As a pastor, I, of course, am thrilled when young men tell me with passion in their eyes that they want to pursue full-time pastoral ministry. What pastor wouldn’t appreciate the zeal of a young man who desires to spend his life preaching and teaching? So many times I have had aspiring men tell me with no little bravado that they are called to preach, called to the mission field, or called to some other ministerial call. And each time their call sounds as certain as that of Saul on the Damascus Road (cf. Acts 9:1-19).
But it’s hard not to have a few questions in these circumstances. Some that go through my mind are the following: what does it mean to be called to ministry? What does this call actually look like? How can you tell for certain that you are called? And should we even use that word called?
Suffice it to say, it’s time to think more deeply and precisely (or one could say, more biblically) about what it means and looks like to be called. Here are three encouragements to keep in mind as you discern the call to pastoral ministry.
Be ready to redefine your definition of called.
Most young men, when considering the call to ministry, are likely referring to the internal heart passion that Paul describes in 1 Timothy 3. Paul writes that a man must “aspire” (ὀρέγω) to the office of overseer—and, if he does aspire, it is a fine work he “desires” (ἐπιθυμέω).
Paul’s first requirement for any man considering pastoral ministry is that he has an eager longing and passion for the work. There is a healthy, zealous ambition that should exist in the soul of every man contemplating pastoral ministry. Prospective pastors should want to be pastors. They should be driven. They should be passionate. But this passion and ambition, although real and undeniable, is just the entrance fee, as it were, into the process. It is not to be equated with a bona fide call to ministry.
What I mean is this: while the internal, heart passion referenced in 1 Timothy 3:1 is an essential requirement for ministry, that passion only means something if the other qualifications in vv. 2-7 are increasingly being shaped in your life over time and if a team of qualified elders can affirm your character, doctrine, and giftedness.
Your heart may scream “yes!” to the ministry, but your life, maturity, and doctrine
will likely need years to catch up with this zeal
Most times, the call is less bright lights and tingly feelings than it is years of discipleship, training, and examination by the local church. These years will speak more to your call than a tingly gut feeling.
Confirm your potential calling to ministry by being affectionately attached to a local church.
And by affectionately attached to a local church, I mean membership. Now, does the New Testament actually call believers to be members of the church? No. It says we already are members by virtue of our union with Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). But how that membership expresses itself is through an affectionate attachment to a local body of redeemed souls under the leadership of particular elders (cf. Hebrews 13:17), all the while using our gifts to strengthen that specific local body.
I emphasize the local church so strongly because the undeniable implication of the New Testament is that healthy churches are God’s ordained incubator for raising up pastors. Paul instructed Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these things to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Paul was picturing generational impact. Men get trained for ministry in the local church who then train others, who train others, who train others, until all of God’s elect are reached.
The point is this: seminaries don’t make pastors; local churches make pastors
However, much higher-level theological training and ministry skills will need to be outsourced to seminaries—and healthy churches should be more than pleased to send their men to faithful seminaries. But the foundation of shaping and molding a pastor happens best in the trenches of the local church across years of immersion.
The smartest thing for anyone to do considering seminary is to immerse themselves in the local church. Go to everything the church offers. I mean it—everything. Taste the variety of the church’s delicacies: Sunday mornings, theology classes, elder meetings, worship nights. Find the godliest families in the church—spend time in their homes and watch them do marriage and parenting. Spend time with older saints—ask them to show you, as it were, the battle scars of a lifetime of fighting sin. Have them recount to you the victories of grace that have helped them in the daily struggles of life.
And all the while, place yourself directly under the leadership of the elders. Let them know explicitly that you aspire to the office of overseer. Ask them to train and invest in you and to implement a process that would eventually launch you to seminary and beyond. Be hungry and ambitious, but let them guide the process, even if it is slower and longer than you would like. And depending on your age and maturity, it probably will be. And that is okay. The call to ministry is not the lone voice in your head that says “go”, but the multiplicity of voices in a local church that train you to love and pursue Christ as the treasure of your soul. It takes a church to raise a pastor.
Have the elders confirm your potential calling by long-term training and evaluation of three key areas of your life.
When you ask elders to train and invest in you, these are the areas of your life in which you should seek to be trained and evaluated:
First, your character.
And by character, I mean the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. Like fine wine or masterpieces, these qualifications take time to be developed. Paul warns in 1 Timothy 5:22 to “not lay hands on anyone too hastily.” Let the Word of God carve these qualifications into your life over time through rigorous, personal study of the Scriptures and faithful Word-centered mentoring from godly men. At the end of the day, godly character is the issue upon which your potential “calling” as a pastor stands or falls.
Second, your doctrine.
The elders have the responsibility of equipping you in biblical and theological training. Let them teach you to study the Word of God (cf. Ezra 7:10) and to handle the text with accuracy (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15) and to exhibit the sound doctrine that one day you will stand to teach (cf. Titus 1:9).
Third, your ministry skills and abilities.
If you examine every duty which the New Testament expects pastors to fulfill, the list is indeed enticing, but also daunting. Including preaching (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-2), shepherding (cf. 1 Peter 5:2), teaching (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2), equipping the saints (cf. Ephesians 4:12) and training other men for ministry (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2), the elders will both train you and evaluate your progress in these areas (cf. 1 Timothy 4:15).
The call to pastoral ministry is in some ways earthy and organic—not un-supernatural, but also not bypassing the ordained instrument of the local church. It necessitates an investment not just from the elders, but from the local body as a whole. Learning to lean on the local church in the long process of aspiring to ministry is an honest way to ensure that it is God who is preparing this path, not your own whimsical desires. And giving yourself to the local church should be the thing you are most anxious to do if you are called to the ministry.
For more on how to steward the call to ministry, see Stewardship and the Call to Ministry.
 I.e., an internal passion that strives for a goal, to be stretched to one’s limit as it were
 I.e., an intense longing and desire.