A Pastor Without a Call
- 2005 17 Oct
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.
2. Called to ministry at a church.
"calling" is used to refer to a church asking a particular candidate to serve there. This process may involve the development of a search committee and several interviews, or it simply may be someone in your church asking you to serve. When the process is more formal, it’s quite common to be asked about one’s individual call from God. Without a clear sense of individual calling, many churches are reluctant to offer a corporate calling to ministry.
There are probably more denominational differences here than anywhere else; but across the board, ordination is usually seen as the clearest way that a church can call an individual. Rather than serving as an active call in one’s life, ordination is the church’s or denomination’s recognition of God’s calling on an individual. Acknowledgment of one’s calling by an ordaining body allows a person to minister with freedom and confidence.
What Kind of Calling Do We Need?
If the calling we need is ordination, then the world of youth ministry is in a lot of trouble, especially in churches like mine where the written requirements for ordination are 75-100 pages. The overwhelming majority of youth workers aren’t ordained and aren’t even seriously considering it. In contrast, the second variety of calling seems more significant. If a specific church or other ministry doesn’t call you to serve there, then you may still be individually set apart or called by God, but you won’t have a place to serve.
When most people ask you about your call, though, what they seem to be interested in is God individually setting you apart for a specific ministry. It’s foundational. A person being corporately called to serve at a church or be ordained is often thought to be only an outward recognition of God’s individual calling. Without an individual call, a person can feel very out of place in ministry.
But is this kind of calling really necessary? In one sense, we would all have to agree that being set apart by God for ministry is important. If sovereign God is in control of all things and knows the future, it follows that God has set apart those who will enter full-time ministry. If God doesn’t want you in full-time ministry, you shouldn’t enter it. The real questions that arise are if, how, and to whom does God reveal those who’ve been called? Is it necessary for each person to hear God speak to him or her? Or is God’s voice spoken to the individual through the church?
Many people are quick to rush to the stories of Isaiah, Paul, Jeremiah, Moses, and others to show that God calls people to serve. But are those stories prescriptive or descriptive? Does the fact that God extended an individual call to some necessitate that God will do it for all enter the ministry? The complexity of the issue increases when we begin to compare the kinds of callings many people describe today to the kinds of callings described in Scripture. I don’t know anyone who has seen a burning bush or had a vision of heaven opening. People today often receive their calling through the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. At the very least, we must recognize the real difference here. When someone sees a burning bush, she can be certain it’s God, but when we’re listening for a still small voice, it can be difficult to determine whether God is speaking or just our own desires.
Although the book is now 24 years old, Garry Friesen’s Decision Making and the Will of God still offers what is, in my opinion, the most insightful look at divine guidance. His examination of key passages (especially Proverbs 3:5-6 and Romans 12:1-2) reveals that God doesn’t promise to tell us exactly what to do in each situation of our lives. Even the passages in John 14 and 16, when Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit coming, don’t guarantee God’s guidance in every decision. Not only is individual guidance not included in the ministries of the Holy Spirit in these passages, the guidance that is included may have more to do with the inspiration of Scripture than anything else.
What God has given every person for guidance is found in the moral requirements of Scripture. Beyond that, much of the time we’re given a sense of freedom in the way we serve God—and I think this is also true of our desire to do ministry. 1 Timothy 3:1 reads, "The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task." The verse doesn’t say that anyone who wants to be a bishop must have heard God calling him through a still, small voice. This passage describes people like me, who never felt God calling them but who want to use their lives and gifts to serve God—and who see full-time ministry as the best way to do that.
Am I truly a pastor without a call? It depends on how you define "call." I’ve been called by my church to serve as the pastor of youth ministry, but I’ve never genuinely sensed the Holy Spirit tell me that I must be in full-time ministry or even in ministry at my church. In that sense, I am without a call.
Surviving in Ministry without a Call
Anyone who’s done youth ministry for more than a week knows it can be discouraging and frustrating. In the past, people have warned me that without a strong sense that God has called me to ministry, I’ll likely give up when times get hard. So far I haven’t given up. Here are a few things I’ve depended on to keep me going.
1. Obey everything God has told me to do.
Rather than getting discouraged because I lack a sense of individual guidance, I’ve put my time and effort into obeying what God has told me to do in Scripture. I’ve found this is more than enough to keep me occupied.
2. Look at what God is doing through you rather than looking at a past calling.
My church recently had a staff retreat, and each staff member shared with the others how God had confirmed their callings in the past few months. I was able to think about the many lives God is changing through this ministry. None of us should be serving in a ministry where there’s no fruit at all. If we keep our eyes open to see God working, it can be a great motivator for us to continue serving.
3. Take comfort in your corporate calling.
Those of us presently serving in a ministry can gain some sense of assurance from the fact that a church or ministry has called us to serve there. God does speak through the church, and that kind of corporate calling is much more concrete than individual calling.
As for me, I can think of few things more tragic than some of the greatest potential youth workers remaining on the sidelines because they weren’t sure if they were called or not.
Andy Linquist is pastor of youth ministry at the Moody Church.