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The phone rang at 3:00 a.m. one Saturday morning. "Pauline is dying," her niece said. "Can you come?" I dressed quickly, told my wife I didn't know when I would return, and headed out the door. I drove to the nursing home ten miles away, where the oldest member of our congregation lay dying. At 105, Pauline had outlived her husband, her nearest relatives, her friends and her neighbors. Now her time had come, too. I was Pauline's pastor. It was my duty to be there with her as she crossed from this life into the next. But I knew it was more than just my job; it was my calling.

If you are a pastor, you probably have had a similar experience. In a time of crisis, you know why you go. You represent God's presence, God's comfort and God's grace to those passing through their own dark night of the soul. Sitting in a hospital with anxious parents whose child is in surgery, or standing with a widow as she identifies the body of her husband—you know you make a difference. In those times, it is not difficult to remember why we said "yes" to God's call to pastoral ministry. Unfortunately, there are other times in a pastor's life when the clarity of our call fades, discouragement clouds our memory and we wonder, "Why did I ever want to be a pastor?"

I experienced a period of doubt and discouragement in 1990, and I forgot why I had become a pastor. And when I forgot why I had become a pastor, the next question I asked myself was, "Why don't you quit?" And I did. I resigned from the church I started and left pastoral ministry. I thought I had nothing more to say. I thought my years of ministry hadn't made a difference. I was tired emotionally and spiritually, and I quit because I couldn't remember why I had begun.

Fortunately, my story doesn't end there. In 2003, I stood in the pulpit for the first time in 13 years. I had remembered again why I said "yes."

The Myths of Ministry

Looking back on my own struggle with God's call, I realized that three "myths of ministry" contributed to my difficulty. This is not an exhaustive list, but these myths played a key role in my experience:

The myth of inexhaustible energy. In my early ministry, I was a "get-it-done" type of guy. I wanted higher attendance, more baptisms, a bigger budget and new buildings. I juggled multiple tasks, worked long hours, pushed my staff and volunteers hard, and accomplished a lot. In the churches I served, we set new attendance records, began additional worship services, bought more property, built and remodeled buildings, and added a record number of new members. I ran on adrenaline, coffee and praise, but when those ran out, I did too.

The myth of the indispensable pastor. As my ministry grew, I began to think that no one knew more, could do it better, or had the vision I had. I thought I was indispensable to my church and probably the Kingdom of God, too. Rather than let lay leaders practice their own gifts in ministry, I did it all. Instead of delegating tasks, I gathered them to myself. When something needed to be done, I did it—from changing light bulbs to picking out toys for the nursery. I did it with enthusiasm, I did it with confidence, and I thought no one could replace me.

The myth of the inspired visionary. As I studied growing churches, I discovered outstanding examples led by visionary pastors who challenged their congregations "to attempt great things for God and expect great things from God." We reached new high attendance goals. We adopted multi-phase building programs. We increased our budgets, gave more to missions, and sent members on global mission trips. I saw the vision, cast it before the church, and rallied our members to it. I took our success as validation of my dreams and pressed ahead with newer and bigger goals.

You may be able to add to this list of ministry myths, but for me, those were the big three. Obviously, they all revolved around me—my energy, my ability, my vision. I must confess I enjoyed it for several years. Denominational leaders love a success story, and they asked me to speak at national conferences. I wrote articles about church programs from "how to grow a Sunday School" to "how to start a prayer ministry." But with each achievement, I forgot a little more about why I had said "yes" to God's call years before. My own success had become the reason for my ministry.

Of course, I didn't see it at the time. I told myself we were building the Kingdom, that our church was an example to others, and that God was blessing us tremendously. My self-talk contained enough truth to keep me going for a few more years. Then one day, in February 1990, I couldn't make sense of my life. I had forgotten why I was doing all the stuff I was doing. It no longer mattered to me. I felt drained and empty. I had forgotten why I said "yes."

The Fog of Ministry

Military commanders describe the failure of communication and the loss of perspective in battle as the "fog of war." Pastoral ministry has its own fog, too. In the midst of the stresses and rewards of everyday life, many pastors find it difficult to maintain an unwavering sense of call. We can confuse our success with our call, which is exactly what I did. I told myself that my success in ministry validated my call. But when pastors believe performance validates their call, then ministry failure invalidates their call. In other words, if I succeed, it's because God has called me; but if I fail, then maybe God didn't call me. We need to separate our performance from our call. God called us before we succeeded or failed in ministry. His call does not depend upon our achievement.

Another fog of ministry is confusing church problems with our call. Congregational conflict can cause pastors to think, "If I'm called by God to do this, why am I facing so much opposition? Maybe God hasn't really called me." Doubting one's call because of conflict is not unusual or abnormal. The Bible contains examples of God-chosen leaders who doubted their calling when faced with opposition. Moses, David, Elijah, Jonah, Peter and others all faced moments of doubt when opposition arose. Separate your problems from your call, because they are not the same.

Finally, in the heat of ministry, pastors can confuse praise or criticism with their call. All of us enjoy hearing, "That was a great sermon, Pastor," but few of us enjoy the criticism of others. Praise is like success in ministry: It does not prove God has called us any more than criticism indicates He has not. We need to separate both praise and criticism from our call.

Remembering God's Call Again

How did I remember God's call in my own life? Fast-forward 13 years from 1990 to 2003. Through a providential series of events, a small country church asked me to serve as their interim pastor. Then, in 2004, Chatham Baptist Church called me to serve as their pastor. In my years between pastorates, I came to a new sense of vocation by reflecting on three aspects of my original call. If you are struggling with your call, maybe these three memories will help you recall why you said "yes."

Remember when. I remembered I was 15 years old when I was called to "full-time Christian service" at a youth revival in my home church in Nashville, Tennessee. During the invitation hymn, I felt God's call to pastoral ministry. I walked down the aisle to share that calling with my pastor and the congregation. I can still feel the handshakes and hugs as my church family embraced my call and encouraged my obedience to God. The memory is as fresh for me now as it was then, and it provides a touch-point in my spiritual journey.

Remember what. I remembered that what I had to offer God was my obedience. As a 15-year-old, I didn't bring success in ministry because I hadn't had any. I didn't bring an impressive academic record because I was still in high school. I didn't bring resources, maturity or skill. I just brought myself. When I remembered that God called me as a teenager whose hands were empty but whose heart was full, then I remembered again why I had said "yes." In Romans 12:1, Paul writes, "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship." All God wants is you. He supplies the rest.

Remember who. I remembered I had not answered the call of my denomination, my parents, or even my church. I had answered God's call. I was to be obedient to God, and God would guide me. Even during years away from pastoral ministry, I knew God's call was still upon me. I came to a point in my journey where I was willing do anything God wanted, even if it meant I would never pastor again. So, I served in Sunday School, on church committees and in the church outreach program. I came to see ministry not as my income, but as my calling again. I remembered why I said "yes," because I remembered who called me.

Remembering Why Each Day

Remembering is an important practice of our faith. On the first Sunday of each month our church gathers around the Lord's Table, where we share the bread and cup of Christian communion. Carved on the front of the communion table are the words, "In remembrance of me." Our faith is built on remembering Christ's love for us. The observance of communion is built on the ancient practice of Passover, when Jews remember each year that God brought them out of slavery into the land of promise. Memory is powerful in shaping our faith story and in holding fast the call of God in our own lives.

In my own life, I had discovered two inadequate reasons to be in ministry. First, a call to ministry cannot be a call to success. Many followers of Christ have been considered failures by the standards of popular culture. Second, a call to ministry cannot be based on our own cleverness, intellect or personality. Paul reminds us that "the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." Our calling cannot be centered upon who we are; it must be centered on God.

When the Jews remember the Passover, the youngest child in the family asks, "Why is this night different from all others?" Then the family tells the story of the Exodus experience. Just as retelling the Exodus account is to remember that God brought Israel out of bondage and into the land of promise, recalling why you said "yes" is to remember the work of God in your own life.

Jürgen Moltmann describes the Bible as the book of "remembered hopes." That phrase captures what I sense now about my call—remembering when I said "yes" gives me hope for the future. Remembering who called me gives me confidence that though circumstances change, God does not. God is the One who called me, He is the One to whom I am obedient, He is the One who directs my life, and He is the One who provides for me. That is why I said "yes" to His call as teenager, and that is why I am still saying "yes" today.



Chuck Warnock is a contributing editor for Outreach magazine, writing the "Small Church, Big Idea" column. He also writes a popular blog called Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor and edits two church news and information sites, SmallChurchPROF.com and NewChurchReport.com. He writes prolifically for Leadership Journal and Christianity Today and is a frequent conference speaker. Learn more from Chuck at ChuckWarnock.com.  

Talk about it...

James Bailey

commented on Sep 13, 2013

Good Job! All of us need to hear, and to think about these things from time to time. Great insight--thanks!

Dr. Ronald Shultz

commented on Sep 13, 2013

I had several pastors tell me I was crazy to want to be a pastor. I had a deacon ask if I wanted to be one because of the prestige of the position. I laughed and asked him what decade he was in as prestige has not been a common issue in this age. Usually, you are a Bounty dish towel brought in to sop up the glop and then tossed out while you drippin' and rippin'. I volunteered because I heard there were 120 churches in the GARBC without a pastor and I wanted to serve God. There are reasons why so many churches in any group are short pastors and it is not a shortage of men. Indeed, the market is saturated especially in recessions. I guess I am an Internet Pastor, at least for now, as I am too old for most churches. When they start advertising that you must be under 50, you know you are over the hill at 61. Although, I thought the term elder originally had something to with a mature age as well as just a title for a position. ;-)

Mike Jacobson

commented on Sep 13, 2013

Good reminder...thanks. I was just thinking today that the greeter at Walmart might be a nice job to work into.

Pastor Sung Kim

commented on Sep 13, 2013

You and me both, Brother Mike...you and me both. :)

Pastor Sung Kim

commented on Sep 13, 2013

Pastor Chuck, what a wonderful article to read! I found much delight in knowing that I haven't been the only pastor to feel these things. So often, the world (especially our congregation) thinks we're superhuman. People feel that we are able to (or at least should be able to) handle anything and everything and come out unscathed. That's simply not true. We're made of flesh and blood just like everyone else. We have hearts that can be broken just like everyone else. We cry real tears just like everyone else. And I truly appreciate you writing this article. Hopefully lots of folks read it. God bless you and your ministry.

Manuel L. Quiambao

commented on Sep 13, 2013

Pastor Chuck, Thanks for that timely inspiring message. Hope to hear more from you. God bless you and your ministries.

Wayne Howard

commented on Sep 14, 2013

I certainly understand these concepts and hope your ministry is flourishing due to God's directing as it sounds it is. I too struggle with my identity in my call at present because I am in a small congregation that the denomination says has died in essences. It appears that no matter how we try to revive it is stagnant around 30 people. I'd appreciate some advice. I also want to praise God for something I ask for and have received. There were no children in my church when I arrived, but now we have around 15 which is half the congregation. Need insight on how to reach a HUD community for Christ.

Nancy Magaba

commented on Sep 20, 2013

If God really called you for ministry you don't need to struggle or help Him to enlarge your congregation. God is God, has His ways of doing things, the Chief Strategist and always faithful. To the early church He added new members.I suggest instead of struggling with your identity serve Him more diligently for His glory in that small congregation and everything else will fall in place. Personally I believe that God stretches the boundaries of ministers according to their spiritual shepherding capacity.

Gene Cobb

commented on Sep 14, 2013

As a young girl I felt God's leading and calling on my life. From then on my choices were different, my life was different and I have never looked back. When I met my husband I discovered he too felt God's call to Pastor. The first thing we did was dedicate our lives to the Lord. Then we worked anywhere and however we could in the Church. We never thought of the ministry as a source of income or a power trip. We are simply servants. Tomorrow September 15th is our 20th anniversary as co-pastors at our Church and our 40th wedding anniversary. We didn't even realize until this past year that the dates were the same! God's timing and gift to us! Many times we have been asked, why don't you each pastor your own church, or why aren't you in a mega church or why do you stay in this small town.....why? I know I am right where the Lord wants me to be, doing exactly what He wants me to do! I never plan to retire....and I just turned 60 this year! There are untold numbers of women and men who are called to Pastor. I pray for the ministry worldwide everyday. Over 30 years ago a wonderful Pastor gave us some advice...she said, it's never about you, it's always about the Lord. And never say you understand how someone feels if you have never had their experience. Being a Pastor is what I am, not a job. Tomorrow we are rededicating our lives to our Church Family and we are renewing our vows to God as His Pastors and we are renewing our wedding vows. Our Youth Pastors, a young married couple will be officiating. Our youth group will be making a circle around us, a sign that not only is the church flourishing and growing, but we are too! Have there been hard times, you better believe it, but I have been through childbirth, so everything after that......well......let's pray for each other, encourage each other and then maybe good women and men won't have to go through what this good Pastor did.....

Rev. Dr. Theophilus Lambo

commented on Sep 14, 2013

Thanks for sharing with us some of the challenges to which most servants of the Lord must have been subjected at one time or other in their lives along the rocky path of their calling. Your commendable memoirs could not have come at a better time than this when the Christendom, is besieged with so many conflicting doctrines, conflicting influences to which our youths are exposed, which reduce the significance of ?fear of God? in our daily life, resulting in reducing the House of God into another place of social interaction. Before I received my calling I was a faithful church goer and on many occasions, in-fact in about 75 of my total attendances, I had come back home with no spiritual impact or gain from the messages I had received. Some pastors have turned the pulpit into a wrestling arena to settle personal vendetta with their disagreeing members; some lash abuses and derogatory comments while some use the pulpit to reveal all the secrets confided in them by their flock instead of building the confidence of the falling in their care and we have all those who promised prosperity and material wealth to their members as reasons to surrender one?s life to Jesus. When I eventually received my calling at a time I least expected, I was bumbling with zeal and enthusiasm as a crusader armed with the knowledge of the causes of declining evangelism in ministry. I have had the opportunities of serving in both large and small churches and on few occasions I have felt like quitting since ministry problems were not coming direct from the congregation but unfortunately from the messages the characters of the church leaders and their utterances are having negative impact on the spiritually fragile hearts of the congregation. I often see myself as a lone voice in the wilderness. If all pastors could be coming together irrespective of their denominations, periodically, for a retreat or workshop or orientation, whereby we could all be put back on tract, it would significantly help the Christendom and reduce the negative impact of spiritual arrogance among most of our pastors. I have put my hand on the plough and there is no turning back by the grace of God, as the Lord said in Luke 9:61-62 ?.Another also said, I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home. But Jesus said to him, No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. Thank you and may our labor, never be in vain, for He who called us is faithful.

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