I clearly, vividly, like it was just a moment ago, remember the day my calling clicked for me. It was Founders Week at Moody Bible Institute (or "The Great American Preach-Off" as a few facility were known to call it). I was a cold February evening in 1998 and I was a freshman student. I went to Moody because I had a sense (remember yesterday's post) that I wanted to spend my life for the sake of the gospel, but the clarifying nature of what that call looked like was elusive to me. I had some dreams of overseas missions and youth ministry wrapped into a few concepts, but nothing concrete. The evening of February 5th, Dr. James Montgomery Boice came and preached from Romans 11:33-36 on the glory of God in the church.
During his message I was struck with the greatness of God and his glory. But I was also deeply struck by the way that Dr. Boice unpacked the Scriptures. His message was clear and compelling. It was filled with glory because he was talking about glorious things. It was deep. It was accessible. It was moving.
As I walked from Moody Church back to campus I was talking with a friend about that message and particularly what had happen to me during that message. I vividly remember saying to my friend, "I want to do that. What I saw happen tonight as Dr. Boice preached the Bible to us is exactly what I want to do with my life." The first ingredient in understanding my calling had been established. Desire.
Desire As The First Signpost
Paul indicates that desire is the first part of a calling toward and for ministry. It's an essential part. As he instructs Timothy regarding the qualifications for a man in the role of an elder in the church hie leads with the trustworthy statement, "If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1, ESV). The key word in this first statement is the word aspire. Paul tells Timothy that the starting place for discerning a call is the nature of a desire or longing for that work.
As John Newton indicated, calling starts with a, "warm and earnest desire to be employed in this service."1
Men who are called to the pastoral office want to be there. They feel it in their bones. "God made me for this, and this is what I will do by his grace." Calling to the ministry doesn't exist apart from a desire to do that work. Even Peter as he instructs elders to be about the work of shepherding the church locates that calling in desire language. “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you" (1 Peter 5:2, ESV).
A Warning About Desire
Perhaps this is the easiest signpost to move forward from. Yet, I find it to be the one that is the most confusing to young men. They have a desire to do the ministry, and they believe that that is the sum total of their calling. "I want to do it, therefore I'm called." In looking back on my own sense of calling I would have told you on that cold February night almost 15 years ago that I was "called" by God at that moment to preach and teach the Scriptures and lead the local church. That might be a fair statement. But it was just the beginning of the call, the implanting of desire.
Desire can be a tricky thing, mainly because the real objects of our desire can be hidden behind something else. For example, I may desire the respect and adoration and accolades that come with preaching heart-hitting, Biblically sound messages. But that doesn't mean I desire to be engaged in the work of the ministry. It just means I want people to respect and affirm me. We have to drill down deep within our motives to find what sits and the root of why we long for what we do.
If you can answer the first question of calling towards ministry with a "yes, I do desire and aspire to the work of ministry," then let me encourage you to take a second step in discerning that desire. One of the best ways to achieve that is to sit down with a man who has been in ministry for decades and ask him to tell the ugly stories about ministry. Have him tell you about the poverty, sleepless nights, disappointment, criticism, hardship, suffering and alienation he's experienced as a pastor. I don't say that to paint a grim picture of ministry, but to inject that desire with some reality. It's not all preaching and conferences and Easter lilies. If after hearing the war-stories you can say to yourself, "Yes, I do have a warm and earnest desire for the work," then move on to signpost two.
Some Questions for Discovery
- Do you desire to spend your life for the glory of God and the sake of the church in pastoral ministry?
- Why do you long to be in pastoral ministry?
- What do you perceive "the work" of pastoral ministry is about?
- Would you still want to be in ministry on the worst days? Why?
- Is pastoral ministry a means to another end or goal for you? If so what is it?
- John Newton and Richard Cecil, The Works of John Newton, vol. 2 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 44. ↩