Regularly when I sit down with someone, they’ll use the phrase ‘called to ministry’. I don’t have a dislike of this phrase, it can be very useful—only when most people use it, it isn’t.
My first response is always to ask someone what they mean by the statement. No one has ever replied that they received a phone call from God (not that God couldn’t do that if he wanted). No, usually they mean either a conviction about the importance of Christian ministry, or a pseudo-emotional/supernatural experience where it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Of course, there is a very exclusive group who are actually called by God to ministry. He has specifically instructed this group with his own ministry of repentance and calls the world to follow him through them. They have been supernaturally empowered by the Holy Spirit; anointed by the word of God; gifted for the task. In fact, Jesus accompanies them while they do it. This exclusive group are known as ‘Christians’, and every one of them need to get on with ministering to other people, because the world desperately needs to have the love of Jesus shown and shared with it.
I have also experienced people I’m trying to encourage towards leadership worry that they haven’t had a supernatural experience which qualifies as a call… and then others who tell me that God has called them to a ministry when it is clear to all and sundry that he hasn’t.
In Ephesians we read:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11-14)
The job of ministry, that of building up one another in the faith, therefore belongs to the whole church. There may be those who are selected because of their character and specific gifts to be leaders in the church, but their job is primarily equipping the rest of the church for ministry. Unfortunately, we have yet to break away from the old assumption that “we pay the minister to do the ministry”. Even labels like ‘clergy’ or ‘laity’ unintentionally proliferate the idea that special people do ministry, and the rest of us get ministered to. But the leader’s job is to prepare, encourage, pray for, train, and oversee the church in their role as ‘ambassadors for Christ’—a noble work (1 Tim 3:1).
So then, let me shift the goalposts. The question of whether you are called to ministry should really become “Has God called me to be a leader in the church?” or “Does God want my specific ministry to be helping other people to minister?”
I was once talking to a young lady at church who really loved doing ministry but wasn’t sure if God wanted her to make it her full-time vocation. I asked her “If God wanted you to be doing full-time ministry, do you think he'd tell you, your pastor, or your church?” She was taken aback by this question, because she assumed that becoming a leader was a personal isolated decision between her and God. She was unable (like so many of us) to see the fruit from her ministry or the potential she had to love and minister to others. But to those from the church who had watched her for many years love and care for God’s people, it was a no-brainer.
Charles Spurgeon is a hero of mine. In his Lectures to My Students he outlines a very helpful guideline for understanding whether you are ‘called to ministry’—a term he insists on for anyone who seeks Christian leadership or vocational ministry. I’ll paraphrase his criteria:
If a person gets a tick for all of these, you can be sure, according to Spurgeon, that an individual is being called to the ministry.