Tonight I participated in an ordination service for a missionary from our church. The speaker giving the address to the candidate told us that all people in full-time ministry receive a call, and that it will be tied to a specific people group. For Paul, the people group was the Gentiles; for our candidate it was the people from a small town in Ireland.

Statements like that have always caused me to squirm in my seat, because I’ve never felt called to the ministry—at least not the way many other people seem to be called. No voice from heaven. No inner sensations that I could be certain were from God. Certainly no specific destination or people groups. So each time I hear someone say that all people in full-time ministry must be called, I’m forced to ask myself, "Do I have any business being in full-time ministry?" My answer: I hope so.

Faking My Call

I got into youth ministry for the same reason that many other youth workers do—the youth ministry I was a part of in high school changed my life in such a profound and positive way that I, in turn, desired to be used by God to bring about the same kind of changes in the lives of others.

When I was a senior in high school, the Bible teacher and student advisor at my Christian school told our class that full-time ministry was a calling, and unless a person had been called by God, he or she shouldn’t pursue it. I took what he said seriously, but I still really wanted to be in youth ministry. Not having experienced a clear call from God, I began to rethink all my past experiences to figure out when God must have called me. I decided it happened on a mission trip to Mexico one year earlier. Once I had determined my "call," it became much easier to tell people I planned to enter full-time ministry.

Looking back, I don’t believe I was intentionally faking my call. It just didn’t seem reasonable that someone who really loved God and wanted to serve with his entire life wouldn’t be called. I knew I really wanted to do youth ministry, so I assumed God must have called me at some point. It wasn’t until a few years later that I began questioning this idea that all who enter full-time ministry must be called.

What Kind of Calling Is in View?

Much of the confusion surrounding calling is the result of the many different ways people use the term. It’s important to consider the word’s different uses and the development of the biblical theology of call to keep from misunderstanding one another. "Calling" can imply at least three different ideas.

1. Individually set apart by God.

Many people in Scripture as well as many Christians today describe a time when God spoke to them and compelled them to enter the ministry. Often this is framed as an Isaiah- or Paul-like experience when God comes to a person and tells him or her of the special role to take on in God’s kingdom work. In many instances, God’s direction is very specific. These individuals are not only being set apart for service, they’re also being given specific parameters for their service. In Isaiah’s case, God even gives him a specific message to speak to the people. For Paul, it was his initial vision that set him apart for service, and subsequent visions from God filled out the who (Gentiles) and the where (Macedonia) of his ministry. This individual call usually occurs prior to one’s entering a specific field of ministry and is looked back upon by many in ministry as confirmation that they’re doing what God wants them to do.