“Can you tell us a little about your call to the ministry…”
I’ve gotten that question, I believe, in every church interview I’ve had. And every time I talked about how the Lord called me to himself and then a bit of jumbled mess about not being sure in college but really having a compulsion to preach. I share a story about when I was really laboring with that and a professor said, “If you can do something else you should do it.” Preaching has been like a fire in my bones that I can’t not do…so I figure that’s my internal call.
I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the question and even the idea. And I know that as a result I’ve said things and felt things in my soul that maybe I shouldn’t have. Let me explain.
Do You Feel Called?
I’ve recently read a book, Do You Feel Called by God?, written by Michael Bennett which addresses this very question. Bennett shares his experience of trying to answer that question. He, though, did something I never really took the time to do. Bennett went to the Bible and asked whether or not this idea of an internal call is biblical. As he asks,
“Does the Bible as a whole, and the New Testament in particular, teach that Christian people must have an inner sense of divine call before they can be considered for ministry ordination, missionary service or a position within some Christian enterprise?”
Bennett devotes a few chapters to showing that all throughout the Bible there is no inner-call. “Feeling called, says Bennett, finds no support in Scripture.” In fact this whole concept has a few dangers attached to it. First, it can excuse laziness. We can hide our disobedience behind “not feeling called”. Secondly, we can begin feeling like failures if God calls us into another type of ministry.
Bennett did not mention this third one, but I believe it is also dangerous because what recourse do you have when somebody says, “I feel called by God to do this particular thing”? When somebody judges their fitness for a particular ministry based upon feelings it can be quite difficult to measure this by objective standards. Who hasn’t seen somebody working in a ministry they are obviously not suited for because they feel compelled by some sort of inner voice to continue on in a ministry. To argue with them is to argue with God’s call.
Bennett looks at the Scriptures but also the life of Hudson Taylor. He looks at how Taylor was called to China and sees there six stages of Taylor’s call. These six stages, he says, “should be motivating forces for those considering a life totally devoted to gospel work.” These six stages can really be summed up in asking whether or not the person is a believer, do they want to do it, and are they qualified.
He makes a compelling argument that every person is already in the ministry. If you are a Christian you aren’t called into ministry by some inner-voice. When you are saved, you are newly born into the ministry. The question is what type of ministry. And that really comes down to what you are good at, what you enjoy, and whether or not the church has affirmed it. These spiritual gifts aren’t discovered in a vacuum but rather as one goes about doing various ministries.
You will notice that missing from the list of qualifications of elders and deacons is an “inner call”. It’s just not there. So why then do we add extra-biblical qualifications? I wonder if what we are really asking with this “inner call” is whether or not somebody wants to do it. Do you feel compelled into this ministry? Do you desire the work of an elder? But that makes us uncomfortable so we’ve sanctified our language a bit. It’s sounds so much better to say, “God is calling me into this ministry” rather than saying, “I’d really like to preach”. But the Bible speaks the way of the latter more than the former.
Do you want to? Are you qualified? Do others recognize this?
Then do it.
A Better Way Forward?
This isn’t denying that God doesn’t sovereignly work on your heart and give you desires. It isn’t denying that God orchestrates events in our lives to chase us down and open our eyes to various specific ministries. It’s just trying to take the mysticism out of this and not shackle unbiblical qualifications onto prospective ministers.
I know that we pastors like to stand before our people and talk about how God hounded us down and bent our knuckles and got us to submit to the work of pastoring. But Scripture presents a different story. It presents us not ministering under compulsion but willingly. We don’t pastor because we once heard a voice from heaven and it drove us into the pulpit. We pastor because we want to…even in the times that we don’t want to.
I’ve also read and been told that what will keep you in the pulpit is this inner call. I’ve heard, “unless a man believes he is called of God, he will find it difficult to survive the stresses of the ministry”. It’s true. But why do we assume that it is the inner call which does this and not the external call of a local church? And is it possible that the growing number of suicides among us pastors is because we feel trapped?
Ministry is tough. And there might be a season when we actually do need to take a break from that particular ministry. Many of these men feel like they cannot go on in ministry. They are shocked, disillusioned, burnt-out, depressed, and deeply broken. Now place that unbiblical weight of an irrevocable internal call and they don’t have anywhere to turn. To continue would likely mean an even deeper spiral into depression. But to quit would be far worse—it’d be living in direct disobedience to the Lord.
I’m still pastoring today because I want to. If it becomes more compulsion than willingness I’ll know that I’m doing a disservice to my soul, to my family, and to the church I pastor. Then it’ll be time to step into a different sphere of ministry. And I wouldn’t be running from the Lord.
I would highly recommend getting Bennett’s book. It’s a wonderfully biblical treatment of a topic that I think many are confused on.