Mapping a Pastoral Call, Part One

by Jeremy Writebol April 8, 2015


Over the last few years I've had more than a handful of guys talk to me about vocational ministry. Every conversation has generally gotten around to the person saying something along the lines of, "I think I'm called to ministry," and then talking about some sort of aspect of why they feel that way. As I have heard this statement again and again and again from people I've begun to pick up on something that's a bit troubling to me. Mainly, that people voice their supposed called in subjective terms. They had a sense, or feel this way, or believe that God said "such-and-such" and when you step back and look at the big picture there isn't some solid, objective answers to affirm their subjective sense of a calling.

Now I do believe having a "sense" of calling is important. Especially to vocational ministry. But it seems to me that a lot of men are spending a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of energy pursuing after a "calling" when the simple truth is, they probably aren't really called for vocational ministry. We are all called, as Christians, to the work of the the ministry in some capacity or another, but the specific calling to spend your life for the sake of the gospel is another matter. I'm growing more and more convinced that men and women who are pursuing a ministry vocation without being called are doing long-term damage to their souls and their ministries by not being clear about their calling.

In this series of posts, I intend to help shape a roadmap for calling. I want to put into writing a series of questions and discussion about the work of the ministry to help people clearly answer the question, "am I called?" One of John Netwon's letters about pastoral ministry helped frame several of the signposts that I will identify on this map and has been a useful starting point for me in considering this issue of calling. Additionally, I call these markers signposts to give us a sense of a journey. We are moving along a trail to discover the intent of a ministerial calling and we cannot advance forward from one plot to the next until we answer the question before us. Conversely, we cannot start at the end and work backward. There is a successive flow and building that ever-increases the clarity of calling as we move forward.

The roadmap then consists of five specific questions. These questions cannot necessarily be answered in isolation. At each point the community of faith must answer and affirm these with us, even if the answer is "no." Here's what the map looks like:

Signpost #1 – Desire – Do I desire and aspire to the work of the ministry?

Signpost #2 – Gifting – Am I properly skilled and gifted for the work of the ministry

Signpost #3 – Affirmation – Am I affirmed for this work by spiritual authority and leadership over me?

Signpost #4 – Opportunity – is there a place and open door for me to do the work of ministry?

Signpost #5 – Compulsion – has the Holy Spirit burdened me beyond anything else for this work of ministry?

This week I'll spend some time unpacking the signpost of Desire and how it relates to the big picture of being called. My hope is to construct a helpful paradigm for answering the question "am I called" with something more objective than just an inner feeling.

Desire – The First Signpost of Calling

I clearly, vividly, like it was just a moment ago remember the day my calling clicked for me. It was Founders Week at Moody Bible Institute (or "The Great American Preach-Off" as a few facility were known to call it). I was a cold February evening in 1998 and I was a freshman student. I went to Moody because I had a sense (remember yesterday's post) that I wanted to spend my life for the sake of the gospel, but the clarifying nature of what that call looked like was elusive to me. I had some dreams of overseas missions and youth ministry wrapped into two things, but nothing concrete. The evening of February 5th, Dr. James Montgomery Boice came and preached from Romans 11:33-36 on the glory of God in the church.

During his message I was struck with the greatness of God and his glory. But I was also deeply struck by the way that Dr. Boice unpacked the Scriptures. His message was clear and compelling. It was filled with glory because he was talking about glorious things. It was deep. It was accessible. It was moving.

As I walked from Moody Church back to campus I was talking with a friend about that message and particularly what had happen to me during that message. I vividly remember saying to my friend, "I want to do that. What I saw happen tonight as Dr. Boice preached the Bible to us is exactly what I want to do with my life." The first ingredient in understanding my calling had been established. Desire.

Desire As The First Signpost

Paul indicates that desire is the first part of a calling toward and for ministry. It's an essential part. As he instructs Timothy regarding the qualifications for a man in the role of an elder in the church hie leads with the trustworthy statement, "If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1, ESV). The key word in this first statement is the word aspire. Paul tells Timothy that the starting place for discerning a call is the nature of a desire or longing for that work.

As John Newton indicated, calling starts with a, "warm and earnest desire to be employed in this service."1

Men who are called to the pastoral office want to be there. They feel it in their bones. "God made me for this, and this is what I will do by his grace." Calling to the ministry doesn't exist apart from a desire to do that work. Even Peter as he instructs elders to be about the work of shepherding the church locates that calling in desire language. “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you" (1 Peter 5:2, ESV).

A Warning About Desire

Perhaps this is the easiest signpost to move forward from. Yet, I find it to be the one that is the most confusing to young men. They have a desire to do the ministry, and they believe that that is the sum total of their calling. "I want to do it, therefore I'm called." In looking back on my own sense of calling I would have told you on that cold February night almost 15 years ago that I was "called" by God at that moment to preach and teach the Scriptures and lead the local church. That might be a fair statement. But it was just the beginning of the call, the implanting of desire.

Desire can be a tricky thing, mainly because the real objects of our desire can be hidden behind something else. For example, I may desire the respect and adoration and accolades that come with preaching heart-hitting, Biblically sound messages. But that doesn't mean I desire to be engaged in the work of the ministry. It just means I want people to respect and affirm me. We have to drill down deep within our motives to find what sits and the root of why we long for what we do.

If you can answer the first question of calling towards ministry with a "yes, I do desire and aspire to the work of ministry," then let me encourage you to take a second step in discerning that desire. One of the best ways to achieve that is to sit down with a man who has been in ministry for decades and ask him to tell the ugly stories about ministry. Have him tell you about the poverty, sleepless nights, disappointment, criticism, hardship, suffering and alienation he's experienced as a pastor. I don't say that to paint a grim picture of ministry, but to inject that desire with some reality. It's not all preaching and conferences and Easter lilies. If after hearing the war-stories you can say to yourself, "Yes, I do have a warm and earnest desire for the work," then move on to signpost two.

Some Questions for Discovery

1. Do you desire to spend your life for the glory of God and the sake of the church in pastoral ministry?

2. Why do you long to be in pastoral ministry?

3. What do you perceive "the work" of pastoral ministry is about?

4. Would you still want to be in ministry on the worst days? Why?

5. Is pastoral ministry a means to another end or goal for you? If so what is it?