Affirmation and Opportunity
The roadmap of charting one's potential call to ministry 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?
Affirmation and Opportunity – The Fork in the Road
It was probably the most difficult conversation I had ever had. Sitting across from me were two leaders I had a great deal of respect for and a large desire to work with. I had been flown out for a weekend meeting to visit the church, get to know the leaders, let them get to know me, and understand how we could move forward with me stepping into a role I was sure I was made for. I couldn't wait to be part of this team, launching a new work with them. And then the bottom fell out.
The lead pastor was encouraging, and he spoke from the heart and made a tough call. "We like you, but we think you're a risk. You just don't seem to have the track record or skill set for this particular role. I'm afraid we're going to end the process with you." I could hardly believe my ears. The burger I had been devouring now felt like a dead-weight in my stomach. I was being told "no." Although I was sure I felt called to this ministry I had the hand of Providence shut the door in my face. Obviously they had missed seeing my calling.
Or had they?
This brings us to what I will call the "fork in the road" regarding one's sense of ministry calling. It has to do with the two relationships an individual has with those interacting with him. Although a person may possess a clear desire and a clear competency for the ministry, that isn't the entire story on a calling. There is an external community that also weighs in on the call. They create the fork in the road of understanding whether a person is truly called to a ministry or not. Those two relationships are "affirmation" and "opportunity."
Affirmed For Ministry
Trying to talk about your calling can sound a bit narcissistic. You're in some ways convincing others that you are and can do what you claim you're called to do. But there is a healthy and helpful voice that strips away the potential for pride and an overly raised self-perception. It's the affirmation of others for your ministry. Paul had to remind Timothy that he had received the affirmation from ministry by the very fact that Paul had laid his hands on Timothy for his work (2 Timothy 1:6). Before the church in Antioch set off the missionary church-plant team of Paul and Barnabas they too had affirmed and laid hands on them in affirmation of their calling (Acts 13:1-2). Elders are to appoint other elders to the work of the ministry through the process of assessment and affirmation (Titus 1:5). All of this is to say that a man's calling to ministry is not just confirmed by others, but it must be affirmed by others if he is really called.
And we must consider the source of that affirmation. Some young men have been told by little old ladies in their church that they are "the next Billy Graham" and grow a big head, thinking that they are called to ministry when really they lack competence. Not everyone's voice carries equal weight in affirming your call. You don't want to be like the girl who was told she could sing all her life, show up at the "American Idol" auditions and finally hear the brutal truth. Certain authority must carry the day in affirming your calling. First among that authority must be spiritual authority, such as the elders of your local church. Secondarily would be leaders in the role similar to the one you are pursuing. A final voice of affirmation would be the greater body of the local church speaking into your desire and competency.
This is why I believe that assessment teams and even — if conducted well — ordination councils can help affirm those callings. If you do not have the affirmation of your local elders in the ministry you are pursuing, you aren't called to it. If you don't have the green light from an assessment team that is seeking to help you and the church then you are likely not called to that ministry and should pursue something else. I would commend you to be very wise about listening and paying heed to the direction, council and wisdom given to you from proper voices speaking into your calling. Don't run off into something you're not affirmed for.
Opportunity For Ministry
This leads to the second relationship in this "fork in the road." That relationship is the most important one, and it is the relationship of a man with God. It is the act of Providence. Many feel they are called to ministry, but never find the opportunity open to them for ministry. That's because God is giving the deciding vote "no" to them. Providence has dictated something else.
John Newton explains it this way;
That which finally evidences a proper call is a correspondent opening in Providence, by a gradual train of circumstances pointing out the means, the time, the place, of actually entering upon the work.
"A correspondent opening" means that God has decided the when and the where, and the role of the work of ministry for the man. The door is open for ministry. Newton says, "If it be the Lord’s will to bring you into his ministry, he has already appointed your place and service." God has the final and ultimate say in whether a man is called to ministry and his hand of Providence gives that affirmation.
This does not mean that everyone in ministry is actually called. Some have disqualified themselves by lack of character or competency. But for those who have walked the path so far and found "yes" answers to each question (desire, competency, affirmation) the opening of Providence stands as a legitimate means to ascertain one's calling.
Even though I was convinced I was called to the work I was interviewing for and desired deeply, God's hand of Providence in shutting the door on me was the right one. I was not called to that work. In some ways that can only be seen in hindsight, but if we reject or push against the affirmation of God in Providence we will only do ourselves harm.
This is why Providence stands as one of the final signposts of understanding a calling. When pursued through the right processes initially God's final word can be encouraging even if the answer is "no." I look back on the several (many dozen, to be honest) times that God has given me the "no" answer and now see great grace and kindness to me in keeping me from something that would have been a poor fit or a spiritual catastrophe had the door been open. His "yes" has helped me see his kindness walking forward into my calling and his "no's" have spared me from frustration and futility in other areas.
This fork in the road is important. The affirmation of the church, particularly through elders and assessment teams, is critical to understanding your calling. Watching, and submitting to the kind hand of Providence is another means of understanding how God has gifted and affirmed your ministry calling as well. The fork in the road forces us to either be humble and hear others and God, or be proud and push forward in our arrogance, instead of God's affirmative calling on us.
Some Questions for Discovery
1. What gifts, skills and passions have the elders of your local church affirmed in you?
2. If you feel called to ministry have you submitted yourself to assessment for that ministry by local church leaders and other leaders in a similar role to affirm (or deny) that calling?
3. Have you followed the council and wisdom of your spiritual leaders in making ministry calling decisions?
4. Has God opened a door for you in ministry? If not what you do believe this says about your calling?
5. If God has opened a door for you in ministry have you taken the first steps of assessing desire, gifting and received the affirmation of your spiritual leadership? If so then God's open door is an indication of your calling.