Once, I thought I’d make a good pastor. When I was in college I assumed it was a career choice like others, and I had the knack for it. But I discovered the hard way that it isn’t like that, and it took being uncalled to the ministry and being blessed to serve Christ in other ways before I would hear “the call” when I least expected it.. Looking back over the past 35 years of pastoring, I’ve learned a few things about the mysterious business of being called.
Calling all Shepherds
All Christians are called by God, first, to salvation in Christ. Then, we are all called to serve Christ in unique, significant ways, according to our gifts, maturity, and place in life. But there is yet another kind of call. Although it isn’t the best choice of words, we often refer to this as “the call to ministry.” I think of it this way.
There is a short video clip in Ephesians 4. Picture an upward road, crowded with an unchained gang of captives, newly-taken slaves who sing, “Free at last!” and “He has made me glad!” They delight to see out ahead of them their Conqueror Christ. The Bible says, “When he ascended on high he took many captives…” The captive church, including us, parades toward paradise.
But unnoticed by most of our brothers and sisters in their upward journey, Christ in his Emmaus disguise slips in and out among us. Here He taps someone on the shoulder and points to the side of the road. There, He slips in behind others and whispers to them. Their puzzled look says, “Who? Me?” and He nods. Everyone on that highway was taken captive once by Christ, thank God, and now some are captured again. Captives twice over. Born again, again.
What does Jesus do with these captive captives? He outfits them with the Word and gives them back to his upward bound church as gifts. “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people. . . So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. . .” (Ephesians 4:8, 10-12 NIV). These believers do not just have grace-gifts; they are grace-gifts to the church, because they deliver God’s Word in Christ and Scripture.
There is no earthly reason why the Lord pulled these particular captives out of the company of the heaven-bound and set the Word burning on our tongues. All our saintly siblings are gifted by Christ to serve one another in His body as surely as we are, but we are among the Wordworkers. That is what I call the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers. God divinely equips these particular believers to speak to the world and the church on His behalf. So far as I can tell, God did not single any of us out for this work because He liked our resumes or found us in a talent search. I suspect He chose us because, ever since creation, God finds special creative delight in making something from nothing, ex nihilo.
Christ’s Wordworkers, these four ministry cousins, have different voices, like a choir. Apostles have voices that can be heard over the din of a whole discordant culture, like a tornado warning siren. They step on unclaimed shores and proclaim a beachhead in the King’s name. Prophets can bellow like town criers, stirring even the soundest sleepers with, “This is what the Lord says.” Evangelists sing with God’s sweetest words, “Repent and believe the Good News. Jesus Christ died and rose again to save sinners. Come home! Come home!”
Then there are my people—the pastors and teachers. I think of pastors and teachers as the journeymen of Wordworking. The gospel tradesmen with sweat-stained work shirts, well-worn tool belts, achy knees, and the insider’s knowledge of how souls are built.
All these captives know, if they have their wits about them, that like a turtle on a fencepost, they didn’t get where they are by themselves. In fact, to say that God called them seems like a tame way of describing what happened. Collared or captured is more like it. For me, when God’s call came, everything else went gray.
Uncalled, Then the Hand in My Back
Because it seemed I was born to be a pastor, it came as a shock when as a senior in college I was fired from my first part-time job as a youth pastor and choir director. No significant issues, just, “I don’t think this is working out.” As an overachiever, that was devastating. Nonetheless, I started seminary, arranged for a new church internship the next summer, and began reading books on pastoring. The message of these books, loud and clear to this day, was, “If you can do anything other than be a pastor, do it.” (I think every pastor I’ve ever mentioned that line to over the years has nodded in agreement.) Pastoring is good work, but it isn’t exactly a career choice. I could easily see myself doing other things and apparently that was a deal-breaker. So there it was. God had not called me to the ministry.
Instead, God gave me an opportunity to be a fundraiser and a PR man. It was good work. My wife and I were active in our church, but I worked my day job outside of it. We were where God wanted us and glad to be there.
Then, some five years later, out of the blue, within five days early in September I heard four significant people in my life say, “You ought to be a pastor.” There I was, minding my own business among the marching captives of Christ, when I felt a hand in the small of my back and a whisper, “Come with Me.” Despite the obvious quiet ways God had been steering me, when His call came, it took me completely by surprise.
Two weeks later the associate pastor at the church we attended resigned. And just like that, the door opened. I was offered a position as assistant pastor, and within a few weeks, under the clear call of God, I became a shepherd of God’s flock.
How Do You Know if You Are Called?
Are you called to ministry? Of course you are! All believers are called to minster for Christ. Are you also called to be a Wordworker, a shepherd of the church? Here are some test questions:
Do you have a growing sense that the Lord Jesus Christ keeps turning your heart toward this specific Scripture-based service, this Wordworking, for the good of his church? Are other career directions going gray? As it was put to me, “If you can do anything other than be a pastor, do it."
Do you exhibit the gifts of a Wordworker—someone spiritually equipped to use God’s Word in Christ and Scripture to build up his church? You may not be a preacher, but these four callings all require use of the Bible, day in and day out, as well as an acute sense of being a spokesperson for Jesus, accountable to the Living Word. Are you prepared and positioned to be trained? God is rigorous in His expectations of those He calls “to prepare God’s people for works of service (Ephesians 4:12).” He wants minds and souls disciplined in godliness and wise in the Word.
Sometimes God directs us toward training and experience before we have a clear sense of his call. You don’t need to be called to ministry in order to go to school. But you’d better start praying earnestly about it!
Do mature believers recognize God’s call upon you to Wordworking ministry? The pastors I know all were confirmed in their calling by other godly people. Your calling is not a matter that is just between you and the Lord. It resonates within the Body of Christ.
For some, the call of God to this church-serving work comes like an unexpected tap on your shoulder in the church foyer. For others, there is the sense of a long-guided hike to a destination you didn’t see coming. Every story is unique, but in the end, in each heart of the called, there is the echo of Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to to proclaim good news to the poor… and the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18).