Many a man has asked the question, “Am I called to pastoral ministry?” And many a wise leader has counseled him to place the matter upon the three-legged stool of aspiration, affirmation, and opportunity:
- Do you aspire to the office (1 Timothy 3:1)?
- Do others (especially your current pastors) affirm you as a faithful man who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2)?
- Has God given you an opportunity to shepherd a particular flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2)?
These are clarifying questions — but they do not clarify everything. Many who sit on this stool find that one leg seems to wobble. One man may aspire to pastor and have an opportunity, but others have voiced reservations about his readiness. A second man may aspire and receive affirmation, but God has not yet provided an opportunity. And a third man may receive affirmation and have an opportunity, but he wonders if his desires for pastoral ministry really rise to the level of godly aspiration.
For some time, I found myself as the third man. I felt a desire for ministry, but I wondered if it had been shaped too much by others’ expectations. I also wondered how much ungodliness was mixed in my motives; maybe what I really wanted was a seat at Jesus’s right hand (Mark 10:37). And I felt the weight of the question. As David Mathis writes in his book Workers for Your Joy, “The good of the church is at stake in the holy desire of its pastors. They will not long work well for her joy if it is not their joy to do such work” (47).
How can men in this position discern whether they truly aspire to shepherd God’s people? We might find clarity by asking three diagnostic questions, drawn from Peter’s charge to the elders in 1 Peter 5:1–4.
Shepherd the Flock of God
Before we turn to Peter’s diagnostics, consider what kind of calling the apostle had in mind when he addressed “the elders among you” (1 Peter 5:1) — lest we aspire to an eldership of our own imagining. Peter writes,
I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight . . . (1 Peter 5:1–2)
Shepherd the flock of God. A pastor may find himself with a host of responsibilities, but at the heart of his calling is this charge to shepherd God’s precious sheep. And at the heart of shepherding is teaching.
Peter had learned the shepherd’s teaching task first from his Lord. He had noticed how Jesus, seeing a crowd wandering “like sheep without a shepherd,” did what a true shepherd would: “He began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). He had heard how this good shepherd taught and kept teaching, and how the sheep heard his voice (John 10:27–28). And then, of course, he had received his Lord’s threefold command to feed his sheep (John 21:15–17) — a feeding Jesus had already linked with his words (John 6:57–58, 63).
And so, following Jesus’s ascension, the apostle-shepherd taught and taught and taught — among the eleven (Acts 1:15), to the crowds (Acts 2:14), all through Jerusalem (Acts 5:28–29), across the Jew-Gentile divide (Acts 10:34–43), and then eventually by letter, including to those “elect exiles of the Dispersion” who received 1 Peter (verse 1). For Peter, to shepherd Jesus’s lambs meant, preeminently, to feed them Jesus’s words.
Now, the word shepherding does not exhaust an elder’s job description. Elders also “exercise oversight,” as Peter says — governing the church’s structures, guarding the church from threats, guiding the church through difficult decisions. Even here, however, teaching saturates the pastoral task, for how else will elders govern and guard and guide except by God’s word?
“Pastors are first and foremost Bible men — men who preach and teach and counsel God’s word.”
Pastors, then, are first and foremost Bible men — men who preach and teach and counsel God’s word in public and private, from the pulpit and the hospital chair, in season and out. At its core, this is the “noble task” to which we aspire (1 Timothy 3:1).
Three Tests for Godly Aspiration
With the what of eldership in view, Peter proceeds to describe the how in three pairs of “not this, but that”:
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2–3)
Here, Peter points us to where our aspiration comes from, where our aspiration aims, and what shape our aspiration takes.
Where does your aspiration come from?
Shepherd the flock of God . . . not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you.
For some years now, perhaps, the word pastor has seemed stamped on your future. Maybe your father pastored. Maybe friends and mentors have encouraged you to pastor. Maybe you’re currently a seminary student. Either way, pastoring has become entwined with both your own sense of identity and others’ expectations. But now you wonder whether you really want to do this work.
“Jesus wields the rod and the staff with his whole soul, and he looks for men who will embody that same shepherd’s heart.”
In Peter’s day, it seems, some men were tempted to become elders “under compulsion” — prodded by others’ wishes or a mere internal sense of oughtness rather than propelled by their own wants. Such an impulse is understandable — but, Peter writes, it is not “as God would have you” shepherd his people. Jesus, the church’s first and chief Shepherd, does not lead his sheep under compulsion. He wields the rod and the staff with his whole soul, and he looks for men who will embody that same shepherd’s heart to his sheep. So, Mathis writes, “Christ grabs his pastors by the heart; he doesn’t twist them by the arm” (46).
Christ looks for willing men. Of course, even men who shepherd “under compulsion” do so willingly in one sense. But Jesus wants a willingness that goes deeper than “Everyone else thinks I should pastor” or “I can pastor if no one else will.” He wants a willingness that reaches for the staff (rather than simply receiving it when asked) — and a willingness that keeps a man from tossing the staff when trouble comes.
Where does your aspiration aim?
Shepherd the flock of God . . . not for shameful gain, but eagerly.
Shameful gain refers, most directly, to money. (In Paul’s letter to Titus, the same word as here appears — translated “greedy for gain” — in place of the phrase “not a lover of money” in his letter to Timothy.) Those who pastor for shameful gain do so mainly because pastoring provides a paycheck — and maybe they can’t imagine how else they would make money. Ministry has lost its God-centered, Christ-exalting, soul-saving focus, and has shrunk to the size of a 401(k).
Of course, the pastorate also offers other types of shameful gain besides money. Pastoring may bring discomfort and criticism and the burden of others’ expectations, but it can also bring honor in a community, a measure of power, and, for some, a flexible work schedule without much oversight. These too are kinds of shameful gain that might draw a man to ministry. But whatever the kind, Peter buries them all beneath the word eagerly.
Eagerly overlaps some with willingly, both of them putting their finger on the animating principle in a pastor’s soul. But given the contrast with shameful gain, eagerly seems to suggest not only a deep willingness to do the work, but also a decided lack of calculation in the work.
The godly elder does not tally what he can get from the ministry and then labor (or not) accordingly. He throws himself into the work, come what may: large paycheck or small, honor or suspicion, influence or weakness, difficulty or ease. For him, the work offers its own rewards in the heavenly currency of preaching Christ and helping to lead his flock to glory. Vocational pastors will get paid for their work, as they ought — “the laborer deserves his wages” (1 Timothy 5:18) — but however much they receive, the godly know their pockets are already lined with better treasure.
What shape does your aspiration take?
Shepherd the flock of God . . . not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
If the word shepherd echoes Jesus’s charge to Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the word domineer recalls another striking conversation:
Jesus called [the twelve] to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over [or domineer over] them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.” (Mark 10:42–43)
Peter never forgot these words. More importantly, he never forgot the one who spoke them: the Lord who did not lord his authority over his people, but served and died as if he were a slave (Mark 10:44–45). However much Peter may have been tempted toward Gentile-like lordship in the years following, the power of that temptation had bled dry on the cross of his King.
So, when Peter calls the elders to set an example, he wants them to serve not only as model sheep, but also as little lower-case reflections of the chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). Christ left the highest heaven to find his sheep and bear them home upon his back, and the thought of imitating his regal humility, his lordly lowliness, makes the hearts of godly shepherds beat faster.
Do You Love Me?
Having pointed us backward, forward, and around, Peter ends his charge by lifting our eyes up:
When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:4)
Self-examination has its place on the path to eldership, and in eldership. We need some knowledge of our own hearts to sincerely aspire to the office. But the aspiration itself comes from the upward, not the inward, look.
So as we seek to discern whether our desires for eldership match God’s pattern for eldership, we may do well to return often to those Galilean shores, where before Jesus issued his threefold charge he asked his threefold question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:15–17). Do you love the voice that bid you fish for men? Do you love the glory shining on the mount? Do you love the hands that washed your feet and took your nails? Simon, son of John, do you love me?
Willingness, eagerness, and the desire to set a Christlike example rest and rise on a daily and deepening yes.