What sustains you in the ministry?

A few days ago, I wrote about how we can know we are called to pastoral ministry. You can read that post here. A few folk took issue with the post. Some didn’t like the fact that I was not in agreement with men like Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t setting out to ‘debunk’ them, I merely noted some people co-opt them to argue for the importance of an inner call. Others didn’t like the fact that, as far as they could see, I was suggesting there was no need to have any desire for pastoral ministry. Again, that wasn’t exactly what I was saying. I would hope all men in pastoral ministry want to be there; their acceptance of the role offered to them would speak to that. What I was doing was pointing out the one thing that actually lets us know whether we’ve been called to pastoral ministry or not; namely, that somebody actually calls us.

I noted two important things in that post. Firstly, I stated:

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.

If a deep sense of inner calling is vital for pastoral ministry, half the leaders in the Bible were not cut out for it.

Not only that, I noted that because ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’ we have to be careful to sift our inner desires. As Tim Keller powerfully noted in his book on prayer

The eighteenth-century Anglican clergyman George Whitefield was one of the spearheads of the Great Awakening, a period of massive renewal of interest in Christianity across Western societies and a time of significant church growth. Whitefield was a riveting orator and is considered one of the greatest preachers in church history. In late 1743 his first child, a son, was born to he and his wife, Elizabeth. Whitefield has a strong impression that God was telling him the child would grow up to also be a “preacher of the everlasting Gospel.” In view of this divine assurance, he gave his son the name John, after John the Baptist, whose mother was also named Elizabeth. When John Whitefield was born, George baptized his son before a large crowd and preached a sermon on the great works that God would do through his son. He knew that cynics were sneering at his prophecies, but he ignored them.

Then, at just four months old, his son died suddenly of a seizure. The Whitefields were of course grief-stricken, but George was particularly convicted about how wrong he had been to count his inward impulses and intuitions as being essentially equal to God’s Word. He realized he had led his congregation into the same disillusioning mistake. Whitefield had interpreted his own feelings- his understandable and powerful fatherly pride and joy in his son, and his hopes for him- as God speaking to his heart. Not long afterward, he wrote a wrenching prayer for himself, that God would “render this mistaken parent more cautious, more sober-minded, more experienced in Satan’s devices, and consequently more useful in his future labors to the church of God.”

The lesson here is not that God never guides our thoughts or prompts us to choose wise courses of action, but that we cannot be sure he is speaking to us unless we read it in the Scripture.

The question I have for ‘inner calling as vital’ advocates is this: how do we distinguish between the inner call of God and the deceitful desires of our own hearts? Moreover, how do we account for the folk without such desires leading God’s people? Further, how do we account for the fact that not one of the criteria for eldership in scripture states ‘must have a deep sense of inner calling’?

I am astounded by the sheer number of Reformed people who insist upon this idea of inner calling. These are the same people who subscribe wholeheartedly to sola scriptura and yet, despite no insistence upon inner calling in scripture, demand its presence in a pastoral candidate. They are the same people who pooh-pooh our Charismatic brethren as overly experiential, too emotional and who allow feeling to take precedent over scripture and yet, on this, are they not falling foul of the selfsame thing? Appeal to Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones (seemingly over scripture) grants these men a de facto papal office that neither of them would have wanted.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that those who become pastors should not have a desire to do the job. Of course we want men with a desire to do it. Nobody wants to be pastored by the guy who clearly hates being there. What I am saying is that not all who are called necessarily have this at the point they are called. But their acceptance of a call is indicative of a desire to do the job. I would also suspect, as with all Christians in all walks of life, they desire to do it to God’s glory because they are working for the Lord. But the only way they can know for sure that they are called is not a deep inner sense of calling, it is that a church actually calls them.

The question that was then asked was this: what sustains you in ministry if you don’t have a deep sense of inner calling? I am going to suggest it is the same thing that sustains anyone in any job.

First, as with any job, we are sustained by the belief that God is sovereign and has placed us here for his glory. Regardless of our inner sense of calling, if we are in the role we have been called. God has placed us in this position and we are to work for his glory in it. That is true whether you are doctor, factory worker, teacher, manager or even pastor.

Second, as with any job, we are sustained by the Holy Spirit. He gives us all that we need in order to glorify God in the position he has placed us. If God is sovereign in his placement of all people in whatever role they have, the Spirit is active in helping us honour and obey God in whatever role we have. None of us need a deep sense of inner calling to be able to do that. We are in the roles, positions, jobs that God has called us to and he grants us the Holy Spirit to help us honour and glorify him in them.

Third, as with any job, we are sustained by scripture. Whilst the Bible doesn’t insist a sense of calling for elders and pastors, it does require other character qualifications and does give guidance about both who should be in the role, how it should be done and why it should be done. We are sustained in the ministry as we feed on God’s Word, as we ourselves continue to grow, as we seek to obey it and lead our churches into obedience of it. We can read scripture and see that it nowhere tells us to bail when the going gets tough but instead encourages us to press on in our service to God’s glory.

Fourth, as with any job, we are sustained by the church. As pastors, we are surrounded by God’s people who, as we serve them, are also to serve us. No minister worthy of office will claim they have now ‘made it’ and nor should they be so arrogant as to presume they don’t need the input of the church. Like everyone else, they grow primarily through the local church and submission to the Word of God.

The truth is that we have not been called until someone calls us. When we are in ministry, yes there may be those who would like to withdraw that call, but we assess their reasoning by scripture, not some inner sense we have that we ought to be here. If we are simply relying upon a deep sense of inner calling, why should we be so arrogant to presume our sense of direction from the Lord is right whilst a church full of people seeking to fire us is wrong? The argument ‘but the church can withdraw its call’ is not a knock-down answer. Yes, it can. But, if we care to look at Saul, so can the Lord.

A calling to pastoral ministry is not a guarantee of future ministry. What do we do if we feel called but later disqualify ourselves from ministry? Does our original intense desire to ministry hold? What if a church simply determines it cannot support any longer and no other church comes calling for your pastoral services? Were you still called to ministry thereafter simply because somebody called you for a time?

The truth is, we are not called until somebody calls us. It is true that those who call us may later withdraw their call. Our task is not to manufacture a calling that isn’t there. Our job is to honour the Lord in whatever role he places us. Churches may remove us for wrong reasons and they may remove us for right reasons. Our task is to preach the Word faithfully and lead God’s people into all truth. It is the Lord’s task to determine whether they will respond. If they respond by giving you the sack and withdrawing your call, in God’s sovereignty he has withdrawn your call.

God guides, leads and calls through scripture first, circumstance second and volition third. If you can’t adduce your calling directly from scripture, and your circumstances dictate there is no pastoral ministry for you right now, then regardless of what your volition tells you, you haven’t been called. Calls can come and calls can go. Our task is to honour the Lord wherever he places us.

One comment

  1. Thanks for your helpful post and reflections on what sustains all of us in our vocations. I’m in the medical field and the same question about calling is often talked about.

    From a book called “Faithful is Successful” –

    “We rationalize our ambition, sometimes subconsciously, by telling ourselves that we have a specific vocational calling and that he will use our success for His glory. And He may, but often it is our own glory we are seeking.”

Comments are closed.