If you desire to serve as a pastor, you desire a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1) — literally, a good work. When God surveys the mountain range of your desire, he sees wisdom, beauty, and honor. The worldly may pity the pastor. They see anything but nobility. But not you. When you look at the real costs and inconveniences of ministry, you see glory and eternity and gain. Whether anyone ever paid you to pastor or not, you couldn’t be content to devote your short life any other way.
And yet, for some of you, you’re still not a pastor. As much as your desire to pastor may please God, it has not yet pleased him to open a door for you to actually pastor. The waiting can be as disorienting as longing to be married but struggling to find a date, or aching to have children while amassing pregnancy tests. If God loves this work, and if churches need this work, and if you want this work, why would God withhold it from you, sometimes for years?
Because God often does as much through our waiting as he does through our serving. Sometimes God makes us wait for doors to open in ministry because unwanted waiting is some of the best preparation for ministry. That means closed doors really can become spiritual gifts to those who will humbly kneel before them.
But what can we do while we wait? How do we keep ourselves from wasting the years before we enter formal ministry? How do we squeeze as much good as possible from a closed door? Over the last decade, I’ve learned at least seven practical lessons while waiting outside doors of my own.
1. Purify Your Ambition
One reason God withholds ministry from those aspiring to ministry is because the aspiration itself needs refining. That the task is noble does not necessarily mean that our desire has risen to such nobility. People seek out positions of leadership for all kinds of reasons (and sometimes, honorable motives are deeply mixed with dishonorable ones). We may want to glorify Christ and love his people, but deep down, we also want recognition, or influence, or power and authority. Our ambition needs purifying.
Sometimes this selfishness lies across the path to ministry like a fallen tree after a storm. We can’t always see our own selfishness, but God is kind to help us remove it. A season of waiting can be a season for better aspiring. In these times, it’s especially good to pray prayers like Psalm 139:23–24,
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
In his classic book, The Christian Ministry, Charles Bridges presses home three qualities of a godly desire to pastor. First, godly desire is a constraining desire, one that persists and intensifies over time. Waiting helps us test the strength and stamina of our desire. Second, godly desire is a considerate desire, meaning we have sufficiently counted the cost. Waiting gives us time to begin serving and to seek out the stories and counsel of those further along in ministry. Lastly, godly desire is an unselfish desire, meaning it’s not focused on self — praise, power, esteem — but on the glory of Christ and the good of his bride. Waiting proves and strengthens our readiness to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him.
2. Strengthen Your Character
The qualifications for eldership in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9 touch on various areas of a man’s life — how he speaks, how he drinks, how he spends his money, how he responds to conflict, what kind of husband and father he is — but they’re really all about who he is. The qualifications are searching for outer evidence of inner character — not perfect evidence, but real and persistent evidence.
So, God might be withholding ministry to give your character time and space to mature. Therefore, in your season of waiting, “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10).
Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5–8)
This stage of pastoral preparation is not unlike premarital counseling. No couple can address every character flaw or potential area of conflict in three or four or five sessions with a counselor. It’s impossible. But that doesn’t mean premarital counseling is futile. Everything you can address (or at least begin to address) in premarital will have some good effect in marriage. The same is true in preparation for pastoral ministry.
So, which areas of your life and character could use more prayerful attention and consistent accountability? You cannot imagine all the future fruit your church might receive from your diligently sowing godliness now.
3. Pastor Your Home Better
When you read through the qualifications for eldership, which one feels the most daunting to you? Someone could certainly make an argument for “able to teach” (“I sweat even thinking about public speaking”), or “hospitable” (“Do you know what my house is like with small kids?”), or “well thought of by outsiders” (“You don’t know my neighbors”). I would argue for a different one though: “He must manage his own household well” (1 Timothy 3:4). In other words, we know how well a man will lead a church by how well he has led his home.
In most cases, this will be the qualification that requires the most forethought, sacrifice, and follow-through. If God has given you a wife and children, they are the first proving grounds for your qualification and preparation for church office. No man who fails here should be entrusted with the people of God. “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5).
And yet every man, even the most qualified, can stand to grow here. So, if God gives you a season without formal responsibility in the church, receive it as a golden opportunity to lead even better in the high and holy responsibilities you have at home. Initiate more time in the word of God. Lead your family in singing to him. Spend more time on your knees, with them and alone. Brainstorm how you might be more hospitable together and share the gospel with neighbors. Before you begin formal ministry, use the precious time and energy you have now to fortify the spiritual foundation of your home.
4. Refine Your Abilities
If God has given you gifts that others believe would be useful as a pastor, a season of waiting can be a great time to identify and nurture those gifts. You don’t have to wait until you’re preaching regularly to develop your ability to teach. You don’t have to have formal office hours for counseling to begin helping other believers through conflict and crisis. In fact, you don’t have to have a title to meet most of the needs in your church. How, then, might you use your gifts now to be a blessing to others?
Bobby Jamieson, in his excellent book for those aspiring to ministry, wisely counsels younger men, “Aim to be mistaken for an elder before you are appointed an elder” (The Path to Being a Pastor, 67). You cannot be a pastor until a church calls you to pastor, but you do not need to be a pastor to begin serving, teaching, leading, and loving like one. In fact, as Jamieson says, no man should be called to pastoral ministry who is not already doing some, if not much, of the work of pastors.
The apostle Paul urges his protégé Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:14–15). He returns to the same point in his second letter: “Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6). So, if others have seen abilities of teaching and counsel in you, what could you do to fan the flame of those abilities? How might you immerse yourself in ministering the word? What opportunities has God given you now, however modest, to teach and meet needs in your church?
5. Count the Cost
Many men who aspire to pastoral ministry really aspire to the more fulfilling facets of ministry — studying God’s word, helping the congregation see what’s there, watching people become liberated from sin and reconciled to one another, winning souls to Christ. Fewer aspire to the costs. Some are almost completely ignorant of the costs. And there are serious, sometimes overwhelming costs to ministry.
Jesus says to the great crowds who seem so eager to follow him,
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” (Luke 14:27–30)
The warning applies all the more to pastors. Have you given yourself time to look beyond the appealing aspects of ministry to its darker, more discouraging sides? One way to count the cost in a season of waiting would be to spend regular time with a veteran pastor or two. Find a man willing to be vulnerable about how hard pastoring can be. Ask him to paint a wider, fuller picture of the warfare he faces than you can imagine on your own.
6. Discern the Right Door
God may have withheld some opportunities from you simply because he has a particular opportunity in mind for you. There are real spiritual dimensions to any ministry job search. Paul says to the church in Thessalonica, “We endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you . . . but Satan hindered us” (1 Thessalonians 2:17–18). Paul wanted to minister there, and that desire was a noble desire — and the church wanted him to come — and yet Satan hindered him. Ministry did not happen because evil was allowed to intervene (at least for a time). A door was closed, and God had a good reason for leaving it closed.
Elsewhere, Paul highlights other spiritual dynamics: “When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia” (2 Corinthians 2:12–13). The door was open in Troas, and Paul wanted to be there, but he didn’t feel peace about staying there. He took Titus’s unexpected absence as a reason to leave for now and walk through a door in Macedonia instead. So, for various reasons, even some open doors may not be the right doors.
And some right doors may not immediately seem open. Look closely at how Paul talks about an opportunity he took in a different city: “I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Corinthians 16:8–9). He saw a wide-open door even though the enemies were many. While many might have interpreted intense opposition as a closed door, he saw the opposite. So, just because a particular ministry opportunity looks challenging, even very challenging, it still might be the right door.
All to say, a season of unwanted waiting may be necessary to make sure you land where God wants you. You may knock on closed door after closed door because you haven’t reached the door he has opened wide for you. So, pray with Paul that God may open to you the right “door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3) — and that you’d recognize it when he does.
7. Care for Souls
Lastly, and most fundamentally, the call to pastor is a call to shepherd, to live and die for the good of the sheep. When Jesus, the Good Shepherd, restores and commissions Peter after his betrayal, he charges him three times (mercifully, once for each denial) in John 21:15–17,
“Feed my lambs.”
“Tend my sheep.”
“Feed my sheep.”
This is pastoral ministry in five words: “Feed and tend my sheep.” Sheep-work is rarely thrilling, glorious, or fragrant. It’s simple. It’s repetitive. It can be messy. It’s often thankless. But if these sheep belong to Jesus, and one day will be washed clean and made like him, there’s no more important work in the world. If God has called you to ministry, you see that filthy wool and those wandering feet, and your heart strangely rises with love and devotion. You want to give yourself to the word, so that one day you might help present them to Christ.
So, spend time with the sheep. Tend the sheep. Love the sheep. Embrace a season of waiting and serving in the church with a graduate-level degree in shepherding. Do what good pastors do, and begin to make yourself at home in the pasture.