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 thirteen 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.
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