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If you can do anything other than pastor, should you?

By Mike Ross

Rev. Mike Ross is Senior Minister at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS

"Sacred Plows and Sacred Foods"

Basically, I agree with this perspective: "If you can do anything other than pastor, do it." But the advice rings hollow if the man considering a call to the ministry has never tried anything else! I am a firm believer that a man should not begin seminary until three things have transpired:

1. He has seasoned enough in both years of life and experience (a combination of both) so that he meets the requirements of First Timothy 3: "not a new convert . . . let these also first be tested . . ." (3:6,10). How can a man "have a good reputation with those outside the church" (3:7) if he has never worked "outside the church"? Work experience and growth in grace, coupled with common-sense experience prepare a man for ministry. But they also let him try other careers and thus enable him to make an informed decision about his calling.

2. He has tested his gifts sufficiently enough that others in his church can affirm his calling to ministry. Too many young men show up to the first day of seminary classes "called to the ministry" without pastoral counsel, elder approval, ministry experience or testing by fire. Our seminaries are full of uncalled, ungifted men. Vocations must be examined by others over time. Paul warns against this mistake of "quick calls": "Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thus share the sins of others . . ." (1 Tim. 5:22).

3. He has learned what the person in the pew encounters day in and day out and has gained a sympathy for those whose walk in Christ is much more openly assaulted daily by the world than that of a pastor.

I find it convincingly apparent that Jesus Christ worked in a trade for years and did not enter the ministry until He was "about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23). Perhaps there is something to the Old Testament requirement that a Levite be thirty years old before He began priestly service (Numbers 4). It is difficult for a man to truly know if he could do anything other than the pastorate if he has never had opportunity to do so!

I believe that maturity, experience and testing of character and gifts are important in ministry for three reasons. First of all, the ministry at present is riddled with a professionalization brought about by the church-growth, management approach to ministry. The Doctor of Ministry degree (the ecclesiastical MBA), the CEO "job descriptions" of senior pastors and the way men "manage" the ministry point to a weakness in our theology of vocation. Men seeking a "profession" should go into medicine, law or theology - the only three pure and true "professions." The pastorate is not a profession for professionals with careers, but rather a calling of servants with ministries. If a man needs to be a "professional" he needs to be in some calling other than the pastoral ministry. (Read: "The D-Min-ization of the Ministry" in Os Guinness' book No God But God, Moody Press, 1992)

Secondly, the ministry is hard work. It cannot be approached in a clinical manner: seeing "clients" during convenient business hours. Ministry is a life. It is life-consuming and life-shaping. Men called to the ministry are called to be prophets who speak unpopular words to a godless culture, priests who dirty themselves with the spiritually unclean, elders whose tedious task involves relentless teaching and ruling by means of God's Word. A man needs to be prepared to enter into a calling that Paul describes as "being fools for Christ" (1 Cor. 4:10). David Wells calls the ministry "A New Order of Sacred Fools":

The sort of fool I have in mind here is not the fool of modern parlance, the sort of fool one does not suffer gladly, but rather an archetypal character from the Middle Ages. Medieval society had a pyramidal class structure, with layer upon layer from the base to the apex. It was important for people to know exactly where they were situated in the hierarchy, whom they took orders from and whom they gave orders to, for violations of the etiquette could have serious consequences. The higher one was in the system, the more rarefied and parochial was the air that one breathed, for one received advice and reproof only from those of similar or superior standing. There was one exception to the constraints of this system, however: the jester was emancipated from its bonds and granted immunity from punishment for violating its strictures. Viewed as belonging to no class, jesters in effect stood on a par with everyone. So long as they cloaked their advice in humor, jesters were able to say things to kings and princes that might have been fatal for anyone else to say. Happy was the king who had a good fool. And happy are those churches whose ministers are likewise emancipated from the bonds of class interest and social expectation, freed to expose the follies of modernity in the light of God's truth. The source of this freedom for today's ministers is located at the very heart of their vocation. The source lies not in their professional status or their current location along the trajectory of a career. It lies in the fact that they serve the living God, who is no respecter of persons, in the fact that they are the servants of his Word and Son, before whom all will be judged. It is this understanding that gives ministers the freedom to remain in one location however long it takes to make theological truth a central and effective part of their ministry, regardless of whether their careers pass them by in the meantime. But, assuming that our ministers do allow themselves to stay in one place long enough, how successful will they be in refocusing their ministries on theological truth? (No Place for Truth, Eerdmans, 1993, pp. 249-250)

Unless a man is willing to do God's dirty work, for lower pay and for less esteem than other "professions," he should not enter the ministry.

Thirdly, the dropout rate in the ministry indicates that many men have not truly considered the calling or weighed the costs. If James Dobson is correct that 60% of all men in ministry today will not retire from the ministry due to falling into sin, physical and mental breakdown, being fired by a congregation, or seeking other employment out of discouragement, then we need to face this fact - the vast majority of these dropouts were never called to ministry!

If the "gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Ro. 11:29), then the man feeling called to minister ought to be very sure of that calling before he heads off to seminary. The ministry is a lazy man's dream, an ambitious man's nightmare, and a godly man's vision. It's often hard at first to tell the difference between the three. A man ought to listen to Jesus Christ the Caller in this sacred calling: "No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). Nor is he fit for the ministry of that kingdom. So "if you can do anything other than pastor," I suggest you try it. In fact, even if you can't do anything but pastor, try something else for a season. For once you grab hold of the sacred plow, there can be no looking back.

Recommended Reading:

1. No Place for Truth: or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? David F. Wells (Eerdmans, 1993)

2. God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. David F. Wells (Eerdmans, 1994)

3. No God but God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age. Edited by Os Guinness and John Seel (Moody Press, 1992)

4. Primitive Piety Revived. H. C. Fish (Gano Books; 1855, 1987)

5. The Christian Ministry. Charles Bridges (Banner of Truth Trust; 1830, 1991)

6. Effective Pastors for a New Century. James E. Means (Baker, 1993)