none one of us can infallibly distinguish our own call to ministry. “It is not enough to feel that we may possibly have a call to the ministry,” according to Derek Prime and Alistair Begg. “Such uncertainty leads to tragic mistakes.”6 Others must help one to confirm God’s call.
In Acts, the church plays a crucial role in affirming gospel ministers, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 13:1-3, the Spirit calls upon the Antioch church to “set apart” Barnabas and Saul for gospel work. After praying and fasting, the church lays hands on them and sends them off. Acts 16 provides another example. Paul enters Derbe and Lystra, and finds a man named Timothy. The Christian brothers there spoke highly of Timothy, so Paul “wanted Timothy to accompany him” (Acts 16:3). We know little of Timothy’s personal experience of a call, but we do know that the church’s confirmation was a major factor in his ministry.
In my early days as a pastor, a young man in his twenties came to Christ and quickly expressed a call to ministry. The church supported him with prayer and financial assistance, but many had honest, if unexpressed, reservations — including me. It wasn’t a flaw in his character. Rather, we perceived an utter lack of giftedness and a few personality issues that might stifle his effectiveness. Personally, I feared that the joyful emotion of coming to Christ might have led him to a premature sense of calling to ministry.
Not wanting to hinder or discourage, though, we kept our doubts private. Unwittingly, we left the poor fellow to suffer alone in frustration, despair, and failure. Less than a year into Bible college, he dropped out and returned home — without work and with mounting personal debt. Our church failed him. In truth, he was the only person that believed that he was called to ministry, but we lacked the courage to test him, refine him, and even correct him.
Our church failed him. In truth, he was the only person that believed that he was called to ministry, but we lacked the courage to test him, refine him, and even correct him.
One who feels an internal call to ministry should seek the external confirmation of the local church, and every local church should test and refine such a person. The church is the body of Christ, and through the Spirit of Christ it expresses the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 1-2). Its collective wisdom must be engaged when one believes that he is called to ministry. “The will of the Lord concerning pastors is made known through the prayerful judgment of his church,” Spurgeon claims. “It is needful as a proof of your vocation that your preaching should be acceptable to the people of God.”7 The accountability, discernment, and encouragement of a local church (Hebrews 10:24-25) are essential for confirming a genuine call.
Many times, when a person begins to consider ministry, he or she will submit to the church’s leadership for counsel. It could be that the person has exhibited signs of a call for some time, and the church can quickly affirm the calling. It could be that more time is needed. For example, if a man desires to be a pastor, but has little evidence of giftedness, then his pastor should begin to mentor him. The candidate should demonstrate growth in biblical knowledge, teaching and preaching ability, leadership skills, spiritual maturity, and desire for the work. At some point, and upon the pastor’s recommendation, the person should be affirmed by the church and, perhaps, ordained.
The membership and leadership of a local church should help a person discern and refine a call to ministry in each of the following ways:
- Identifying specific flaws in character that, if not purged, would subvert ministry.
- Detecting spiritual maturity and overall readiness for service.
- Discerning what gifts for ministry a person possesses, and what types of ministries those particular gifts would best serve.
- Refining skills in leadership and working with people.
- Developing skills in preaching and public communication.
- Gaining experience in teaching and pastoral ministries.
What comes first, the compulsion or the confirmation?
In many cases, the internal compulsion precedes the external confirmation. As a called person sits under the sound teaching of the Word, prays, and becomes involved in ministry, the call becomes radically clear and that person cannot help but share it. Then, after sharing it, the church agrees and affirms.
Often, though, the process is deeply intertwined. Because of the spiritually intimate nature of the local church, by the time a person acknowledges an internal compulsion toward ministry, many others have already sensed it coming and have been praying in anticipation.
A few years ago, I led a teenager to Christ at our church’s annual Fall Festival event. He had visited for a few weeks, and I had noticed his attentiveness. After trusting Christ for salvation, he blossomed in spiritual maturity. He absorbed the Bible and preaching like a sponge.
He began spending enormous amounts of time with our youth minister, receiving counsel and building friendship. Soon, he was volunteering in various ministries, assisting in the church office, and mentoring his siblings and friends for Christ. At a Valentine’s banquet one year, he stood to give his testimony. As he shared his love for Christ and love for the church, I sensed the Spirit of the Lord on him, as did others. Unknown to him, we began to pray for him concerning his future.
After some time passed, he began contemplating a call to ministry, and sought help and prayer from me and the youth minister. When, after even more time passed, he came forward at the end of a worship service to announce his call to ministry and ask for the church’s affirmation, it was a moment of great celebration. The internal call and external confirmation were woven together in a beautiful, worshipful way.
Sometimes, however, a church will recognize a person’s call to ministry before he does. Feelings of inadequacy, worldly distractions, and discouragement from detractors can hinder a person from considering a call, and it takes the prodding of a church to kindle the inner compulsion.
Whether the internal compulsion or the external confirmation comes first—or whether the two are deeply intertwined — the matter of timing has no final consequence. What remains critically important, though, is that both components do exist and, at some point, come together. When that happens, the one sensing a call to ministry is ready to move forward with intense preparation — preparation through academic study and ministry experience.
Are you contemplating a call to ministry? Then, heed the advice I so reluctantly received. If you can do anything else and be happy, then do it. If, however, you cannot — if ministry is your all-consuming passion in life, then seek the counsel of other believers in the context of a local church. Be patient and submissive as your call is tested and your gifts are refined. Seek to prepare as thoroughly as possible. Then, serve “by the strength that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11), and “fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).
How Do You Know? is an excerpt from Called | Understanding the Call to Ministry, a free book provided by Anderson University. Available upon request.
1. Erwin Lutzer, “Still Called to the Ministry,” Moody Monthly 83, no 7 (March 1983): 133.
2. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: Complete & Unabridged (reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 26.
3. Timothy Dudley Smith, John Stott: The Making of a Leader (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 87,
4. Spurgeon, Lectures, 27
5. Kevin Smith, personal interview, September 24,
6. Derek Prime and Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work (Chicago: Moody, 2004), 24.
7. Spurgeon, Lectures, 29.