I'm often asked, "How can I know if I am called to pastoral ministry?" Here is a very quick checklist of questions I would want to ask in any discussion about a call to the ministry.
1. Do you have a holy desire (1 Tim. 3:1)?
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a pastor. In fact, when God calls a man, he usually implants a strong desire for the work in his heart.
A holy desire for the pastoral ministry will be motivated by a passion for the glory of Christ and the salvation of precious souls. To a certain degree, every Christian should have these desires. But potential pastors should have them to an unusually high degree.
Sadly, many want to be pastors for unholy reasons: these include a love of books, an ambition to make a name for yourself, or wanting to become a Seminary professor. On that last point, I know there are exceptions, but I get quite worried when Seminary students start expressing a desire to be a teacher of pastors without having spent even a day in pastoral ministry.
2. Do you have a Christ-like character?
Do you have the fruits of the Spirit in your life (Gal. 5:22-24)? Do those who know you say that you are being conformed to the image of Christ? No one is strong in all areas of character. But if I was to give a top three of non-negotiable character traits, they would be (i) love, (ii) love, and (iii) love. Of course, holiness, integrity, patience, and wisdom are all vitally important too. But without a love-filled heart you will never be a shepherd of sheep.
3. Do you have spiritual maturity (1 Tim. 3:6)?
When young men are converted, they or others often start talking about the ministry. There are exceptions to this rule, but in general it is best that young men spend some time working as Christians "in the world" before pursuing a call to the ministry. They will develop spiritual maturity there in a way that they won't by going straight into Seminary. Even a few years of working among unconverted people has a rapid ripening effect on Christian character. It also helps to build empathy with Christians who are called to be salt and light in factories, offices, etc.
4. Do you have the necessary gifts (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9)?
One of the most useful exercises I've given in my class on the Christian ministry was to ask the students to write up a job notice based on the characteristics and gifts found in the passages above. (Maybe I'll ask some of my students for permission to post their responses in a future blog.) I noticed that one of the recurring gifts in these lists is self-control, or self discipline. This is so utterly indispensable for time-management in pastoral ministry, when we have no boss or professor to keep us on track. If you have a record of being late for work or appointments, or if you are regularly late in submitting assignments, what reason is there to think that you are suddenly going to change when you have to preach a sermon every Sunday at 9.30 am?
Another vital gift is simplicity. Are you able to preach or teach simply? I'm not talking here about "dumbing-down." I'm talking about taking profound truths and translating them into simple, clear language (as Jesus did). Some men seem to have the opposite gift, the ability to make the simple complicated and confusing. If that's your gift, then please don't burden the church of Christ with it.
5. Proven track record
This is related to (3) above. However, I want to make this a separate point to stress the importance of having proven oneself in "less public" forms of Christian service. If a young Christian man will not teach a children's Sunday school class, or won't join the "yard clean up team," or excuses himself from the congregation's evangelism program, then he is not fit for the ministry of the Word. If he is not faithful in the "little" things, he is not ready for the "bigger" things.
6. External confirmation
Before pursuing the ministry, or studies for the ministry, you should seek input from your local church. You should ask your pastor and elders to examine you in points 1-5 above and give you their own more objective opinion of whether you have the marks of a man called to the ministry. You should seek their prayerful and practical support in going forward. If they express doubt or disapproval, you should usually view that as the voice of God speaking through His Church.
This list is not exhaustive, but it is a useful starting point for anyone wanting to examine and test their "call" to the pastoral ministry.
David P. Murray is professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Murray blogs regularly at Head, Heart, Hand: Leadership for Servants.