If you attend enough churches you will eventually come across a pastor who makes you ask, “How did this guy end up in the ministry?” I have attended enough churches and I have asked the question many times. I have listened to awful sermons, terrible in both content and delivery, some bordering on unintentional heresy. Some pastors do not appear to know what they are talking about while others struggle to say what they want to say. I have seen dysfunctional pastors who could not lead or communicate effectively with staff and volunteers. A trait shared by all of these struggling men was a belief they were called to the ministry.
It is this sense of calling that underlies many pastoral struggles. There is a huge difference between the call to service and ministry and the call to “the ministry” or vocational ministry. All believers are called to ministry and service, all are called to serve with their whole heart and all of their being. For young believers excited about their faith and desiring to serve God it is easy to mistake this universal call to service for the much rarer call to full-time vocational ministry.
This misunderstood calling may be because young people who grow up in youth groups are often exposed to very few layperson role models who are fulfilling the universal call. What should be common in the church, lay people serving wholeheartedly and actively participating in Kingdom work, is seldom seen by young people planning a career. We live in a culture where ministry is what pastors do, not what lay people do.
The end result is that when a young person shows a passion for God he is told that he should “go into the ministry.” Instead of pursuing a vocation within their skill set and calling, instead of impacting the world as a faithful servant of Christ in the world, they enter full-time ministry, and they struggle. They have a heart for God, a heart for people and a desire to serve, but they do not have the gifts, the calling or the skill set, so they fail.
I nearly fell into this trap. I have been blessed with a public speaking gift and have a heart for God, so I was encouraged as a young man of 19 to “go into the ministry.” Fortunately my first foray into ministry was as a volunteer working with junior high students. I was terrible at it. It took only a few weeks to discover that I definitely was NOT called to full-time vocational ministry! I sought a different path while maintaining a desire to make a difference.
I never went to seminary and have never been on a church's payroll but I am still in ministry. I serve the patients God brings my way and regularly share my faith, often to people who would never interact with a pastor. I have used my speaking, teaching and writing gifts regularly over the years. In fact, there have been a number of years where I have preached more than many pastors I know! I have done this while avoiding the disaster that would have come if I had been a full-time pastor. For most of my adult life I have lacked the compassion, understanding and patience required to successfully lead a congregation. If I had listened to those who had encouraged me to be a pastor I would have hurt many and failed miserably. I would also have missed my true calling.
I share this post in the hope that it may encourage others to reconsider their calling without guilt or shame. Young people considering a career in ministry need to take a step back and be sure of their calling, to be very careful before heading down the path to becoming a pastor. Remember the admonition of James, "Let not many be teachers!" I am a living example that it is possible to fulfill one's calling without being a pastor. I am convinced that the majority of God’s work is accomplished outside of the church walls by God-loving people in the course of their daily lives. Ministry happens everywhere, and no one needs to be a pastor or have a seminary degree to participate!
I write to remind pastors who are struggling in ministry that it is okay to think of a life outside of the pastorate and to reassess their gifts and calling. It is possible to leave a paid staff position and still contribute vitally to the ministry of the body of Christ. There is an incredible amount of ministry that needs to be done out in the world by committed lay people. For some currently in the pastorate this is where they need to be.
Pastors who are currently comfortable in their calling need to take the time to evaluate the message they are sending to young people. When teaching and preaching are only done by pastors, lay people are being taught that this is the only way to utilize these gifts. When all leadership is in the hands of pastors, when ministry oversight and creation is limited to paid staff, talented leaders can conclude that there is no place for their gifts in the church. We unintentionally present them with the false choice of work or ministry.
To counteract this message pastors need to seek out lay people living missionally in their vocations, to raise up, empower and equip gifted such people to use the gifts that God has given (maybe even in the pulpit and in ministry oversight!.) We need to highlight the roles of these lay people so they can be an example to young people of what the universal call to ministry looks like. Young people need to see that they do not need to choose between ministry and vocation so they can avoid the future failure that awaits those who are mistaken in their sense of calling.
Church members and leaders, if you are interested in a lay person coming and speaking to your congregation or group I can be reached through the contact page on this website. I can be followed on Twitter @bartbarrettmd . You can have each post delivered to your inbox by clicking on the subscribe button.