I’m sitting here in my study contemplating life in the ministry. First of all, I should qualify that statement: by “in the ministry,” I mean the vocational work of being employed by a church for what we call “ministry.” I know that we are all supposed to be ministers, or servants, of one another and of Christ our Lord. That’s a thought I’ll come back to later, perhaps, but let’s accept our normal vocabulary here in Baptist life. It may not be ideal, but it’s what we’ve got.
Next year will mark my twenty-fifth year in ministry service to Southern Baptist churches. In those years, I’ve mainly served churches under 200, and in fact, under 100 in attendance. I’ve been to a state Baptist college, a non-denominational seminary, and two very-Baptist, but not officially Southern Baptist, seminaries. (And at that, two that are very, very different. Probably a subject for another post.) I have done youth work, pastoral work, associate pastor work, and even a stint serving as de jure associational missionary.
Alongside that, though, I’ve also worked in a funeral home, as a pizza delivery guy, as a fast-food restaurant manager, and in logistics management. I’ve waffled back and forth between working within the church and finding my employment outside and serving in the church as a volunteer. I still struggle with that impulse, and who knows where I will land? As it sits, I’ve got a Master’s degree that qualifies me to…be a pastor. And a BA in Biblical studies and speech. Kind of typecast myself through education, though maybe the history Ph.D. will broaden my horizons.
When I struggle with whether or not I should stay a Baptist pastor, I typically reach out to some of my wiser friends for guidance and counsel. (Barring that, I ask my blogging buddies.) One of the common refrains that I’ve heard in both personal counsel and from seminary leaders is that pastors who struggle with their work should “go back to your calling and rest in that.” I’ve tried that. In the darkness of the night, in the face of angry opposition to simple, Biblical principles, in response to hatred poured out on my children for being “different,” in the face of a deep depression that covered two years and one serious lean toward suicide, let me say this plainly:
My call wasn’t enough. In fact, it was a shove closer to the precipice of despair and giving up. Which is not the same as surrender to grace of God.
So, despite my respect for those forebears and wisdom-bearers who encourage ministers to “go back to their call” when times get tough, I want to argue with that idea. Going back to my call simply put me more aware of my failure and inadequacy. After all, “God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called” (Another cliche that should probably disappear rapidly. Do you want your cardiologist to claim that she’s called and God will qualify her? Um, no. She needs to get qualified before she cuts.), right? So, my failure means that not only am I not keeping my hand to the plow and not looking back, I am rejecting how God has qualified me. It’s not simply that I am inadequate to the task, but all the things I need have been given to me and I still failed.
And yes, many of us think we have failed despite the tweets and books from pastors of large-numbered churches and seminary professors assuring us that small numbers don’t mean failure. Sell me that when you resign your 6-digits and assistants and tenure and sabbaticals and have to preach your heart out, then listen to complaints about your kids, then counsel someone trying to escape an abusive marriage, then have to answer to your personnel committee about why you didn’t make sure the youth minister filed his time sheet…and why attendance was down on a holiday weekend. All in the same 10-hour span you’re preaching sermons that you wrote yourself without any research helpers or student interns to look stuff up for you. We feel like failures despite your bestsellers and conferences that we can’t afford assuring us we’re not.
If “my calling” is not going to sustain me in ministry, then what will? That’s a question I have been wrestling strongly with for the last year. And here is my answer:
Maybe it’s not about my call. Or, for you, fellow pastor/minister/elder/whatever-the-cool-churches-are-calling-it-now, maybe your calling was never meant to sustain you in ministry, much less drive you in ministry. Why?
Here’s what I think: I’ve read the New Testament several times, in several translations, as well as in Greek. And while I see the narrative presence of people called to serve Christ directly, every one of them also ends up being someone we call an “apostle.” Every one. There are a dozen guys in the Gospels, then there’s one fellow in Acts. Anyone else we see in particular service, we do not see how they began to work. Unless you count Timothy, who Paul seems to have brought with him in Acts 16, but there is no “bright light” moment for him. Instead, we have in 1 Timothy the idea that one should “desire” the responsibility of being an elder and in James 3 the warning that not many should be teachers because of judgment. Reads like there is some measure of personal choice here, not just a “calling” that we have to do…or else. Now, of course, the Old Testament prophets had such a calling, but New Testament pastors and Old Testament prophets are not the same thing. For that matter, New Testament apostles and New Testament pastors are not the same thing. (Check Ephesians 4:11-13 and see if that’s what it says.)
When you think about it, some of our problems in the modern church actually stem from believing we are called just like prophets and apostles. Prophets and apostles were the bearers of God’s inerrant words (look at who wrote much of both Testaments) and spoke with an authority that pastors and teachers do not share. We help people understand God’s Word, serving the church by doing so rather than commanding the church as Peter, Paul, or James did. (Or commanding the nation, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah….) As we have allowed men and women to stand up and claim an inherent right to preach because of their “call,” we have not rightly handled examining their character or seeking the rest of Ephesians 4:11-13 and seeing if they build up the church or tear it down. We just back off and allow their “call” to override.
And when a pastor stumbles, the stress is about his “calling” and whether he is wasting it through his personal troubles or is being taken away from it by sinful people. We seem more concerned with protecting the calling than actually caring about the people involved in a situation.
I would suggest to you that the core of someone’s ministry is not based in their calling. The foundation of serving Christ’s church is salvation by grace.
First of all, salvation is the common ground for all of us. It’s a common need for all humanity, and it’s a common experience for all who are in the Church. All who are in the Church are saved by the grace of God because of the blood of Jesus. We start our ministry at this point: that we who are ministers were just as much in need of God’s grace as those we minister among. And when we are in need ourselves, we go back to this point: we contributed the need to our salvation, not the solution. God did not save me, or you, or any great preacher in history, because God needed a preacher. He saved us because He is a grace-giving, loving, merciful Father.
Second, salvation is the basis of my relationship with Jesus. That relationship is not based on what I can do for Him, but on His grace and the response of my worship and obedience to what He commands. Which means that if “ministry” this year is full-time preaching and next year full-time burger-flipping, it is all appropriate if it is done in obedience to walking with Jesus. If God in His wisdom sees fit for life to put me in an office or a warehouse, have I failed at my calling? Perhaps, but I have not failed at my relationship with Him. So is that “calling” such a big deal?
Third, salvation reminds me that God saved the person that I am, the personality that I have. While the fruit of the Spirit should be evidenced in my growth, I have certain quirks, strengths, and weaknesses that were not removed when I became a “new creation in Christ.” That means they can be used by God in some way as I serve Him. Rather than being called to become someone or something else, I am saved to serve Him as He has made me.
This may not be persuasive, but I think we’re starting at the wrong point when we emphasize the call to ministry as if it makes us something more or other than followers of Christ. I think we need to remember, and encourage others to remember, to go back not to a moment or a process of following in a vocation but instead to that moment where we recognized that we were sinners in need of the Saviour, that the grace of God intervened in our hell-bound life and bought us with His blood.
Because that’s an undeniable reality, one that we cannot invalidate, one that we cannot have a bad day that removes us from.