When I was 19 years old I became a Christian. I left home at 17. After two years on my own, my worldview changed immensely. I was not in college. I was not dependent on my parents. I had to find my own way. I felt free, yet directionless. Why I began to seek God at this time I did not know. But I did. At 19, I surrendered to Jesus. Today I am a 49 and have been a pastor for 16 years. How did I get here? How does someone become a pastor?
God calls whom He will. That is the short answer. There is no ideal pedigree for becoming a pastor. He picks preachers’ kids and pimps. You can be raised in a devout Christian home or, like me, a mostly religion-neutral home. You can be raised by chimps. God chooses whom He will and it is by His own calculations.
What does this mean? First it means, no one is called because he is impressive. It also means, the call to being a shepherd in God’s flock (and specifically a preaching pastor), is not a vocation that is open to anyone who wants it. God must choose.
As a side note, I am certain that many pulpits are filled by men not called to be there. They have followed a vocational path and a desire to do something good for God. But that doesn’t mean they are called.
Well, then, how do you know you are called? On that question, I have bad news and good news. First the bad news: no where in the Bible will you find a static method for discerning who is called to preach and who is not.
The good news, God doesn’t leave us without any help. He gives us two great indicators of the Call. First, He gives examples in His word of how He has called His prophets and apostles. These examples are “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive” but they are still very helpful. The second help God gives us is the qualifications for an elder (which, is a synonym for a pastor, though not all elders “work hard a preaching and teaching”).
The qualifications for an elder imply the call in three strong ways: First, the desire must be there. “If any man desires to be an elder...” Elders must desire to be one. Preaching elders, all the more! One must have a strong desire to declare the greatness of God. A desire to declare is not the same the desire to have the position of the one who declares the greatness of God. One can be attracted to leadership, or administration, or even just a desire to control or to be praised for being in charge. All these might seem to be fulfilled by being the preaching pastor of a church. But none are a call to preach.
The one who desires to declare all he learns about the greatness of God, to the church, to the world, this is necessary for a call. The prophet said he tried to shut it in, “but it was like fire, caught up in my bones.” Everyone called to preach resonates with the prophet’s sentiment. Like Jonah, who didn’t even want to preach to the Assyrians, when he walked their streets, he had to. He was compelled. Those who stand and declare in the face of persecution know this burning. Those who say to churches what needs to be said, even when they themselves fear saying it --they know the burning. They must declare.
When I was first saved, I would go to churches trying to find my way, and when the pulpit was empty before the service, I would stare at it and think, “I want to be there. I want to tell them about God!” The irony screams, of course. What I knew of God would have fit in the character limit of a tweet. But I longed to declare. This longing never left me.
You don’t have to be outgoing to be called to preach. John Piper tells of his great shyness regarding public speaking and what a great obstacle it was. Why did he bother overcoming it? Read his story for yourself and find out, but I would sum it up like this: When the Word of God is a fire shut up in your bones, it must come out.
The second part of the qualification of the elders that helps the preaching elder know he is called is that the elder is to be “able to teach.” All elders should be able to teach. All elders should be able to open their Bibles and instruct the sinner, rebuke the saint, encourage the down-trodden. However, not all the elders need to be the ones who “work hard at preaching and teaching.” Yet, the principle remains: if an elder should be able to teach one-on-one, or in small groups, then the preacher must be able to preach to a large group, or groups of any size.
If there is zero (or very little) ability to hold the attention of a group and deliver the word, then there is no call.
The third part of the qualification for elders that helps the preaching pastor is the general qualification themselves. When I was first saved, evidence of the call was there. I desired to declare to the church all about God. But the qualifications to be a pastor were not there. I needed to deal with “baggage,” like a bad temper. I needed to learn self control. I needed to grow up and learn what it means to be a good man, a good husband, a good father in Jesus. I needed to learn what it means to be committed, to not be quarrelsome. I needed to become “above reproach.” Hear this: the call, then, depends on the local church confirming the call.
The call on a man to preach as a pastor is not one that happens in a vacuum. It must be confirmed by the church of Jesus. In other words, if a man is called to lead as a preaching pastor, honest and faithful Christians will see this and confirm this call.
This leads us back to the “descriptive” calls of scripture. Isaiah was lifted up in a vision before God who said, “Who shall I send?” Isaiah volunteered, as it were. What if someone has that experience today? What if someone says, “I heard a voice from God. I am called to preach.” Many say this. Let’s break this down.
First, in “these last days God speaks to us through His Son.” In other words, one greater than the prophets has come, and we all have access to Him, and the Scriptures of the apostles pass on what He taught them. They have authority. Someone who comes as a “new prophet,” self-declared, has no authority (look at Joseph Smith and Muhammed for the worst case scenarios). All who are called to preach today will come in the name of Jesus and in conformity to His revealed truth.
That said, there is no reason to think that a person might not have a vision from God or hear His voice. The question is, what do we do with such a claim or experience (if we have them).
When someone claims to have heard a verbal or visionary call from God to preach, one of two things is true: either he did or he didn’t. There is no need to dispute the claim as God will do as He will. However, this does not nullify the qualifications for an elder found in the scriptures. If a man claims to have a call, but honest and faithful Christians in the church cannot see him qualified as an elder, than he either is mistaken or it is not time yet.
Most will not get a direct verbal call from God. But all will need to be confirmed by the church.
Consider the calling of the twelve. Jesus picked them by name. Okay, done. If Jesus, standing as a man on earth, with His vocal chords, calls you name, you are called. But after Jesus returned to the right hand of God, the 12 were down to 11. How were they to call the 12th man? In this case, God did not give a verbal call to them or to a man about who was to be the 12th. Instead, Peter and the men set up a logical system to determine who was qualified, and then they made their best choice (it included a coin-toss, by the way --sometimes we really don’t know what to do!).
The Call is subjective but with checks and balances.
One thing I would recommend is the advice previously given by greater preachers than I will ever be. If you can be happy doing something else besides preaching the Word to His church, then you are probably not called. The call starts with God; then God puts it into the heart of His called ones; then God confirms it by His word and the local church.
First, determine that you are called.