Lots of people have asked me lately if I feel called to be a pastor (or professor, or fill in the blank) and I never have a good answer. I open my mouth and words start falling out and things get really awkward.
I’ve been wrestling with what God wants me to do ever since I started seminary. I felt “the call” to full time ministry in college, but it didn’t come with instructions. I just knew if I devoted my life to anything less than the cause of Christ, it would be empty. All going to seminary did for that clarity is give me more options—including the realization that secular work can be ministry too.
The two serious contenders, pastor and professor, often seemed like two sides of the same coin. Which one will let me study and learn? Yep. Which one will let me serve and counsel others? Yep. Which one will let me teach? Yep. Which one is strategically influential for making a difference in the world? Yep. Which one has fewer issues to deal with? Ha!
I’ve gone back and forth more times than I care to admit, and that doesn’t impress anyone. Just when I think I’m called to one, the other objects. It’s not a conducive situation for long-term planning.
But I think I’ve got some clarity now: I feel called to the work, but not necessarily the career. (There. Short, sweet, and my response from now on.) Now let me explain why I say that.
We all know the Bible talks about spiritual gifts, and that we each have a part to play in the local church just like your body is made up of parts that accomplish different tasks. The eye does one thing and does it well, etc. (You can read about this in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12.) There’s lots of silliness around all this today, in my opinion. I’ve had people take tests to discover their gifts, but I think you discover them by serving—trial and error. I think you can have more than one, and that they can change. Or maybe they don’t. The Spirit can do as He wishes. I’m more interested in the fact that the He empowers us to serve than with the precise math on where, when, for how long, etc. The point is serve!
Anyway, soap box aside, this tells me we’re all called when it comes to ministry. We each have a part to play. But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it? The question is has God called me to something bigger, something unusual.
Ephesians 4 hints at the difference between the way everyone serves and a special kind of service.
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:11–16 ESV)
In context this is a statement about history: when Jesus ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit came down and church as we know it was born, it wasn’t every man for himself or even every man taking charge and leading. God set some people aside to serve the servants. He gave everyone the Holy Spirit, everyone had a role, everyone had gifts, but He also gave them people to equip them and build them up in unique ways. Their mission as leaders was to set everyone else up for success on their own missions.
This pretty much sums up my sense of what God called me to. I feel called to serve the servants, to make my mission pouring into others for their missions. So this means I have to be a full-time pastor or teacher or missionary, right?
I don’t think so.
In a letter to Timothy, Paul writes about the qualifications for a pastor. Anyone who’s ever been around when new pastoral staff member was added has probably heard the list. I’m not going to talk about the list here. Instead, I think it’s interesting the way Paul sets up the discussion:
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer [senior pastor], he desires a noble task.” (1 Timothy 3:1 ESV)
“Aspires”? Don’t you mean if anyone is called, Paul? No. The whole point is not just anyone should be pastor. We have standards. Pastor isn’t simply a matter of spiritual gifting and calling; it includes a stellar track record. In the early church pastors were chosen based on two things: modeling the character of Christ and upholding the teachings of Christ. Life and doctrine. I think this means it’s possible to be called to the work without holding the office.
And before you jump to conclusions, I don’t think it’s just a matter of whether you have character or not either. Paul talks about aspiring to the position, like the position is optional, the position is a choice. A noble choice, something worth the chase, but a choice nonetheless. You’re not helpless. It’s your call whether you want to pursue this. So I imagine God has gifted many people in a given church with the spiritual gifts for teaching, shepherding, evangelizing, but that whether someone makes a career out of these callings/giftings is a different matter.
This is where I find myself, in the space between Ephesians 4 and 1 Timothy 3. I feel called to the work, but I don’t feel “called” to the position or job or title. I’m not sure God even does that. I don’t feel like I can say “God’s will is for me to be your next pastor.” I think local churches decide that. So am I called to be a pastor? No. I’m called to pastor, and maybe someday I can get paid to do it.
I believe I am called and gifted for the work, and I hope my character is worthy of the office. But I won’t consider myself a failure if I never draw a paycheck in ministry. I’m not out to convince anyone that I’m the solution to their problems. I’m not going to pretend I have it on God’s authority that some church somewhere owes me a salary. But I will consider myself a failure if I don’t exercise the gifts God has given me wherever and however I can. And I think that’s the essence of any calling.