Many find the idea of trying to determine whether or not they are called into the ministry to be extremely difficult, as I did myself. Yet it is actually not as complicated as we tend to make it out to be, if we look to God’s Word for guidance.
Before we get into determining a call to ministry, we need to clarify a few things. First of all, we must understand that all Christians are called to ministry. In fact, we are created for good works which God prepared even before we came to know Him (Ephesians 2:10). We are called to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), and if we want to be great in the kingdom of God, we must become servants of all (Mark 9:35). Not all Christians are called to do ministry full-time, however, though we all should be doing it in some way. Second, let’s be clear that some will serve the Lord full-time in ways other than as an elder in a church. Some will be called to ministry other than pastoral in nature, perhaps serving as missionaries or in a different role in a church or ministry. Being called into ministry doesn’t always and only mean being called to pastor. Third, whether we are in ministry full-time or not, we should all seek to be people of character and integrity. The Lord looks to support those whose hearts are completely his (2 Chronicles 9:16), and He looks to use those who are humble, contrite, and who tremble at His Word (Isaiah 66:2). If we do not meet these criteria, we need to repent and then get on serving. Those who seek to be in ministry full-time must fervently guard their hearts to be sure that they meet the requirements for those whom God promises to support and empower. Ministry will be eternally unfruitful if God is not supporting and blessing it, and we surely must desire His favor. Therefore, we must seek to be dependent upon Him, surrendered to His leading, broken and eager to repent when we sin, and valuing God’s Word as powerful, alive, and authoritative. God must have our whole hearts if we want to see His power and blessing at work in ministry.
Here are now what I see as definitive criteria for determining a call to ministry. Those who choose full-time ministry over the secular workplace must believe that God has led them to do so (Galatians 5:18, Romans 8:14). They should not do it merely because their parent or mentor wanted them to, they should not do it merely because it sounds interesting, and they should not do it merely because they care about people. There is something that must be more powerful and purposeful within them as they are moved by the Spirit to teach the Word of God, to defend the truth, and to shepherd the people of God. Ministry is not social work, a profession, or a job, but it is a calling of God. In order to last in ministry and to confidently choose it against other career possibilities, those seeking God’s will in this matter must know in their hearts that this is where they must be. This will happen as they see God use them in pastoral gifts (if they are planning to serve as pastors, other gifts if they are serving in other capacities) such as teaching, leading, and shepherding. Other Spirit-led believers will likely identify the gifts within them. They will be extremely burdened to teach the Bible, they will love the Bible, and they will have a passion for the lost, for truth, and for loving the saints. There must be a burden to communicate God’s Word in some way that is unquenchable. If this is not present, I question a person’s call to the ministry. God’s Word must burn in their hearts such that they cannot help but speak it and teach it, and this should be evident by their present service in the church. It is a noble aspiration to desire to pastor (1 Timothy 3:1), and if the person is delighting in God, then such a desire is from Him (Psalm 37:4). Thus, really wanting to pastor (or serve in a different full-time capacity) and liking ministry is an essential prerequisite to entering full-time ministry. I know I felt like my brain was going to explode and my heart was going to pour out of my chest if I wasn’t given the chance to share what God was teaching me from His Word. Every time I was in a place of work other than the church, I struggled to keep from thinking about ministry, evangelism, and the church. It consumed me, in a good way, and thankfully the Lord has given me an outlet for my thoughts in terms of this writing ministry, though I do pray for His leading should He open other doors as well. I really believe those burdens and desires are there for a reason and that they are likely indicative of God preparing a heart for ministry. I should mention that what I do is not full-time because I am also a stay at home dad, but God is good and faithful to allow me to express to others what He is impressing upon me. So let us be flexible and open in terms of how God will use us, lead us, and prepare us.
I have already mentioned the importance of guarding our hearts and how that translates to those in ministry, but it is worth emphasizing that the Scripture lists out the Biblical characteristics of an elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. All Christians should aspire to the character qualities listed here, but a person desiring to be an elder is disqualified from doing so if he doesn’t meet the listed qualifications, even if he “feels” called. Those whom God truly calls will have the character qualities required in the Scripture. Here are the characteristics from 1 Timothy 3:2-7:
2An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
3not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.
4He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity
5(but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?),
6and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil.
7And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
And from Titus 1:5-9:
5For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you,
6namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.
7For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain,
8but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled,
9holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.
Most of the qualities mentioned in these passages have to do with integrity and personal holiness along with love for others. One that stands out is that the elder keeps an orderly, godly home. If a person can’t shepherd his home well, he should not be given the chance to shepherd the church. Such is a red flag. Worth noting is that the only required ability for pastoral ministry is the ability to teach and exhort from God’s Word according to sound doctrine to the extent that a person can even refute those who contradict. Thus, it should be evident that a person knows the Bible, can and does uphold sound doctrine, and is able to point out errors and argue for truth. If they are unable to effectively teach and defend the Bible, they need to serve God in a capacity other than as elder.
We should note that a call to ministry has nothing directly to do with having a master’s of divinity or theology degree or in being ordained in a technical sense. The disciples were untrained and uneducated men, but they feared God and knew His Word, being unafraid to proclaim it and trusting in the Spirit for ability and insight. We need men who depend upon the Spirit fully more than we need high intellects and advanced degrees. There is nothing inherently wrong with seminary or Bible school, but let us not scorn or look down on those who have learned to walk with God through being in the Word, through trials, and through much prayer and service in the church.
So, if you sense a call to ministry as the Spirit leads your heart, yield yourself to God to be willing to go in that direction. Let Him make His timing clear, and be diligent to study the Word (in seminary or on your own) so as to be able to rightly divide it (2 Timothy 2:15). Be involved in a faithful body of believers, serve as you are able, preferably having opportunity to use the gifts which God has given. Be sure your character is undefiled, and be active in evangelism as much as is possible. Doing all of these things will keep the fire hot and provide an outlet for the burden as God continues to refine you for His calling for you. The individual steps will be different for each person as some will join an established ministry while others will serve God very faithfully part time or only after they retire. Others will become pastors of existing churches, and others will be a part of a new work. God has a special plan for each of us, and the key is to follow God each day and each step of the way. As Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” Church cannot be engineered or manufactured, but the church is people. As you follow Him and obey what He has already revealed, He will lead and direct your steps, opening the door for you to use your gifts and fulfill your burdens. Keep believing, keep serving, and keep laboring for the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58).