Called to pastor? Put seminary on your to do list. Reason 4: Clarity.
Interpreting God's call shouldn't be such a mystery to us. When Henry Blackaby wrote Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God (Broadman and Holman Books, Nashville, 1990) those years ago, there were several strategic chapters explaining how God speaks. In all of the details of God's voice through history there were a couple of fine points that every one of us called to serve pastoral roles should affirm. No one in Scripture ever questioned who was speaking to them, with the exception of Samuel, a child, and no one had to decipher what God was saying to them. If there was ever a communication problem, it wasn't with God. He speaks clearly and definitively.
That being the case, why did it take me, and many others like me, so many years to answer his call? Well, of course, this is part of the mystery of his calling, the timing of things and his sovereign guidance of all things. There's this listening element, the hearing problem that has characterized the human species since the Garden of Eden. How many times did God talk to Israel, usually through their leaders and prophets, about their stubborn unwillingness to listen to him? Like them, most of us are attuned to our own inner voices and others around us so that we do not clearly hear what he is saying to us. When his program for the created order is completed, we will be compelled to hear what he is saying to his church. Till then, we struggle with having ears to hear!
Today there's the troubling reality that 1,700+ pastors walk away from what they have interpreted as his calling every single month. This reality poses so many dilemmas for a church that is seeking to engage a culture like this one. Does this mean that God didn't really call them, that for some reason he is finished with them, at least in that role, before they have fulfilled what he called to them to be and do, or that the systems we have implemented to prepare people to answer that calling are deficient in some way? Of course, all of them may be true to some extent. But, for me, the seminary experience, which many young pastors and spiritual leaders are by-passing these days , was the moment of clarity, the time of study and preparation that confirmed his calling in my life. It is one of the less obvious reasons I urge those called to serve him to attend seminary or at the least, seek greater educational preparation for the work to which he has called them.
Harriet and I were married in 1973. At the time I was a young banker at the beginning of a career, and she was an administrator in the advertising department of a large electrical provider. Right from the start of our relationship, however, we discussed what I had interpreted as a call to pastoral ministry back in 1969. In 1979, ten years after the time when I had first felt his urging, and six years after our marriage, we decided to respond. So, with Elizabeth (age 4), and Brian (age 2), we sold our house, moved to Wake Forest, and began preparing to serve as a pastor. Several pastors counseled and advised us, the seminary people at the time encouraged us, and our friends and families embraced us and stood with us in making these momentous moves.
The seminary experience, however, was the confirmation of his call. Those hours of study, and our service as a full-time pastor just six months into the process, gave us clarity beyond a shadow of doubt that this was his clear calling for both of us. Yes, there had been a moment of emotional urgency back in 1969, and a renewal of his overwhelming presence as Harriet and I went through the final motions of making that move. But, the clarity of our call wasn't merely a warm fuzzy, an emotional mountaintop or circle of well-wishers, it was a working out of his provision with fear and trembling, more a product of our hours in the dark valley of theological study, long nights, and many questions.
It is this lack of clarity that troubles me so much today. Well, yes, I know there are revealed things and secret things, mysteries that God has chosen not to put into the hands or minds of mere mortals (Deuteronomy 29:29). There also is the call of Abraham, to go to a place he will show us, that many of his called agents have answered in history. Yet, somewhere in our times, especially in a non-hierarchical denomination like Southern Baptists, there seems to be a lacking clarity of his call, an uncertainty about his direction that often leaves young ministers wandering in the wilderness or scrambling to discover the right fit in ministry service. In all of my personal time with struggling pastors there are often elements of this guesswork, the absence of clarity about his placement for kingdom service. In more and more circumstances these outcomes are traced to an urgency for service that by-passes proven, established preparation models and therefore forgoes the gauntlet of clarity.
Two things come to mind here! One is the simple, basic biblical teaching that we are all called. How many times does the Apostle Paul refer to the recipients of his letter as the called of God? Certainly the priesthood of every believer is a central tenet of evangelical faith and kingdom service. But, there is a strong Scriptural basis for hearing and knowing his particular call to another level of service. This particular call requires greater certainty, preparation, commitment, and perhaps sacrifice. There must be strong biblical mandates to confirm this level of calling. For me, it was in the crucible of seminary study, learning the Bible and history of his people, exposure to men of faith who taught and trained us, the band of brothers who shared the journey, and the people of history who were the objects of our study.
Peter wrote, "Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall" (2 Peter 1:10). Yes, of course, I know this is applicable to the call every Christian receives. But, how much more so to those who are called to pastoral and kingdom service?
As the old pastor told me thirty-five years ago, "If you can do anything else with your life, do it. For if God didn't call you, you'll be miserable."
Confirmation time for me was in seminary. Put it on your to do list.