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How do I know I'm called?

John Stevens

How do I know I'm called?

John Steven's is National Director for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. He's married to Ursula and they have four children. In this piece he brings pastoral wisdom and biblical light to the vexed issue of the 'call' to ministry. 

When I was in my 6th Form I took a careers test. The results told me that I should consider becoming, in order of suitability, a barrister, a solicitor, a teacher and a minister of religion. I studied law at University, became a Christian in my final year, decided not to train to become a barrister, turned down a job with a firm of solicitors, became a university lecturer and am now a church pastor! The truth is that I fixed the outcome. I had always wanted to be a barrister and I answered the questions to ensure that it told me to do what I already wanted to do.

This question, ‘How do I know if I'm called?' is probably the most important question many of you are asking. It's the question that you really want to have answered as you consider the possibility of full-time gospel ministry. I need to warn you that I am almost bound to fail in giving you an answer. In the first place I don't think that it is the right question. More importantly I can't give you the answer to the question because I don't know you, or your circumstances. The people who are most able to help you decide whether you should be going into full-time ministry are the leaders of your local church. At most I can give you a biblical framework to help you to know how to go about answering the question.

Our Christian culture regularly uses the language of ‘calling' into Christian ministry. In Free Church culture there has been a particular emphasis on the need for a ‘call' into Christian ministry, which demands a subjective inner conviction or compulsion to serve in this way. However, the supposed need for a ‘call' has led to many men and women holding back from serving God in full-time ministry because they have not had a particular kind of overwhelming personal experience. Surprisingly, the Bible does not use the language of ‘call' in this way. The language of ‘call' is used to describe God's call of men and women to salvation by faith in Christ through the gospel. The application of ‘call' to speak of God's will that we should work or serve in specific jobs, professions or ministries can be traced back to Luther's misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 7v17-24. Luther was right to break down the false distinction between secular and sacred work, between clergy and laity, but he misunderstood 1 Corinthians 7 as speaking of God's ‘callings' of men and women to different jobs and situations. Paul's point is that people should be content to stay in the situation that they are in when they are called to salvation.

It would be better if we could avoid using this misleading term as it implies a particular kind of experience which is not demanded by the New Testament. Rather we are dealing with a question of ‘guidance' or ‘assurance.' The question needs to be rephrased as ‘How can I know God's will?' Asking ‘Am I called?' is really to ask ‘How and where does he want me to serve him?' This doesn't automatically imply a particular kind of experience.

The great news is that the Bible tells us that we can know what God's will is. Life is not a cryptic treasure hunt where we are desperately trying to find God's will from fiendishly difficult clues. God has revealed his general will to us in the Scriptures, and they are completely sufficient to equip us to know and serve God. He has also given his Holy Spirit so that we, both individually and corporately as the body of Christ, can make right ‘judgements' or decisions. As 1 Corinthians 2v17 puts it so clearly, ‘we have the mind of Christ' through the Spirit so that we can decide for ourselves. God has enabled and empowered his people to decide, and we need to have faith and confidence in what God has promised his people. We need to be careful because we live in a highly individualistic culture. The New Testament teaches us that God's will is not primarily discerned personally and individually, but collectively and corporately, by the church as a body led by gifted and mature men.

So the question I want to consider is this: ‘How can we discern God's will?' The Bible says there are three elements to take into account when discerning whether it is God's will to enter ministry:

  • The possibility of God's direct revelation
  • The admissibility of your personal ambition
  • The necessity of the Church's corporate recognition

The possibility of God's direct revelation

When people speak of the ‘call' to ministry, they usually mean some kind of direct revelation from God that tells someone that they should serve in a specific way. This may be an audible or inner voice, a vision or a dream, a prophetic word from someone else, a Bible verse brought to mind or illuminated in some way, an impression or a conviction. Whatever the form it leads the person to conclude ‘God told me.' Whilst I have been at pains to say that the Bible does not use the language of ‘call' to describe an experience necessary before entering full-time ministry, it is full of examples where God speaks personally to individuals commanding them into ministry. God speaks to Moses at the burning bush, an angel of the Lord speaks to Gideon, God speaks to Samuel in the Temple, Isaiah has a vision of God, Jesus verbally addresses his disciples and Saul meets the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus.

However we must distinguish between what God can do, and what God has promised to do. We are not meant to read these accounts of what God did in the lives of some extraordinary men and women in the course of salvation history and expect something similar. Their experiences are not recorded to be models for us to follow. When we look at these cases of direct revelation we find that they were unexpected. They were not sought but God unexpectedly broke in and spoke. Moses was not searching out the will of God, but going about his work of shepherding. They were also terrifying. Those who experienced God's direct revelation were often left thinking that they would die. Their experience was not sentimental, fluffy and comforting. These experiences usually demanded something costly and warned of the consequences. Samuel was to tell Eli of the judgement that would come on his family. Jesus told Paul that he would suffer for the sake of his name.

Although the Bible tells us that these kinds of experiences occurred from time to time, it does not instruct us that we should expect them. We don't find people in the New Testament urged to seek such experiences, or questioned whether they have had them or not. There is no suggestion in Acts or the Pastoral Epistles that having had such an experience is a prerequisite for appointment as a church leader. Whilst the New Testament does not give us grounds to demand or expect that God will guide by direct revelation it does at least open up the possibility that God might guide us in this way, so we cannot discount this entirely. The New Testament examples of such guidance suggests that it is only likely when it is God's will to use an unlikely person, to undertake an unlikely ministry, that will involve considerable personal cost or suffering. Such guidance is unexpected in the sense that it is not sought after but breaks in surprisingly, as for example when God sent Peter to preach the gospel to Cornelius or when the church at Antioch sent Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey. It also tends to occur when the gospel is being taken to new people or places, or where social or culture boundaries are being crossed. There is no evidence that such guidance is given for the appointment of pastor-teachers into the leadership of settled churches. The Biblical evidence would suggest that such guidance is more likely for a person who is being sent by God to work as an evangelist, missionary or church planter.

Thus we ought to remain open to the possibility of God guiding directly, whilst not expecting, demanding or seeking that he will do so. And we need to make sure that any claims to such guidance are carefully tested and confirmed, which is the responsibility of church leaders. So please don't get hung up about the need for a particular personal experience before entering full-time ministry.

The Admissibility of Your Personal Ambition

Very often Christians can have the assumption that their own desires and longings are dangerous and untrustworthy. Deep down they suspect that God is a kind of divine kill-joy who will want us to do what we don't want to do, almost like a heavenly PE teacher forcing us to do cross country in the snow. We have a suspicion that our desires and ambitions are bound to be sinful and self-serving, and therefore the safest option is to do the opposite!

Although the Bible recognises that some of our desires do come from the flesh, and that the heart is deceitful above all things, the New Testament also suggests that the desire to serve is an important requirement for ministry. In 1 Timothy 3v1 Paul writes ‘If anyone sets his heart of being an overseer (that is an elder/pastor-teacher because the words are synonymous), he desires a noble task.' The desire to serve is thus a crucial element in the selection and appointment of church leaders, and is at the very least an admissible factor in discerning God's will. It requires more than just that you recognise that gospel ministry is a good and valuable thing, that someone ought to do it, and that you might be able to help out. If requires that you want to do it.

However, because our hearts are deceitful we need to search ourselves, and allow others to search us, so that our desires come from right motivations. We ought to be motivated by the desire to serve God and the cause of the gospel, and to be a part of his saving purpose to ‘go and make disciples of all nations'. We need to be on our guard against other motivations. These might include:

The desire for status

Church leaders and Bible teachers can be held in great respect. Sadly men have gone into Christian ministry because it provides them with an opportunity to gain power and status that they would not be likely to enjoy outside of the church.

The desire to be the hero

It is easy to enter ministry with the desire to help God accomplish his plan, and with the ambition of being like the striker who scores the winning goal and gets all the acclaim. Instead we are called to be self-effacing servants.

The desire for money and security

In the past Christian ministry was often a lucrative career. Being a church minister, especially in an established denomination, can be a safe and respectable option. 1 Peter 5v2 warns pastors not to be ‘greedy for money but eager to serve.' As the power and wealth of the church declines and ministry is increasingly costly there will be a greater need for church planting, mission service, tent-making or living by faith. It will be a great challenge for the next generation when ministry is no longer able to offer the same security and relative comfort.

The desire for an easier life

It is a danger to think that Christians ministry offers the prospect of an easier life, and as an alternative to secular work that feels boring or unfulfilling. Ministry is not like being paid to indulge your hobby or leisure interest. The New Testament consistently speaks of ministry as ‘labour' and ‘toil.' Like all work it is done under the curse and can be frustrating, boring, and repetitive.

The desire to be a better Christian

Don't go into ministry because you think that it will make it easier for you to live the Christian life. It is easy to think that in ministry there will be less distractions and temptations, more time to read and to pray, and easier opportunities to do evangelism. In reality if you can't cope and grow as a Christian at work then you won't cope in ministry. You will bring the same faults and struggles into full-time ministry.

The desire to be like others

Some people enter ministry because they want to be like others. Perhaps they are in a culture where there is strong encouragement to go into ministry, and everyone else around them is planning to go into ministry. They may be under pressure from the expectations of parents, family, friends, or church leaders.

We need to be on guard against going into ministry for the wrong reasons, but even if we do have a right and genuine ambition a person should not go into ministry without a willingness to accept the cost. Christian ministry invariably leads to suffering. It will almost inevitably involve a material cost of giving up career and salary prospects, a social cost of status in the eyes of the world, it may involve cost in marriage and family, and increasingly may involve a cost in persecution. It is all too easy to have an idealised and rosy-tinted view of the reality of ministry, especially if you have only been involved in large and thriving churches where you have not had the chance to observe the stresses of ministry at close hand.

For many of us the bigger problem may be a lack of faith that holds us back from acting on our desires out of fear. We find it difficult to make decisions, even to do things we ‘want' to do, because we are afraid of the ‘opportunity cost'. We wonder if something better might come along, and we fear closing down our options in case we ‘miss out'.  Life is all about making decisions and closing down our options, for example when we commit to a spouse in marriage we renounce all others. Maturity means being willing to make these decisions, knowing that there will be a cost, but trusting that God will work out all things for good.

The Necessity of the Church's Corporate Recognition

The New Testament makes clear that the decision to serve in ministry should not be just an individual process.  Rather it is a decision for the church as a whole, and especially the leaders of the church. Whilst God can grant personal revelation (which needs to be judged by the church) and we ought to take notice of personal ambition (which ought to be tested by the church) the corporate recognition of the church is always vital.

The New Testament shows that full-time gospel workers were selected and appointed by the church and its leaders. Clear criteria were established and suitable individuals identified, selected and appointed. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the churches they had planted. Paul gave Titus and Timothy clear criteria for the selection of elders in the Pastoral Epistles. It is not just the leaders of the church who are involved. In Acts 6 the whole church selects spirit filled men to oversee the distribution of food to widows. The language of ‘appointing' elders may also indicate the involvement of the whole church as it is drawn from a Greek political term for the election of city officials. It may well be that a similar process of selection applied to the appointment of women to serve in the church. In 1 Timothy 5 the women who were put on the ‘widows list' may have been set apart and supported to serve in the church, perhaps functioning rather like modern female pastoral workers. If so, then 5v9-10 provides criteria by which suitable women are to be appointed. Missionary evangelists were also selected by the church. In Acts 13v1-3 the church at Antioch discerned God's will to set apart Paul and Barnabas, and in Acts 16v1-5 Paul selects Timothy to join him in his work. In all of these instances, there is no indication of the need for a ‘call' in the classic sense.

What, therefore, are the criteria for ministry? These are most clearly set out in 1 Timothy and Titus. Four criteria can be discerned:

(i) Gospel Conviction

It is essential to have a firm grasp of the gospel. In 1 Timothy 3v6 an elder must not be a ‘recent convert' and in Titus 1v9 ‘he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.'

(ii) Relational Character

The criteria given emphasise the importance of godly character for ministry. In particular there is a focus on the need to relate to others in a way that reflects the character of Christ and will build unity and community. Ministry is essentially relational and involves leading a group of others. Many of the qualities concern the ability to deal with disagreement and difficult people. One of the great dangers is appointing men and women to ministry because they are gifted, enthusiastic, or both, but without ensuring that they have the necessary character for the work.

(iii) Proven Gifting

A person can only serve in full-time ministry if they have the necessary gifts. An elder must be ‘able to teach' (1 Timothy 3v2) because this is his prime work (see 1 Timothy 5v17). Timothy was set apart by Paul as a church-planting missionary evangelist, and so it is not surprising that we find that his gift was to ‘preach the word (i.e. the gospel) in season and out of season' and his responsibility was to ‘do the work of an evangelist.' A person should only be appointed to ministry when their gifting has been seen and demonstrated in the life of the church, so that it is evident to all (cf for example Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 5v10).

(iv) Ministry Aptitude

It is easy to miss the fact that the criteria are not just about character and gifting. The criteria include an aptitude to do the work that the ministry will require. In 1 Timothy 3v4 it is an essential criterion that an elder ‘must manage his own family well'. More literally he must ‘rule' his family, in the sense of leading, directing and caring for his family. This is because elders (i.e. pastor teachers) are responsible to lead and manage the family of God.  1 Timothy 5v17 makes clear that the elders to ‘direct the affairs of the church.' Thus Eldership, or being a pastor-teacher, is not just about teaching the Bible but requires leading and managing the church. The analogy is with a father who is head of the household, and who is responsible to oversee the finances and provision for the family, to ensure that the children are disciplined and trained appropriately, to manage the servants and the slaves, and to make the decisions affecting the goals and aspirations of the family. Much of church leadership involves administration, financial planning and fund raising, vision setting, staff and people management and training. These are essential qualities for church leadership. It is therefore essential that those chosen for full time ministry have the aptitudes to lead a church. In the ancient world the wisdom and skill needed to lead and manage would have been demonstrated in family life. Today when many people are single, or single for much longer into adult life, the same skills may be evident in other contexts, for example in the workplace. An aptitude for ministry is also required as those serving in missionary work. Paul chooses Timothy because he is ideal for his multi-cultural ministry. Timothy is the son of a Jewish mother and Greek father, and once circumcised he will be able to work with both communities and become ‘all things to all men'.

As you consider the possibility of full-time ministry and ask the question ‘what is God's will for me?' it is vital that you involve the church in your discernment process. In fact the church should have the crucial role in determining whether you have the requisite qualifications for ministry. You need spiritual and wise leaders who are willing to assess you and tell you the truth, leaders who will test any claims to personal revelation and assess your ambitions and desires. In the meantime you can be preparing for the possibility of ministry by serving right where you are. Ensure that you are grounded in the truths of the faith by reading and listening to good teaching, so that you develop gospel convictions. Work on your character and relationships in the power of the Holy Spirit. Test your gifts and seek opportunities to use them in the life of the church. Seek to develop the skills and aptitudes that will be needed for ministry, so that you become a competent leader of others. Manage your family well and do you job well.

Conclusion

‘How can I know if I'm called?' I hope that you've seen that this is the wrong question. You should be asking ‘How can I know God's will so that I can serve him in the best possible way?' This is not just a personal decision with the goal of maximising your fulfilment, but of discerning God's good purpose, which will best build up his church, given the gifts, personality, and opportunities he has providentially given you.

So as we finish can I urge you to do 4 things:

Serve God where you are

That is where he has put you for the moment and you can be sure he has put you there for a reason.

Don't wait for personal revelation from God

He doesn't promise that he will guide you in that way. Be willing to trust his word and his church and to get on and plan and decide how you can best serve him.

Search your heart for what you really want to do

Make sure you go into ministry because you desire to serve in this way, but be ruthlessly honest in scrutinising your motives. Make sure you do have good and godly motives for ministry.

Submit to the church

God has given his Spirit to his people. In an individualistic culture we need to be willing to submit to the testing and judgement of mature and spiritual leaders that God has raised up and of the church more widely. If the church leaders and congregation members have doubts over your suitability for ministry then pay careful attention. Do the same if they are strongly encouraging you into ministry.

Finally,

Trust God and do not be anxious

He is in control of everything and he knows what he is doing. Believe the doctrine of providence. He has a habit of getting people to where he wants them to be, and to where he wants them to serve. The process of getting us there is often what he uses to mature us and teach us the wisdom that we will need for the work he has for us. Life is not a difficult maze in which there is a danger that you might make a wrong turn that defeats God's plan. He will accomplish his purpose for you.

[This article first appeared on the 9:38 blog in 2011. You can find more from John Stevens here.]