The great 19th century pastor, Charles Spurgeon, was committed to training young men for pastoral ministry. One of the ways he did this was by giving regular lectures to the young men attending his Pastors’ College. Spurgeon wanted to prepare the young men for the rigors of ministry:
The solemn work with which the Christian ministry concerns itself demands a man’s all, and that all at its best. To engage in it half-heartedly is an insult to God and man.
Ministry methods have changed over the decades, but the challenges and joys of ministry remain the same. Spurgeon’s lectures to his students are just as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.
The Priority of Confirming Your Call
One of the most pressing issues in Spurgeon’s mind was the reality that many men who were pastors actually weren’t called to ministry. As Spurgeon surveyed the religious landscape of his day, he came to the conclusion that many churches were failing primarily because the men leading them weren’t called by God to be pastors. He said:
That hundreds have missed their way, and stumbled against a pulpit is sorrowfully evident from the fruitless ministries and decaying churches which surround us. 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.
Churches were fruitless and failing because the men leading those churches had “missed their way,” when it came to the divine call to ministry. When a man who is not called to ministry tries to lead a church, the results are often disastrous.
With this potential disaster always looming in front of him, Spurgeon pressed his students to confirm that God had indeed called them into the ministry.
O my brethren, make sure work of it while you are yet in this retreat; and diligently labour to fit yourselves for your high calling. You will have trials enough, and woe to you if you do not go forth armed from head to foot with armour of proof. You will have to run with horsemen, let not the footmen weary you while in your preliminary studies. The devil is abroad, and with him are many. Prove your own selves, and may the Lord prepare you for the crucible and the furnace which assuredly await you.
Spurgeon offered his students three ways by which they might test whether or not they were called to the ministry. The first sign of a call to ministry was an all-encompassing, inescapable desire to for the work of ministry. He said:
In order to a true call to the ministry there must be an irresistible, overwhelming craving and raging thirst for telling to others what God has done to our own souls…
Spurgeon was convinced that a man called to ministry simply would not be happy in other lines of work. The man called to ministry had a “fire in his bones”, an inescapable drive that compelled him into ministry. Spurgeon placed significant weight on this internal drive, saying:
We must feel that woe is unto us if we preach not the gospel; the word of God must be unto us as fire in our bones, otherwise, if we undertake the ministry, we shall be unhappy in it, shall be unable to bear the self-denials incident to it, and shall be of little service to those among whom we minister.
The second sign of a call to ministry was an aptness for teaching. In Spurgeon’s experience, many men who desired to be in ministry were simply unable to teach. An inability to teach was a sign that a man was probably not called to pastoral ministry.
God equips each part of his creation to fulfill his purposes. He gives the birds wings to fly. The “leviathan” wasn’t intended by God to fly, and would make a fool of itself if it tried to fly. In the same way, the man who is not called to ministry will find himself unable to preach.
God certainly has not created behemoth to fly and should leviathan have a strong desire to ascend with the lark, it would evidently be an unwise aspiration, since he is not furnished with wings. If a man be called to preach, he will be endowed with a degree of speaking ability, which he will cultivate and increase. If the gift of utterance be not there in a measure at the first, it is not likely that it will ever be developed.
One of the ways that a man can test whether he has the ability to preach is by actually preaching to a congregation. This practice, though it may be somewhat painful for those in the congregation, gives a man honest feedback on his aptitude for teaching:
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.
The third, and final, sign of a man’s calling is that men and women are actually brought to Christ through his work. The salvation of souls under a man’s ministry was, in a sense, the divine “seal” of God’s approval of that ministry:
…it seems to me, that as a man to be set apart to the ministry, his commission is without seals until souls are won by his instrumentality to the knowledge of Jesus.
If a man labored for quite some time without ever seeing any fruit, the man’s calling should be brought into question.
The problem of uncalled men entering the ministry has not gone away. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need churches that are led by men who are firmly convinced that God has called them into his service. As we interact with those who are considering a call to ministry, we would be wise to heed the words of Spurgeon.