Something that is front-of-mind for us at the moment is inviting people to apply for the Ministry Training Scheme (a two-year, church-based apprenticeship as part of a move toward vocational ministry). We’d love to see many more people raised up for full-time gospel ministry!
Coming out of our recent studies in 1 Timothy, a question we might ask is: “How are people identified for ministry?” Of all the people that could go into full-time service, who should go?
One very widely subscribed answer to that question is: “Those who are called.” The answer goes something like this:
- God wants workers for the harvest (missionaries, pastors, etc.).
- He identified those workers by “calling” them. This often but not always involves:
- An inner sense that God is calling me out of my current occupation and into ministry (sometimes an inner voice; more often a restless sense that God is moving me in a new direction)
- Some external signs that seem to validate that inner prompting (comments from others, coincidences, sermons that seem unusually pointed, etc.)
- The called person often resists this call for a while but comes to peace with it and moves toward ministry, either by going to Bible College or into a ministry role.
That process or something similar is very widely understood to be the main way people go into ministry.
What can we say about that? I’ve got three things:
- First, I don’t doubt that God has called some people into ministry in that way. 100%. I’ve met them!
- Second, I don’t think it is the only way, or even the normal way, God raises up people for ministry. I don’t think that’s how the Bible leads us to expect God to work.
- Third, as a strategy for raising people for the ministry, I think it has some inherent flaws, including:
- Subjectivity Can we be sure that was God calling us? Could that inner prompting and/or external sign be open to other explanations?
- A mild misuse of the word “calling” The Bible uses the word calling in one of two ways. It’s used for the prophets and major biblical figures like the apostle Paul. Or, it’s used for the calling of every Christian to follow Jesus (e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:17). It’s never (as far as I know) used to describe the experience of the average person presenting for pastoral ministry.
- Getting things the wrong way around There is a great risk in this system of getting things the wrong way around. If a subjective experience of “calling” is put ahead of the far more important biblical categories of character, competencies for the task, and theological convictions, then we end up with the wrong people in the wrong roles!
When we go to the NT and ask the question: “How were people raised up for ministry?” the answer is both more mundane and more robust. We can see a process of at least four elements.
- Desire. Interestingly, the New Testament seems to go against the idea that a call should be resisted. On the contrary, “he who desires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” (1 Timothy 3:1). Both here and elsewhere, part of a journey toward full-time ministry involves wanting to go into full-time ministry! It’s a noble thing. It’s a good thing. It’s good work. And it’s good to want to do good work. God wants the people who want to do it.
- Competencies. The New Testament also draws attention to key competencies. If we limit ourselves to 1 Timothy, these include abilities such as the ability to “exercise oversight” (1 Tim 3:1) and to “manage your own family” (1 Tim 3:4). This is an ability we might call “leadership”. It’s the ability to stand back and see the whole. The ability, like a shepherd, to look ahead and move people in the right direction. It involves persuasion, good judgment, and analytical skills. It’s a skill that involves getting people to come with you, decision-making, team building and so on. Another core competency is the “ability to teach” (1 Tim 2:3). Central to the task of gospel ministry is teaching the word of God. The Bible is the rod and staff that God gives his shepherds. We move people forward through the word. We need to be able to teach it.
- Conviction. Christian ministry also involves core convictions. It’s not enough to want to do it (1) or to have certain skills of oversight and management (2). We need to be convinced of the truths of the gospel. Timothy’s task is to teach true doctrine and to refute error. Such a person needs to be convinced of the central truths of the faith and to hold onto them with courage and intelligence. A person who has the desire and the skills but not the conviction is actually dangerous! They will lead God’s people to dark places.
- Character. Character is actually the most important aspect of ministry in the NT. Without character, everything else falls apart. If you have skills but not character, you do damage. Knowledge without character is hypocrisy. Desire without character is dangerous. The pastoral epistles such as 1 Timothy have a few things to say about competency, but overwhelmingly, character qualifies someone for leadership in God’s household.
And so, if you’re someone who’s considering gospel ministry, can I encourage you to consider doing MTS with us? On the weekend is the Challenge Conference —a weekend for people considering ministry to consider their options and talk with others who can advise them. Over the next few weeks, we’ll interview men and women from our church to determine whether they should come on board for our training programme. Please pray for them, and if you’re considering it, please do email and let us know!
Love and grace,
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