One of the oddest questions I get asked is how I knew I was called to ministry. I say it is odd because it assumes some kind of mystical experience by which I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was set apart by God to minister, in a vocational sense, to His people. Simply put, there is nothing in Scripture that indicates that is the way God tells people to pursue vocational ministry.
Now some do have some kind of experience where they suddenly have an overwhelming feeling that they should pursue vocational ministry. But, as in all things, feelings are never to be regarded as authoritative or even necessarily true. The world may say follow your heart, but Scripture says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it (Jer 17:9)?”
Others seem goaded toward vocational ministry by circumstances. Maybe events in the church they are currently in leave the flock without a shepherd suddenly, maybe family considerations suddenly put a man in the same locale as a great seminary they have always wanted to take a class. Maybe some set of circumstances I can’t even conceive of push a man toward ministry.
Still others may simply want to pursue vocational ministry as a career choice. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that either. I’m of course not talking about someone who thinks that ministry is a path to riches, rather I’m talking about someone who loves the Lord and His people, and wants to serve both as a profession, knowing that it is not a path to ease.
All of these varying experiences have to be evaluated in light of the first biblical qualification for ministry, a desire for the office of elder within the local church.
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. (1 Tim 3:1)
Notice what the text doesn’t say; it doesn’t say if anyone receives a inward feeling that he should be an elder or pastor he has been called to a noble task. The aspiration to the office, not a calling, is the foundational qualification for ministry in the role of elder, whether lay or vocational.
But the aspiration is not the end all be all, so certainly a felt call isn’t either.
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Tim 3:2-7)
And who is best able to evaluate these things? A local church that knows you well. There is a key bit of wisdom in the pastoral epistles that I think has direct bearing on the question of who should pursue vocational ministry, 2 Timothy 2:1-2.
You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.
If the leaders of the local church a man is a member don’t identify him as a faithful man who is worth investing in, it is very unlikely they are fit for vocational ministry. And if the local church disagrees that a man should pursue vocational ministry, they shouldn’t, period.
The answer to how I knew I was “called” to ministry is simple, my church was investing in me and entrusting to me more and more responsibility. I had a desire to pursue ministry. And when I talked about that desire with my pastor he confirmed my qualification for eldership, and encouraged me in my desire to pursue vocational ministry (specifically in my case my desire to pursue seminary training).
I believe that is the biblical road map. I would encourage anyone working through these issues to ask themselves four questions:
- Do you desire the office of elder?
- Are you qualified for the office of elder and does your church confirm your qualification? (And it goes without saying that if you are not a member of a local church, you are not ready to even consider pursuing vocational ministry.)
- Has the leadership of your church identified you as someone to invest in and disciple with an eye toward you teaching others?
- Has the pastoral leadership of your church affirmed and encouraged your desire to pursue vocational ministry?
It is really that simple, at least when it comes to thinking through pursuing vocational pastoral ministry. Actual ministry is of course much more complicated and harder. But anyone who eschews a biblical approach to thinking through pursuing pastoral ministry, has little hope of remaining faithful in it.