The question is often asked, “Am I called to vocational ministry?”
The Bible’s teaching about “calling” is primarily about God’s calling people to salvation and to walk in holiness. Romans 8:30 says, “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified.” So there’s the calling to salvation. And then Ephesians 2:10 says, “We were created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Compare that with 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “This is the will of God, even your sanctification.” Those two verses give us the call to good works. So when we talk about being “called,” we have to base our understanding of that term not in contemporary usage, but in Biblical usage. And the Bible fundamentally teaches that our calling is unto salvation and holiness.
It may be worth noting as well that the calling is rooted in God’s will. He predestined those he called. And he prepared the good works for them to walk in. His calling is rooted in his purpose. But that will or purpose is going to play out in some specific arena of life. Every Christian has been called to salvation and holiness. But that holiness is going to be lived in some specific context, a mechanic’s garage or an office desk, with three messy kids or lines of upset customers. And so we must further think about God’s specific calling for each individual. The question we all have in mind is, “What am I called to?” And that question is synonymous with the question, “What is God’s will for my life?”
When I was in college I asked a professor those questions, “Am I called to ministry and how do I know God’s will for my life?” And he gave me three points to consider—three ingredients that when mixed together then comprise a fair assessment of God’s will and calling. Here are those three points with some Scripture and comment on each.
First, consider what desires God has put in your heart. We often shy away from evaluating our own desires as if there is something inherently ungodly about considering what we want. But scripture doesn’t have that same hesitancy. Rather, scripture tells us, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). This led Augustine to say, “Love God and do as you please.” In other words, if our delight is rooted in God, then the desires of our heart will generally be a good launching point from which to begin considering where God may be calling or leading us. The New Testament also confirms this when giving instruction for how to determine pastors-elders in the church, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). Now of course that statement speaks to the dignity and legitimacy of the office of elder. But it also speaks to the legitimacy of a person desiring a certain role and aspiring towards that desire.
So zoom out on this principle and let’s apply it more broadly than just the role of elder. When you’re considering where God may be leading you, what he might be calling you to, what his will for your life is—a good question to start with (after confirming you’re saved and walking in obedience—the fundamental callings) would be this question, “What has God given me a desire to do?” (Note: there are varying levels of desire, but is there something that rises to the surface in your desires, perhaps as the strongest desire you have? Pray that God would give you desires in a specific direction that you might know them and seek to follow the desires he gives). But desires alone don’t determine calling.
Second, consider what gifts God has placed in your hands. God has given gifts to every member of the church in order for each of the members to contribute according to the type of grace they have received so that as every member works together contributing their unique input, the whole body may be built up in love. Does that sound familiar? It’s not my idea; it’s straight from Ephesians 2:7-15. And the point is that members should serve according to their individual gifts with a view towards the benefit of others and the unity of the body (i.e. people aren’t trying to insert themselves in roles that they are not gifted to serve in).
Another text that provides sure-footing for us on this point is 1 Peter 4:10, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” In other words, God’s “grace-gifts” come in various shapes and sizes. Some are wired for public leadership and speaking. Some feel more at home with hospitality. Still others would rather be working and serving behind the scenes. There is a role for each. And the whole body is happiest when gifted people are serving in roles according to their gifts. This process comes by the grace of God, “in order that in everything, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11).
Some practical advice on this point: don’t decide for yourself what your gifts are. We are prone to misperceive our strengths and weaknesses. Second point of practical advice: don’t rely on a spiritual gifts inventory assessment. Again, we are prone to misperceive ourselves, and most of these tests are just a matter of you answering questions in order to tell yourself what you’re good at. They are a guided self-assessment. Nothing more. And while self-assessment is good (it would be related to assessing your desires), it is also important to draw out and listen to the assessment of others, so that by their input you might more accurately perceive yourself. Ask your pastors and spiritual mentors what they see you doing well at. Ask them where you appear weak. Consider this also: what do people most regularly thank you for and tell you they’ve appreciated about you? The answer to that question will likely be a pointer to your gifting.
Don’t be satisfied with your own opinion on this. If your gifts are intended not primarily for your own fulfillment, but for the edification of the body, which is what Ephesians and Peter point to, then it is the body’s assessment of your gifts that is actually more important than your own assessment of your gifts.
Once you have determined your gifting, then you are in a better position to survey the possibility of God’s calling on your life. Especially if the desires of your heart and the gifting of your hands are strongly related to each other. But there is at least one other important consideration.
Third, consider what opportunities God has laid before you. Let’s say a guy wants to be a preacher, and he thinks he has the gift of preaching, but no churches are willing to offer him that role. Is he called? Well most people would say yes. In our evangelical culture, we regularly hear people talk about how they were “called to preach” at a certain age, like thirteen or even nine. However, it may be more appropriate to say that is when he first sensed the desire to preach, not the call to preach. Then maybe some time later he realized he had the gift of teaching—which would definitely indicate that he is moving in the right direction. But I would say that even then he is still not called—because God’s calling is always set in the context of serving the body.
Consider this example. Paul wrote Titus a brief letter about how to lead the church in Crete, and gave this direction, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained in order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” Now the men Titus appointed, they were called. This is clear because in addition to having the desire of 1 Timothy 3:1 (to be overseers), and the gifting necessary for the role (“able to give instruction in sound doctrine,” Titus 1:9), they also now had a specific context to exercise the desire and gift, that is, the church in Crete. They weren’t “called” until Titus “appointed” them for a specific role.
Again notice how the body functions in regards to opportunities. The individuals weren’t determining their roles and gifting alone, and then forcing themselves into certain realms of service. They were being appointed by the body. Consider how this pattern shows up in Acts 13 as well:
“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the Tetrarch, and Saul. While they [the church] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
Do you see how men who were recognized as gifted, were then called to specific opportunity by the body? This is a good principle for us to pursue when trying to evaluate calling, whether to gospel ministry in the church or not. In other words, there is a sense in which this divine wisdom is proverbial and thus applicable to consideration of any role or job. In America, we have great freedom to pursue jobs and careers (specific opportunities) that match our desires and giftedness (remember, this is a historical anomaly). But we would be wise to always seek input from the body in making these decisions.
Finally, it’s important to realize that each of these three considerations are essential to determining a calling. I can’t base my determination of God’s will on any one of these things. Desire alone doesn’t mean I should move in that direction. Giftedness doesn’t mean the timing is right. An available opportunity doesn’t mean you have the skill-set to meet the need. All three must be present, and you would be wise ask for the honest, candid feedback of others to determine if you are perceiving your desires and gifts accurately.