My pastor friend was about to conduct the most difficult funeral of his nearly-20 year ministry. He and I had discussed it and I had prayed for him. His heart was breaking for the young family that was laying to rest two close loved ones.
In a private moment, I said to him, “Pastor to pastor, I want to ask you something. Even though this is tearing your heart out, do you find yourself thinking, ‘I’d rather be here doing this than anywhere else in the world’?”
He said, “I do! I really do.”
I said, “That’s how you know you are really called to this work.”
He was quiet a moment, then added, “I tell my wife–pastors’ wives understand these things–that my favorite part of pastoring, what I do best, is the funeral of a Christian. It’s hard, it can be gut-wrenching, but this is our moment to shine, the event which brings together all the great stuff we believe so strongly.”
God-called pastors understand.
I have stood at the graveside of a two-year-old who had fought a valiant fight against leukemia, my heart almost as torn as the parents’, and thought, “Thank you, dear Lord, for calling me into this work. I’d rather be here than anyplace else on earth.”
Only the called will understand.
Recently, a friend and I had a lengthy discussion about a pastor who has almost ruined his last two churches and in both cases, left under a cloud. My friend said, “The guy was in the ministry, he has seminary degrees, but honestly, I do not think God called him into this work.”
In a meeting of the directors of mission for the Baptists of our state, an item on our agenda, one we discussed out of great concern but for which we arrived at no solution, was “helping pastors know if they are called (or not) into the ministry.”
There ought to be a way to help uncalled ministers to recognize their situation, then step away from this work and find something else to do.
Some will ask why, what difference it makes.
No one not called into this pastoral ministry–preaching the Gospel of Jesus and caring for His people–will give it the commitment and dedication it demands. They will not do the hard work, invest the long hours, shed the bitter tears, and stay the course when the going gets tough. And only those who do will attain the spiritual maturity and the relationship with the congregation which enables them to do their best work.
The uncalled see this as a nice vocation offering opportunities to do good without requiring them to take extreme vows or risk their lives. More and more, churches pay attractive salaries and the perks can be exciting. As a result, the ministry gets its share of volunteers who show up for work without being called.
Only the called of God see the ministry as a lifework for the Lord Jesus regardless of the pay, the appreciation, or the fruit. Only the called keep preaching when no church will employ them and the disgruntled from the last two churches are bad-mouthing them to pastor search committees.
You have to be called. That’s all there is to it.
Let’s do this into two sections. The first section: You know you are not called to this work when…. And the second, You know God called you into this work when…..
First: You know you are not called into the pastoral ministry when….
1) … you cannot take the criticism, the antagonism, the animosity of the very people you came to minister to.
You naively thought you were doing the members a favor and that they would appreciate you. Instead, some have risen up and want your resignation and the sooner the better. They write anonymous notes and call your house in the middle of the night and hang up the phone. Some spread rumors about your family and generally act in a completely unChristlike way.
They shouldn’t do that. It’s wrong for them to do that.
But most pastors will experience it at least once in their ministry. And when they do, they learn a lot about themselves.
2) …the church votes to fire you and you get angry and leave in a huff, and quit preaching.
You never go back to preaching and harbor bitter feelings toward that church and lay leaders in general. You were never called is my assessment.
“Woe to me if I preach not the gospel,” said Paul (I Corinthians 9:16).
3)…the lay leadership wants to add another Sunday morning service and a Christmas Eve service, and you rebel because it adds to your work load.
If you are looking for ways to do less and less in the ministry, that is a dead giveaway that you are not called.
4)…you do not love the people you’re ministering to.
You find yourself criticizing them, making jokes about them to other pastors, and resenting every time the phone rings or a member drops by the office.
You were not called, friend.
If you are not called by God, there may be a few churches that will never know the difference. They do not ask much from a pastor and you don’t have much to give, so it works out. But most churches will push you to your limit. If you do not love them and are not willing to give your all in serving them, please do yourself and the Kingdom of God a favor, friend, and go into another line of work.
Second: You know God called you into this ministry when….
1)…the work is hard, the rewards are few, the complaining is multiplying, and you are more fulfilled than in anything you’ve ever done in your life.
You are called. “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Colossians 3:24).
2)…you preached your heart out, you know beyond a doubt that the hand of God was on you, but the only response from the congregation was griping that you went overtime. And you are still happy to be serving those people in that pastorate.
Yep. You are called. Your service is unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23).
3)…the deacons are discussing your ministry (pro and con; you do have your supporters) while you sit there in silence, and you find the peace of Christ settling upon you. You sense within yourself a strong love for your critics.
You were called. The Lord’s hand is upon you (Acts 7:54-60). There is no other explanation for such peace in the midst of a stoning.
4)…you can’t do anything else.
A pastor friend wrote about a church he served. There was a time when I was in a difficult church. A small group of leaders had force-terminated the previous four pastors, and now they were trying to run me off. They were hypercritical, they fabricated allegations against me, and they wanted me gone.
I became frustrated and weary and began exploring other career options. In fact, I even found one. However, the Lord would not let me leave. He confirmed in my heart that I was called to pastor and He had sent me to that church. He restored my joy and gave me the perseverance needed to ride out the storm.
5)…you take a well-needed vacation and when it’s over, you can’t wait to get back.
You miss your people and miss what you do.
6)…you sincerely love the people you are ministering to. They’re sinful and can be difficult and the work is emotionally and spiritually draining. But you love them in a way that feels that it must be how the Lord loves them.
7)…you are truly burdened for the spiritual well-being of your people.
This keeps you awake at night, occupies your mind in the day, and drives the programming of your ministry.
A pastor friend said, “Right now, in my church a young couple who are new believers are going through a tragic situation. Not only do I grieve with them–as do the rest of our church family–but I am deeply concerned for their spiritual lives. I fear they will begin to doubt God’s love and goodness. I am concerned that they will walk away from the church, and that their marriage will not survive. I don’t see any signs of this, but the concern is there, and the burden is heavy.”
That’s a pastor speaking. You can’t fake that, cannot summon it up from within yourself, cannot manufacture it by taking so many seminary classes.
Far from running from this kind of burden and the demands of this heavy a ministry, you actually embrace it.
Harper Shannon tells of a pastor running into a friend who had left the ministry and was now selling insurance. He asked, “What do you miss most about the work?”
The insurance seller and former pastor said, “I miss the trumpets in the morning.”
(That became the title of Harper’s book on the pastoral ministry. It’s long out of print, but available from used book sellers such as amazon.com and alibris.com.)
Those called of God understand trumpets in the morning.
Excellent article! I am sharing away!
I think it bears being said that it is okay to recognize you are called to something else in the body. Pride is our worst enemy in either recognizing we have taken a wrong turn or in staying the course on the right track.
Great article as always. Thank you brother.
I needed to read this article. Your mentioning the desire to continue to preach really resonated with me. Thank you for your words Brother Joe. It has encouraged me.
I left the pastorate about 3 years ago. When people ask if I would preach again, I always tell them “I’m willing to do whatever God wants of me, but He would have to put a desire for pastoring/preaching in my heart again for that to happen.” Guilt from leaving the pastorate comes and goes. Where the source of guilt is coming from I do not know. I am happy at my new “secular” job, and try to serve the Lord the best I can in my local church. Thank you for your article, I only wish it had been around in the early 80’s when I was trying to figure all of this out.