Reflecting on the basis of a call to ministry (or a lack thereof)
Dr. Milton writes:
[Martin] Bucer teaches us that the warrant, the calling and the work of the pastor, must be grounded in the Word of God and in the theological commitments of the Reformation and must be embraced personally by the pastor. In other words, the pastoral ministry is not just a Biblical idea, though it must be that, it is also a Spirit-shaped reality in the soul of the one called to be a pastor.
He also recounts a conversation before his own seminary training, in which a seasoned minister challenged him:
You only have your call from God! When they give you a Christmas raise and then run you out on a rumor, when the devil stirs up opposition against you for the sake of Jesus, and when you are hurt like our Lord was hurt, you will only have one thing to help you pick up your things and move on to the next field of service. Do you know what that is?” I decided not to answer. “You know what it is? It is your calling from God.” We both stood there looking at each other without talking. This eternity lasted for about a minute. Then he laid down the hammer for the final time. “Son, are you called by God to be a pastor according to the Word of God?” I whispered that I thought I should go home and pray about that. Brothers, that is just what I did.
(Read Dr. Milton's whole letter here.)
Dr. Milton's words, quoted above and in the rest of his letter, are both profound and wise. When someone is called to the ministry, it is not on the basis of the approval of their congregation, the outward affirmation that they receive (or that they don't receive), or any other external measure that should be what "keeps them going" so to speak. It should be their unequivocal sense that shepherding the flock of God in his church is all that they can do—the only thing that they can do.
This is why Charles Spurgeon frequently admonished his students that, if there was any other profession in which they felt they could be satisfied and content, they should run as fast as they could from pastoral ministry and do that! (See Spurgeon's Lectures To My Students.) It wasn't that Spurgeon didn't want more pastors coming into the church, but that he recognized that (in his day) the ministry was seen as a cushy and undemanding job, and maybe one in which someone who didn't want to work all that hard might find their ease.
Still today, pastoral ministry is a job where a lazy man can find a decent paycheck without too much work. Now, let me be clear: it is not that it should be this way, but for some it is. I've known lazy pastors, who present a façade of busyness and activity while hiding in their studies or wandering around, whereabouts unknown. Their sermons were ill-prepared and poorly presented, their visitation (what little of it existed) was infrequent and filled with empty clichés, and they didn't know their sheep from the wolves among them. These men were more susceptible than most to failed marriages and to the temptations of pornography, plagiarism, and other scandals that eventually wreaked havoc in their congregations; while they usually didn't stay more than a year or two in any one congregation, they did great damage during their brief visit. Thankfully, most of the men I'm thinking of are no longer in the ministry.
I think Dr. Milton's admonitions are invaluable today. I believe our day is more like Spurgeon's, in terms of many men attending seminary and dabbling at the possibility of a career in ministry, than most of us would like to admit.
As I commented on in my recent post reflecting on the decrease in placement, I believe we can see the fruit of the problem I've listed above (among other problems) in how many qualified candidates there are who are called as Dr. Milton described, yet who have not found placement into a ministry position. I don't think we can chalk that up entirely to the decline of the church, but also to the fact that, for years, there was a shortage (or an apparent one, at any rate) of called, qualified pastors and pastoral candidates, and therefore we threw open the doors of our seminaries and our presbyteries and welcomed in all who would come. Now we are seeing one of the consequences.
I think a second factor that has led to this (and to the decrease in placement issue as well) is that some—perhaps many—of those entering seminary do so because it was either implied to them or outright said that, if they were really serious about maturity in their Christian faith, they would go to seminary and pursue a career in vocational ministry. This is dead wrong! Not least because, as Dr. Milton reflects, this is no basis for a true, biblical ministry of the Word. There are many professions (most of them by far, in fact) in which a godly young man or woman can serve God faithfully.
If you are a seminary student—or if you are a seminary graduate who is pursuing a call to be a pastor—I would urge you to read Dr. Milton's words and take them to heart. There is no shame in determining that you are not, in fact, called to be a pastor! But if you are so called, be encouraged, as Dr. Milton (and I) long for you to be, by the true and biblical basis of your call to ministry.
Challenging the conventional wisdom on Ministerial Calls
Trueman observes that the practice often is in conflict with similar practices in other parts of our congregational life:
I have often wondered why it is in Presbyterian circles (and probably other churches too) that we routinely call men in their twenties, straight from seminary, to be ministers when we would never dream of calling someone of such an age to be a ruling elder. It seems odd to apply the biblical norms only to the latter.
I think he is more right than wrong here. I know at Covenant Seminary, where I studied, there is a requirement that a man must have at least three years of pastoral ministry behind him before beginning a Doctor of Ministry program; I have wondered why a similar requirement is not made for those who would enter the ministry. Why not at least one or the other of the following: either several years of work experience in secular employment, or several years of ministry experience as an intern, pastoral assistant, or non-ordained ministry position?
Trueman goes on to point out that, too often, churches and presbyteries simply rely on seminaries to do their jobs for them, with regard to determining whether a man is fit for ministry. If they have completed seminary, the conventional wisdom goes, they must have some "chops" that make them suitable as a pastor. He makes the following point about that:
What is needed is a clear understanding that seminaries are not presbyteries: they do not make any judgment on suitability for ministry; they simply teach the necessary technical theological skills at the appropriate level.
He concludes with a poignant reminder about achievement and potential vs. fitness and qualification for ministry:
An MDiv degree, a congregational vote, an `internal call' and an act of presbytery do not mean that a man is really called by God to be a minister.
This is much-needed re-thinking. I know that our presbytery has ordained men on these bases, when in fact several of us have had serious questions about whether they were truly ready to serve the church as pastors-- or whether we were setting them up (and their congregations as well) for potential devastation.
Read all of the posts here:
Some Questions and Thoughts on Ministerial Calls I
Some Questions and Thoughts on Ministerial Calls II
When the search lingers... part 1
I imagine that this man is not alone; there are many guys who graduate without a call, and many go on to linger in their candidacy process for a while-- months, even years pass before they reach a point of resolution. For some, the eventual resolution is placement; for others, it is a decision to abandon the search for pastoral placement (for good or for now) and move on to other things. Regardless, this young man is in a difficult position.
What advice would I have for him? First let me say that I am certain that his level of discouragement is quite high. I know that it must be so difficult to persevere! I know men who have given up; some of them, I am convinced, should not have given up-- I am as sure as I could be that God had called them into ministry. And I know others who persevered, some for longer than you have, and they are now well-placed and thriving in the ministry God had been preparing for them.
Thus, I'll offer two responses: first, some thoughts about how to continue to discern a calling to pastoral ministry; second (in another post), a few things to "do" to continue and press on.
I know that many seminarians sense an inward call to ministry; I trust that, and consider that to be a foundational aspect of a call to ministry-- but it is one aspect of a few. I would say, with confidence, that there are two other aspects.
First, is there a "scriptural" call to ministry? We must ask ourselves, what does the Bible teach about those who are called to ministry? One way to proceed with considering whether you should continue to pursue a pastoral call might be to dig deeply into a study of the Word. Do a survey of those who served as leaders throughout the Scriptures, and consider whether there are normative factors in their calling. Dig into Paul's teachings on gifts, and look at what gifts he teaches are crucial for leadership and servanthood in the pastoral office. Do some serious exegetical work in the pastoral epistles and construct a biblical portrait of the Elder/Overseer. Study the writings of Peter, James, and John on those who lead the church.
There is more study to do here than most have time to complete between now and when the Lord places them! I would strongly suggest spending devotional time in this sort of study-- so that daily, in their time in the Word, a candidate is more deeply affirmed from Scripture of their call to ministry. (Incidentally, if God is NOT calling them into ministry, such a study should reveal that to their hearts, as well.)
Also, is there an external call to ministry? At a point where the search for placement has gone well-beyond what we would think of as a "normal" length of time, the fact that someone hasn't yet received a ministerial call might suggest that there is not an external call. A candidate shouldn't let this be the final decision-factor, however. Instead, they should ask, "Who first encouraged me to attend seminary, and why? How was I affirmed in my call to ministry by seminary professors and classmates? What do those who I served-- and those whom I served under-- during field education and/or internships have to say about affirming my call to ministry? Am I involved in leadership in the church now-- and if so, what do those whom I serve under say about a call into ministry?"
Between now and when they first were led to begin seminary study, there should be many people-- dozens? more than that?-- who have first-hand experience with their ministry, and who can speak honestly and informedly to whether they see God calling them into ministry. The candidate must find them, and ask them. He must invite them to be frank, even blunt with him. If they have any love for the church and for the candidate, they will tell him whether they see God calling him to ministry.
Tim Keller on, "why plant churches?"
Here's a series of audio messages of PCA pastor and church planter Tim Keller on the question, "why plant churches?" If you're considering church planting as the next direction for your ministry (or for the first step out of seminary), this series of videos may be helpful.
Keller on church planting
Here is a series of videos from PCA pastor Tim Keller on church planting that highlights some of the essential principles, attitudes, and elements that a church planter needs to get through it effectively. (Each video is a little less than 5 minutes long.)
SBC Conpensation study for 2008
Frankly, most of the data on my blog (really, all of it until today) is drawn from the Presbyterian Church in America's (PCA's) stats. That's because, well, I'm in the PCA, so that is the data I have ready access to-- or have in the past, at least.
But recently Lifeway Research released study data on church compensation in the Southern Baptist Convention. (Lifeway Research is, obviously, the research arm of Lifeway Publications-- and THEY are the publishing wing of the Southern Baptist Convention.) The study data is interesting (to me), as most data of this sort can be.
The headliner find of the study is that raises and increases in SBC pastors' salaries beat inflation-- but barely. (This doesn't mean, by the way, that it covers a normal cost-of-living increase; inflation is simply when the value of the dollar-- or any other currency-- goes down, while the "cost-of-living" is what it costs to maintain a certain standard of living.) There is a lot of other data there-- and if you're in the process of negotiating your salary (especially if you're in the SBC!), then it will be a helpful tool.
One caveat that I would add: one friend (who was formerly an SBC pastor before coming into the PCA) told me bluntly, "Baptists are notorious for not paying their pastors well." I pressed to see if that was simply based on his own experience, and he assured me that it wasn't. This may be an unfair accusation, and I would welcome any Baptist readers to chime in about it-- but if he is right, then take this data with a grain of salt, as far as what is "fair" compensation for a pastor.
Here are some links:
- Read a summary of the study
- Visit the Compensation Study homepage, whee you can view the results of the study broken down by category.
- The study homepage also includes a "customized report" that will project what your salary should be, based on the parameters and findings of the study
William Still on calling and waiting for his will
You must know or be seeking decisive assurance that you are called by Him to minister the Word; and you must eventually, before you begin, be so certain of this that you would die at the stake for your knowledge.
[Then] you must be willing to wait His will. Some of the most fruitful ministers I know in Scotland have had to wait years for their God-given appointments. And I might add that some have to wait for years in what I call a preparatory ministry, which is often more for their own personal good than for what an unwilling evangelistic people bargained for. You must be sure that you are in the right place. Only one thing kept me in my pulpit when all hell was let loose against me: it was the knowledge that God put me there, and there I had to stay until God took me out. I have hurled this more than once at my enemies with, I assure you, devastating effect!
(From William Still, The Work of the Pastor, pp. 117-118)
What makes it worth it
There are times when the ministry is tough-- enough to make you ask, "is this worth it?"
Let me tell you clearly: it is.
Every now and then, God will send encouragement your way to stoke the fires for ministry. Here are a few recent examples from my ministry:
- In an e-mail received on a Monday morning: "Just wanted to let you that the message was so good. We are so happy to have you as our pastor."
- A conversation with a couple just before worship a few weeks ago: "We wanted to tell you that you have helped us to love church again. Before we started coming here, we had almost reached the point where we didn't even want to go to church anymore. Through your teaching, your preaching, and your love for us, you've helped us get excited about church. Now we look forward to every time we come."
- In a note I received today: "Your sermon Sunday was an answer to prayer. Having suffered a harsh remark from someone I respect, I have harbored ill will toward them. This has troubled my soul. Thank you for pointing me to God's Word on that very subject and giving me hope that I can get past the hurt to pray for God's mercy for both of us. His message was what I needed to hear!"
John Piper recently blogged about "How can I bless my Pastor?" His take-away point was, "I want to see lives changed." When you're in ministry, God can and does use you to change lives-- and He will sometimes grant you encouragement that you have done exactly that.
That's what makes ministry worth it.
That trip was the ticket-- the Spirit was strongly at work that weekend. In the following days, that congregation voted to call me as their pastor, and as of early October I will "take the field" in Hickory Withe, Tennessee at Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church (PCA).
Meanwhile, I still covet your prayers: I am studying hard for my examinations for licensure, which is effectively the first part of ordination in the PCA. I'll be examined in a handful of ways over the next couple of weeks.
We're thrilled, and couldn't be more excited. From all reports, the people of Hickory Withe are, too.
Thank you for your prayers, if you have or will pray. I'll reflect on preparing for ordination soon!
The importance of the Body
My friend has had his sights set on a particular area of ministry since early in seminary, and as he has moved through his training he has focused on that almost exclusively-- taking elective classes in that area, serving with a church that is distinctive in that area, and even beginning his search by focusing on opportunities in that area.
A few weeks ago, he went to a conference to get some training in that ministry area. While there, he spoke with some experienced, wise leaders about his desires to serve in this particular area of ministry. Their counsel surprised him: having spoken with him at length about his experience, training, personality, and passions, their assessment was that he was not really a good fit for the area of ministry he had in mind. Further, they strongly discouraged him from continuing to pursue it.
To say the least, this man is discouraged. More than that, however, he now must entirely re-evaluate the candidacy opportunities he has been exploring-- and he's already told me that the one he was most excited about, and that he had the most traction with, is out of the picture.
I feel bad for my friend, but not as bad as I would if he had not received such wise counsel in time to prevent him from taking a position that was a bad fit. Frankly, I'm thankful for the strong words of these leaders-- I'm only sorry that he wasn't told this earlier.
One of the real benefits of Field Education, Internships, and simply being active and involved in ministry through a local congregation, is that it allows men (and women) to test their sense of calling and get valuable feedback about the direction their ministry is headed. The feedback of the Body is an essential part of a seminarian's a sense of calling.
My friend has completed an Internship, and has even been serving in a leadership role in his church. Why hasn't he received the kind of feedback he needed? Why didn't one of those that he served with suggest that he should re-consider this direction? Why didn't one of his close friends speak honestly with him about it?
(It's worth saying here that it takes a very good friend to have this kind of conversation. Another friend once told me that one of the best things a friend ever told him was that he should give up on songwriting-- he just wasn't good enough, and he had talents elsewhere. What a hard word to say and to receive! But what a value in a good friend!)
When I first began to sense a calling into the ministry, my Pastor asked me three questions to help me assess it: what does my heart tell me? What does God's Word tell me? And what does God's people tell me? These have been North-pointing compass questions for me ever since.
Sadly, it sounds like no one ever asked my friend the last question until recently.
Candidates, don't wimp out!
I think a large part of the reason for churches underpaying their ministry professionals is the ministry professionals themselves! After all, we're the ones accepting what they offer, right?
I have to admit that I've felt it, and you've probably felt it, too: we're called to be servants of the Church, to suffer on behalf of Christ. Maybe a constant struggle to make ends meet is our cross to bear, right?
Time for a few disclaimers. Here's what I'm NOT saying: that you should take as much as you can niggle out of them, refuse to accept less than your "standard", or play a negotiation game until your wealth is growing through the roof. (Don't worry about the last one ever happening, by the way.)
But neither should you accept a salary that puts your family in financial jeopardy simply because the church you're negotiating with makes an offer. There is a big difference between giving of yourself and being used-- between being a servant and being a doormat. In most cases, ANY employer will pay as little as they can get away with; it should not come as a surprise, therefore, that very few churches will OVERpay.
Candidates, you must negotiate a salary that is fair, and that pays your bills. Too many of us will accept whatever is offered because we're afraid of losing an opportunity. "If I ask for more," we think, "they might not hire me."
Are you that uncertain that the Lord has led the hearts of those extending you this call? Then maybe you shouldn't be taking it-- even if they double the amount they offer.
If they say, "we believe God has led us to call you-- let's don't make this about money" then you should say, "I agree; if it's not about money, then you should be able to pay me what I need." You must help them understand that part of your calling as a ministry professional-- a major part, in fact-- is to take care of yourself and those in your family. If they don't get this, you don't want to work with for them.
There will always be the church that simply can't afford to pay you what you need. If you're equally convinced that God has called you there, then it comes back to you to figure it out. When you're satisfied that they have offered you as much as they can afford (or as much as you need, whichever is less), then it's time to find another source to supplement.
But if you're not negotiating with one of these churches, then you should expect more. Realize that this will help set a pattern of precedent for how the leadership will treat you. So many pastors who complain that their leaders give them as little investment in ministry as they can get away with could. I wonder how many could trace this problem back to the salary negotiations?
Consider this your first act as their pastor...
Why becoming a solo pastor doesn't suit me as well as it used to
I think the consensus is that it's not an ideal fit for me at this point. Whatever I do must meet certain "needs" that I have, so to speak-- it must fulfill the sense of calling I have, based on the strengths, giftedness, and experiences that God has given me. Here's how that plays out:
- I love to teach-- I
- to teach.
But it's fair to say that, if this is one of the big needs that I have, there are other types of organizations that would fulfill this need.
- I work best when I'm developing leaders.
Over time, this becomes draining. I've found that eventually most of my leadership development energy is consumed by recruiting alone; I don't end up having much to give to their actual development. And I wonder if there isn't something to be said for working with an organization where leaders come to me wanting to be developed. Or at least where the development happens by default.
- I have a strong interest in the long-term health and vitality of the Church.
But when I've brought a church through revitalization and into a (relatively) healthy state, what then? It's possible-- even probable-- that there would be opportunities to work with other churches in my presbytery in this area. And this may, in fact, satisfy my interest.
But I'm a big-picture guy. Not exclusively big-picture, but the big picture matters to me. A lot. So it's pretty likely that my interest in Church vitality may not be satisfied by the locality of a particular congregation. I think I need to be working with something bigger for now.
- I love leading people and organizations toward developing and implementing vision.
I'd like to think, "I'm a patient guy-- I could do that..." But I'm afraid I'd be fooling myself. I need to work with a church or organization that is ready to develop a fresh and, perhaps, quite different vision right away. And that is good to go with implementing it in short order. In fact, it may be the case that working with only one organization is not enough for me at this point.
None of this is to say that pastoral ministry in a local church isn't for me ever. I could easily see transitioning into a solo pastorate in a few years.
But I don't think I'm ready for it-- not so much because of my training or experience, but because of the needs that my calling places on me.
He further asserts that there should be a growing increase in the ratio on the calling side. Over time, you should strive for much more than 60%, and eventually settle in at somewhere in the 80% range on average.
Last fall I was discussing seminary jobs with a classmate-- that is, the jobs that we hold to put ourselves through seminary. This particular friend has simply hated the job he held, although he is quite good at it. At one point in our conversation, he remarked, "right now I'd just be happy to be at 40/60!!!"
At times my friend has had to make changes in his job circumstances because he found he was burning out. He was living the 60/40 principle. I think this principle is a vital part of the picture when it comes to placement: if you're not certain you're going to be well within 60% or better, you should seriously question whether that placement is for you.
As I reflected on my friend's comments later, I thought of the work I was doing this fall for the school where I teach and work. What would my ratio be? I wondered. Upon consideration,
I decided that I would have to rank it somewhere around 90/10!
Now, I have no illusions that the job will remain at that level for the long-term, but even if it dropped off by, say, 10%, that would still leave me at a place that Dr. Douglass encourages students to aspire to over the lifetime of their ministry.
That's cause for careful scrutiny: dare I expect more from someplace else? Shouldn't I remain here until that ratio changes substantially?
When it comes to job satisfaction, it seems like a satisfaction guarantee.
Effective placement benchmarks, no.1: fulfillment of calling
I have been asking this question for almost two years now. It has led me to conduct a survey, administer interviews, and read books. It has called me to be introspective about my own experiences, and to investigate corroborative aspects of others' experiences. It has motivated me to brainstorm, to write, and to give lectures and seminars. It is one of the main reasons for this blog.
As I've mentioned before, I have generally concluded that there are three defining elements of effective placement-- three benchmarks which, if met, indicate that a placement into ministry was everything that it could be. They are:
- Fulfillment of one's calling
- A fruit-bearing ministry
- “Full-term” service
Gospel-centered ministry is predicated on the calling by Jesus Christ of individuals to service in His Church and Kingdom. Just as Jesus’ life and ministry was focused on God’s Kingdom (Matthew 3:2-3, 11), so too the Redeemed, called by God, are focused on ministry within the Kingdom in accordance with their calling. All believers called by God to faith are also called to service in His Kingdom, and are uniquely gifted for that purpose (Romans 12:1-8). Every Christian has the privilege and responsibility to discern God’s particular calling for him, and to act upon that calling, ministering to others, and being ministered to by others, for his lifetime.
This is no less true for the pastor called into vocational ministry. Effective placement into a vocational ministry position, then, inevitably includes the utilization of a pastor’s giftedness. A pastoral call must be a good fit for both pastor and congregation. However God has gifted and prepared a man for ministry, that is how he should serve God in ministry (Romans 12:6-8).
If a Pastor is to serve out the calling God has given him, he must either fulfill this in the unique way that he is crafted or he will face eventual failure. Some men are capable enough that they might work outside of their giftedness for a season; a very few are remarkable enough to do this for an extended time. No one, however, can sustain work in ministry (or in any other vocation) indefinitely. All eventually burn out.
On the other hand, if a Pastor is allowed to focus on the areas where he is gifted, his work will delight him rather than leaving him spent. This means two things: first, a Pastor (or Pastor-to-be) must have a clear sense of how God has gifted and shaped him for the work of ministry, as well as a clue about where he is too weak to spend much time or effort. All of us have our weaknesses, and if we aren't aware of them then we cannot find appropriate complements for them. Pastor, know thyself.
The other implication is that both Pastor and church must recognize when a Pastor-- uniquely suited for a certain kind of ministry-- is a good fit for the position they are filling, and when he is not. Neither Pastor nor church should be afraid to simply say, “You're just not the right fit.” Obviously this must be done tactfully and graciously, but it must be done. Then, if feelings are hurt or egos bruised, that just shows the wrong approach was taken to the search.
A good fit or not? When the candidate-pastor and the candidate-church both know what would be a good fit for them, the question should be fairly straightforward. Anything else denies the possibility of genuine fulfillment of calling.
What is a “calling” anyway?
Until the last year or so, I would have defined a calling as a specific end-result-- usually, a particular job or position. Thus, my calling, as I understood it, was to be a pastor, probably a solo pastor, and probably in a particular kind of church. In my mind, as God made my calling clearer, the scope of possible positions narrowed in an inverse correlation. The more precise my sense of calling, the fewer positions fit the bill.
There is a good reason why I defined calling in this way: a position as pastor, assistant pastor, etc. is colloquially referred to as “a call”. When I eventually receive an offer of a position as pastor, I will have a “pastoral call”. Not surprisingly, in my mind I drew an equation between the idea of my “calling” and what would eventually be my “call”. While this is not illegitimate, there is also not a direct equation. In other words, it is not the case that “calling = call”.
A helpful analogy came to me from Greek syntax. When working to translate from one language into another, you are concerned with semantics-- that is, word choice. There are two categories that must be considered: the semantic “range” and the semantic “field”.
The semantic range of a word is simply the different meanings or definitions that the word might have. Thus, the semantic range of the word “class” includes two different ideas: the academic one, where “class” means a group of students that meet together to learn; and the socio-economic one, where “class” denotes a particular level of status. (There are more ideas, but these two are good examples.)
The semantic field of a word is, in a sense, the converse: it is the different words that fit into a given definition. The semantic field, then, of the word “food” includes green beans, steak, bread, and birthday cake.
Depending on the level of precision in a given word, there may be a semantic range that is very narrow indeed. That precise word, however, might fall into a semantic field that is still quite broad. For example, a semantic field of “food” may include the fairly broad “bread” and the quite narrow “Hudson's famous Hush Puppies”, yet both are a part of the same semantic field. But to translate properly (which assumes a clear understanding of the word being translated), both the semantic range and the semantic field must be considered. That is the beauty of language-- it affords us many ways to say what we mean, thereby allowing exacting precision in our statements, questions, and opinions.
Here's the analogy: I think I've been thinking about “calling” with regard to, if you will, the “range of calling” but ignoring the “field of calling”. That is, I've focused on the precision of my calling-- narrowing the definition of what I'm gifted for, passionate about, experienced with, and burdened for. Yet, I've ignored the field of what that precision could lie within; I've assumed that the field was as precise and narrow as the range. This has been my mistake.
To flesh that out a bit: my “range of calling” is fairly narrow. I am equipped for teaching/preaching, leadership development, administration, and vision-casting and implementation. I am passionate about my love for the Church and my care for her leaders. I have experience in a wide range of ministry, but primarily in teaching, discipleship, and leadership development. And I am burdened for the long-term health and advancement of the Church.
All this time, I have assumed that my “field of calling” is also narrow: small church ministry (probably in a revitalization context) as the solo or head pastor for a long-term service of ministry.
But I've begun to wonder if that is a fair assumption. Are there other positions (“calls” if you will) that would scratch those itches and fulfill my calling just as well? Might a different position (other than as solo/head pastor) in a local church fulfill my calling? Could I serve a school, a presbytery, or even a denomination, and accomplish the same or similar results?
If so, I must re-adjust my priorities in the search process.
On dreams, calling, and God's great will
There is a position at the seminary that intrigues me. They have a great guy in that position right now who is very capable and extraordinarily talented. So talented, in fact, that his responsibilities are currently expanding. He is so capable, however, that he will probably continue to fulfill the position that so intrigues me.
But what if he didn't? On those days when I dream, I imagine that he doesn't, and that they-- the administration of this seminary that I love so dearly-- ask me to take his place. Of course they have recognized my potential and wish to groom me to supplement and eventually replace the professor who now teaches many of the subjects I love. They will want me to do Ph.D. work here in St. Louis while serving in this intriguing job that would even allow me to continue the research and writing I want to do. My dreams, you see, quickly escape reality and become exercises in self-flattery. Wild dreams, indeed.
I also dream about the school where I teach. Specifically, I dream that they would chase after me. My role over the coming year, in part, will be to evaluate what they need to look for in future administrative roles. As I do this, it will be my tendency to create those roles in my own image: I could easily describe for them only what I would want to do, were I in that position. I must be careful not to allow this to happen. But when I dream, I see the school board Chairman asking me to set my concerns aside. “We want you to envision yourself in this position, Ed,” he says in my dreams. “We hope you will stay, to serve in a position custom-crafted to be everything you want to do and nothing you do not.” As you can see, it is healthy that I only allow myself to dream like this occasionally.
Now, neither of these dreams are in line with what I believe God has called me to pursue. In fact, in many ways they are contrary to so many of the particulars of the calling I have discerned. And, as I have mentioned before, my sense of calling is very strong indeed: I am convinced that God is preparing me for a ministry that serves to nurture and restore vitality to His church, most likely in the context of the local church, and most likely as a solo pastor.
I am convinced of this; yet, sometimes my dreams are of things other than this.
Here is the point of the reflection: both of these dreams have passed before my mind's eye over the last few weeks, and both of them excited me, gave me hope, and stirred up a longing for the future. But when I got the e-mail I mentioned earlier about a potential pastoral position, the emotions from the other scenarios paled in comparisons. That is, my wildest dreams, elaborate though they may be, do not come close to stirring up the zeal and anticipation inflamed in me by a simple, vague e-mail related to what God has actually called me to do.
There will be many things about that particular calling that I will not, and do not, look forward to; I know I will face discouragement, struggle, and defeat. Yet even in the face of that, I would rather serve that calling than pursue anything that is not according to His great will for me. The singular, definitive event of recognizing the contrast between my dreams and His calling has made me realize that.
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
A candidate's sense of calling
I understand their struggles; when we first came to seminary, I was leaving youth ministry (never to return!) and was thinking in all different directions. I thought about college ministry, teaching (and possibly Ph.D. work), church planting... I was generally open to just about anything-- all I knew was that I didn't want to do youth ministry anymore. Add to that equation the fact that we left a difficult situation (and left it badly on both sides), and you can bet that I/we were practically schizophrenic about our calling.
Graciously, the Lord has whittled away some options and focused us on others. This means that, going into candidacy, I have a grid to sift through the many opportunities. In fact, this was one of the reasons that the survey respondents gave for the importance of knowing your calling: it helped them to know which positions and listings were “good” (as it relates to them) or “bad” so that, from the outset, they could eliminate some otherwise viable opportunities. And during the candidacy process itself, it also gave them a measure for discernment.
As a case study, consider “Jeff” (not his real name). Jeff knew he was called into youth ministry; that, in itself, eliminated dozens of prospects from the job listings. But more than that, he knew that he wanted to stay in a particular geographic region (due to a sense of calling to family obligations) and in a certain denomination (as a result of his calling for theological convictions). That limited him to less than 20 churches-- there just weren't that many that fit all of those criteria and were also large enough to hire an ordained/ordainable Youth Minister.
As Jeff went through a few interviews, he eliminated even more of them, because Jeff was committed to a certain philosophy of youth ministry, and it was simply incongruent with what some of these churches wanted in a Youth Minister. Jeff was left with only 5 or 6 churches that could even be on the short list, and none of them were hiring. But Jeff was doggedly committed to what God had called him to do, so he waited until an opportunity arose, and when it did, he was perfect. Jeff is a prime example of a successfully placed graduate, and I anticipate that he'll remain in his current calling for a long time.
Waiting, as Jeff did, is not easy-- particularly when your classmates are getting placed-- and can even feel threatening, causing you to question your decisions and your calling itself. But here again, having a strong sense of calling helps immensely: it provides a sense of confidence and direction when doubt arises. After all, God is calling you to a particular ministry in a particular place and time. Thus it is not simply our own discernment, our own preferences, or our own determination that will get us placed, but His work through us, our circumstances, and the Church at large.
How can you develop a stronger sense of calling? I see two ways, both through the responses of my survey's respondents and through what the Scriptures themselves teach. First, know and understand yourself, then have others know and understand you.
“Know thyself” said the old philosopher, and he was right. The Scriptures repeatedly discuss our giftedness, our functioning as a part of a larger whole, and as the new creation we (the Church) are in Christ. At the root, these passages are identity passages, and understanding our identity in Christ means, in part, understanding who and what we are called to be and do. The better we understand our identity in this way, the better we will place into ministry. Survey respondents agreed: they directly affirmed the importance of knowing what you are called to do, as precisely as possible.
One of the best books I've encountered on this subject is Maximizing Your Effectiveness by Aubrey Malphurs. We are fortunate to have a professor who requires all ordination-track students to work through a process very similar to the one outlined in this book; on top of that, he is one of the most intuitive and discerning men you will ever meet, and he counsels each of us personally about our calling. Not everyone is in a position to have someone like that; if you are struggling in this way, I welcome you to contact me-- I'll try to put you in touch with someone who can help you work through your sense of calling.
The other way that we can strengthen our sense of calling is to test it-- that is, to show others ourselves, and allow them to understand us in ways similar to how we understand ourselves. When in seminary, this means internships, field education, and general service in the local church. But beyond seminary, it means simply being involved in the church of which you are a member. If you are involved (as a layman, an intern, or whatever) then those in the church will know you; be assured, they will let you know how you are doing, in one way or another. This is the testing grounds: this is where you will learn if you know yourself well. This is where you will discover exactly how you are gifted, where your strengths are, and (most importantly) where your weaknesses are.
Testing will lead to confidence in some areas and uncertainty in others. But this is good, because it means that you understand yourself that much more. Knowing your calling is not simply an ability to list off what you are good at; it is also knowing how you communicate, what you're passionate about, where you need help and complementary staffing, and what you should stay away from altogether.
Get to know who you are and what you are called to, and you will be miles closer to a successful placement.
From Embers to a Flame
I had attended the conference before, two years ago; that was where my commitment to revitalization was first cemented. Marcie had never been, and going through it with her was a great move. She has been uncertain about the idea of revitalization as the focus of our ministry, and reluctant to give herself over to that direction. However, the conference was encouraging to her, and she came away with a renewed burden for the church and a hopeful spirit about our trajectory.
Church revitalization is, essentially, restoring health to a church. Many churches have areas of their ministry or church life that are so unhealthy as to be cancerous; revitalization ministry is like precision surgery in those cases. Other churches are not on the death-bed (yet), but generally have areas of poor health; for them, revitalization ministry is like a personal trainer and coach, helping identify every area of life that needs exercise, change, or to be stopped.
The thing about revitalization is that really every church needs it. One of the speakers mentioned that he believed that 90% of the PCA's churches could be categorized as “revitalization churches” in one way or another. While at the conference, we had dinner with a friend who is a church planting coordinator for the PCA's Mission to North America agency. He told us that they were finding that even church planters were facing many of these issues, even before they become particular churches!
I think every pastor who is considering a move out of a ministry position ought to first consider whether something like the Embers conference could give them the tools and motivation they need to remain effective and fruitful in that ministry. If so, they ought not leave until they think God has finished the work he begun through them. If not, then they should consider the health of the church they are considering moving to, and look at whether revitalization needs to occur there.
The Holy Spirit at work
I have the fullest confidence in the Holy Spirit's work in this process. I know that He guides my every move, as well as the work of those search committees that are on the "other end" of the process for me. Does the Holy Spirit work through circumstances like the one I just described to get my attention? I am confident that He does. Even when I forget that He is at work at all.
Now, I'm not saying that I think the Spirit is necessarily calling me to be pastor of that particular church. (A professor and I joked about this, however-- surely, we decided, when I've heard from seven people about this church, it is a clear mandate from the Lord!) It may well be that He wants me to see a living picture of what I surely do not want-- or to show them what THEY don't want! Or it may be that the Spirit would have me contact them for some reason I cannot fathom.
What I am saying is that, for whatever reason, the Holy Spirit wants me to know about this church's need for a pastor.
I'll be sending them my resume soon...
Keeping the options open
There are essentially four reasons why I am open to considering it:
- First, my disposition toward candidacy includes the idea that, in the event that I am approached with an unsolicited request to consider a position, I will consider it. This is because I am sensitive to the facts that a) the Holy Spirit works through a variety of means, and b) I am not wise enough nor prescient enough to be certain that I know the trajectory of my future. (Incidentally, this same disposition has also recently led me to consider a church simply because four different people, at different times, suggested that I might be interested in it.)
- Also, my experiences in Christian Education, gained almost completely at the school where I have taught while in seminary, have been so delightful that I am all but required by them to keep an open mind about a future in Christian schools. I have enjoyed every aspect of teaching at the school where I teach, and felt quite fulfilled in that position.
- The school that has approached me is, for lack of a better label, a "revitalization school." That is, it lacks vitality and direction, and needs a Head of School who will refine their focus, cast a vision for their future, and lead them in accomplishing their goals. Since I am fairly certain that God has equipped me for a ministry of revitalization, it may be that I simply need to broaden my understanding of what revitalization ministry includes.
- Finally, in the survey that I conducted recently, many of the respondents, when asked "what one thing would you do differently?" answered, "keep an open mind to a wider variety of possibilities." Naturally, I have been thinking that wouldn't apply to me, because I had a clear mandate from God for what I would do. Now I question whether my "mandate" is really so clear; maybe the survey speaks wisdom to me here.