Discerning a Call to Ministry? Ignore the “Do Anything Else” Advice

How often do we send this message to people discerning a call to ministry?

There is a piece of advice I heard in seminary that is oft-repeated, and one that I have come to dislike.  It originates with Spurgeon, as pointed out in a great article over at Gospel Coalition:

“Do not enter the ministry if you can help it,” was the deeply sage advice of a divine to one who sought his judgment. If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit by that for which his inmost soul pants.

I have two problems with this view, especially since it is so often regurgitated. (Don’t believe me? Check out here and here and here and the comments section here.) The two are:

1. This advice assumes that ministry requires only one skill or ability.

2. This also implies that ministry is uniquely difficult.

First, the “do anything else” advisers seem to want to drive away anyone from the pulpit that has any real skills! Of course an authentic calling – both internal and external – is greatly important.  But calling does not imply a dearth of talents.  There is no one “ministry gene” that someone needs to faithfully heed the call to church leadership.  Instead, ministry requires a group of diverse skills, which will vary depending on the context.  In my own setting – pastoring a small church – a normal week could requires skills in writing, oratory, management, long-range planning, counseling, caregiving, conflict resolution, research, coaching, and staff development.  Even more specific ministry roles (for instance, youth ministry or executive pastor positions) will require a wide range of personal and professional skills.  Does anyone possess them all? No, that’s why we focus on our strengths and manage our weaknesses.

But all this goes to show that someone who will excel in ministry could likely succeed in a wide variety of fields related to leadership, communication, education, etc. To say to someone discerning a call to ministry that they should only go through with it if that cannot possibly do anything else is to drive away a great deal of talent and promise from the church.

Second, pastors are good at complaining talking about how difficult our work is. This is what the table conversation at an inordinate number of clergy gatherings might consist of, if you don’t choose your seat wisely. For me, implied within the “do anything else” advice is a warning: “This work is so arduous and frustrating that you won’t make it unless this is your last resort, unless God has made sure you ABSOLUTELY can’t do anything else!”  Much of this way of thinking leans tends to this direction.  One of the above advisers puts it this way:

On the whole (with exceptions) the hours are long, the people are a problem (indeed without the interaction with people the Pastorate world be great!) and the pay is poor. I am not even sure about the retirement benefits.

As one of my mentors taught me to recognize, “everyone works hard.” Especially in today’s economy, there is no work that is not difficult, that does not have unreasonable expectations, long hours, and little reward.  Every company – for-profit or not – is attempting to get more out of its employees while paying less.  No one makes what they are worth, with very few exceptions.  Pastors would do well to remember that our people are in the same boat we are, and often (here I’m thinking of ordained UMC elders) we have more job security than they do.  Our work is not uniquely hard.  It would be more accurate to say our work is hard uniquely.  In other words, ministry is not hard the way that a factory or office job might be, but is difficult because of the various skills needed (enumerated above) and the emotional toll that the week-in, week-out grind of church life can take – especially when funerals, sickness, conflict, and other emotionally draining parts of our vocation begin to pile up.

In closing, we should close with a word of hope.  Vocational ministry is not easy, but then, no one has it easy.  We would do well to remember that all of us look to the same source to sustain us.  Easter reminds us that death and meaninglessness do not win, that our work, when tied to the work of God (any work done for God’s glory is ministry, after all), will finally find its consummation in that Kingdom that is to come:

Ministry is difficult.  Therefore the great challenge of ministry is to be the sort of characters who can sustain the practices and virtues of ministry for a lifetime. What we require is some means of keeping at ministry – preparing and delivering sermons, visiting the sick, counseling the troubled, teaching the ignorant, rebuking the proud – even when we don’t feel like it, even when  it does not personally please us to do so.  Fortunately for the church, Easter will not let us give up, though we have ample reason, in the present age, to do so. We are not permitted to give up on ministry because God, if the story of Easter is as true as we believe it to be, doesn’t give up on ministry in the world. As prisoners of hope, we keep working in the expectancy that God’s kingdom will come, that God’s will is going to be done on earth as in heaven. (Will Willimon, Calling and Character, 55)

8 thoughts on “Discerning a Call to Ministry? Ignore the “Do Anything Else” Advice”

  1. The point of the quote is not that you aren’t capable of doing anything else because of your skill set. Nor is it that you do ministry because you can’t earn a living in an easier profession. The point is that you are UNABLE to do anything else because you are CALLED to do this. Jeremiah spoke of it as having a fire shut up in his bones. You absolutely SHOULD NOT be in ministry unless you have a fire shut up in your bones–a compulsion to serve God that prevents you from doing anything else. Ministry is a calling not a career.

    1. But is ministry a singular thing? I feel called to the gospel, but I believe that my vocation could change. At the present moment, I understand my calling is to the vocation of ordained ministry. However, I’m open to the possibility that at some point I may be called to proclaim the gospel another way, in another form of ministry.

    2. I don’t disagree. I would only add that if we lead off in our advice to potential pastors by saying “Do anything else!” it could well chase many away before they ever have the chance to know if they are called or not. I think you may be emphasizing the internal call and I the external – both are important.

  2. You might also end up with someone like me, who spent time in a number of other careers (Military Officer, Safety Engineer/Manager, Real Estate Appraiser/Government Property Manager) who finally said yes to the call in my fifties and now feel incredibly fulfilled to be serving God instead of something else. maybe I wouldn’t have felt the same way in my 20’s and 30’s, or maybe it was God preparing me with a variety of experience and skill sets to make me a much more effective Pastor now than I would have been then. God works in some incredible ways.

  3. I agree with Beth Ann that the point of the advice is to test the authenticity of the internal call. Ordained ministry is not a career choice, it is a calling. But other professions and lines of work can be callings, also. I can serve Christ just as faithfully as a schoolteacher or an accountant as an ordained minister. It just depends what our calling is.

    I agree with Pastor Mack’s point that our work as pastors is not uniquely hard, but hard uniquely. It has unique challenges, just like every profession. If we’re not called to it, we may not have the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual capacity to overcome the challenges. The same could be said of other professions, as well. Do I have what it takes to be a good and effective schoolteacher or accountant? If not, then that may not be where God is calling me to serve.

  4. I have a totally different reason for for not liking this advice. To imply that a “man so full of God” can only be an ordained church leader and all those poor shmucks who are less holy should work other jobs (and contribute money to support the church and its professional leaders) is to fundamentally misunderstand what it is for the church to be the called and sent people of God.

    It is not that the most holy (or on-fire-for-Jesus or whatever your metric is) among us should be pastors. It is that from among the faithful people of God, some are set apart for the work of ordering, teaching, and serving. If our self image is that we are “the holy ones” and if our expectation is that the truest way to be a Christian is to be a pastor, the whole church is in big trouble.

  5. The whole thing about “knowing” if you’re “really called” or not seems a bit romanticist to me. The Baptists I grew up with talk this way a whole lot. It’s why I didn’t go to seminary until I was 30.

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