How can I know I’ve been called to pastoral ministry?

I think a lot of nonsense is spoken about this question.

Typically, this question is dealt with thus. Those who are called will have a burning inner desire to preach. Folk will reference Spurgeon’s comment, ‘The first sign of the heavenly calling is an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work’ (Lectures to my Students). Then we expect that so-called ‘inner call’ to be ratified by the local church. In conjunction with this, we expect to see growth in godly character. We think folk should see it in themselves and the local church should see such character too. I want to suggest some of this is backward and misses the one thing that really means you are called to pastoral ministry.

For one, the intense inner-calling – particularly pressed by men such as Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones – seems to overlook the fact that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’ (Jer 17:9). It is so easy to convince ourselves that we have a call to ministry in exactly the same way it is easy to convince ourselves that the adultery we have just settled in our heart is also a good idea. Our heart, and our deep-seated desires, are not a reliable guide. Indeed, Spurgeon insists:

“Do not enter the ministry if you can help it,” was the deeply sage advice of a divine to one who sought his judgment. If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit by that for which his inmost soul pants.

I simply don’t see this in scripture. In fact, the Bible is full of leaders who really didn’t want to lead. Moses wasn’t keen, Gideon had no such inner-desire, Jephthah didn’t feel it, David showed no sense of calling, even Paul didn’t get an inner-call. This list is not exhaustive. Just because ‘if anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task’ (1 Tim 3:1) does not mean that the one who desires it has been called nor that the one who doesn’t express such desire necessarily hasn’t.

Second, whilst the affirmation of the local church is certainly important, all the local church can really say is that an individual is capable of pastoral ministry. The local church can affirm a person’s character, it can tell a person that they might, indeed, make a good elder. But this is not the same as calling. There are many men the church might affirm as having credible character and teaching gifts who are not called to pastoral ministry. The affirmation of the local church really does matter, but it is not the ultimate arbiter of calling.

Third, the criteria for eldership do depend, to some degree, on context. There is no objective period of time before one is ‘not a novice’, for example. How do we objectively define ‘able to teach’? If anything less than Spurgeon will not do, few of us should be in ministry. The ability to teach, to some degree, depends on the people needing to be taught. There is not an absolute standard of maturity. In a church full of ex-ministers and academic theologians, plenty of godly men might be viewed as ‘less mature’ or not as able to teach (rightly or wrongly). In a church without any such people, the determination of maturity and ability to teach may well not be the same. In the end, though growth in godly character cannot be dismissed, it is not the ultimate arbiter of calling.

I want to suggest a much more simple measure. It is a measure that comes before any of the above and the things listed above are (in a different order) brought to boot on it, not the other way around. In short, until a church actually calls you to pastoral ministry, you have not been called. You can have inner-desire, the affirmation of your local church and godly character. But unless you have actually been called by a church, you have not been called to pastoral ministry.

How do you know you have been called to pastoral ministry? In short, a church has actually called you. Within that, I would expect that call to be based on the affirmation that the eldership criteria is seen in your life. I would imagine that affirmation would also be affirmed by your local church. I would imagine the acceptance of an offer of a pastorate is attended with an actual desire to do the job. But you cannot consider yourself ‘called’ until such time as someone has actually called you. The rest is simply confirmation.

It is worth noting that some do not gain a burning desire to enter the pastorate until such time as someone considers them credible for the role. It is often the case that – though they ought to be looking out for capable men in the ordinary scheme of things – many eldership teams do not consider someone able until such time as another church come calling. You are not called until someone calls you – these other things are typically confirmations of the call.

It is right to say that if you do not have godly character, you shouldn’t accept the call. If your church elders cannot affirm the calling, you shouldn’t accept the call. But these things are not the definition of calling. If nobody calls you to the pastorate – despite your inner-desire, the affirmation of your church and the existence of godly character – you have not been called. At the end of the day, you are only called when someone has actually called you.


  1. Thanks for your followup post, Stephen. Appreciate that you’ve put lots of thought into this. Did you intentionally close comments over there? If you did, I’m guessing it’s because you don’t want to continue this particular conversation. But I’ll engage in any case, just in case that isn’t true.

    A couple of questions:

    1) Do you believe that the Holy Spirit can subjectively lead (and thus call) a believer today to walk in a certain path as He did in previous times as we see in Scripture (e.g. all over Acts)?

    Of course, with the ‘heart is deceitful’ argument no Christian in his right mind could/should believe it is the Holy Spirit’s leading to do something that is *contrary* to His revelation in Scripture, such as adultery. But where Scripture doesn’t forbid something, do you think the Holy Spirit can subjectively compel someone to walk in a certain path? Because, if not, then that clears up alot. I’m of the opinion that He still can and does.

    I like the way Piper puts it when talking about a “Holy Ambition” (

    “Where does your holy ambition come from? It comes from a personal encounter with the living Christ (not necessarily as dramatic as the Damascus road) shaped and informed and empowered by the written word of God. As you meditate on the law of the Lord day and night (Psalm 1:2) — as you immerse yourself in God’s word — he comes and takes some truth of that word and burns it into your heart until it is a holy ambition. If that hasn’t happened yet, saturate yourself with the word of God and ask him for it.”

    Yes, Piper is speaking of only an ambition/desire, which you would say doesn’t equal a call. But when he begins to talk about the Spirit coming and taking “some truth of that word and burns it into your heart” now this is getting to that “inner-calling” kind of language that he is suggesting is the work of God.

    For example, do you think it’s possible that a man might be reading Jesus telling Peter to “Feed my sheep” and the Holy Spirit could burn that upon His heart in a unique way that inescapably becomes personally his?

    2) When Ephesians 4:11 tells us that Christ gives pastors (among the other roles) to the church, do you think this necessarily means that giving happens at the time a pastor is ordained? Or is it possible that He compels a man to pastor (through an experience like above) and so that man pastors (without any formal recognition/appointment of the local church) and it’s only subsequently that they call this man formally to the office of pastor when they see him *already* doing the work. In this case, he was pastoring because Jesus called him to and the church’s appointment is/was only an affirmation of the prior calling of Jesus.

    1. Look forward to Stephen’s response on this. My take is that there is never a solely subjective experience. Re the man “informally pastoring” I’m not quite sure what you mean by this. There is either someone exercising that type of leadership/discipleship which is recognised by the local church or there isn’t. Alternatively you have a protestor or a faction leader.

    2. Rest assured, brother, the comments section wasn’t closed either because of you nor because I didn’t want to continue this discussion. I’m grateful for your interaction. For the record, I’ve closed all subsequent comment sections because I was finding I didn’t always have the time to reply as fully as I’d like and/or I was getting embroiled in discussions that were taking me away from other things. So, don’t worry. I may, in time, change my mind and prefer the interaction again but, for now, I felt it best to close comments. Of course, those wanting to have helpful discussions can always contact me using the contact form, which gives me a legitimate reason to respond perhaps a little more slowly.

      Anyway, to the point, I will deal with the above point by point:

      1. I believe any time we do anything that is godly and right, the Holy Spirit is directing us. I believe Total Depravity requires the action of the Spirit to move us toward what is right and good. Do I believe the Holy Spirit guides through our volition, the short answer is yes. However, I want to qualify that with the fact that God is sovereign even over our volition and uses even our sinful thoughts and actions to lead us to where he would have us. That is, there is no thought, inclination or action over which the Lord isn’t sovereign.
      2. With that in mind, we face the question ‘how do I tell the Spirit’s leading apart from my sinful desires?’ The short answer is, apart from scripture, you can’t. Unless it is written in scripture, you can’t know for certain. This is precisely why it is an impossible guide to rely on the inner promptings of the Spirit, it is virtually (if not in actuality) impossible to tell the two things apart. For instance, if I feel compelled to pastoral ministry – which scripture says is a good and noble thing – what reason have I got to believe that’s the Spirit’s prompting over and above my desire to receive the kudos that comes (or so I might foolishly think) with being a church minister? We have no way of discerning that, no matter how honest we think we are in our introspection.
      3. The problem with Piper’s view as you state it above (which I half agree with) is not ‘where does holy ambition come from?’ but rather, ‘how do you know your ambition is all that holy?’ RC Sproul has noted (cf. that he has never acted 100% purely in his life. Our motives are always tainted by sin. The issue for those relying on inner promptings is that they have no means of sifting it. They sanctify the stuff they want to do, in essence. That strikes me as ad hoc at best and potentially blasphemous, or near false prophecy, ascribing promptings to God that he has not given.
      4. Another question I would ask you is this, how are you differentiating call and ambition? What makes, for you, one thing a calling and another simply an innate desire? I’m struggling to see on your view how this works.
      5. We’ve got to look at how people were called into office in the NT. I simply do not see any elder criteria demanding this calling (certainly not among the eldership criteria Paul lists) nor do I see it when Paul tells Timothy to appoint elders in each town. Nor do I see it when we see churches appointing elders.
      6. It seems worth asking what you make of Matt 18:18-20? This gives the church the rights to determine who will be ‘in’ and who will be ‘out’, certainly as far as the visible church is concerned (which ought to be reflecting as closely as possible the invisible church in a given locality). If the church have been given the task of determining who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of the priesthood of all believers, and one’s ‘innate sense’ that the church is wrong is generally given short-shrift (rightly so), why is there an issue extending precisely that same approach to pastors/elders? The church is being given the task of determining who has been called and they do it by calling people and they are only called at the point the church has actually called them.
      7. Re your 2nd point, then, why see pastors (but not teachers) as called? Or is it just pastor-teachers you believe are called? Likewise, why is it only pastoral ministry that requires this calling? Do we not expect people to be called to hospitality, administration and other things? If so, why do we not expect them to have a deep inner sense of calling but for pastors we do?

      To summarise, I think a lot of pseudo-spiritual stuff is spoken about calling. The only calling we read about in scripture is the general call of the gospel and the effectual call of Christ. Neither of these are to do with pastoral office. There is no way of sifting the prompting of the Spirit from our own sinful desires and so to rely upon this is not a credible guide. There is no criteria in scripture that expects pastors or elders to have an inner call. The church was given the role of calling people into ministry. It is therefore the church, and not one’s subjective feelings (no matter how convinced they are that they are being prompted by the Spirit), that is the ultimate arbiter of calling.

      The latest post – though not prompted by your earlier comments – does deal with much of this.

    3. I’ll grant you this bro, you’ve convinced me I should put my comments section back on. So, you can claim that as a win – this discussion has caused me to change my mind about turning it off.

  2. As usual, the Reformers got this right, and the view that you have so helpfully explained was set out long ago in the Articles:


    IT is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.

    And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.


  3. Thanks Stephen, 1. Your approach is pretty close to the way that I’ve approached the question. My views were shaped quite strongly by Wesley Aiken who was pastor at Rochester Baptist Church. I think it is very interesting that essentially a lot of people take an approach to pastoral calling that over-emphasises the subjective inner feelings that they would stamp on quite quickly if seen as guidance/God speaking for any other life context, especially if seen as “Charismatic.” 2. I guess where some people may react is if they read this as “mechanistic” – I go to a church because they call me (see the marriage analogy above” – there is an emotional engagement with the question. 3. It starts back with discernment and recognition within a local church of seeing that God has given gifts to the church through a specific person. This means a setting apart. Re the question above about larger assemblies – but I don’t see that as stopping discernment and recognition. In fact, often the small church where only one person is expected to do everything provides less opportunities than the larger church where there are more opportunities. Here we look at people in contexts like home groups, we pick up on 1-1 conversations etc. 4. Here a re a couple of articles I wrote to help people think things through and 5. Your focus is on pastoral ministry in a local church – I think that helps us from having people who like the title “Pastor” and don’t have a church swanning around. The other side of things is that sometimes people are set aside for work and there isn’t a receiving body – so going to be a church planter or missionary, the legitimate step of saying we are sending someone for training etc. There is a legitimate setting apart. I suspect that on your model we would say they are called by that particular local church to do that in the context and accountable to the sending church until they are called by another church (such as if/when one is planted. This is also important because bluntly I don’t think that parachurch organisations have the authority to call – but that’s probably stirring up another hornets nest.

      1. Just read it. I don’t see anything there as excluding the “experiential” element of Christian life. I think there are some follow ons. 1. Although I was initially given a fixed term contract here we made commitments such as buying a house to show we were here for the long haul because this is where and what we at called to. 2. I don’t think that if a calling finishes at a particular church that the pastor should automatically assume that their next calling is to pastor another church. Not necessarily that they won’t but we are not (to expand on Piper) “career professionals.” 3. Because a local church has called someone, the idea that another church with better resources, more money, an more attractive context could come in and poach someone should be an anathema.

        1. Yes, agree with all of that (incidentally, I wasn’t suggesting experientialism is entirely wrong, just that it is not the sole, or chief, guide in any of this).

    1. “The other side of things is that sometimes people are set aside for work and there isn’t a receiving body”

      What exactly do you mean by this? It’s not clear to me. Set apart by whom? Are you saying a person might be set apart (called) by a local church for pastoral ministry but NOT in its own context?

      1. E.g. 1. Someone who is recognised as having character and gifts and is then sent to Theological College. 2. Someone who is set apart to go and reach unreached people groups or to plant a church. My point is that they do remain within the context of the local church because the local church should have a concern for the wider kingdom.

  4. The outward call from a church should be a confirmation of an inward call,which today should be by the leading of the HolySpirit and not excluding the character qualities expected of such a person.Other than that,churches call alone is dangerous for that person and the church..

  5. Thanks for this dialogue, Stephen. You are asking some good questions.

    Regarding the “inner call”, I think the point Spurgeon/Lloyd-Jones are making isn’t that this “inner call” originates from *within* but that this is *one* way to discern something that originates from *above*. Or at least that’s how I’ve always thought about it. In other words, we all concede that God called Jeremiah and Paul in a supernatural way. I think what you are suggesting is that God doesn’t call men in this kind of supernatural way anymore. Would that be accurate? If so, one is entitled to that opinion. But I think one is also entitled the the opinion that God can appeal to some men to enter pastoral ministry with more of a direct/supernatural call for some men (what Spurgeon/Lloyd-Jones are referring to as the “inner call” and what I’ve referred to that Jeremiah and Paul experience as an inner compulsion as a result of their direct call from God–I think what’s worth noting is that the supernatural call they both received is directly related to the inner compulsion). While at the same time God can appeal to some men indirectly through other men (like you did with the brother in your congregation whom you asked to consider the pastorate, though he had never previously considered it).

    Regarding whether or not one should pursue (or enter) pastoral ministry, I don’t find it strange. I think it’s similar to asking whether I should become a teacher (in a more specialized sense than the generic way that all believers are to be teachers of course, e.g. Matthew 28:20, Colossians 3:16). After all, skillfulness in teaching is what sets the pastoral qualifications apart from the deacon. James clearly says that not many should become teachers because you will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). We also see this idea of greater judgment associated with the pastorate in Hebrews 13:17 and more generally in passages like Luke 12:48. I don’t think a man would be unwise to avoid this greater judgment. Actually, James writing under the genre of NT wisdom suggests it wise to not become a teacher. Unless of course he felt an inescapable compulsion. I actually like the way David Mathis puts it in this article (

    “Are elders the kind of men who can teach if a gun is put to their head, or are they the kind who won’t stop teaching even at gunpoint?”

    I lean towards saying an elder is the kind of man who falls into the category of the latter. And I could see a man unable to stop teaching in such circumstances precisely because he has an inescapable inner compulsion as a result of a direct call from above. Which actually sounds alot like Jeremiah 20.

    In saying all of this, I’m not saying you should have regrets about asking the brother in your congregation to consider becoming a pastor. I think contexts are different and I think God works in different ways with different people as we see clearly in Scripture. Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones probably had good reason to try and keep many from pursuing the pastorate who probably shouldn’t be pursuing it (which seems to align with what James is trying to do). And you (as well as many other pastors) probably have good reason to encourage more men to pursue the pastorate who probably shouldn’t but aren’t. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt as much as I want to give it to Spurgeon/Lloyd-Jones.

    And, as you stated, we trust that God is sovereignly working through the fallible perspective of all men to accomplish His infallible eternal purposes.

    Grace be with you brother,

  6. Thanks for your followup, Stephen.

    I’ve been mulling on your post and your response and have a couple of thoughts to engage with what you’ve written here, which I think is definitely helpful and is an important thing to be said.

    1) I’m not sure the question you’re answering is the same question that Spurgeon/Lloyd-Jones (to name a couple of the men you mention) are answering. To clarify what I mean, let’s compare the call to the pastorate to the call to marry. Of course, the only way you can know *for certain* that you are called to marry a specific individual is if you exchange vows with that individual. A friend of mine told me that in premarital counseling his pastor told him and the woman he’s now married to that they would only be *really sure* that God had called them to be married after they said “I do.” Now that’s an important thing to be said, which seems to be the same thing you’re saying regarding the call to the pastorate. But it’s not the same question as asking whether or not I should *pursue* a specific individual as a spouse. I think this latter question is what Spurgeon/Lloyd-Jones are seeking to answer regarding pursuing the pastorate. However we may want to scoot around it, while there are some objective criteria that go into that decision, at the end of the day there’s a subjectivity that we can’t escape that has to do with a person *internally* being drawn to another person for marriage (unless we’re talking about arranged marriages) and this *internal* compulsion isn’t something that’s alien to God’s call on a man to a specific form of ministry. Which leads to the second point.

    2) You state that you don’t see desire driving someone to enter ministry in Scripture. Maybe desire is too narrow a way to identify a more general *internal* draw. For example, we see this internal compulsion in Jeremiah (Jer. 20:9) and Paul (1 Cor. 9:16), who both experienced a unique call from God. To be fair, for both Jeremiah and Paul this compulsion is specifically to preach which is only part of a pastor’s calling, but it is an internal compulsion no less. I think to be charitable to Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones, this is probably what they are speaking of. Which leads to the third point.

    3) When you begin this post by saying that those who speak of this internal compulsion are speaking nonsense, that doesn’t sound charitable. You may disagree with them but that is entirely different from dismissing their perspective as nonsense, which is to say that what they’re saying makes no sense or is foolish. It makes you sound like you know it all, which none of us does. (also, I don’t know for sure but I’d be willing to bet they’d affirm what you’ve written regarding Jeremiah 17:9 and wouldn’t suggest that the internal compulsion is *all* that matters.)

    I think what you’ve written here has its place and should be said but I also believe there are multiple angles that we can and should come at this topic. The perspective you bring shouldn’t be pitted against the perspective that men like Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones bring. After all, if they hadn’t acted on what they felt was this internal compulsion and had only waited for a church to call them before wholeheartedly devoting themselves to the pursuit of pastoral ministry, perhaps we might not have their legacy to benefit from today. Only God knows. I for one am grateful to God that they didn’t ignore that internal compulsion. Aren’t you?

    By the way, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your post “Who are the ministers of the church?” and really appreciate that you didn’t talk about a call to *ministry* here but a call to *pastoral* ministry. Thanks much, brother.

    1. 1. With respect, I wasn’t setting out to attack Spurgeon or Lloyd-jones. I was answering a question about how I know I am called to pastoral ministry. I simply noted how many coopt these men this way. I then stated my view that a sense of inner-calling is not the primary way we know we are called.
      2. Neither Paul nor Jeremiah had an internal call. Both were spoken to directly by God in visions and/or supernatural experience of some sort. Unless you are arguing for vision and/or Damascene experience to confirm whether one should pursue ministry, that rather talks past the issue. What is more, lots of leaders in the Bible certainly experienced no such call and even stated they did not want to lead. Whilst the Lord can guide through volition as well as circumstance and scripture (clearly at some point all those things will be assessed), I simply see nothing in scripture that expects some inner sense of calling before one can or should consider pastoral ministry.
      3. As I said, I was not setting out to critique Spurgron or Lloyd-jones specifically. My opening comment is true; a lot of nonsense is spoken about inner calling. Thus far no scripture has been brought to bear on the view that one should have an inner calling and nor is it listed among the criteria for eldership. The closest we get is Paul saying a desire to be one is a good thing – that is not the same as claiming ‘unless you have an inner desire to be an elder you haven’t been called to it’. I’d like some scriptural backing for it before acknowledging it. I’d also like credible explanations as to how the plethora of leaders, many of whom were utterly surprised when appointed, had such a call.
      4. It is interesting you have no issue with my view on the ministers of the church but do have an issue with this. I don’t see a huge distinction. Those who are ministers of the church are members who have joined the church. Those who are elders are simply those godly members of the church who have been recognised by the church as able to teach and godly examples of Christian living. Where is the deep sense of inner calling in that? We have an elder who wasn’t really considering being an elder until we asked him. He willingly agreed after prayer and consideration but, by the inner call reckoning, he should have been discounted. He is a wonderful, godly man I have no regrets asking onto the eldership at all. I do not think his situation is unique.

      What I am asking here is for some biblical support for the view that we should have an inner call before I’m prepared to concede the point. Not only do I see it nowhere demanded, I see lots of examples of folk in scripture clearly without it yet going on to lead God’s people. This tells me it is not a scriptural idea that the Lord demands.

      The question of whether I should pursue pastoral ministry I find a strange one. There is not a person in my church I would not encourage to go to bible college if they are able. Not one person I’d encourage not to serve. Not one person I’d not encourage to pursue the very criteria laid out for elders. Given that, I find the idea of ‘pursuing pastoral ministry’ an odd one. I think all members should be doing that and the church will recognise, in the course of that, able men whom it would like to appoint to appropriate church office.

  7. The trouble I see (and have seen firsthand) seems to happen in larger assemblies where it is easy for individuals to be lost in the crowd. They may be gifted for teaching and growing in godliness, but if they aren’t visible to the leadership they won’t receive the call. Of course, you could counter with God’s sovereignty taking care of all that…

  8. Deeply appreciate your thoughts here. I’ve been in full-time ministry for over 20 years. I briefly fought my initial calling (Moses, “Please send someone else!”), but eventually submitted to the Lord, have grown (and am still growing…Phil. 1:9-11) to love His church and thoroughly enjoy and love being a pastor. Even now, I could go and do something else very happily and contently and still love his church and serve in a lay-pastor role with joy and peace (Tent-making as with Paul?). As much as I love Spurgeon, et al, it rankles me to no end when I hear or read about the “burning desire” or “I can’t do anything else” mentality as mandatory to a sure calling. As you point out, this has little, if any, biblical warrant. Thank you.

  9. Indeed, interesting. Thanks for these reflections, brother. I see the fallibility of an individual being the one to alone validate his own sense of calling. Do you think there’s also the possibility of a church’s fallibility in validating an individual’s calling? Because, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that the one who is called by a church is called by God. And so you are saying the church (or it sounds like?) is always acting on behalf of God. Do you think the church ever mis-steps and “calls” (sets apart for pastoral ministry) someone who is not actually “called” (set apart for pastoral ministry by God)? Or maybe “called” is too fuzzy of a word here that can be used in multiple ways. =)

    1. I don’t think it’s a problem if you have a right view of God’s sovereignty and provision. In effect, nothing happens that is not within God’s sovereign purposes. So, those who ultimately end up in pastoral ministry are there because God has deemed it appropriate for them to be there.

      Can the church call people who are unqualified for the role? Of course they can. But that is still a call, even if the church were wrong to call the individual. I would expect a credible call to be attended by the confirmation of the sending church and the existence of the elder qualifications.

      But does the church call people who are disqualified or unsuitable? Yes, of course. But that is still a calling. Likewise, how do we know we have been called by God? Ultimately, he permits our calling and we end up in a pastorate. We only need posit this as a false call if we think it possible that God made a mistake in permitting it.

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