Are All Called?
One aspect of my ministry that I enjoy immensely is advising men who sense a call to ordained ministry--or, at the very least, men who wish to attend seminary in preparation for some sort of full-time ministry. There are many who are pre-occupied with the question of whether or not they should go to seminary. When examining candidates for ordination I sometimes meet individuals who are clearly not qualified for ministry--and who should have been told as much by their pastor(s). There are a series of questions that one can ask in order to help such an individual discern whether or not he is called to Gospel ministry. How a man answers theses questions can help him better discern whether or not he ought to attend seminary in pursuit of Gospel ministry or whether he ought to move in a different direction. Here are the questions I have in mind:
1. Do you sense a calling?
This may seem obvious, but all too often the impulse to pursue seminary and ordained ministry is the result of undue expectations placed upon a man. Being a good public speaker is hardly evidence that someone should pursue ministry or is called to the pastorate; yet, this is often what fosters such encouragement. Though it is part of the process of discerning a call, being encouraged by others isn’t enough to know whether it is the right thing for a man to pursue. Do you have a desire to serve in Gospel ministry? Is this something for which you aspire? Is there nothing else you would rather do? Are you burdened with a desire to shepherd the flock of God? If you are, that’s certainly an indication that you may be called by God. It’s not sufficient by itself, but it is an essential element of discerning the call to ministry. The Apostle Paul, at the outset of the qualifications for a man serving as an elder, wrote, "If a man desires the office..." (1 Tim. 3:1). If you don’t sense a call, then you should seriously reconsider.
2. Has God provided the means for you?
When God calls you to a particular work, he provides sufficient means to answer that call. Can you afford seminary? Can you provide for your family at the same time, assuming you have one? Are there those willing to come along side and support your preparatory labors? Too often men are confident that they are called to seminary or ordained ministry, but no call is forthcoming. No provision is in sight. If you think you are called but God does not seem to be providing a way, then you might want to reconsider.
3. Is your spouse supportive?
I can’t imagine that this requires much explanation! If you are married and your wife does not agree that you are called, or gifted, or she doesn’t share your desire to attend seminary, or your desire to serve as a pastor (or, she doesn’t want to be a pastor’s wife) then you should seriously reconsider. Ministry is hard on a marriage and a family. You are begging for a world of trouble if you proceed without her full support, or for that matter, if your marriage is not healthy and strong. You might want to reconsider.
4. Are you gifted for the work and have you been exercising those gifts?
It is surprising to me how many men enroll at seminary without ever having genuinely tested their gifts in the context of a local church. They’ve led a few Bible studies. Maybe they’ve taught a SS class. More often than not, they’ve been well shepherded by a minister and now want to do the same thing for others. It’s understandable. But you should do yourself a favor and potentially avoid a huge waste of time and money. Engage in ministry before pursuing full-time Gospel ministry. When you do, ask yourself, "Do I love this?" and "Am I good at it?" You won’t be an old pro, of course; but, there should be some natural talent that manifests itself. If the answer is no to either question, then you might reconsider.
5. Are your gifts being affirmed by others?
If you’re receiving counsel from thoughtful individuals, then you should be in a good position to get some honest feedback about your gifts. Are people growing in godliness under your teaching? Are you discipling someone who is growing in grace? If your ministry is a valued asset to your pastor and your church, this is a good sign. If very few are responding to your ministry, you should probably reconsider.
6. Do spiritually wise and mature brothers and sisters believe that it would be wise for you?
While no one can be the Holy Spirit for you--and it is unlikely that any one person can see your future infallibly--surveying your “fathers and mothers” in the faith can be a truly eye opening experience. They may or may not have sat under your ministry, but they know you, your personality, your character, and your heart. Do they believe that seminary is the right thing for you? You may not get a unanimous response, but trends should not be ignored. If several or more say no (or encourage you to hold off for a time), you have good reason to reconsider.
7. Do you have the character to serve as a pastor?
Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said, “The greatest need of my people is my own holiness.” No one is perfect. It is true: we are all sinners. Elders in the Church, however, must be an example. We lead not only by the decisions we make, but by the way we live. Too many ministers have ended their ministries on account of moral failure. While there is no fool-proof way to infallibly avoid this, it is too commonly the case that the failing was a fact before seminary or ordination. Do you have the character to be a pastor? Do you have integrity? Are you motivated by a love for God’s people and for the gospel? Are you quick to repent when you sin? Are there any sin patterns in your life that need to be broken first? If you knowingly carry any of these weaknesses into ministry, you are handicapping yourself. It is hard enough when you are trusting God and pursuing righteousness. Un-confessed sin and patterns of disobedience weaken and expose you. Deal with these first. The risk is not only to you, but to your family, and even to your parish. A failed ministry often weakens the faith of those who were under it. Address these things immediately. Otherwise, you should reconsider.
You ought to be able to say yes to every one of these questions. A “no” to any of them is a serious warning sign that, at the very least, now is most likely not the time to attend seminary and pursue ministry. If you’re already in ministry, these questions may help you conclude that you shouldn’t be, or that you have a serious issue that you must urgently address if your ministry is going to last and be a gift to the Church.
The ministry of the Gospel is far too weighty for someone to enter into lightly or without godly counsel and affirmation. The author of Hebrews reminds his readers that the leadership of the church “are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Ministry is a great joy in many ways, and if you are called to it, you will be happier and more fulfilled here than you would be anywhere else. Enter into it unadvisedly, however, and you will most likely find yourself more miserable than you would be anywhere else. Yet, even more important than your own contentedness is the lives of those you shepherd. Ministers will one day give an account to God for them. Do you dare stand watch without being called and equipped?