Sitting on the dock, looking out over the still, dark waters of the lake, I just knew. It wasn't surprising; I'd been toying with the idea for almost a year. But now, after much prayer, and at the end of an especially meaningful retreat, everything was clear. My mind relaxed, the decision made: I was going into ministry.
I can still remember that easy certainty, the calm assurance that this was what I supposed to do. In hindsight, it's a little surprising how quickly I set aside my other plans and launched into ministry preparation. At the time, though, nothing could have been more obvious.
Three years later, everything was different.
It was late, well after midnight, and the church was empty. All the kids had gone home hours ago. But I was still in my office, alone with my questions: Is this really what I'm supposed to be doing with my life? Why is it so hard? Why am I so drained? Am I cut out for this?
At first I was so sure. But now, just a few short years later, that quiet confidence eluded my anxious grasp. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I shouldn't be here. Maybe I was never really called to ministry.
The "Call" to Ministry
I'd been around long enough by then to know that you're not supposed to be a pastor unless you've received "the call," that overwhelming experience of God telling you go enter the ministry: your "burning bush" moment.
I'm sure the experience is a little different for each person, but the general characteristics of the call seem pretty consistent. It is divine, personal, clear, and powerful. The call to ministry is a summons from God himself (Heb. 5:4) that comes to particular individuals (e.g. Jer. 1:5-10) and leads to an overwhelming conviction that this is what you need to do with your life. Indeed, the call to ministry is usually viewed as so strong that it becomes nearly impossible to see yourself doing anything else.
My problem, as I sat in my office that night after youth group, was that I had never experienced this kind of call. Three years before, I'd decided to enter ministry for a variety of reasons, but not because I had some kind of overwhelming mystical experience making it clear that this was God's plan for my life. No bush burned for me.
So now I wondered. Maybe I was never supposed to be a pastor. Maybe I'd jumped the gun. Maybe I wasn't one of the called.
A Different Kind of Calling
Someone else I know had a very different experience. Unlike me, he was never sure that he was cut out for vocational ministry. As a matter of fact, he didn't even want to be a pastor. Quite the opposite. Given a choice he would have preferred to hole up with his books and a few close friends, making eye contact with as few other people as possible. More than anything, he wanted to study philosophy. But he became a pastor anyway.
The turning point for him was his church. He never felt a call to ministry. No bush burned for him either. But he was still convinced that he'd been called into ministry: by the church. It was the church that saw his gifts, recognized his potential, and discerned his vocation. They made it clear that they thought God had created him to be a pastor and that he should respond accordingly. I wouldn't say that they forced him to become a pastor, but it was close.
That is how Augustine of Hippo became a pastor. And he served that church faithfully for over thirty years, becoming one of the most famous pastors in the history of the church.