One of the questions that I most often get asked by guys who are pursuing pastoral ministry is, “How do you know if you are called to be a pastor?”
This is a great question. It is a question that Charles Spurgeon answered in his book Lectures to my Students, which is a compilation of Spurgeon’s lectures to the students at his school for pastors. Chapter 2 of this book is entitled “The Call to the Ministry.”
Every follower of Jesus is called to be a minister. Not a single disciple of Jesus is exempt from the task of making disciples, being ministers of reconciliation, and serving others. However, some are called to a specific ministry of pastoring. Spurgeon worded it this way:
Any Christian has a right to disseminate the gospel who has the ability to do so; and more, he not only has the right, but it is his duty to so do as long as he lives. The propagation of the gospel is left, not to a few, but to all the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ… I do not, however, in this lecture allude to the occasional preaching, or any other form of ministry common to all the saints, but to the work and office of the bishopric, in which is included both teaching and bearing rule in the church, which requires the dedication of a man’s entire life to spiritual work. (23)
Spurgeon recognized that all followers of Christ are called to ministry, but some are called to pastoral ministry, which requires a level of commitment not common to everyone else.
How do you know if you are called to this level of commitment? What if you make a mistake and pursue pastoral ministry without a calling? Can’t you simply “try” it and see if you like it? Spurgeon did not think it was a minor mistake to pursue ministry if not called: “It is a fearful calamity to a man to miss his calling, and to the church upon whom he imposes himself, his mistake involves an affliction of the most grievous kind” (26).
A calling to the pastoral ministry is a weighty calling that we should not consider casually. If you believe that you may be called to pastoral ministry then I encourage you to take serious action into the investigation of your possible call, and if called, to pursue that call with all that you are. Spurgeon suggested the following four points to discern if you are called to pastoral ministry.
1. An intense, all-absorbing desire for the work (27).
There have been days (mostly Mondays) when in my stress and frustration I wanted to quit the pastorate. There have been other days when I thought I should quit because of my sin. However, there has never been a day that I did not desire to be pastor. It is a longing in my heart that I cannot step away from.
If any student in this room 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. (28)
2. An aptness to teach and some measure of the other qualities needful for the office of a public instructor (29).
In 2013, at the leading of one of our pastors, we hosted a Spring Preaching Symposium my previous church. It was a three-month process. In the first month we hosted a day of training about preaching. In month two those who attended the trainings preached a sermon they had prepared to a panel of preachers, and were critiqued and instructed in how to better their sermon and delivery. In month three, we placed these young men into churches around our area to preach the sermon they had prepared. We saw over 40 men trained, nearly 30 preach sermons to the panels of preachers, and over 20 placed in churches throughout our community to preach. A few of them were even hired by the churches where they preached. The goal of the symposium was to give guys training and opportunity to practice a skill that is of primary importance for the pastor of a church—teaching.
My brethren, if you think it is an easy thing to preach, I advise you to come up here and have all the conceit taken out of you . . . It is by no means a law which ought to bind all persons, but still it is a good old custom in many of our country churches for the young man who aspires to the ministry to preach before the church. It can hardly ever be a very pleasant ordeal for the youthful aspirant, and, in many cases, it will scarcely be a very edifying exercise for the people; but still it may prove a most salutary piece of discipline, and save the public exposure of rampant ignorance. (30)
But an ability to teach is not the only quality a pastor must have.
Sound judgment and solid experience must instruct you, gentle manners and loving affections must sway you; firmness and courage must be manifest; and tenderness and sympathy must not be lacking… you must be fitted to lead, prepared to endure, and able to persevere… if such gifts and graces be not in you and abound, it may be possible for you to succeed as an evangelist, but as a pastor you will be of no account.” (32)
3. A measure of conversion work going on under his efforts (32).
This could be a controversial qualification. Some may say that conversion is the work of the Lord and is not controlled by the pastor, and therefore it should not be a qualifying test. I understand this argument. However, I also believe that one who is filled with the Spirit, preaches the gospel well, and pleads with people to embrace Jesus, will rarely see no one converted from their sharing. There may not be converts every time you preach or share the gospel, but there will likely be converts some of the times. It is God’s desire to save sinners and it is his plan to use the preaching of the gospel to do so.
Spurgeon said, “I could never be satisfied with a full congregation, and the kind expressions of friends; I longed to hear that hearts had been broken, that tears had been seen streaming from the eyes of penitents” (32, 33).
4. An acceptable preaching to the people of God (34).
Spurgeon said, “God usually opens doors of utterance for those whom he calls to speak in his name” (34). Spurgeon moves from this statement into an understanding that a local body of believers should affirm your pastoral calling and desire to be taught the truths of scripture by you.
Churches are not all wise, neither do they all judge in the power of the Holy Ghost, but many of them judge after the flesh; yet I had sooner accept the opinion of a company of the Lord’s people than my own upon so personal a subject as my own gifts and graces… none of you can be pastors without the loving consent of the flock. (34)
Spurgeon is declaring that he’d rather trust a church to affirm his calling than trust his own flesh to affirm his own calling. If a church does not see him fit in heart and gift to be a pastor, then he should reconsider his belief of calling.
I spoke this week with a young man who is not in a ministry position yet, who desires to eventually travel from state to state and preach at large conferences for college students. My advice to him came from this portion of Spurgeon’s lecture. Spurgeon said:
As surely as the man wants his hour, so surely the hour wants its man . . . Be fit for your work, and you will never be out of it. Do not run about inviting yourselves to preach here and there; be more concerned about your ability than your opportunity, and more earnest about your walk with God than about either. (34)
If you believe you are called to ministry, then investigate your calling and if you find it true, pursue it with all that is in you. Train for the calling. Seek affirmation of your calling. Give all you have to your calling. It is worth it.