In March 2008, I will be celebrating my forty-fifth year in the ministry. These forty-five years of service to God have been a journey through good times and difficult times. During this long journey, I have experienced times of joy and happiness and times of trials and testing. However, if I had to begin again, if I had to do it all over again, I would do it without one moment of hesitation.
The celebration of this important time in my life and in my ministry has led me to reflect on the life of ministry. It is only when one looks back at the highs and lows of a minister’s life that one begins to realize some important aspects of the ministry that, at least to me, are essential to who one is and to what one does. In this post, I want to list the most essential aspect of the ministry, that to me is non-negotiable, and that is the call to the ministry.
I believe the life of ministry is based on a divine call. The ministry is not a profession, a job like any other ordinary job. The ministry requires a call from God because the minister will be involved in doing the work of God. A successful minister will be conscious of the divine call and will delight and love being in the service of God.
Today, there are some people who are in the ministry for the wrong reasons. Some people believe that the ministry is a profession, a way of earning a living. I remember reading once about a famous minister who said about his ministry: “I tried to be a lawyer but I failed. I tried to be a teacher but I failed. I tried to be a tailor and I failed, so, there was nothing left for me to do except the ministry.” This is the wrong reason to be in the ministry.
Others enter the ministry because they see the ministry as an easy life. This is what a young man told me during an interview here at the seminary. I asked him: “Why do you want to come to seminary?” His answer was indicative of what many people think about the ministry. He said: “I want to become a pastor because pastors only work one day a week.” That young man wanted to become a minister as a result of a wrong perception about what ministers do. Here was an individual who had decided to enter the ministry but God was not the primary motive behind his decision.
I believe that whenever anyone chooses to enter the ministry as a vocation, that person must be sure that the decision has been motivated by a divine call, a call from God. As Paul wrote: “Yet preaching the Good News is not something I can boast about. I am compelled by God to do it” (1 Corinthians 9:16 NLT). One is compelled by God to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. Preaching the gospel comes because the divine summons reverberates deeply through the innermost being of person, summoning that person to work for God.
To many people in the twenty-first century, the call of God is hard to understand. No one can explain to another person the full aspect of the divine call; each call is distinctive and original. We see this throughout the Bible. Amos was a shepherd taking care of his flock. Amos wrote that one day the Lord called him away from his flock and told him: “Go and prophesy to my people in Israel” (Amos 7:15). So, Amos became a prophet. What else could Amos do: “The lion has roared– so who isn’t frightened? The Lord has spoken– so who can refuse to proclaim his message?” (Amos 3:8).
The call of Isaiah was different. One day when Isaiah was worshiping in the temple he had a vision of God sitting on his throne. That experience of the holy brought him into the very presence of God and he heard a call to service: “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?” And Isaiah said: “Here I am. Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). The summons of God spoke to the heart and conscience of Isaiah and at that moment Isaiah discovered his vocation and destiny.
Two different people, two different calls. One was summoned and the other volunteered but both were sent by God with a mission and a message. The same could be said of the calls of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and all other prophets in the Old Testament. Each call is original and each call comes through individuals in unique circumstances but to one and all, the call of God comes as a divine constraint. Each situation may be different and each call may be unique, but in the end the call is one and the same: it is a call to preach the word of God.
This is another characteristic to the ministry that sets it apart from other vocations. In Romans 10: 15 Paul said: “And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” The call to the ministry includes a mysterious sense of commission, that is, that one is being sent by the eternal God with a mission and a message. The assurance that one is sent must be an essential aspect of the ministry.
In the Old Testament there were many people who went without being sent. These people are called “false prophets.” And these people were rebuked by God because they did not speak on behalf of God.
The Lord said about those people who went without being sent: “I have not sent these prophets, yet they run around claiming to speak for me. I have given them no message, yet they go on prophesying” (Jeremiah 23:21). Christian ministry is based on the conviction that one is sent by Christ: “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you” (John 20:21). Jesus told his disciples: “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10:16).
Those who are called to the ministry labor under a sacred trust imposed upon them. Those who are sent by God are sent to lead men and women, young and old, to the ways of Christ. Ministers are called by God to a transformative ministry, the kind of ministry that will challenge men and women to accept things that really matter and to abandon those things that hold them captive. The gospel of Jesus Christ transforms the life of people. It brings them from night to day, from darkness to light, from death to life.
Such is the life of ministry; it is a sacred and glorious calling that one receives from a holy God. It is a calling that brings an awesome responsibility. So, today I pause and think about that day, forty-five years ago, when I began the journey of the ministry. Was it worth it? In answer to this question I think about the people who came to faith in Christ through my ministry, I think about the lives that were changed, the marriages that were restored, I think about those who abandoned lives of crime, drugs, alcohol, and many other vices to follow Jesus. Yes, I have to say that it was worth traveling this road, the road of the ministry. I have to say with a loud voice that it has been a glorious journey, a blessed forty-five years.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary