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Why It’s Time To Rethink What It Means To Be Called To Ministry

Chances are you’re likely struggling with the same issue almost every church leader is—a lack of truly great leaders for ministry.

Whether I talk to megachurch leaders or leaders of churches of 50 people, they say the same thing: they just can’t find enough capable, gifted leaders who want to serve in a church staff role.

In fact, many have told me they would have more campuses and be able to reach far more people if they just had qualified leaders to lead them.

The leadership crisis is true to some extent of volunteers, although many churches I know have figured out how to get capable leaders into key volunteer roles (if you want more on that, read this).

The deepest crisis is in staffing. The number of  people who want to be pastors, ministry directors, or serve in other church staff roles may be at an all time low.

In past generations, the best and the brightest young Christians often went into ministry.

Today, they go into law, medicine, business and into startups. They never even think of ministry.

Three questions.

What if we changed that?

How would we change that?

What would happen if we changed that?

rethink call to ministry

The Best and the Brightest?

I realize some of you are already chafing at the idea of ‘best and brightest’ and ‘ministry’ being used in the same sentence.

And for sure, I’ve read what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians about not many of us Christians being wise in the eyes of the world, or well-born or well-educated. But he was talking about being called to salvation in that passage, not about being called to ministry.

And a little later on in the scriptures, Paul gave us his resume. It’s pretty impressive.

Sure, Paul was arguing that human skill is nothing compared to the tremendous grace he’s experienced in Jesus Christ. But you could make a strong argument that God used Paul’s training and background in law and theology to spread Christianity rapidly under Paul’s leadership.

For every Paul there’s a Moses with a less impressive resume (shepherd guy on a hill). But—wait for it—Moses spent time in a royal court. As did Joseph. As did Daniel.

I’m sure some of the lessons learned in those courts rubbed off.  And reading the stories of leaders like Moses, Joseph and Daniel in the Old Testament is, in places, like reading a leadership textbook.

I think when you study the weight of scripture through that lens, you’ll realize God uses a person’s skill and talent for his higher purposes.

After all, if we believe a person’s gifting is from God, then it only makes sense God uses a person’s gifting to work out his plans.

Does God equip the called? For sure. He specializes in doing extraordinary things through ordinary people.

But maybe he also calls the equipped.

Having skills and gifts doesn’t disqualify you from ministry any more than not having them (initially) does.

The Problem with A Subjective Call

Onto the subject of calling.

The way most people talk about calling these days is almost entirely subjective. 

We say things like

How do you know you’re called?

Have you heard from God?

Has God spoken to you?

If the answer is no, many of take that as immediate disqualification from ministry.

There are many problems with boiling calling down to a subjective sense of calling. The first is that it’s…subjective.

If you say you’re called—that you’ve heard from God—who can really argue with that? You just played the God card.

Second, it assumes that every person who is called to work in a church full time has to have a subjective, personal experience of God telling them that’s exactly what they are to do.

What if that’s not true?

I don’t want to get into Bible wars. (You know, where people throw scripture verses at each other.) But I don’t want you to think I’m just making this argument up or that it’s entirely unbiblical.

There may be another perspective that might be far more scriptural than our current view of subjective calling.

Read through Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12.

Paul does not say, if you feel you have the gift of apostleship, then you are an apostle.  Nor does he say if God told you you are an evangelist, that you are evangelist.

He simply says God made some people to be apostles and evangelists. And others to be pastors.

Your feelings don’t enter into it much. Your gifting does.

Similarly, I know people who think they are called to ministry who are actually not very good pastors.

Think about it.

You might feel called. You might be sincere.  But you might also be sincerely wrong.

Because our sense of calling has become so entirely subjective, we have perhaps allowed people who shouldn’t be in ministry into ministry.

Otherwise, why do some leaders who feel called to ministry struggle so much with being effective at ministry?

I realize this might seem far too harsh, but the subject is too important to ignore.

Now consider the opposite.

Why are people who are great at leadership not in ministry?

There are many reasons, but here are two:

Because their peers rarely think of ministry as a great option, they don’t (like breeds like).

Perhaps they didn’t experience a subjective sense of call into ministry.

But consider this. Paul does not say if you have the gift of leadership and feel a subjective sense of calling to lead, then lead.

He says if you have the gift of leadership, then LEAD WITH ALL DILIGENCE. No conditions.

Translation: if you have the gift of leadership…lead. It’s that simple.

So What Qualifies You For Church Leadership Then?

What if we looked at calling a different way?

First, every Christian is called to ministry, whether that’s in a volunteer role or a full time role, we all have a contribution to make in ministry.

But for church staff (which is the subject of this article), I wonder if we’d be ahead if we paid more attention to these 3 factors which I’ve selectively borrowed from Bill Hybels:

Character

Competency

Conviction

Character

Character is such a major factor.

You just can’t lead in Christian leadership with out it.

The character of church leaders should be of the highest caliber. I’ve written extensively on character and believe that ultimately, your character, not your competency, determines your capacity as a leader.

If you want to see how your character is doing, you can try this revealing little test.

Competency

This is the factor that has been routinely ignored.

Your competency is a direct expression of your gifting. And the church has often ignored those with the gift of leadership. They have fled to the marketplace and avoided the church.

As a result, in the church:

We hire nice people over truly gifted people.

We hire people in need of work rather than people who can fulfill a mission.

We leave the marketplace to claim some of the best Christian leaders out there.

At Connexus, where I serve, we use gifting assessment tools like Right Path, StrengthFinders and others to determine where a persons’ gifting lies.

Objective metrics are so helpful because, ultimately, today’s changing church needs exceptionally skilled leadership.

But even a gut check can tell you the kind of leader the church needs.

The simplest way to tell if a person’s a leader? Look over their shoulder and see who’s following.

If high capacity people are following the person you’re looking at, they’re definitely a leader. If nobody’s following or the type of person who follows is questionable, well, at least you know what you’re getting.

And one hugely under-represented skill set in the church today is entrepreneurship. As I outlined here, I think the church today has more than enough shepherds. It’s time we found some entrepreneurs. Sure, entrepreneurial leaders are not the only leaders the church needs, but it is an exceptionally under-represented group in the church.

Today’s church demands today’s best leadership.

Conviction

The third characteristic I think a church leader needs is conviction: conviction that the church is worth the full investment of a leader’s best time, best energy and even entire life.

What if there are thousands of leaders who are convicted that the church is supremely important, but they’ve just never thought their gifts could be put to use in it?

What if you don’t need a subjective sense of calling?

I won’t name them here, but I know personally of three leaders whose names you would likely know who are leading major ministries who never experience a subjective ‘call’. They would all say they simply volunteered.

And God has unmistakably used them powerfully. Their character, competency and conviction are second to none.

If they had waited for a subjective call, they might still be waiting.

And about 60,000 people might not be in church or have a relationship with Christ as a result.

What if there are thousands of leaders who would go into full time ministry if they knew that character, competency and conviction were enough?

What if?

Maybe You’re Called

Listen, to be fair, I had a very subjective call to ministry.

I am not a “God spoke to me this morning” kind of Christian, but I promise you God spoke to me.

My call to ministry in the middle of law school when I was in my twenties was entirely supernatural.

Honestly, I think it’s the only way God would have gotten my attention. I’ll tell you about it over coffee some day if we have a half hour.

But what if that’s not required?

See, if you’re:

a leader who has the character, competency and conviction to do church leadership, maybe you just should. Maybe that’s why you’re reading this.

a student or young leader or entrepreneur who has never thought about leadership in the church, but have the character, competency and conviction, rethink that.

responsible for hiring for your church, maybe ask candidates if they experienced and sense of calling, but don’t let the lack of calling be fatal. Look for character, competency and conviction. Maybe that’s enough.

Please hear this.

Some of you have never felt the call to ministry, but you have the conviction that the local church is the hope of the world. You also the competency and the character.

Maybe that’s enough. Clearly, you’d need to pray deeply about it and seek wise counsel who would affirm that you have the character, competency and conviction for ministry.

But maybe you don’t need the subjective call. Maybe the affirmation of your character, competency and conviction is your call.

Maybe you can volunteer.

So if you’ve got what it takes, step up.

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Thoughts?

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.

Scroll down and leave a comment!

 

13 Comments

  1. Ahren Cahoon on September 2, 2019 at 6:38 pm

    Hi Mr. Nieuwhof. I have read many of your articles and listened to your podcast. I think you have a lot to say to Kingdom Workers and the Church today.
    As I have read your articles lately, I have seen more and more ‘click to tweet’ boxes. I want you to know that this comes across as self serving and a bit arrogant, from my perspective. I think maybe you have others working on your ‘social presence’ and may not know how this comes accross.
    Believe me when I say that I have no problem copying and pasting something I find worth sharing. But this ‘convienient’ button does nothing but distract me and make me wonder if I even want to read the rest of the article. I am hoping this is just an oversight.
    Maybe have 1 quote from yourself and 10 from scripture….that sounds worth retweeting to me.
    Humbly Submitted by a fellow laborer in the Gospel!
    -Ahren

  2. Victoria Chege on February 1, 2019 at 8:30 am

    Dear Carey,

    I was just searching the internet for some information on finding out God’s call. My son (19 turning 20) who is studying law wants to stop his studies and go the Bible school , as he believes he wants to serve God and help bring about changes among the youth. As a mother, I am at loss of what to do: if it is God’s genuine call, then I am in for it; but I am concerned that this could just be a subjective feeling. I will direct my son to your blog; but in the meantime, I would be intereted in finding out your story: did you complete your studies, before going into ministry? How was your calling?

    Victoria

  3. Ed on June 14, 2018 at 2:02 am

    I hate to necro an old post, but what do you do when you have been given a gift but nobody seems to want it? I struggle with this all the time. God’s given me gifts, but although I’ve tried to figure out where and how to use them, I struggle. Right now I’m serving in a church, attempting to love the family of God, but everyone is so busy, nobody wants to know the new guy, much less love him back. It’s discouraging in the extreme. I’ve been in this church six months, we’ve attempted to make connections. But I cannot help feeling disconnected.

    The church believes it does a great job of loving each other, and maybe it does, but I want to ask so many times when these things are said, “How does a guy get invited into the family of God here?” They do allow me to serve, but it’s just so superficial. Last week I was out because of health issues, and nobody asked my wife where I was. Not a single soul. And when she tried to connect with someone, one of the leaders of the church made it clear that the nursery staff were waiting on us to get our children and go.

    Nobody invited me to this church, but God–so maybe that is part of the problem. Nobody feels it necessary to know my family beyond Sundays. How is it you can be in a church with less than 300 regular attendees and still feel just as much disconnected and unwanted as you might feel in a church with 3000 regular attendees? God loves me, but I don’t feel that His people do. How are they supposed to confirm what they don’t even care to know?

    So, how do I get confirmation when the church I’m serving in doesn’t care to even know me?

    • Ed Swift on December 27, 2018 at 8:49 pm

      Wow, Dave,
      I know what you’re talking about.
      Many times the church is guilty of bringing with it the secular humanistic values, traits, attributes and characteristics it was used to relying on in order to function in the world, with it into the church world when it comes subsequent to salvation.
      So you feel you’re the only one trying to be the church in a very secularized organisation, rather than the living breathing body of Christ! It is a most disparaging feeling. And yes, it could be why you were called there. You may be the oil this squeaky wheel needs. The HOLY SPIRIT oil!

  4. Dave Miller on October 11, 2015 at 5:31 am

    Yes!

  5. Luke Embree on September 29, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    Hi Carey,
    I’m new to your blog and appreciate your words here. I’m a seminary student but I’m unsure about how to connect with all of those churches in need of ministers. This topic seems to be one of the things they don’t teach in seminary :). Any ideas about how to get exposure and connect with good churches in need of qualified ministers?

  6. 5 for Leadership-September 26th - Gary Runn on September 26, 2015 at 6:47 am

    […] Why Its Time To Rethink What It Means To Be Called To Ministry […]

  7. Lawrence W. Wilson on September 22, 2015 at 7:10 am

    Carey, I like Hybels’s list of character, competency, and conviction–though I think there’s an item missing, which is “confirmation.” If the church doesn’t confirm (ordain) a person, they’re not called.

    You mention people who are perhaps not highly competent being in ministry–and I agree that happens. In my opinion, that’s a failure of “confirmation.” The church doesn’t like to say no when someone says “God called me.”

    When I entered ministry 30 years ago, my sense was that the bar needed to be raised intellectually–we needed more pastors who could think. I hear you saying that we now need to raise the bar on leadership skill, and you may be right.

    Either way, we do need more people who are highly competent to choose the church.

  8. JRamsey on September 21, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    Carey,

    I’m convinced one of the hardest professions to break into is the Ministry, so many churches looking for the next superstar pastor while many churches rely on what they want instead of God wants for his church. I’m called to Pastor but to find a church is near impossible as the Church has become more secular in their calling of leadership. We will keep praying that the Lord will open the doors for our family to walk through to serve His Church, Community, City, State, (province) and the world.

    Want to grab some coffee, I’m all ears in hearing your story. Thanks for writing, keep it up… #LiveGiveServe

    Jonathan – Va, USA

    • Michael Shaw on October 5, 2015 at 11:32 am

      Hope you find something soon Jonathan.

  9. Jason on September 21, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    “First, every Christian is called to ministry, whether that’s in a volunteer role or a full time role, we all have a contribution to make in ministry.”

    Yes! I have often had the discussion with other church leaders that too often we romanticize ministry and “the call.” I have been to youth conferences that unintentionally communicate to students that to be fully sold out for God means going into full-time ministry. That this is the only way to fully serve him is the unintended message. They want to encourage students to seriously consider ministry, but it’s almost too much.

    “Second, it assumes that every person who is called to work in a church full time has to have a subjective, personal experience of God telling them that’s exactly what they are to do.”

    Is it possible that God “calls” us by showing us a need in his church that we can fill? Without a supernatural experience attached “telling” us to do it? I have seen first hand the “elitism” of those in ministry with statements like “if you can see yourself doing anything else, you should…” But I think that contradicts what is often called every member ministry.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Carey.

    • Wendy Clark on July 31, 2019 at 12:06 pm

      This morning I came across a teaching that I have heard referenced before but not read for myself, a teaching on what it means to be “called” into ministry by Martyn Lloyd-Jones . There were 6 evidences given, and not one of them was based on a solid, Biblical foundation. Most were subjective in nature. So how did this get to be such a strong and accepted teaching? My own observation suggests that people like the idea that if they aren’t specifically and supernaturally called, they get some kind of pass in life, but it also makes some people more comfortable in telling others (like their own children) that they ought not choose ministry as a career path.

      As you mention in your post, the Bible teaches that we are indeed ALL called to share the Gospel, to live for things that matter for eternity, to NOT live for simply the here and now, conformed to this world. That calling doesn’t look the same for everyone, and requires that each person live in step with the Holy Spirit, and seek Jesus and the Kingdom of God, above all else. Some will be led to lay ministry, others to full-time ministry, but all should be led to use their spiritual gifts in some way, regularly to build up the Body of Christ and advance the Kingdom.

      My husband and I have served in ministry, as volunteers our entire adult lives. After a series of events and supernatural experiences, we were compelled into full-time ministry in 2014. We had asked that God show us clearly and specifically that He was asking us to make a huge change in our lives, and He responded back in unmistakable ways. So our experience of serving and ministering includes both a specific “call” as well as a more general call. Along the way in trying to encourage people to serve, we have seen many opt out, leaving ministry to what they see as the “professionals” who are “called.”

      Perhaps the call into full-time ministry ought to be preceded by following the general call into volunteer ministry. I found a couple of really good Biblical teachings regarding qualifications for full-time ministry. Some of the warnings for those who may not be “called” are really more along these lines. I read a comment related to your post by a parent, concerned that her son might be going into ministry without being “called” into ministry. If he has never served before simply out of obedience, or if he is not living in keeping with the Holy Spirit, I might wonder about his desire to go into full-time ministry, but my concern would not be focused on this idea of “call.” We are all called, but we may not all be ready to fully walk out the call. There might be some preparation and experience that needs to come first, and one thing that has often been lacking in ministry is the spiritual maturity required to lead with integrity.

      I would make the argument that the teaching of “calling” has been damaging to believers and has discouraged many from walking in all that God has for them. You address one result in the lack of people willing to forgo a secular career for a ministry one. One purpose of the focus on “calling” within the church may have been to weed out those who aren’t spiritually mature, but perhaps it has had the opposite effect. Because feeling “called” is so subjective, many immature believers have entered the ministry before they were really ready, and many who are ready for full-time ministry are waiting to be called.

      Over the years I have led worship and done a fair amount of teaching/speaking, writing, and leading various ministries. I have had times been momentarily tripped up by someone recounting her own “call” and asking me to confirm mine. Was I supposed to be waiting for God to tell me to teach or to lead or to step out in other ways? I thought I was simply being obedient to Scripture. Every time I have had someone question my “call,” God has confirmed that I am exactly where I am supposed to be and doing what I am supposed to be doing, but He has done so in ways that haven’t looked like a “call” to me–not like some of the other stories that people tell.

      How many believers end up missing out on so many great things God has for those who will truly lay down the things of this world and live for things that will last? Some might do that through a secular job, but some would walk away from a secular job for full-time ministry if there wasn’t so much pressure–from believers–that goes in a different direction.

      We experienced this pressure from Christian friends and family when my husband and I decided to drop everything and shift direction into full-time ministry. We gave up jobs that we loved. We moved from a place where we were known and had a lot of ministry experience. We left a church where we were loved and loved many. I left a career that for some seems prestigious. We left before retirement. All of these things caused other people around us quite a bit of stress. Well-meaning people told us to wait for retirement or to stay in the community where we were known or to save up money or . . . many other things contrary to what we both sensed God telling us to do. There were people close to us who seemed deeply troubled by our willingness to make huge changes in our lives for kingdom purposes.

      I’m pretty certain that these are the pressures that work against believers moving into full-time ministry when that might be exactly what God is calling them to do. They may need to forgo money, retirement funds, security, insurance, vacations, any number of worldly things in order to be exactly where God wants them to be. They may fell like they need to answer to parents, friends, and Christians leaders whom they respect and admire. They may be told that they should wait to be “called” before they go.

      Many times I have heard someone say that if there is anything else that you like to do, you should do that, rather than go into full-time ministry. And the Scripture to support that idea is . . . ? A stronger Biblical position is to seek after God with all of your heart and let God lead you to what He wants you to do–step by step and every day. Be willing to lay aside all worldly and temporary things for the sake of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God–whatever Biblical direction that might take you. It’s the best possible way to live.

      • Chioma on November 22, 2019 at 10:10 pm

        Thank you

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