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Considering full-time ministry? Considering seminary? I don’t know of any question that I am asked more often than this: “I think I am being called into ministry but how do I know?” I don’t claim to be an expert on this issue, but I can offer some words of advice. Below are some questions that I think you should ask yourself (in order of importance).
1. Do you have an unrelenting passion?
This involves a burning desire in your heart to impact the lives of others. It is a giddy excitement that others may gawk at. (Have you seen this gawk?) It is the type of passion that causes you to lose all other options and directions due to a mind that wanders to the feet of the Lord. I loosely paraphrase Charles Spurgeon: “If there is anything else that you can do, anything, do it. But if ministry is the only option that will satisfy you then consider it.”
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One of the things about being in ministry is that were something to happen, you are not normally qualified for anything else. I have often been brought to the place where I had to start considering other “career” moves and I get very depressed. Not only can I not find a passion for anything else, I am not qualified for anything else. I just don’t know what else I would or could do. I am committed to ministry. There is an internal compass that won’t point in any other direction.
2. Do you have personal integrity?
Integrity, not perfection. None of us are really “qualified” in an absolute sense. You will have continual feelings of inadequacy all the time. This is normal. But the life of a minister of the Lord should be above reproach. This means that you should not have any areas of your life that, if discovered, would bring shame upon the Gospel. People are looking to discredit God. They will use you to do so. In a way, you are the punching bag for God.
This is always hard for me as I often think, “If people knew this or that about me, wouldn’t that shame Christ?” Unfortunately my answer is sometimes “yes,” but I don’t know if it has crossed “that” line. For this reason, I often preemptively strike at people’s criticism. I sometimes use this blog to do so! However, I do recognize that there is a line that we can cross. I sometimes don’t know where it is, but it is somewhere between perfection and debauchery.
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Read the Pastoral epistles over and over. Are you given to any addiction, anger, attitudes that lack grace and gentleness? Is your faith in the Lord true? Are there any secret areas about which you are in denial?
3. Have other people been encouraging you to do so?
I believe that if God is leading you to go into ministry and to go to seminary (which, in my book, should not be separated), then He will normally encourage you through other people. Whether it be teaching, preaching, or counseling, people must have seen a gift in you and said “Hey, have you ever thought about going to seminary or getting into the ministry?” Let other people help establish the reality of your qualifications. It is necessary to have many counselors.
I remember the first time someone suggested this to me. I was preparing a speech for a class in college. I practiced on some friends. Afterwards, one of them said, “You should think about going into ministry.” That said a lot to me as this was one of my old drinking buddies. She did not normally encourage in such a direction. I sought more and more opportunities to teach about the Bible. I started a Bible study at my work, began to teach Sunday School, led the Baptist Student Union Bible study at school, and on every date I went on, I would ask if I could teach them the Bible. (Kristie and I went through Acts, Romans, John, Genesis, and Revelation while dating. She had some tolerance to make it through that). Though all of this, I had many people encourage me to get into ministry.
Seek out opportunities. This implies much contact with people in the church. If you are not involved in the church right now, don’t even bother … there are other issues with which you need to deal. And (standing on soapbox) don’t say to yourself, “I don’t go to church because all churches are too corrupt,” or “I can’t find a church that I can have fellowship in, that is why I am going into ministry.” We don’t need any more of this type of vigilante “I’m-going-to-fix-everything” attitudes in the church. There are plenty of those already, thanks.
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4. Are doors being opened through your experience?
This has to do with financial doors and circumstances that make the path clearer. How are you going to pay? Where are you going to live? Do you know of a seminary that will take you? Have you got the right credentials? Also, I always encourage people to do it right if they are going to do it. Get trained. This means going to a good seminary that may cost more. This also involves being on campus full-time with virtual education being minimal to none. Don’t spread it out over ten years. Think of seminary like boot-camp. Its primary value is in the intensity and discipline that you put into your training. Therefore, it must be allowed to be intense. Just imagine if the Army spread out boot camp over a 6 year period where you just come in on weekends. That is not boot camp.
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What if they allowed for online boot camp? I would not feel safe in our country, would you? It’s the same thing with seminary. I have seen so many people take so long to get through seminary that the benefits were not really there in the end and, frankly, I believe they wasted a lot of time. Count the cost. Don’t get into this half-way. If half-way is your only option, I would say that you should consider that as a sign that it is not where God is leading you.
5. Is your spouse in support of your ministry direction?
If the first three are accounted for yet your spouse is not in support of you being in ministry, you often should take this as a sign that God may not be leading you in this direction. Ministry, especially for those in the mission field or those pastoring a church, needs the support of the whole family. I am not saying that your spouse has to be involved at every turn, but they should have a supportive attitude in the direction that you are moving. In your spouse is completely against it, as a rule of thumb, don’t go. God will call you both together.
Kristie was in full support of me being in ministry, but not in support of certain directions that I could have taken in ministry. I allowed (and still allow) her calling to shape my calling. If your spouse’s calling is not your calling, then wait and pray. Let the Lord shape your direction. Be patient.
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Also, don’t ever think that leaving your spouse is the “greater-good.” In other words, the Lord will not present you with a dilemma in which you are called to leave your spouse in order to fulfill a ministry calling. Your spouse is your first calling. While you are not in control over their spirituality or commitment to the Lord, you are in control of yours. If you were to leave you spouse for ministry, you are only undermining the sovereignty of God and the very foundation of your ministry. Doing so, in my opinion, disqualifies you (for a time) for that which you seek.
P.S. Please don’t attempt to debate the legitimacy of being “called” or what that means. As well, please save the “all-people-are-in-ministry” responses. I understand that we are all called to be ministers, but there are some who enter into a “professional” ministry or “full-time” ministry where they are not only ministers, but they make a living in this “field.” Oh, and a thousand other qualifications that pertain to ancillary debates that you may be tempted to get in to!
Podcast on Being Called Into Ministry
Michael Patton (MP): Theology Unplugged. Welcome! We are sitting here in the studio at Credo House in Edmond, Oklahoma. Stop by for the best latte that you will have…well let’s be honest, we are Unplugged. It’s the third best latte you’ll have in Oklahoma, okay?
Sam Storms (SS): Really? Where are the others?
MP: I’m not going to tell you the others. Evoke, Coffee Slingers.
Carrie Hunter (CH): Coffee Slingers and Evoke.
SS: Well, and then let’s just also say for those of us who are rather plain in our taste, just for a good cup of coffee. No…
MP: Don’t say Folger’s!
SS: No…no, I didn’t say that. Just a plain old cup of joe without all the stuff that you guys throw into it, because I know you like these fancy concoctions. I just like plain coffee. Is that all right?
SS: Do you actually serve that at Credo House?
MP: It is plain coffee.
SS: Just plain coffee?
MP: It’s just, we do…what do we do? Freemarket?
CH: No, it’s single-origin, fair trade.
MP: Fair trade! There we go.
Clint Roberts (CR): Is that too fancy for you?
MP: Sorry if we fair trade it.
CH: It’s definitely not free market.
MP: You use slave-labor for your coffee? That’s cool! We’ll do a podcast on: “Is it Christian, or can you be a Christian and use non-slave labor coffee like you?”
CH: The ethics of coffee.
SS: Or if you just prefer Folger’s out of a Mr. Coffee machine or a Keurig. Is that heretical here?
CH: No, because I…
MP: It’s not heretical. It’s just un-Christian.
SS: All right. It’s uncouth.
CH: I plug in my coffeemaker at the house, okay. I don’t use a pour-over; I don’t use anything. So I’m with you, Sam. I just don’t want anyone else to know.
MP: All right, we’re done here; because Carrie is the coffee bar manager and supposed to be on with us.
CH: Oh, sorry.
CR: Edit that out.
MP: Yeah. Edit, Carrie. This is un-editable. But edit that.
CH: No, I’m not. All right, go ahead. Let’s actually get on the ball here. What’s the topic?
MP: Okay. Called into ministry: kind of the same theme as we were talking about last time, but we’re not necessarily going to cover the seminary part—five questions to ask yourself. This is what I encourage people to ask. You guys can add, you guys can disagree, but for those of you who are listening—you may be listening and you yourself feel called into ministry. You yourself may know of somebody close to you, a family member, who thinks they’re called into ministry. Here are the five questions that I have to ask you. Because I think, here’s my assumption, is that every time a Christian really gets passionate for the Lord they feel that they are called into formal ministry, okay. Everybody’s called into ministry in some sense, but some type of formal ministry to where now it is my full time job. I’m quitting my job; I’m trusting the Lord to provide for my street evangelism ministry, my missionary ministry, whatever it is I suddenly have a passion for.
Five questions to ask yourself. Question number one I have is this: “Do you have an unrelenting passion?” Okay, now what do I mean by that? I mean this is not something that is a passing passion. This is something that is with you continually. It’s not something that you listen to a sermon, and you have a passion today, and maybe in a month it will be gone. It is something that really has to be nagging at you for some time. When I felt like I may be being called into ministry, it lasted a year before I really started exploring it. I started trying to find other avenues in which I could fulfill this.
SS: Okay, let me interrupt you here. So by an unrelenting passion, are you suggesting then, as it has often been said, that if you were to envision yourself doing anything else you would be in utter misery, and in depression?
SS: Because I can say yes for me. The thought of doing anything else, and again it’s not to disparage other callings, and other vocations, and careers, because they’re all good (at least most of them), but for me, I would be miserable. I would be depressed. I would be crushed. And there’s simply no way that I can get around that.
MP: Is that enough?
SS: No, it’s not enough, but I think it’s very important. I think, you know Michael, we were talking on another occasion about, whoever it was that first said it, that if you can do anything else in life and find happiness and satisfaction in it, aside from full time ministry, do it.
MP: Yeah. That was Charles Spurgeon.
SS: Was it?
MP: Yeah, in his book Letters to Seminary Students; is that what it’s called?
SS: I’m not real sure what it is, um, Lectures to My Students is what’s it’s called.
MP: Yeah! Lectures to my Students. And that was the way he started off: If you can find anything else to do, do it. Make this…
SS: But if the thought of doing anything else makes you depressed and miserable, that’s at least an indication that you may well be called into full time vocational ministry.
MP: What do you think?
CR: Are you saying, though, that if somebody’s listening to that and they say, “I really have this kind of passion. I really feel driven toward it and really strong about it. However, I also like computer programming.”
In other words, what if somebody has the kind of passion you’re talking about but, on the other hand, they’re not depressed about doing something else? I just wonder if we’re over-stating that. They might be confused.
Like, “Oh my gosh! According to what these guys are saying, if I like doing anything else and could conceivably see myself doing it, I’m not called to ministry.”
SS: Well, I think what most people mean by that, Clint, at least what I would say is, is that we articulate it that way because ministry is so hard. It is so painful; it is so demanding; it is costly to one’s personal life. And I think the idea is, look, if you can find joy and happiness in something else, spare yourself the agony and the anguish of being a local church pastor. That’s, I think, what was behind what Spurgeon and others were saying.
MP: Yeah, because we’re all going to have passion for other things that do make us happy in a sense, but when we pursue those other things to the neglect, secondarily putting this, this will always creep back up front. In neutral, your mind will go back towards this. When you’re falling asleep at night, you’re dreaming of this, not of your computer programming. That’s what I would say.
SS: Okay, so that’s one essential element, but there has to be more.
MP: Well, I’d say, “Do you have personal integrity?” I mean, and what I mean by that is…
CR: That’s overrated.
MP: I do have to be careful here because none of us have real personal integrity if we take assessment of ourselves, especially at the time, this time, that we don’t really have integrity in every area. But what I’m saying is that there has to be some period of time before…to be frank, when I started thinking I wanted to go to seminary, was in the midst of me going from bar to bar to bar. Drinking, women was the issue, women, and then the next day: “Oh, forgive me! I forgot. I needed to go to seminary.” And it was…
SS: You make it sound like going to seminary is doing penance for all your sins.
MP: Yeah, that’s right! And so, it is this give and take that slowly the passion for seminary, the passion for serving the Lord, let’s put it that way, outweighed all those other sins in my life. Not that there’s no sin in my life; there’s plenty of sin in my life, but there are reproachable sins that were in my life that I could be called into account for, you know?
That, I mean, maybe I had pride in my heart, but nobody sees that on the outside and says, “You see, I see pride; here it is for sure; here’s the tangible evidence of it.”
This is something I discovered later on, but if I go there and I’m, you know, “Yeah, I just, I quit sleeping with someone just last week and here I am in the interview office. I may still have whiskey on my breath today, but I promise to stop right now.”
It’s the personal integrity that you have to some degree that has had some longevity.
SS: So, are you talking about what Paul meant in 1 Timothy 3, when he said that an individual must be above reproach?
SS: And then later he talks about, must be well-thought-of by outsiders. So no scandalous type of dishonesty or lack of integrity that would disqualify you, and undermine the ability of others to put their trust and their confidence in your leadership.
MP: Read the pastoral epistles over and over again.
CR: Yeah, the key word you just used, I think, is “disqualify.” So even if a guy thinks, emotionally, “But I love doing it and I really want to do it,” the fact is these elements disqualify you right now, right? And that’s what you’re saying. It’s not even so much that because you do those things, that proves to me you don’t want to, or you don’t want to minister very badly because you’re like this. But even if you claim you do, because I don’t know what you claim to want, you’re disqualified.
MP: No, I’m going to put you guys both on the spot. Are you disqualified if you want to go to seminary, but you have been divorced?
SS: Well, that would depend on the circumstances of the break up of that marriage. It would depend upon what the grounds were. If it was because of your own sexual infidelity, that would lead to one conclusion perhaps.
MP: What if it was a sexual infidelity before you started following the Lord?
SS: See, you just complicated things! I was going to give a simple answer.
CH: Caveat after caveat…
SS: I think, again, the issue you’re raising here is a question of character; you called it “integrity.” I would just call it more broad, over, kind of a more comprehensive term, just the fundamental issue of “character.” Are there such deficiencies of character; is there a history, and a track record, so to speak, of these kinds of moral and verbal failures that would disqualify you? I wouldn’t…I know that there are some who say that Paul’s statement that an elder must be the husband of one wife means that he could never have been divorced. I don’t think that’s what that means. I think it means he needs to be faithful to his spouse, and loyal, and devoted to her, and not a man with a wandering eye, not given to emotional engagement with someone not his spouse. I would not say, personally, I would not say that a person who’s been divorced is necessarily disqualified from seminary or being in full time ministry.
MP: What about you, Clint?
CR: Yeah, when you said that, the first thing I thought of was, “Tell me who it is and what happened.”
It’s like saying, “Are you disqualified if you’ve ever killed a man?”
Well, did you kill him because he insulted you and you were mad? Or did you kill him because he was coming in your house, coming through your door with a gun? I mean context, to me, matters, and so just the ‘big D’ itself, if I just see that in their history, I’m not just going to be like, rubber stamp them ‘denied.’
MP: Well, I had a guy that was the most influential person to me in the early ‘90s that had a divorce, while he was a Christian, and I never could figure out why he was not used more significantly. Churches would not hire him, they’d go from place to place; incredible preacher.
One place even said, “You’re so good of a preacher we don’t want the congregation worshiping you rather than God.”
But, he got a divorce. Why did he get a divorce? Because when he started following the Lord, his wife said she couldn’t take it, and she left him.
SS: You know, there’s a denomination that will remain unnamed, that when you apply for financial support, maybe you’re going to plant a church, for example, they ask you three questions: Number one, do you drink? Number two, do you have a private prayer language? Number three, have you ever been divorced? You know, it’s like those are the three biggies that outrank, “Well, by the way, do you believe in the deity of Jesus? Did He rise from the dead?” You know, that might be important.
CR: I’m familiar with that denomination.
SS: Yes, so am I. So it’s the issue of character. What else, Michael? I want to get to all these five issues you’ve got. We’re going to run out of time.
MP: Okay. Have other people encouraged you to do so? Now, this is the issue of community. This is the issue of being involved in a community, and being open to community.
I have a guy that, for example, who feels the passion, who has all of these other qualifications, but in the end nobody has ever said, “Hey, I think you ought to go to seminary. Hey, I think you ought to be a pastor.”
And his idea is, “I am being called—period. That is what the Lord says.”
And I said, “Listen, here’s what I want you to do. Keep doing what you’re doing, and listen to the advice of others.”
SS: So, in other words, you’re talking about affirmation. Has somebody come to you and said, “You know, when you led that Bible study the other day, I was really blessed! You have some incredible insights into the Word of God that I’ve never heard before, and you have a way of articulating that and expressing it in a way that’s clear and persuasive.”
You know, if you’ve never had that happen, if nobody is…in other words, the question is, “If you think you’re called to be a leader, look behind and see if anyone’s following.” So, have you been affirmed?
Have people said, “I recognize in you gifting. You’ve got the presence of the Holy Spirit in such a way that you’ve made a difference in my life and in the lives of others.”
Has that ever happened? If that has never happened, you need to ask yourself why.
MP: Do you think it’s detrimental enough to say, “If this has never happened, then you should not be called into full time seminary until something like that happens?”
SS: I would say, maybe you need to slow down, put it on pause. And perhaps you just need to go to people that you know that care about you, and say, “Look, I need you to be honest with me. I don’t want you to flatter me; that’s not going to help me. I don’t want you to tell me what you think I want to hear. I need to hear from you when you have observed me interacting with people, when you’ve watched me teach, and you’ve listened to me, has it made a difference? Do you detect in that that the Lord has equipped me to do this full time for the rest of my life?”
So, if you’ve never heard it, go ask the people that you know, that you trust, and really insist that they be honest with you about it.
And if they look at you and say, “Well, all right, you’ve asked me to be honest. The answer is: not really!”
Then, you probably need to pause, and put it on hold, and pray. Maybe it’s because of a lack of formal education that we talked about last time. Maybe you do need to spend some time under the leadership and be mentored as an apprentice by someone who is gifted and called.
MP: Carrie, you haven’t said much. What do you think? Do you think that that is detrimental? People encouraging you to go? Affirming you in your gifts and encouraging you to go into full time ministry?
CH: I think that’s a very subjective aspect of it, but I think there’s something to it.
MP: Is it essential? Nobody’s ever encouraged you; nobody’s ever said anything. The body of Christ is not saying that you need to be in here.
CH: The whole point to engage in ministry is to serve others in a certain way. You know what I mean? And I think that…but if you’re talking about at a pastoral level, to engage in that way. If these are the kind of people you’re going to be pastoring; and if those type of people aren’t saying, “You know what? You’d be really good at pastoring me.” You know, essentially.
CR: Isn’t it similar to the discussion we always have about gifts? People always wonder about gifts, and one of the things I’ve heard, at least a lot of times is, “Well are you any good at it?” I mean, that sounds kind of a plain and not super spiritual; but at the same time, I mean come on.
If people say to you, “You know maybe that’s not your best thing.”
I mean, someone could still play the trump card, “Well, I don’t care what you say because the Lord gifted me.”
But most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know. It’s kind of like, I figured out a long time ago that, hey, teaching is great, but counseling is hard, and I’m terrible at it. In fact, my wife recently told me I should go take the counselor deal that you guys are doing with Sam.
She’s like, “You should do that because it’s an area of weakness, and you should try to train yourself in your area of weakness.”
But I admit it and I know it, but part of it is like you said: whenever times would come and I would be trying to be like the counselor, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not helping anybody. You know what I mean? The fruit of it was just so poor it felt like they were…
MP: All right. Two more.
SS: Real quickly, let me just add to that. So, what I hear you saying is: you might be gifted, you might have skills, you might have a sharp mind; but what if you don’t like people? What if you’re so introverted that you really don’t want to hang out with other Christians? Is that a disqualification? Is there a need to really have a deep and abiding love and concern for the welfare of human souls?
MP: I could say, maybe you could be a teacher, but you can’t be a pastor.
SS: So, in other words, we say, “Go be a professor in that seminary that is supposed to be there to train all these people to learn how to love people.” So we’re going to go learn from a bunch of professors who don’t care about people to teach us how to care about people?
CH: Or to teach, well I think he was saying there has to be a pastoral element, because the whole point of teaching is because you care about people’s souls.
SS: I know some people who’ve written some superb commentaries, and theological books, and apologetic treatises that I wouldn’t dare put in a pulpit. But they contribute in other ways.
MP: Okay. I’ve got two more we’ve got to go through quickly. Are doors being opened through your experience?
In other words, I’m talking to somebody and they say, “I’ve got all these elements, but there’s just no doors that are being opened. There’s no financial doors being opened. There’s nothing that is really compelling me to say, ‘This is the Lord’ through my experience. That I have been accepted into seminary, or I have the finances to go to the seminary; I have the support.”
SS: So you’re appealing then to providence in a sense? Had God providentially created opportunities and resources that’s going to make it possible for you to do whatever’s necessary to enter into this kind of ministry? Yeah, I think that’s a factor. I don’t think it should be a decisive one.
MP: Because I’ve heard people just go to seminary and, if Tim were here, he’d say, “I just loaded up and went. And we counted on the Lord to provide.”
But sometimes, you don’t. Sometimes you really…people are of the mindset, “I really have to have all my ducks in a row.” And that’s a responsible thing, too.
CR: Well, now that seminary’s online and available, doesn’t that change the circumstantial, providential tea leaves?
MP: But you can’t go online, according to number one.
Okay, number five, last one: Is your spouse in support, if you’re married, is your spouse in support of this direction?
SS: In other words, does she have to be called just like you?
MP: Yeah, that’s right. So, if the spouse says no; you say yes; you’ve got everything, doors open, passion, everything, and your spouse says no; Sam, what do you do?
SS: Well, you pray. You seek counsel. You try to discern why she has that fear or hesitation. Are there reasons for it that maybe are good and Godly, on the one hand, or maybe are selfish and materialistic, on the other? So I think you need to probe deeply in her heart what is the reason for this.
MP: And she remains obstinate, what do you do?
SS: I would be very reluctant to move forward into pastoral ministry if my wife was not supportive of me, as she is.
MP: I had a guy who divorced his wife in order to do what God was calling him to do.
SS: I think you just, let’s go back to the issue of disqualification. Might that be a disqualifying factor?
CR: Did he go to Dallas Seminary? In which case, he went through the ‘big D’ before he went to the big D!
MP: Let’s just say this: after he did that, he never was able to qualify for any seminary, so his passion drove him to disqualification.
CR: [singing] “I’m going through the big D, and don’t mean Dallas.”
SS: This isn’t a definitive answer. I would just say this, from forty-one years of being in pastoral ministry: if your wife, if your spouse is not on board, supportive, excited, and affirming, it’s going to make it very, very difficult for you to succeed.