Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Reflecting on the basis of a call to ministry (or a lack thereof)

Mike Milton, who until recently was the Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), regularly writes very personal letters to the students of RTS; in June, he wrote this letter to pastoral students on the ground and basis of their calling and ministry.

Dr. Milton writes:

[Martin] Bucer teaches us that the warrant, the calling and the work of the pastor, must be grounded in the Word of God and in the theological commitments of the Reformation and must be embraced personally by the pastor. In other words, the pastoral ministry is not just a Biblical idea, though it must be that, it is also a Spirit-shaped reality in the soul of the one called to be a pastor.

He also recounts a conversation before his own seminary training, in which a seasoned minister challenged him:

You only have your call from God! When they give you a Christmas raise and then run you out on a rumor, when the devil stirs up opposition against you for the sake of Jesus, and when you are hurt like our Lord was hurt, you will only have one thing to help you pick up your things and move on to the next field of service. Do you know what that is?” I decided not to answer. “You know what it is? It is your calling from God.” We both stood there looking at each other without talking. This eternity lasted for about a minute. Then he laid down the hammer for the final time. “Son, are you called by God to be a pastor according to the Word of God?” I whispered that I thought I should go home and pray about that. Brothers, that is just what I did.

(Read Dr. Milton's whole letter here.)

Dr. Milton's words, quoted above and in the rest of his letter, are both profound and wise. When someone is called to the ministry, it is not on the basis of the approval of their congregation, the outward affirmation that they receive (or that they don't receive), or any other external measure that should be what "keeps them going" so to speak. It should be their unequivocal sense that shepherding the flock of God in his church is all that they can do—the only thing that they can do.

This is why Charles Spurgeon frequently admonished his students that, if there was any other profession in which they felt they could be satisfied and content, they should run as fast as they could from pastoral ministry and do that! (See Spurgeon's Lectures To My Students.) It wasn't that Spurgeon didn't want more pastors coming into the church, but that he recognized that (in his day) the ministry was seen as a cushy and undemanding job, and maybe one in which someone who didn't want to work all that hard might find their ease.

Still today, pastoral ministry is a job where a lazy man can find a decent paycheck without too much work. Now, let me be clear: it is not that it should be this way, but for some it is. I've known lazy pastors, who present a façade of busyness and activity while hiding in their studies or wandering around, whereabouts unknown. Their sermons were ill-prepared and poorly presented, their visitation (what little of it existed) was infrequent and filled with empty clichés, and they didn't know their sheep from the wolves among them. These men were more susceptible than most to failed marriages and to the temptations of pornography, plagiarism, and other scandals that eventually wreaked havoc in their congregations; while they usually didn't stay more than a year or two in any one congregation, they did great damage during their brief visit. Thankfully, most of the men I'm thinking of are no longer in the ministry.

I think Dr. Milton's admonitions are invaluable today. I believe our day is more like Spurgeon's, in terms of many men attending seminary and dabbling at the possibility of a career in ministry, than most of us would like to admit.

As I commented on in my recent post reflecting on the decrease in placement, I believe we can see the fruit of the problem I've listed above (among other problems) in how many qualified candidates there are who are called as Dr. Milton described, yet who have not found placement into a ministry position. I don't think we can chalk that up entirely to the decline of the church, but also to the fact that, for years, there was a shortage (or an apparent one, at any rate) of called, qualified pastors and pastoral candidates, and therefore we threw open the doors of our seminaries and our presbyteries and welcomed in all who would come. Now we are seeing one of the consequences.

I think a second factor that has led to this (and to the decrease in placement issue as well) is that some—perhaps many—of those entering seminary do so because it was either implied to them or outright said that, if they were really serious about maturity in their Christian faith, they would go to seminary and pursue a career in vocational ministry. This is dead wrong! Not least because, as Dr. Milton reflects, this is no basis for a true, biblical ministry of the Word. There are many professions (most of them by far, in fact) in which a godly young man or woman can serve God faithfully.

If you are a seminary student—or if you are a seminary graduate who is pursuing a call to be a pastor—I would urge you to read Dr. Milton's words and take them to heart. There is no shame in determining that you are not, in fact, called to be a pastor! But if you are so called, be encouraged, as Dr. Milton (and I) long for you to be, by the true and biblical basis of your call to ministry.

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