We recently published an article by Chris Bounds on “The Church as the Primary Means of God’s Call to Ordained Ministry.” He first addresses one model of God’s call to ordained ministry: a direct call by God. He then addresses a second model: a call by God through the church. He writes, “While clergy throughout church history have testified to a direct call of God on their lives, many more have given testimony to God working through the church to issue their call to ministry.” This reminded me of two situations that I’ve encountered on multiple occasions.
First, I have met those who thought that God had directly called them to ministry (i.e., ordained ministry as an elder/pastor), but they now doubt that calling. I am not referring here to the normal doubts that arise in the course of ministry (more on that later), but to something deeper.
Second, I have met those who believe that God has directly called them, but I have had serious doubts because they do not appear to meet the aptitude qualification for elders; that is, they are not “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9); they are not “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
Sometimes these go hand-in-hand. For example, a spiritually-sensitive young man goes to youth camp, hears the preacher say, “Maybe God is calling you to be a pastor,” has a strong feeling, and thinks, “That’s God speaking to me, telling me to be a pastor.” He may even go to an altar of prayer and tell others that God has called him. But as time goes on, he begins to struggle. Perhaps he lacks the God-given gift of teaching which is required for elders (Titus 1:9; 1 Tim. 3:2). He wonders, “Did God really call me, or was it just an impression?” But he’s in too deep. It’s embarrassing to admit. If he steps back, people might think that he is denying God’s call to ministry. After all, he’s heard people say, “If God called you then, he hasn’t changed his mind now!”
Instead of thoroughly vetting potential pastors using the God-given qualifications in Titus and Timothy, we tend to trust whoever says that God has called them.
What will happen if this young man pushes forward, despite his doubts about whether or not he has a direct call from God, and despite the fact that he lacks the God-given aptitude qualification for pastors? He will likely enter pastoral ministry, and the churches where he pastors will likely suffer from weak teaching. This can happen because the Church so often lets down on its role in identifying those who are called to ministry. Instead of thoroughly vetting potential pastors using the God-given qualifications in Titus and Timothy, we tend to trust whoever says that God has called them, assuming that this is sufficient for them to pastor.
In fact, a well-seasoned leader once confided in me, “If I’m honest, there are a lot of guys in the pastorate who probably shouldn’t be there. The church would be better served if they stepped down and served as supportive laypersons. They just don’t have the gifts.” This is not unkind. It’s honest. And it’s a much-needed reality check. The Bible does not say, “Anyone who thinks he’s called to be a pastor can be one.” It says, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be” vetted by a long list of qualifications, among which is the God-given gift of teaching (1 Tim. 3:1–2; Titus 1:9; Eph. 4:7, 11; 1 Cor. 12:28).
With that in mind, if you thought that you were divinely called to ministry, but now you aren’t sure, seek out mature, balanced, reasonable, theologically-informed leaders in the church. Admit your doubts and struggle. Mention the church’s role in God’s call to ministry. Ask if they think that you show evidence of the character, maturity, and ability of an elder. In an abundance of godly counsel, there is safety.
Of course, it may simply be that you are facing the normal doubts that arise in the course of ministry. We all battle feelings of discouragement and insecurity. We all feel like quitting sometimes. Satan is in the business of discouraging mature, qualified elders so that they grow weary in well-doing. But even if this is the cause of your uncertainty, it is important to admit your doubts and struggle to other pastors or leaders in the church, since we need the church to help bear our burdens. The church’s thoughtful affirmation of our calling is a vital source of assurance. It’s something to hang on to during the storms of ministry.
God is a shepherd who wants to lead you, not beat you over the head because you are struggling to discern his voice.
If it turns out that your uncertainty is something deeper, it’s worth considering Charles Spurgeon’s advice: if you can do anything else, do it. While I’ve always thought that this was a bit overstated, Paul does refer to people aspiring to the office of overseer (i.e., elder/pastor). If you are walking in the light and truly want to do what God wants you to do, I think it’s safe to say that in most cases, God will give you a desire or aspiration to be a pastor. There may be exceptions to this, as I’ve heard stories of people resisting the call before finally conceding and going on to do great things for the kingdom. But God often works through good desires that he has implanted in us by the Spirit.
If you once thought that you were called into ministry, but now you aren’t sure, it’s okay to slow down, pray, take inventory, and seek godly counsel. God is a shepherd who wants to lead you, not beat you over the head because you are struggling to discern his voice.