The Pastor’s Calling

The Pastor’s Calling January 14, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 4.58.46 PMWhile it has been said often that Martin Luther urged Christians to sanctify all of life so that everyone was called and had a vocation from God, pastors, priests and ministers continue to talk about being called. Thus, Luther put it this way:

All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government-to what does it all amount before God except child’s play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things.

But what about a minister’s calling? Is it right to speak of that calling being special? Or, are all callings the same — it just depends on which one God has given to you? Gustaf Wingren, a scholar of Luther’s view of vocation, puts it this way (from link above):

In his vocation man does works which effect the well-being of others; for so God has made all offices. Through this work in man’s offices, God’s creative work goes forward, and that creative work is love, a profusion of good gifts. With persons as his “hands” or “coworkers,” God gives his gifts through the earthly vocations, toward man’s life on earth (food through farmers, fishermen and hunters; external peace through princes, judges, and orderly powers; knowledge and education through teachers and parents, etc., etc.). Through the preacher’s vocation, God gives the forgiveness of sins. Thus love comes from God, flowing down to human beings on earth through all vocations, through both spiritual and earthly governments. 

How do you talk about “calling”? Do you think the pastor’s calling is a special calling? 

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In Gary Black, Jr.’s, new book, Exploring the Life and Calling (Foundations for Learning), opens the book with this breathtaking set of convictions:

In my first lecture, in my first class, on my first day as a professor or theology in a Christian seminary, I took my stand behind the lectern, took a deep breath, and looked out at the eager, somewhat anxious, very devoted, and curious faces of my students, and made this simple statement: “I am of the firm opinion that as professional ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, those of you sitting in this room represent the most important profession in the world today. And therefore, that makes you, by association, some of the most important people in the world today” (3).

He then looked at the students, and has come to this conviction:

What I 
soon learned from that first class lecture and have witnessed every year since then was that none of my students had ever heard of, or even considered, such proposition (3).

I was with a pastor not long ago who said to me, “I think the pastoral calling is a high and special calling. It also means [he was referring to James 3:1] I have a greater responsibility.” Gary Black’s book suggests that not as many believe that today. Mediation of the gospel, of course, is at the heart of why some think the pastor’s calling is special and high. There is, one ought at least observe, a rather religious view of reality in such a worldview. A creation-shaped vocation in which the new heavens and the new earth — the final kingdom — might suggest that all callings are special since all callings will be carried out for eternity.

Regardless, and I’m happy to hear what you think makes the pastoral calling special, Black’s book explores the elements of the pastoral praxis that needs to form the core of the pastoral life. He sees five and I reformat to make them more outline in form:

The first area relates to the essence of what it means to have a spiritual nature and live a spiritual life: The Spiritual Life.

The second area is connected to the life and function of the thoughts and ideas that fill our minds: A life of meditation and contemplation.

The third area concerns how the spiritual life, combined with the mental life, comes to inhabit our bodies and direct our behaviors: An embodied faith.

Fourth is the nature of community, our relationships with others, and fitting together the distinct members of the body of Christ into his church: Life together in the flock of the Good Shepherd.

Finally, and perhaps most overlooked, is the minister’s leadership of others in guiding the local church: Leaders as apprentices to Jesus.

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  • I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a quote of Luther’s with which I’ve had more agreement.

    The calling to pastoral work is special, as is the calling to motherhood, and to any one of a number of callings. They are special because they come from God, to his people/temple, for the good of creation (including especially people), and are done in service to others in Christ’s name, or at least they could be.

    I have to say I think Black’s premise and conclusion are half-truths that can be dangerous and harmful, and in ways that the Western Church desperately needs movement in the opposite direction. I see his premise as contributing to two serious problems: First, the ownership and practice of the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ needs desperately to move beyond the professionals and into the congregation. To speak as if this work belongs to the professional ministers (and thereby inflates their importance vis a vis other people) is to turn Christian ministry and leadership on its head, which there is already plenty of today. Secondly, the biggest threat to Christian mission in the West, IMO, isn’t Islam or other religions, but secularization. And Black’s formulation plays perfectly into the hands of those who want to continue the secularization of everything done outside of church buildings. I know that is not the intent, but that is the cost of his thinking and it is a steep cost. If the minister cannot effectively give away the ministry of the gospel of Christ and its importance to the people he or she is called to serve, then all is lost.

    The Christian minister is important because they serve and equip the most important people in the world: the lost and the people of God, who are charged with the most important work in the world: the mission of God.

  • Sangjin Lee

    Is the pastoral calling a special calling? Yes, perhaps. A better calling? Now that is different. The claim that it is a better calling or a more important calling implies that a sincere Christian should strive for that better calling than being in a lesser calling/vocation. That I am not sure I agree with.

  • DMH

    To view a pastors calling as somehow higher or set apart in some special way is to have a low view of the church.

  • billmcreynolds

    I work with many folk from around the world who insist they are called as pastors, while it seems to me they have avoided the more basic calling to be Christian. Perhaps they have repented from an life lived apart from God. Instead of claiming the calling of Christian, they tell me the best calling is pastor and nothing else will do, even if they don’t serve a church. It is as if they are ignoring obvious gifts and claiming others without warrant. IMHO.

  • John W. Frye

    I am so tired of this discussion. Pastors do not say they are more valuable than plumbers in the overall scheme of things, but, as to the gifts of the Spirit, they have a specific calling to fulfill. How will the people know that they, too, are “ordained” for ministry in their “callings” unless someone biblically informed, like Luther, tells them?

  • Phil Miller

    I understand the spirit of this article, but I guess this sort of talk is sort of a trigger for me. I grew in the Assemblies of God, and I am actually mostly grateful for my upbringing, but one thing that always bugged was how much effort was put into pressuring teenagers to “go into the ministry”. And it did seem because of that there was a culture where the model of the superstar pastor was the ideal. I know more than my fair share of people who are products of that who are now completely out the ministry. They get eaten up in the machine.

    I will say a pastor’s calling is special in the sense that is “unique”, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more spiritual or more important than many other callings. I think we’re all called to faithfulness, and beyond that there’s nothing else we can really do.

  • Gary Black Jr

    T Freeman. The book attempts to articulate why the pastoral calling and profession of ministry is so critical today. Perhaps now more than ever in part because of the increasing level of secularism in every area of society. I do not believe that ministry is reserved or intended to be engaged only by professional ministers. And my co-authored book with Dallas Willard goes to great lengths articulating that fact. I’d welcome a more thorough dialogue if you have interest in the entire argument. Actually we’re in agreement.

  • John, so am I. The way beyond it won’t be for seminary professors to teach what was said in this post: “most important profession” but worse, “most important people.” That is going to meet resistance, and it should. A person who uses words for a living, like Black, should know better.

  • I’m not opposed to reading the full argument, and certainly not opposed to the necessity and importance of pastoral work. I just see no value at all, and some harm, in elevating the importance of seminary students or even pastors over others. It was a poor way to state the importance of pastoral work. It can stand without measuring against others, as can pastors. But I’m hopeful that the rest of the book demonstrates that.

  • David steinhart

    When I was in 10th grade I was reading my Bible before going to sleep. I was in Jn.20. As I was reading about how Mary recognized Jesus when he said, “Mary,” I heard the Lord speak my name. I don’t know if this was audible or in my mind. I intuitively knew that He was calling me into the ministry. I ran down the steps to where my parents were and said, “Mom, Dad, I think the Lord has just called me into the ministry.”
    The matter of calling involves all that Gary identifies. And I realize that not everyone is called in the same way. When I think about my experience I sometimes feel “old school” but that experience has been a wonderful encouragement through 30+years of pastoral ministry.