Is God calling me into pastoral ministry?
It’s a question many Christians wrestle with at some point in their life of faith. Not just in adolescence or early adulthood, but sometimes midlife, or even in approaching so-called retirement age.
The New Testament doesn’t draw neat and distinct lines between “full-time ministry” and so-called “secular work.” In whatever God, by his providence, leads us into for our day job, he calls us to do our work “not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22). Christ’s apostle charges all workers, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23–24; also Ephesians 6:6–8).
The fundamental divide is not between full-time ministry and non-ministry jobs, but this important distinction: church office. Perhaps the better question to ask — or at least where we have some specific texts to give us more clarity — is this: Am I called to the office of elder?
We should note that elders in the New Testament (also called pastors or overseers) are spiritually mature men (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Not any Christian, and not any man, but mature men. “Elder” is the same office often called “pastor” today (based on the noun pastor or shepherd in Ephesians 4:11 and its verb forms in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2). The same office is also called “overseer” in four texts (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–2; Titus 1:7). By focusing on the office, rather than simply vocational (or nonvocational) ministry, several specific texts give us some bearings.
1. Do I Aspire? (Aspiration)
First off, God wants pastors to want to do the work. He wants elders who happily give of themselves in this emotionally taxing work, “not reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Corinthians 9:7). God loves a cheerful pastor.
When the apostle Paul addresses the qualifications of pastors-elders-overseers, he first mentions aspiration. “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). God wants men who want to do the work, not men who do it simply out of a sense of duty. He grabs pastors by the heart; he doesn’t twist them by the arm.
Peter may say it most powerfully. Christ wants elders to shepherd (pastor) his flock “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2). How remarkable that pastoring from aspiration and delight, not obligation and duty, would be “as God would have you.” This is the kind of God we have — the desiring (not dutiful) God, who wants pastors who are desiring (not dutiful) pastors. Such a happy God means for the leaders of his church to do their work “with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage” to the people (Hebrews 13:17).
Practically, then, when we hear men, young and old, express an aspiration to the pastoral office, we should want our first inclination not to be to challenge it, squash it, or see if we can disavow them of it. Rather, we want to give them the benefit of the doubt, that God is at work. Such an aspiration is not a natural desire, but supernatural. Let’s start by encouraging men who would express such an unnatural heart.
Desire for the work has a role to play in the calling to church office that it may not in other work. Your day job may be something you’re able to do, but don’t enjoy, and God can work with that for a season. But a fundamental difference between pastoral ministry and every other kind of work is the necessity of desire.
Such desire is often the beginning of a pastoral calling, but it is never the entirety. Aspiration is a great place to start, but desire in and of itself does not amount to a calling. God then gives us two layers of confirmation: the affirmation of others and the real-life opportunity.
2. Am I Gifted? (Affirmation)
After sensing a subjective desire for pastoral ministry, we need to ask a more objective question about our gifting. Have I seen evidence, however small, of fruitfulness in serving others through biblical teaching and counsel? And, even more important than my own self-assessment, do others confirm my giftings for pastoral ministry?
Here the desires of the heart meet the brass tacks of the needs of others. Office in the church is not for spiritual self-actualization or merely affirming a man’s spiritual maturity, but it’s for meeting the actual needs of others. The elder qualifications are, in a sense, unremarkable. The elders of the church should not be the sum total of all spiritually qualified men in the church. Rather, from among those who are qualified, the elders are those who are willing to make extra sacrifices (for a season or the long haul) to care for the church and meet her needs. Aspiration has its vital part to play, but the call to pastoral office is not shaped mainly by the internal heart, but by external needs.
This is the opposite of the “follow your heart” perspective and “don’t settle for anything less than your dreams” ideology we so often hear in society. What’s most important in discerning God’s call is not bringing the desires of our heart to bear on the world, but letting the needs of others shape our heart.
Over time, then, a dialogue happens between what we want to do and what we find ourselves good at doing for the benefit of others. Delight in certain kinds of labor grows as real needs are being met and as others affirm our gifts and efforts. Often we’ll even discover a calling and gifting for ministry first through others’ observations and encouragement, and only later through our own aspirations.
Before you go looking for opportunities to shepherd in the future, make sure you are able to meet real spiritual needs in front of you today and seek confirmation from your current local church and Christian community.
3. Has God Opened the Door Yet? (Opportunity)
Third, and perhaps most often overlooked in Christian discussions of calling, is the actual God-given, real-world open door. You may feel called, and others may affirm your general direction, but you are not yet fully “called” to a specific pastoral ministry until God opens the door.
God in his providence does the decisive work. He started the process by giving you the aspiration; and he affirmed the direction as his Spirit produced fruit through your giftings; now he confirms that sense of calling by swinging open the right door at the right time. It is finally God, not man — and God, not self — who gives the call to pastoral office.
God the Spirit is the one who “made you overseers” (Acts 20:28).
God the Son is the one who “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11–12).
The Lord of the harvest is the one to whom we “pray earnestly . . . to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37–38).
God is the one who sends preachers. “How are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:15).
God is the master who “will set over his household” faithful and wise managers (Luke 12:42).
The Lord Jesus Christ is the one from whom we receive the ministry we are to fulfill (Colossians 4:17).
In my experience, we often leave out this final reality-check step. We say that a seminary student who aspires to preach and has received affirmation from his home church is “called to ministry.” Well, not yet. He aspires to full-time ministry, thank God, and some people have found his giftings helpful. He is well on his way. But what this aspiring, affirmed brother doesn’t yet have — to confirm his sense of calling — is a real-live opportunity where some ministry or church presents a job description and says, “We are ready to call you to pastor here. Would you accept?”
Until God, through a specific local church, makes a man an overseer (Acts 20:28), gives him to the church (Ephesians 4:11–12), sends him as a laborer (Matthew 9:37–38; Romans 10:14–15), and sets him over his household (Luke 12:42), he is not yet fully called.
And what a marvel and blessing it is when God gives a man a desire for the pastoral office, gifts him to meet real needs in the church with the word of God and wisdom, with affirmation from the real-life body of Christ, and opens a door for him to lead and serve in a specific local church. Then he knows he is called.