We in the church talk about being called to do this and called to do that so often that we tend to downplay the call to ministry and make it little more than just another way to make ourselves available to do work within the church. On the one hand, part of it is the fault of those who lead the church. In sermons we are reminded that as Christians we are called to minister. We are called to serve. we are called to visit. we are called to be disciples. We are called to do just about everything we do in the church.
As the associate pastor of large congregation I once participated in an excellent after school program for children and adults. One tenet of the program is that it does not accept volunteers. You have to be called to serve in the various volunteer positions, especially if you want to be the leader. In part, this was a way to have people pray about the decision to become involved, and it worked well. The process caused the participants to prayerfully evaluate their motivations.
However, the process was made available to everyone.
The call to be a minister is something else altogether. It is a one-on-one phenomenon between the one being called and God. It is something that starts deep inside you and gradually moves outward. Martin Luther, the sixteenth century German Reformer, described this inward call as “God’s voice heard by faith.” Those called by God sense a growing compulsion to preach and teach the Word, and to minister to the people of God.
As John Newton, the author of the timeless hymn, Amazing Grace, so aptly said, “None but he who made the world can make a minister of the gospel.”
You’ve heard of the “still small voice” Elijah heard as related in 1st Kings 19:11-13? That’s where it starts. And while it may start out still and small, it seldom stays that way. When I first felt the call to be a minister, it bothered me because I wasn’t certain if God was doing the calling, or if I was responding to the fact that my father was a minister and many people assumed I would be a minister too. So, after a few months of dealing with the question I prayed, “God, if this is you, I’ll certainly do what you want. But if it is just me responding to what I think other people want, that’s not good enough. You’re going to have to let me know somehow.”
When I told my father about the struggle I was having, he said, “Son, if you can possibly do anything else with your life, do it. But if you can’t, then you’ll know it’s God.” And that was all he ever said. No pressure. No pep talk. Just the certain knowledge that it was between God and me. nobody else. And when the time was right, I would know for sure.
Six years later I knew.
Just as with a phone call, the call to become a minister is dependent on hearing a voice beyond ourselves. Unlike a phone call, however, it is always initiated by God. And following the call comes the preparation for the life of ministry to which you have just said, “OK, I’ll do it.”.
When I first answered the call to be a minister I figured I was “called to preach.” And I couldn’t understand why I had to be so concerned about much of what I was having to take in seminary. I was ready to go! Then a New Testament professor (Dr. Cook) put it all into perspective.
He started every class with a prayer. And each prayer was different with the exception of one phrase: “Lord, we thank you for the privilege of study.” That one phrase bothered me to the point about six weeks into the semester I had to go ask. When I walked in, he smiled and said, “I wondered when you’d come in.”
He asked what he could do for me, and I explained my confusion with that one phrase. He told me to take out my student ID and read the small print on the back. It said, essentially, that any student could be banned from any part or all of the campus if there was sufficient reason. Then he asked how many people came begging me to attend the seminary (none). Finally he asked if I had the documents declaring that my seminary education was guaranteed by the Constitution (nope).
“You see,” he continued, “there are always those who are consumed by the excitement of accepting the call. They are, by God, ready to preach right now. But being a minister is much more than that. You have to be a counselor. A theologian. A teacher. A specialist in mediating silly-assed (theological term meaning irritating) squabbles. A builder of bridges. Are you ready for that?”
“No sir,” the three inch tall version of me said.
“Of course you’re not. None of us were. And sometimes we still aren’t. That’s why we’re here.” He leaned toward me. “Look at it this way. Don’t you think the people of God deserve to have a minister who is as well prepared as possible?”
And I still do.
Those called to be ministers are called to preach, teach, administer the sacraments, and lead those entrusted to his/her care in ministry to those around them.Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And it’s not a job. It is a life for which you are hand selected by the one who created the universe.
Next time: Petty Foolishness and Other “Blessings”