Am I Called?

“I think God is calling me to ministry”

I love hearing these words from guys & girls I’ve had the joy of influencing. One of my great passions is to raise up leaders for the Kingdom through the local church. It’s an exciting time for them, their parents, and for their church. A church should be seeking out those God is calling to equip them to be sent out. Let’s be clear first, God calls all of us to faithful service. But God calls out some for specific spiritual leadership within the church, which some would call “vocational ministry.”

Southern Seminary (my 2x alma mater & Carrie’s) has this helpful site as well to consider.

But how can you know that God is calling you to ministry? I want to walk through the steps I use with prospective ministry leaders. I believe all four of these are essential, and if one of these is not currently present I encourage that person to step back and assess their calling, or to explore the possibility that God desires them to faithful service in the church but not as a vocational ministry leader. A helpful passage for this is 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

  • The inward (personal) call – This is the beginning point, where God’s Spirit leads an individual to understand that s/he has been given a unique, personal calling towards ministry. It’s also the hardest to dispute, which is why it shouldn’t be the only step in discerning a call. When people have shared they sense this part, I normally ask them these kinds of questions to help them make sense of what God may be saying to them:
  1. Can you share your testimony of conversion, and is it a credible one of saving faith & repentance?
  2. Do you have a deep love for Jesus, the Bible, prayer, the Church, and God’s people?
  3. Do you find an unspeakable joy in the things of God?
  4. What do you believe about the “big deal” stuff? Theology & Doctrine matter
  5. Are you someone who has a high level of character & personal purity?
  6. What are your spiritual gifts? Do you have the gifts that translate well to ministry leadership?
  7. Do you like to serve, get your hands dirty, and work hard?
  8. Do you find yourself repenting more of your sin and working to kill it in your life?
  9. Do you like to read? Leaders are readers
  10. Are you willing to be held to a higher standard than others?
  • The pastoral call – Go to a person who is in spiritual authority over you. Ideally in your church there are a number of people who you can seek wisdom from. Share with them your inward call, and ask that person if they believe you could be in ministry. It could be your pastor, youth pastor, or another elder or minister in your church. Whoever it is, it needs to be someone who has had an impact in your life and who knows you really well. I firmly believe this is the crucial step, because if someone in ministry can speak well of your character and abilities, then you might have something worth pursuing. If this person can confirm that you may be called to ministry, then you’re ready for this to become an issue for the church.
  • The external (public) call – If you sense you are called to ministry, this is something that has to be validated, confirmed, and accounted for by a local church. It needs to be the church that you are attending/serving in. Do they believe you to be a person of Christian faith, of strong character, who is found faithful in the areas of service you are in? If you are not faithful to serve, work, and lead as a layperson, you will fail as a ministry leader. Seminaries and Bible colleges are great, and they are necessary to prepare and teach ministry leaders. But they don’t make a pastor, the local church does. Only the church has the authority to ordain and set apart men for pastoral leadership, and men & women for ministry leadership. So it is a huge deal for a local church to confirm a person’s call. I remember well the night my home church voted to license me to ministry. It was humbling to hear testimonies from men & women I had served with and gotten to know, and their endorsement still hangs on my wall and still humbles me.
  • The sustaining call – Eventually, the joy and elation of being called to ministry will disappear, and will be replace with the difficulty of carrying so many spiritual, emotional, and physical burdens for people. You’ll watch families fall apart, you’ll bury babies, you’ll listen to people pour out their sin struggles, you’ll write depositions for court, and you’ll deal with church critics who want you to fit the mold of their favorite TV preacher or the guy/girl who was there before you. I remember the first person’s face who wanted me to help them discern their ministry call when I told them “I’m going to do everything I can to talk you out of this. If that doesn’t work, I’ll do everything I can to set you up well.” The sustaining call is the one that flows primarily from your walk with Jesus, your relationship with your spouse, and your contentment to obey when Jesus says “Follow Me.” It will force you to ask what your satisfaction is: Jesus or _____? But God is faithful to carry His servants through to the end, and His grace is sufficient no matter what circumstances are around you. God will vindicate His own people. But you might still get fired.

HT: Dan Dumas and SBTS for this video

For more, check out this book: Are You Called?

Why I changed my mind on tithing

I changed my mind yesterday about something, something I had long held to, taught, and encouraged others in. Fear not, I’m not jumping off the wagon on a lot of things. There are some things I’m firmly entrenched in that you’d be hard pressed to change me on: the exclusivity of Christ, marriage permanence, complementarian gender roles, loyalty to my wife and son, my allegiance to the University of Louisville, Baptist convictions, and my disdain for sour cream, ranch dressing, and tomatoes. Beyond that, I can be fairly flexible, and have changed my mind on a number of things! Here’s a little context:

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When I first became a Christian I noticed that the offering plate would pass by and people would, or in many cases would not, put money in. I asked my friend who’d led me to Christ what all that meant, and he explained that the offering was how the church stayed functional, how we supported missionaries, and provided for many ministries within the church and community. Sounds good, how much does it cost? He explained the Bible talking about a tithe, or the need to give to God 10% of your income. So I began the process of regularly (though not every time, I was good at justifying disobedience still!) giving from my slightly-above-minimum-wage jobs.

Later on, as I became more a committed student of the Word, I noticed something missing from the Pauline letters to the new churches: any teaching on a tithe. I had read and heard that because of this, the logic followed that the New Testament church is no longer under the binding of the tithe, but under a new ethic of giving. A professor I had described it as “cheerful, sacrificial, and regular giving.” Paul even seemed to encourage this in 2 Corinthians 9:7 where he says “each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  Not that grace was to become license for a Scrooge mindset, but that grace should free the Christian to joyful giving that was both generous and free. 

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So that became what I taught others, but I still used the idea of the tithe as a helpful barometer for giving for a couple reasons. 1) It’s easy math (just shave the last figure), 2) It is a biblical principle, 3) The New Testament ethic of giving ought to be at least as generous as the Old Testament, 4) Christians should be marked by their generous and sacrificial giving. Ultimately, the amount given was between the believer’s conscience and the Holy Spirit, but that God was satisfied with the Christian as long as they were following the ethic of cheerful, sacrificial, and regular giving. 

Fast forward to this past weekend. Our pastor preached on tithing, looking at Malachi 3 as the basis for his sermon. He even specifically mentioned those who would hold to a view that the New Testament precludes tithing for the Church. I must admit, I clenched up ready to come up with some points to make to push back. He and I have the kind of relationship where we’re free to disagree with one another, and have good conversations about those kinds of things. I love it. I miss sometimes the give-and-take that comes from those kinds of discussions.

Particularly to answer the objection, Matt pointed out two examples from the Old Testament that predate the Law. One of the central points to my objection to the tithe had been that it was a standard of the Law (cf. Lev 27:30, Num 18:26, Deut 14:22, etc.), and that because Christians were free from the binding of the Law to a new law, the law of conscience & grace, the cultic prescriptions for the tithe (among other things, like atonement sacrifices and other thing), were no longer necessary. He pointed out Genesis 14 where Abram gives Melchizedek a tithe of his wealth as a free offering out of gratitude for the work of God, and Genesis 28 where Jacob gives a tenth to the Lord because of God’s work in his life. Both of these instances predate the giving of the Law and describe the practice of tithing as an act of worship for believers.

Also, Jesus’ teaching on money never contradicted the tithe, but instead the attitude behind it. He chastised the Pharisees for tithing their spices but neglecting the central issues of grace, faith, and compassion (cf. Matt 23:23 & Luke 11:42). The issue for Jesus was not in the careful keeping of the accounting, but the arrogance involved in the giving. For Jesus, the practice of tithing was expected, and He was faithful to bring to the Temple what was necessary (Gal 4:4) as prescribed by the Law. If it was something He sought to undo, we should expect something in the canon about that. Instead, we see Jesus’ ethic of giving still reflecting the tithe, but looking also to the heart of the giver. 

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To be honest, in the pew it caused quite a bit of dissonance. I’m not one to be easily swayed, but in that moment I recognized one of my pillars coming down in a crash of inconsistency. I have long held that church leaders (pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, etc.) should be expected to be regular givers, and if not they ought to be disqualified from leadership because of their faithlessness to God’s leadership. I had used the tithe as a benchmark for that. I had taught it as a “sound principle” but I was unwilling to be completely consistent and say that tithing was normative for all Christians. And it was at that moment I realized I was going to have to undergo a paradigm shift.

This morning, here is a quick run-down of my new thoughts on the issue of tithing as it applies to New Testament Christians:

  1. Tithing is the beginning point for Christians to give towards ministry. This is not a “good enough” position, instead it ought to become the priority for Christians to increase their giving as God provides and molds the heart to greater Christlikeness.
  2. A Christian’s giving reflects their priorities in life. One who seeks to be faithful to be generous towards ministry re-aligns their budget in order to free up money to be given.
  3. As God leads, Christians should seek ways to be more generous with their money beyond their regular giving. These avenues for giving should be trustworthy groups who have a track record of responsible stewardship, and are actively committed to the Gospel.
  4. Tithing is a regular spiritual discipline, not something to be done when you reach a career or other benchmark. Teaching teenagers to tithe off their babysitting or burger-flipping money now leads to adults who are faithful to give.
  5. The condition of the heart is just as important as the amount, giving provides a regular check-up for the Christian to diagnose their heart. When the plate is passed, it provides an opportunity to discern where the heart is: focused on God or focused on the check.
  6. Cheerful giving is not an excuse to be cheap. If anything, Christians should have more of a desire to give their money away because the missions/ministries they support are seeking to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:20, Psalm 67)

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HT: Matt Ellis

Student Ministers & Ministry Relationships

A few months ago during a staff meeting our pastor remarked that “primarily, ministry is about people, about relationships, and about making connection with them.” Those words stuck because the last 5 years of my journey have only reinforced that. As student ministers we can often get lost in one of three worlds: Program World, Student World, or Cubicle World. Program world is the plug-and-go world, where everything is built around a program and that becomes the measure of ministry effectiveness. Student world is where your only interactions are with students and you in essence try to build yourself as a peer. Cubicle world is where you have no significant relationships, you do everything by yourself, and you end up operating totally independent of your overall church vision.

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Cubicle world is dangerous because it removes the value of team-based ministry and instead shifts it to independent-agent ministry. All too often this is where churches are, where the various ministries of the church work in conflict, no concert, with one another, whether it’s for resources, space, priority, volunteers, face time, or recognition. It may not be overt, but think about your church architecture: does your architecture foster or hinder groups interacting? Have you built a separate youth or children’s wing/building that keeps them from adults? Have you developed separate offices so that your staff can spend all day without seeing one another? Cubicles do that. Cubicles restrict collaboration, communication, and instead see the emphasis on the independent agent. It is up to that individual to get work done, rather than a team. It becomes Allen Iverson shooting the ball 30 times a game rather than getting his teammates involved. And sadly, this is where many student ministers find themselves: isolated, without significant relationships professionally, and often working in conflict (not war, big difference) with the other ministries of the church.

There are three key relationships every student minister should seek to build, cultivate, and cherish. They are: Pastor, Children’s Minister, and Secretary.

Pastor – Your lead pastor should fit three roles for your life: Mentor, Friend, and Boss. As mentor, you should seek out his wisdom, guidance, and experience. Many student ministers eventually want to be senior pastors, so take every opportunity to learn what it means to be a pastor. Go on hospital visits, ask him questions, probe his ministry experiences. Ask him to mentor you, to guide you. Be honest about your long-term intentions; if you’re not a lifer for student ministry, then ask him to help shape you into being a pastor. As friend, he provides you with the outlet for sharing ministry difficulties, personal accountability, and investment. And you should seek to do the same for him. Be his friend when critics come, defend him privately & publicly. And as boss, he commands your respect, loyalty, and following. Sometimes student ministers, we need to shut up and do what we’re told. Get on board with his vision for the church, follow his leadership, and work Colossians 3 style as hard as you can under his supervision.

Children’s Minister – I have always made it a point to develop a close professional relationship with whoever our children’s minister is. Within boundaries (because all three have been women), they have often been my best friends on church staffs. Champion their work, be willing to serve however/whenever for VBS, spend your morning stuffing Easter eggs for the big egg hunt outreach, and recruit for them (I push students to nursery/AWANA as much as possible). Most importantly, get on the same page. Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6 call for parents to be the primary disciplers of their children, with the church coming in as partner and equipper. Get on the same page with each other, build a continuous ministry. Use the same curriculum, develop a common set of core values for your ministries, and be each other’s safeguard. We are working through some big changes in our children’s and student ministries, and both of us are quick to always use “we” when talking about things. Same page.

Secretary – My dissertation supervisor has served as a pastor for decades. He asked me who the most important person in the church office was, and when I joked that our secretary is who keeps the universe in rotation he smiled and said “Bingo, that’s it. She’s the most valuable person in the office. She’s not the pastor and not the music leader, but she keeps things together, and she knows more about the church and how things operate than you or the pastor do.” Develop a good working relationship with your church secretary, it will go a l-o-n-g way! The secretary is the glue for the church office, but unfortunately glue means that she gets the junk too. Take opportunity to serve, offer to make the office supply run, find out what kind of coffee they like, run your own copies once in a while, and make yourself available to do the menial things that have to be done (stuffing bulletins, stamping mailouts). Take time to invest in your church’s secretary as a ministry partner.

 There are many more professional relationships in ministry, but these three serve as catalysts for the others. Take the time to work on these and develop a true team, flee from the lie of independent agents or competition on the church staff. You’re in the fight together, developing a true sense of fellowship will enable the task to be finished!