I recently celebrated 25 years of pastoral ministry at Mountain View Church in Fresno, California. You can’t help but reminisce a little when you pass these kinds of milestones. As I looked back over the years, one of the things that struck me was the number of fellow pastors who have left “the ministry” over that time.
The reasons are varied—family issues, moral failures, burnout—and it’s not my place to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of each individual decision. What interests me is the apparent change in the nature of the calling to pastoral work that seems to have occurred during the past two decades. My thoughts have dwelled specifically on church planting pastors and so I draw on examples from that particular group but the general ideas are relevant for all forms of full-time pastoral work.
I was raised in an environment where the calling to pastoral work was considered to be a lifelong vocation, unless otherwise specified. Not that every pastor pledged to never do anything else with their lives, but it was implicitly understood that the licensing or ordination pledge to give oneself to pastoral ministry was a serious calling; a setting apart of one’s vocational life for “the Master’s use” (II Timothy 2:20-22).
The pastors in my formative years almost all reached retirement age still pastoring or involved in church-related vocational ministry. At my own ordination—a rarity among my peers, who largely opted to complete only the licensing requirement—it was understood that, borrowing from imagery in Homer’s, The Odyssey, I was being lashed fast “to the mast of word and sacrament.”
Now maybe I’m just being sentimental—one does that at 25th anniversaries—and maybe I’m just remembering the past with rose-colored memories. Yet even if I concede the point, I still argue that this is an understanding of calling that we should continue to aspire to. In the New Testament there is little to commend the modern practice of people drifting in and out of ministry callings.
See, for example, how the apostle Paul remembers the details of Timothy’s calling and commissioning: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hand you” (I Timothy 4:14). The expectation is that Timothy will continue on until the end of his days in the same way that Paul is doing as he writes his encouraging letters.
Now this need in no way diminish our belief in the priesthood of all believers as explained in Ephesians 4. After all, the setting aside of some people for certain tasks is common in Scripture (see Acts 6 for another example) and common sense tells us that when we acknowledge those who devote themselves to a noble task, we are all challenged and encouraged.
For example, when our local high school takes time to recognize those who are receiving academic awards and those going on to serve in the military after graduation, the rest of us aren’t offended (I hope). We don’t demand that every student’s unique achievements be publicly recognized, do we? Rather we applaud those who are acknowledged, appreciate their accomplishments and draw encouragement from their example.
Moving forward I want to suggest that we elevate and evaluate the calling to pastoral work with a new urgency. Leaders in local churches need to be on the lookout for those that God has gifted and give them opportunities to test their gifts by leading, discipling, serving, teaching, etc. Sermons on the calling to full-time vocational ministry need to be preached and people need to be directly called out to respond. The number of pastoral apprentices serving in our churches—whether for a summer or a year—needs to double and then double again.
The nature of an individual’s call to pastoral work then needs to be evaluated thoroughly by the local church. Sometimes we just know somebody, and we just know that they will be make a great pastor. That can work on occasion, but it will never be sufficient if we want to consistently release biblically qualified leaders. Some kind of objective matrix for evaluating the call to pastoral work should be employed, if for no other reason than to avoid the appearance of bias.
For instance, a book like Discerning Your Call to Ministry by Jason Allen could be used to evaluate call. The author offers 10 questions for self-examination. They include:
- Is your household in order?
- Has God gifted you to preach and teach His word?
- Does your church affirm your calling?
- Are you passionate about the gospel and the great commission?
- Are you engaged in fruitful ministry?
If candidates took time to reflect on their call, put it in writing and tested that call with their church community, I wonder if the rate of pastoral attrition might be reduced.
Another helpful change in our evaluation process might come from elevating the value of durability and grit—that intangible quality that causes some people to just refuse to give up (I know, some people should give up, but for every one of those I believe there are a dozen who should not). Perhaps it comes as no surprise that books on pastoral ministry often mention the quality of grit or determination as a key to success.
In his recent book on church planting, Planting Reproducing Churches, Elmer Towns states that, “to plant an influential church, leaders must have a hard-headed tenacity, declaring, ‘I will never give up.’” That focus and tenacity typically find their foundation in a strong sense of calling. Gary Teja and John Vagenveld assert in Planting Healthy Churches, “No one should consider planting a church unless he truly senses God calling him to this vocation…Oftentimes when everything seems to be going wrong in the church plant, the only thing that keeps the planter plodding along is his sense of call.” True words for every pastor.
A final suggestion is to be more intentional about having pastors start with the end in mind. We could highlight the fact that this unique work is being entered into with the expectation that, unless there are extraordinary intervening circumstances, this will be a life-long path; what Eugene Petersen memorably called a long obedience in the same direction. That metaphor is generally applicable to all disciples of Christ, but surely it can also be particularly applied to the calling of pastoral ministry.
Pastoral work should be more than changing of ”career paths” as so many seem to see it today. If nothing else, a more rigorous discernment process for those feeling called to pastoral ministry would be doing our seminaries a favor (I can hear the faculty cheering!), relieving them of the expectation that they must do the work of discerning the suitableness of pastoral candidates on their own.
Obviously, pastoral work isn’t for everybody. When done right it’s a life made expendable for Christ: he becomes greater as we become less (John 3:30). Bob Bickford and Marrrk Hallock, in their book, Am I A Replanter? put it soberly, “If you aren’t ready to preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten, you should find another vocation.”
If they are correct, then shepherding the local church is not a vocation that should be entered into lightly. Let’s do everyone a favor and elevate calling and evaluate it well. May we, as a result, produce a new generation of pastors that can, at the end of their lives, say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4:7).