Called To Ministry: Dr. Duane W. H. Arnold PhD
I am a servant,
I am waiting for the call…
A vocation to ministry is not a letter that arrives in your mailbox with no return address or an email that simply pops up on your screen with no sender listed. It is not finding “Get Thee to a Seminary” or “You are called” spelled out at the bottom of a bowl of alphabet soup. It is not even, in most cases, a flash of lightening. In one of the earliest Christian biographies, that of Antony, written by Athanasius, the account of his calling to the monastic life is instructive and, surprisingly, straightforward. One day, as he attended the Eucharist he heard a “follow me” verse in the reading of the Gospel and he simply said, “yes” to Christ’s invitation. The invitation was not peculiar to himself, but open to all who have ever heard or read it in the Gospels. Yet, on that day, the call was to him in particular.
First, we need to understand that the call to ministry is a call to all the faithful, but additionally, it is addressed to each of us individually in our own state and circumstance. In the midst of the light flashing from heaven, Saul heard himself addressed by by name. The only way of hearing this call is to listen to the echo it awakens in the soul, and that echo will be unique for each of us. All of us who have entered into the life of faith have heard and, by God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit, responded to a call to ministry of some sort. Yet, even here, we recognize that the call to ministry may be that which is exercised in many ways. For the majority of us, we live out a life of ministry and service as mothers, fathers, teachers, counselors, friends and in ways and manners too numerous to list. Yet, within the Church, we recognize that there can be a call to something more.
That something more is commonly referred to today as “ordained ministry”. In Scripture, the title is less precise. The Bible speaks of appointing deacons for a particular service (Acts 6:1-6) and of the apostles encouraging the appointment of elders in various towns (Titus1:5). In other places the qualities desired in an elder are enumerated (1Tim. 3:1-16) and by the end of the first century, we find in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch that the idea of an “ordained” ministry now extended to bishops, who appear to be the overseers of larger communities of believers, assisted by elders (presbyters) and deacons (Mag. 2, 6:1). This established a pattern of ministry that extended through to the time of the Reformation, at which time, many Protestant communities reverted to a simpler church order of “elders” or pastors while Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglicans and some portions of Lutheranism retained the earlier pattern of bishops, presbyters (or priests) and deacons. Despite this dizzying array of varied church orders, the vast majority of Christians (apart from some in the radical Reformation) retained the idea of a single person set apart or ordained to a leadership position within a congregation.
Many Christians have wondered, from time to time, if they might be that person. Have you heard that call and its distinct echo awakened in the soul?
Most denominations or associations of churches have a set process in place for determining if a person has that call, for in the end, the call has to be recognized by other believers. In some independent situations, it may be as simple as someone being recognized as having a “special anointing”, the elders of the church laying hands on them and they are thereby “ordained”. This process has its own pitfalls, but, from time to time, has also produced some amazing individuals. In most denominations and associations, however, it is a longer process, with most requiring an undergraduate degree, a recognition of calling by a denominational committee or commission, attendance at an accredited seminary, post-seminary interviews, psychological testing, additional denominational exams and finally, ordination. Even then, however, some churches require an additional year in a “lower rank” of clergy (as a deacon or an assistant) before one is finally entitled to be admitted to a pastoral office.
So, you now have jumped through all the flaming hoops (I use the metaphor with cause!). As the average cost of seminary per year is $14,726, you have carried your student loan papers to your ordination in the hope of a miracle… which, unfortunately, seldom happens. Now, however, you are ready to be let loose upon the world as a fully fledged ordained pastor.
If you are fortunate, you will receive a call to a congregation and a compensation package. Now, reality sets in… pastors and teachers are the lowest paid professionals in the US. One out of five pastors have to work a second job to support their families. According to the National Association of Church Business Administration, the average pastor in 2012 (the last year recorded) received an annual salary of $28,000. Now, if you were a “hot dog” in seminary, and your uncle is on the selection committee, you might get on the staff of a large downtown church. Otherwise, you will be caring for a small congregation or even be give the “unique opportunity” of planting a new church. If you are called to an established congregation it will likely not be a mega-church. According to the National Congregations Study out of Duke University, the median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings.
It is at this point, you may begin to wonder… “Did I really hear the call?”
To be honest, most of the congregation are wonderful and are there on Sunday mornings for all the right reasons. In fact, a certain small percentage will adore you (which, of course, can become a problem). With these, you can do nothing wrong, every one of your sermons is a revelation, they attend every service or meeting and they make sure to save you the best cookies at coffee hour. Of course, for another small percentage of the congregation, you can do nothing right. You will endure hearing about, “When Pastor ______ (fill in the blank) was here, he told us…” and you’ll hear tales of miracles and wonders. Not to worry, the next time round, you’ll be the one they tell the next pastor about, just to let him know he’s not quite measuring up. All the rest will receive you as a significant and important part of their life in the church and you will make a difference in their lives. You’ll be with them in sorrow and joy. Funerals and weddings will mark the changing of years, and you will be there for all of them, fulfilling your calling. People will depart from the church, sometimes painfully, as new faces arrive. If you are married, your wife will soon find where she can sit, what she can wear, and will negotiate the offers to sing in the choir, teach Sunday School, lead the women’s prayer group, organize coffee hour, etc., all while working a job to help keep your heads above water. Some will even begin to realize, with time, that “Mrs. Pastor” isn’t actually a church employee! It will be a proof that the age of miracles has not ceased…
More than this, you will live a life of service and ministry to others. You will probably never be rich. In all likelihood, you will not look out over an auditorium sized sanctuary filled with thousands of upturned faces. You will, however, have the satisfaction of knowing that when you heard that call and the echo it awakened in your soul, you responded and said, “Yes” and followed the call to ministry.
PS – If you’ve read this small piece, and heard an echo in your soul… the Church has need of you…