A Lightning Bolt It Was Not (My “Call To Ministry”)

high-voltage-1089875-mA lightning bolt it was not. There was no Luther shock from the sky charging me instantaneously in to ministry. I have known guys like that; successful or not, living in some other world, business, IT, entertainment, what have you. And one day, God suddenly and quite often unexpectedly “calls them to ministry”. They drop everything like it’s hot and like Abraham, follow obediently to only God knows where.

But neither was it an ever-present undercurrent; something that had always been there. I’ve known those guys too. The ones who always knew that they wanted to be a pastor. They started preaching when they were nine and became a deacon at ten, hit the preaching circuit at eleven and there was really never any other road for them to travel. Friends and family alike affirm that they could never imagine anything else. In fact, I have a friend who, at age four, lined up his teddy bears to preach sermons to them. This was not me. In fact, if you told many of the people from my youth that I had become a pastor they would likely tell you to shut the front door in disbelief. 

And neither did I go kicking and screaming into ministry. It was never as though God twisted my arm behind my back until I gave in. It was a natural progression as my path simply seemed to lay itself  down smoothly step by step. It was an evolution more than it was a revolution.

18 or so years ago, I found myself teaching the adult Sunday Morning Bible Study for the church we were a part of (I taught an 18-week redemptive historical study of John 1 among other things). In many ways, I felt inadequate for the task (then again, it could have been the material I chose), so I enrolled in a distance-learning seminary program. Except for the fact that the assignments didn’t have due dates, it was a great idea. So, except for the fact that I didn’t do my assignments, it was a great idea. It just wasn’t the right idea for me.

During this time, I was working at a Christian treatment center for women and adolescent girls battling eating disorders. Our company had some lay-offs after 9/11 and I remember asking myself what would happen if I did lose my job. Would I simply open the Want Ads and find something else to pay the bills? It was a great job and I loved my co-workers, but I wasn’t passionate about it. It was just a good way to pay the bills. Though I didn’t audibly hear God’s voice, I knew, as clearly as you can, that God was telling me He wanted me to “make, mature and multiply disciples.”

So I told my wife Kristi that I thought we should move somewhere and take seminary seriously. At the time you could not do a full seminary degree in Phoenix. Without missing a beat, she asked: “OK, where are we moving?” “Well, crap in a basket,” I thought. I had no idea where we were going.  After requesting information from 20 or so seminaries, we ended up in Louisville, KY where I attended Southern Seminary.

I went to seminary with absolutely no-way, no-how, never-ever intention of being a pastor. In fact, when professors would make comments like, “When you’re pastoring and . . . “, I would internally snicker. I was sure I had the angle on this. I would get my MDiv, transfer to another seminary and get my PhD. Then I would be a book-writing, ETS paper-presenting professor. I would have all the cool parts of teaching theology and none of the crap of dealing with people’s lives. But God often picks the unlikely ones to be His ambassadors. That way, there’s no explanation for success other than God’s faithfulness.

Around half-way through my MDiv, two things happened fairly simultaneously. First, I took a J-Term class on “The Doctrine Of The Church” with Mark Dever. Though there was nothing I hadn’t heard before, I had honestly never been challenged to put it all together in a way that forced me to consider the role of the Church in God’s plan of redemption. As a church member, I had rarely been challenged to see my role in God’s story as anything more than attending a weekly performance. I began to develop a conviction for seeing God’s people develop real community.

Around the same time, my Grandpa passed away. Being the token seminary student, the family asked if we would fly back and do the memorial. Never having done a memorial before, not knowing what I was doing and nervous as all get-out, I stumbled my way through the memorial and graveside services. Afterwards, my Dad said something to me that has stuck to this day. He said “You could affect more lives from the pulpit than in the classroom.”

The only way I can describe what happened next is to say that God simply broke my heart for the Church. I wanted to make, mature and multiply disciples. I wanted to serve God’s people and teach them to serve one another. I wanted to help people understand and apply the Bible better. I wanted to see people love Jesus and live more like Him.

On the way back to Kentucky, I told Kristi that I thought God was “calling me to be a pastor.” After few bars of the “I didn’t sign up to be a pastor’s wife blues”, she affirmed that God did indeed seem to be leading us that way. God had not only seemed to call me but also equip me with a particular skill set that lends itself to public teaching and interaction. After prayer, we found ourselves serving in a church in rural KY. But that’s a story for another day.

I tell you this rambling tale because I worry that, because we have professionalized the ministry, we tend to idealize the role of pastor. Many people have come to believe that “ministry” is somehow out of reach. But my story demonstrates that anyone can find themselves on an unexpected journey.The “call to ministry” certainly looks different for different people. But the point is that pastors are normal people who, somewhere along the way, felt prompted to give their lives in the service of others. No matter how they got there, lightning bolt, kicking and screaming, life-long desire or unexpected turns, they have had a long journey and they need to hear from you more often than when you’re upset about something.

What Is the “Call To Ministry”?

mountain-road-631699-mAs you might imagine in light of my recent announcement, I have been wrestling with a lot of questions regarding the nature of “ministry”, vocational and otherwise., especially exiting ministry.

It’s very rare to meet someone who has initiated their own exit from vocational ministry under good terms. Instead, we are bombarded with stories of hidden transgressions, greed, “authoritarianism”, power grabs and in general, lots of people who try to hold on to something long after they should have let it go.

Of course, all of this is wrapped up with the question of what we mean when we speak of the “call to ministry”. At least a couple of major problems problems seem to be clear in American Evangelicalism’s understanding/practice of “ministry” and one’s call to it or not.

First, is everyone who just wants to help others “called to ministry”? We most often use the phrase in relation to people who are considering vocational ministry; being paid to help others, particularly in a church setting. We use the phrase much less often referring to someone who simply wants to “give service, care, or aid” which is the definition of the word! I mean, after all, isn’t every Believer given the task of making, maturing and multiplying disciples (Matthew 28:18-20)? In other words, when we say that someone is “called to ministry”, we usually mean that someone is seeking to enter vocational ministry rather than simply giving their life to helping others. This is not necessarily a good or a bad thing but let’s clarify our terms. 

Second, there seems to be some disagreement and even confusion as to whether or not everyone who is “called to ministry” (here in the vocational) is also called or qualified to also be an elder. I’ve known churches in which multiple people are on “paid staff”, participating in the shepherding of the people and yet some have the title “Pastor” because they are an official elder while others are given the title “Minister” because, though they may certainly “minister”, they are not “Elders”.

And yet we still haven’t answered what we actually mean when we say that someone is “called to ministry”. For now, I will use the phrase to refer to the perceived “God-given desire” to enter into vocational eldering within the local church. Though we might certainly use the phrase in other ways, I come from a background in which this is what is most often meant by the phrase.

I think it’s important that we use the phrase “call” to ministry. As it’s understood in Protestant circles, this means that God gives certain people the desire to enter into vocational ministry. We assert that “with the calling, God will provide the equipping” and try to actually discourage some people from taking this career route. As I’ve said earlier: “a good seminary or wise leaders (those things are not always the same) will try to discourage potential pastors with such dire warnings as: “If you can picture yourself doing anything else, go do that instead” and, “If you’re heart’s not in it, step aside.”

It’s important to discern as best we can whether or not someone feels led by God to enter this vocation for several reasons. I can think of no other career in which someone will be hurt so much by the very people they are giving their lives to care for. I can think of no other job in which your “job performance” is perceived to be tied to your own spiritual health. But I’ve said all of this before. James says that not everyone should be up front teaching because “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness”.

Since (at least for the sake of this piece) I am equating the “call to ministry” with becoming a paid elder within a local church, it certainly helps to look at the qualifications of elders. Found in Titus and 1 Timothy 3 (with precedence being set in Acts 6 and elsewhere), with the exception of “the ability to teach”, we are generally looking at things we would desire for every mature Believer. But the ability to teach seems to be a gift rather than a calling so there must be something else to the “call to ministry”.

Paul gives us a clue that there is indeed some sort of “ministry calling in 1 Timothy 3:1: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” Though this seems to have been a well-known saying in Paul’s day, it’s truth rings clear today. There are certain people who “aspire to the office of overseer”.

We see that there is indeed a certain desire within certain individuals to serve in this “office” within the local church. There also seems to be no indication that every Believer striving for maturity will have this aspiration. Every follower of Jesus is called to minister but not every follower of Jesus is called to “ministry”, at least in the sense in which we have come to use the phrase.

And, at least as I currently understand things, it all seems to hinge on this “aspiration” in certain people. It must be people who possess certain qualities of every mature Believer, they must be able to teach, but they must also desire to “elder”.

Which has led me to question whether or not the “call to ministry”, or, to serve as an elder, vocational or otherwise, which seems to coincide with the “aspiration” Paul refers to, is permanent. In other words, I have no doubt that I was “called to ministry”. I have no regrets and I would do most things the same again. But, somewhere along the way, my “ministry focus” has shifted. I no longer “aspire to the office of overseer”. I still love people. And, as much as God allows, I will continue to give myself for the sake of others, but there’s something about the “office” of which Paul speaks that I no longer “aspire” to.

It seems to me that there are a great number of people who feel trapped in ministry because they have been shamed into believing that the “call to ministry” is permanent and that they are somehow in sin if they no longer “aspire” to the office of elder. All of this, of course, is tied to the professionalization of pastors, but that’s a thought for another day.

As I’ve wrestled through all of this over the past months, I’ve come to believe that many of our current ministry models actually hinder actual ministry. Have cut off many people from everyday opportunities to serve because we have relegated those opportunities to the vocational minister. But as Paul makes clear, the “minister’s” work is actually to equip the people to . . . guess what, MINISTER! (Ephesians 4:11-13).

I think it’s time we questioned a lot of the ways we do things. Is seminary the best way to prepare “ministers”? What might happen if we minimized the role of “paid ministers”? What might happen if we encouraged people to follow God’s call on their lives with freedom, celebrating the fact that there may indeed be seasons to offices. What if we all simply gave ourselves to the service of others?

What if we gave pastors the freedom . . .

As you can tell, I’m still wrestling with a lot of issues.

I know that God has not revoked my true “call to minister” even though I no longer “aspire to the office of overseer”. I feel a freedom that I know many vocational ministers do not. I’m wrestling publicly with these issues because I want the best for the Church and its “ministers”.