Most careers travel a discernible path to the top. Being a lawyer starts with getting a law degree. Then comes the bar exam, and if you manage to pass, you might get an entry-level job at a law firm. If you’re willing to ante up with the necessary blood, sweat, and billable hours, you might get promoted to partner. You start at the bottom and work your way to the top.
This is how almost all careers work. To get the necessary skills, you start at the bottom, doing grunt work, and then slowly claw your way to the top, maybe muddying a couple of middle managers as you go.
Pastoral ministry isn’t like most careers.
The call to ministry isn’t necessarily revealed by the degree or skill set you possess, although those things certainly play some part in ministry. Ironically, the call to ministry emerges as you diligently apply yourself to something every other Christian is called to as well: service in your local church.
Service Reveals Calling
Today there is a trend of young men wanting to know their gifts and use their gifts in ministry—and to do it all quickly. And while the desire to be a pastor is certainly noble (1 Tim. 3:1), the most important step in training is not to first discover the role to which you are best fitted. Am I a church planter? How about an evangelist? Maybe I’m a lead pastor. I need to know, and I need to know now!
In Mark 10:42–43, Jesus identifies one of the most important things for any man who desires pastoral ministry:
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”
Your sense of calling is not a primarily an invitation from God to find your place in ministry. It is first and foremost a call to be a servant. In reality, running toward service delivers you into ministry. As a young Christian, I hungered to teach the Bible. But God hungered for me to be an usher and learn how to serve. His priority for me wasn’t what I was doing but who I was becoming. Serving in obscurity for a while can do more to shape your ministry future than a dozen years spent combing the world for the perfect ministry fit.
Running toward service delivers you into ministry
In science fiction, there is something called a portal. You step through it at one location and are transported to a completely different location. Service is the portal to ministry. Running directly toward ministry will not get you into ministry. To arrive there, you must chase another portal. Service transports you into a particular role and ministry location.
If you have a desire for ministry, run toward serving in your church. Go to your pastors and say, “Where does our church need the most help?” Then do what they ask of you.
Be Ready to Wait
As you walk the path of service, you must be patient. Are you committed to waiting for God to bring you into ministry rather than trying to shake free of service and broker your own opportunities? It’s funny, but I find it unusual to meet a man in ministry who does not have some kind of character-creating story of waiting on God. It seems to please God to use waiting to prepare us. In fact, God seems to work in unique ways to make us wait, ways that will ultimately shape our life and ministry.
The famous slave captain turned Christian, John Newton, became convinced he was called to preach around the age of 33. At the time, the traditional route into ministry was through the Church of England, though there were a number of independent churches springing up at the time.
There was just one problem: Newton couldn’t fill the role he desired. He wanted to be an Anglican pastor, but the Anglicans didn’t want him because of his lack of education and sinful past. The independent churches wanted him, but he didn’t want to pastor an independent church. Thus began a seven-year sojourn in which Newton was rejected six times by Anglican churches. Finally, a sympathetic bishop gave him a pulpit. But the experience had God’s intended effect. Years later he reflected:
I can now see clearly, that at the time I would first have gone out, though my intention was, I hope, good in the main—yet I overrated myself, and had not that spiritual judgment and experience which are requisite for so great a service.
Newton came to understand the rejection he experienced was actually God preparing him for a great work of service. Let this story encourage you as you wait. Time and opportunities are not passing you by. Don’t worry about your age, your lack of opportunities, the number of other qualified men you see. If God wants you to be a pastor, all the demons in hell can’t stand in the way.
As Charles Bridges observed in classic book The Christian Ministry, “The greatest and hardest preparation is within.” It is a painful truth. But don’t despise the preparatory work God is doing within you. If John Newton needed it, maybe you do as well.