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What Does it Mean to be Called to Ministry?

(Lisa Robinson)

One of the essays in my application to DTS, was responding to how I knew I was called into ministry.  While I understood that question to be more related to affirming events that led me to apply to seminary, I find that the idea of being called into ministry has not only been a popular catch phrase but also bears some examination.   I say this because I believe the call to ministry has been designated as a special call to select individuals based on God’s selection for specific ministry roles.  I do believe that has some merit but I think it requires some reconciliation to the biblical witness of Christian ministry.

First, I think the ‘call to ministry’ as designated for select individuals is misleading.  All Christians are called into ministry because all Christians have spiritual gifts that are to be employed for service to the body of Christ (1 Peter 4:10).  That doesn’t require some specified direction but a working out of those gifts as we grow in our Christian walk and seek to serve the body.  1 Corinthians 12:12-24 identifies that everyone has a part to play in the growth of the body (also supported Ephesians 4:16).  I don’t dismiss the fact that God may have specific roles or even specialized ministries that He directs us to, but it is more indicative of our progress in the faith.

Second, the New Testament witness to the concept of calling is predominantly related to the salvific call of election.  God calls individuals into the body of Christ but not into individual ministry roles.   It is through service to the body that one works out there inclination. There is much to be said for passion and desire.  I heard a popular preacher say once that if you want to know what you should be doing pay attention to what drives you and what bothers you when its off.  I don’t believe that should be equated with a critical, fault finding mission, but an inclination of things that God has placed within us.  This is a process.  It doesn’t happen overnight. But in time, we will find ourselves inclined and passionate in certain areas of ministry that we will gravitate towards.

I don’t dismiss the fact that individuals may have some kind of revelatory event that designates their direction in ministry, but I think this sets a questionable precedent when expected as the guide.  I believe this  relies on the over-used and abuse of Proverbs 29:18 as I wrote about here.  Yes, desires can lead to vision and specific things we should be doing in Christian ministry.  But I am not convinced that is the predominant way one is called into ministry but may give us a guide to what God will have us do.

By this point, I can hear the protests.  ‘What about Abraham or Moses or even Paul?  Were they not called into their specific roles?’  Paul does identify that he was called to be an apostle.  But here too, I think it bears examination of why these individuals were called and how that related to God’s revelation of Himself.  I believe the application for us to consider that God sets in motion what He wishes to accomplish.  In the case of these individuals, God chose them to bear witness to his progressive revelation that was culminated in Christ.  Paul apostolic witness was to transmit the mystery in Christ that was previously unrevealed but had to now be made known (Ephesians 3:1-7; Colossians 1:25-27).

Some may insist that the role of pastor/overseer/shepherd requires a special call.  But I don’t believe that is the case.  It is a question gifts, maturity and the capacity to fulfill the pastoral obligations as outlined in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-9.  Paul tells Timothy, if anyone desires to have these offices, here is the criteria (1 Timothy 3:1) NOT ‘if anyone feels they’ve been called’.  Here too, I believe is an instance where the process of Christian maturity should identify those who have the desire and capacity.  That doesn’t dismiss that God may have intended for them to fulfill that specific role, but it is not so much driven by some special call as it is a walking out of their Christian faith.   Not everyone will have this capacity or desire.

Moreover, those individuals who lead should be affirmed by others regarding their capacity to fulfill the criteria identified in scripture.  Here is where the idea of calling as a revelatory event can lead to danger, though not in all cases.  How many congregations are led by pastors who felt ‘called’ to be a pastor and may be able to preach/exhort but do not possess the qualifications outlined in scripture?  Rather, they are affirmed because of a self-proclaimed call and have the capacity to rally people to their cause rather than a carrying out of pastoral obligations according to scripture.  In the case of poor teaching and theology, the congregation may not have any idea that person should not be leading them but relies on their persona and charismatic ability instead.  I shudder to think how many congregations are led and hurt by such individuals.

While this notion of call might be not jive with the popular understanding of what is means to be called to ministry, I am convicted by scripture that the call to ministry is not so much a call but a walk.  We step into ministry that is affirmed by our spiritual gifts, abilities, desires and identification by others.  This I believe, bears much more fruit than relying on a ‘call’.

 

17 Responses to “What Does it Mean to be Called to Ministry?”

  1. Lisa,
    Thank you for your post. I appreciated your candidness as you approached the topic. This is certainly one that hits close to home, as I have recently graduated seminary, yet hold no formal ministry position. I remember in 7th grade, when I felt God “call” me into ministry while reading Isaiah 61:1. Immediately, I knew that my ultimate purpose in life was to proclaim the message of the gospel. Now, I understand that for me, it is a personal call of priority. It is not about how I will receive a paycheck.
    Regarding whether leadership within the church is a special calling, I do believe we use the term as a “trump card” too often. 1 Corinthians 12 gives every member of the Body of Christ a responsibility based on giftedness. We are all go and make disciples. Individual opportunity arises from both circumstances and divine direction as illustrated by Philip in Acts 8. When we get so caught up in the long-term “calling” of God, we miss out on the daily opportunities He…

  2. My hope is to see, one day, this accurate doctrinal expression go from being recognized on paper and applauded by leaders and Teachers in the body of Christ to being the predominant teaching on the matter in pulpits and seminaries. It offers a theologically/biblically sound emancipation for so many who have been misled by bad concepts, sincere or not, and thrust into ministry from “impressions” or whatever consanguineous ideas they were taught, apart from or with very marginalized doctrinal emphasis regarding the issue itself.

    Thank you Lisa.

  3. Excellent article, Lisa. I appreciate you writing on this topic. I teach that gifting + opportunity = calling. And this is true for every believer. This is not to deny that some may receive a special revelation or affirmation of their calling, but it is to deny that this kind of experience should be seen as normative, even for pastors.

    It’s ironic that those who insist on such a direct, extraordinary calling almost always refer to the calling of OT prophets and NT apostles to support their assertion—despite the fact that this direct commissioning by God was one of the very things that distinguished these men as prophets and apostles! Unless we claim that pastors are to have an apostolic commission(!), I see nothing in Scripture that would describe, or cause us to expect, such a direct, extraordinary calling for the elders/pastors of a local church.

    Thank you for opposing a very common tradition that lacks biblical support!

  4. Lisa:

    Here, Here! I totally agree. The notion of “called into ministry” as it is commonly used is a concept foreign to Scripture (for the non-prophet).

    “God calls individuals into the body of Christ but not into individual ministry roles. It is through service to the body that one works out there inclination. There is much to be said for passion and desire. ”

    The SHAPE acronym is a good one we use to help others understand how God has designed them and where they should look to serve. Not sure who came up with it.
    S – spiritual gifts
    H – heart (aka passion)
    A – abilities / talents
    P – personality
    E – experience

    MikeB
    @g1antfan

  5. – Notification of comments turned on –

  6. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for your article– I think it is very helpful to approach the question of calling in the way you have described. Though I did not always think this way, to me it has become quite clear people such as the apostle Paul were called in a very special way because of the uniqueness of the task God had for them to complete. We should not expect calling in this dramatic way to be the norm for everyone, though all believers are called to play their own part in the work of the kingdom, as God’s worksmanship (Eph 2:10). I would also agree that one’s inner motivations/desires/passions, one’s gifting (both natural and spiritual & confirmed by others), and a mature walk with the Lord (also confirmed by others), are the signposts that direct us toward fulfilling our individual callings. Talent and charisma are fine, but God is calling us to faithfulness and to Christ-likeness, things which can’t be faked (for long anyway) and must be tested over time.

  7. Lisa Robinson June 27, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Thanks for the support, guys. I expected some backlash since it does contradict popularly held concepts. I really appreciate the comments.

    @Mike B, I like that SHAPE model. It’s so interesting that you shared that because after I left the post this morning, I thought to go back and add some more to the last paragraph. I thought that not only do we step into ministry but I believe we are shaped into ministry. I believe that occurs through a variety of ways including discipline and seemingly unrelated events

  8. Like a “call” to any other vocation..the “call” to Christian ministry is tested.

    In the seminary, in the church, in the field.

  9. John from Down Under June 27, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Not that you need me to tell you but you’ve done an excellent job at demystifying the ‘call to ministry’ concept.

    It’s interesting that other than the ‘desire’ in 1 Tim 3:1, ALL the other criteria and attributes can be both externally observed and verified. One may think they are God’s gift to the church but the witness of church needs to stack up.

    I don’t mean to pick on the charismatics, NO, scrap that, I AM picking on the charismatics (they are the ones I spent 20 years with), because in those circles a flamboyant personality is often confused with divine calling. Just because someone has the gift of the gab and is ‘motivational’ or ‘inspiring’ it does not automatically render them fit for the pastoral office. I would imagine this will be less problematic in other denominations and perhaps non-existent in confessional / liturgical churches.

    As far as other ‘callings’ go it’s interesting when you read the story of William Wilberforce or Dr Paul

  10. After 27 years of pastoral ministry, I do believe in the line: “Some were called to ministry; others just went!”
    But I’ve had my share of times when I questioned whether being “in ministry” was my idea or God’s plan. In these times, I turn to God and work through my doubts in His presence. Often these struggles visit me after times of significant ministry. Prayer and rest are usually the best solution. But it has become increasingly common to hear Church leaders express doubts about calling. I wrote about this recently: How can I know if I am called to pastoral ministry?

    7 points about calling:

    http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/how-can-i-know-if-i-am-called-to-pastoral-ministry/

  11. John from Down Under June 27, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Forgot about our measly 1,000 character rambling allowance :)

    My post got cut off when I was referring to Dr Paul Brand who was an orthopaedic surgeon and “a pioneer in developing tendon transfer techniques for use in the hands of those with leprosy”. He worked with leprosy patients in India for years and as a Christian he used his vocation and skills for the glory of God.

  12. Here’s a very good audio mp3 on how to know for sure, or not, whether you have really been called:

    http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/how-do-you-know-gods-will-for-your-life/

    Try it. You’ll like it!

    .

  13. Though I have definite charismatic tendencies I would have to agree many people whether charismatic or not can to easily jump to the conclusion God is telling them something when He is not. I agree that we are all called to the ministry God wants us to be involved in and He leads different people there in different ways. It is easy to take your experience of God and make it a requirement other people have to live up to. Good post.

  14. Thanks Lisa, this is a great post and I totally agree with those saying they wish this view was taught more widely. I’ve been thinking through these issues a lot in this past year, and my views have developed a lot from where I originally stood on the “traditional” calling view.

    The book “Decision Making and the Will of God” is an awesome discussion on this topic, and I would definitely recommend it.

    There is just wayyyy too much psychology/personality/individual experience that comes into play in these sort of situations, making the subjective “impressions” people have not very reliable. I’ve even considered recently trying to survey my church on what exactly they mean when say “calling”, because I’m becoming more and more concerned with how carelessly it is thrown around with so many vague usages.

  15. @#14 Brad

    I wrote a position paper on “how the Holy Spirit guides”, this year and evaluated the three major positions. Haddon Robinson’s book “Decision Making and the Will of God” was one of the resources used to evaluate the “Wisdom” view.
    You should check out Friesen’s site. His book is considered the primary resource for this view.

    http://www.gfriesen.net

    MikeB
    @g1antfan

  16. Believe this reflects a cessationist worldview. And in this case also a reaction to “charismata” that may have not been the really thing. While a “call” alone is not sufficient qualification, without it ministry can be merely a matter of having the proper resume. I suggest reading Church Planter by Darin Patrick.

  17. Ephesians 4:11.
    It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers.

    People should not speak of what they know nothing about. If you have not experienced a personal call from God directing your paths and footsteps, then you do not know. But there are those of us that have. He directs our paths. This article depicts a “new way of doing things”. A dismissal of Gods voice. DO NOT BELIEVE THIS….. It IS A LIE, created to destroy faith in leadership!

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