I’ve heard there’s an unwritten rule that at one time or another, nearly every Christian man asks the question, “Am I called to the ministry?” Some guys see what their pastors do on Sundays and think it looks easy (pastors reading this, you can laugh now), but others just feel this compulsion to preach the Word of God and see people grow in their faith.
But whether we’re asking legitimately or not, we should seek out the answer—what does it mean to be called to the ministry, and how do I know if I am? One of the best resources I’ve found for this question is Edmund Clowney’s Called to the Ministry. In 90 pages, Clowney examines the call—but not simply the call to ministry, but the call from which it precedes.
Your Call is a Call to Christ
Clowney argues that before we start asking questions about a call to ministry, we must first understand our fundamental calling as Christians. Whether or not there’s a desire for a particular expression of Christian ministry, we have to recognize that it’s not separate from our identity in Christ.
“There is no call to the ministry that is not first a call to Christ,” he writes. “You dare not lift your hands to place God’s name in blessing on his people until you have first clasped them in penitent petition for his saving grace. Until you have done that the issue you face is not really your call to the ministry. It is your call to Christ” (p. 5).
While it might seem obvious that someone desiring to be a pastor ought to be a Christian, it’s certainly not always the case. One only has to look at the example of Simon the Magician in Acts 8:9-25, who is said to have believed and been baptized, but when he sees the Holy Spirit given by the laying on of hands, he offered money for the ability to do the same.
Additionally, Clowney reminds us our personal calling as Christians is one of service in the likeness of Christ. This does not mean, obviously, that we suffer to bear the sins of others—something that is impossible for anyone but Christ—but “we must suffer for the sake of others, for all those who will form the church of Christ, his body” (p. 17). It means using the gifts and opportunities that God has given you in his service, even when it costs you.
Perhaps most pointedly, Clowney writes, “The man who hesitates between a money-making career and the ministry is not merely in doubt about his calling to the pastorate, he is questioning his commitment to Christ” (p. 20). This is not an attempt to set up pastoral ministry as being of more value than any other calling, but a recognition that it is a serious calling. It is deeply challenging and taxing. A man who can see himself doing anything else should go and do that thing.
But if you do have an inkling of a calling, if you have evidence of the gifts required, then you have an obligation to steward and use those gifts well. “You dare not ignore your gifts, neglect them, or wrap them in a napkin to be presented unused to Christ on his return (Luke 19:20)” (p. 30). Take advantage of the opportunities for service that are in front of you, whether lofty or seemingly inconsequential.
The first half of the book was extraordinarily helpful for me as a man who has wrested with the question of calling for years now. While I’ve got a good sense internally of where I’m at, one of the things I’ve struggled on occasion is finding the “right” opportunities. But when I really pay attention, I can see plenty that just “happen,” whether planned or spontaneous. It’s been important for me to persevere in these, whether doing the teaching for a day in the children’s ministry, digging into a particular topic with our members of our small group (either in the large group or one-on-one), or having a discussion with my wife or colleagues at work. How I use these opportunities is what matters, not so much where they’re coming from. I simply need to be faithful and use my gifts well. God’s got the rest sorted.
The Distinctive and Clear Call to Ministry
The second half of the book delves more deeply into the distinctive and clear calling of God into the ministry. Here, Clowney again keeps the vital connection between our primary calling and this particular aspect clear. Pastors are not men placed in the church to be served—they are called to serve. “The minister is not a prince, note even a master (Matt. 23:8-12). He is a servant. . . . The stairway to the ministry is not a grand staircase but a back stairwell that leads down to the servants quarters” (pp. 41, 43). Thus, any authority a pastor has is borrowed from Christ and is tied entirely to the Word he preaches. He is a steward of Christ’s authority, not supplanting Christ, but sharing what Christ has clearly made known with wisdom and love for Christ’s people.
So how do you know if you’re called? First, you need to have a clear sense personally—you need to know that you know that you know that something’s there. This takes discernment, wisdom and patience. It requires “sober thought, prayerful gauging of the gifts we have received, [which] enables us to perceive the scope and kind of ministry that is set before us” (pp. 83-84). It also requires a zeal to redeem the “daily opportunities” the Lord presents us with to prove our gifts to his glory.
Secondly, you need the affirmation of the Church—the external call. We need the confirmation of the larger body, not to receive our calling from them, but to be called through them. Men wrestling with the call need to be upfront with their elders and ask them to watch, test and affirm whether or not the gifts and qualifications are truly present. Simply, because pastoral ministry involves the body of Christ, the body must, to varying degrees, be a part of affirming the call.
Reading Clowney’s provocative and Christ-exalting examination of the call to ministry, it’s clear that he understands (or rather understood) the gravity of the pastorate. There is no levity about the duties of a pastor. He doesn’t paint it as glamorous. But he’s immoveable on the necessity and importance of pastoral ministry. The result is one of the helpful books I’ve read on the subject.
If you’re a man wrestling with the call, you’re going to want to read Called to the Ministry (and if you’re married, have your wife read it, too). If you’re a pastor, you’re going to want to give this book to any men in your church who might be wrestling with the call. I was both blessed by the affirmations I felt and challenged as I worked through a number of my own assumptions that had seeped their way into my thinking about the call to ministry. I trust you will be as well.
Title: Called to the Ministry
Author: Edmund P. Clowney
Publisher: P&R Publishing (1964)