Thinking Well About the Call to Ministry
To Those Who Aspire
In every generation, God is calling and raising up men to serve His church. Many have made the "call to ministry" into an abstract and unverifiable impulse that far too often seems to wane and flicker as the years go by. Nothing is more sad than to see the once zealous fall.
This has stirred in us not a pessimism, but a resolve. We believe in the call, so much so that we want to help guide men through it. We want to make it more practical, and less mysterious. We desire to see more involvement from the local church in this process, not less. We want slower, more deliberate steps to be taken, and less radical whims.
Because this is a weighty call, and because you are considering a calling that would make you accountable for souls, our desire is to help you think well about it.
Ministry is not a calling for those who don't know what else to do, it is for those who can’t do anything else. If that is you, then our prayer is that this guide would be helpful to you.
Table of Contents
Do I Need to Go to Seminary to be a Pastor?
Every seminary-trained pastor who emphasizes the helpfulness of seminary for those aspiring to ministry, at some point, will receive questions like these: “Do I really have to go to seminary to be a faithful pastor? Can’t I just stay home and read books? After all, isn’t that what Spurgeon did?”
These are not bad questions. I even get the skepticism toward an expensive, often residential degree. Put simply, one does not have to go to seminary to be a faithful pastor. After all, seminary training—as we know it today—is not explicitly in the Bible.
There have been faithful pastors for centuries who had no formal training. For many throughout church history, such training was simply not an option. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, pastors who have letters behind their names will receive a crown no more glorious than those who do not (cf. 1 Peter 5:4). At the end of time, what is required of stewards—seminary trained or otherwise—is that they be found trustworthy (cf. 1 Cor. 4:2).
Having said that, however, if a man wants to be faithful to the weighty calling of a shepherd and all that this sacred office entails, then yes, he must be trained by someone, somewhere! Because while seminary is not explicitly in the Bible, pastoral and theological training is (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). In our context, seminary is often where that much-needed training is given. And in a day such as ours, with cultural chaos and complicated ecclesiological issues, perhaps the time has come when self-study will simply no longer do.
Thoughts for Those Considering the Call to Ministry
Most young men, when considering the call to ministry, are likely referring to the internal heart passion that Paul describes in 1 Timothy 3. Paul writes that a man must “aspire” (ὀρέγω) to the office of overseer—and, if he does aspire, it is a fine work he “desires” (ἐπιθυμέω).
Paul’s first requirement for any man considering pastoral ministry is that he has an eager longing and passion for the work. There is a healthy, zealous ambition that should exist in the soul of every man contemplating pastoral ministry. Prospective pastors should want to be pastors. They should be driven. They should be passionate. But this passion and ambition, although real and undeniable, is just the entrance fee, as it were, into the process. It is not to be equated with a bona fide call to ministry.
What I mean is this: while the internal, heart passion referenced in 1 Timothy 3:1 is an essential requirement for ministry, that passion only means something if the other qualifications in vv. 2-7 are increasingly being shaped in your life over time and if a team of qualified elders can affirm your character, doctrine, and giftedness.
Your heart may scream “yes!” to the ministry, but your life, maturity, and doctrine will likely need years to catch up with this zeal. Most times, the call is less bright lights and tingly feelings than it is years of discipleship, training, and examination by the local church. These years will speak more to your call than a tingly gut feeling.
The call to ministry necessitates an investment not just from the elders, but from the local body as a whole. Learning to lean on the local church in the long process of aspiring to ministry is an honest way to ensure that it is God who is preparing this path, not your own whimsical desires. And giving yourself to the local church should be the thing you are most anxious to do if you are called to the ministry.
Stewardship and the Call to Ministry
The very first thing you must do with your calling is to guard it. Because a life disqualified is a calling discarded, the gravity of the task requires a certain sobriety of life. The call to preach the gospel is among the most precious privileges granted by God to men. Faithfulness to your calling must be who you are today.
We all understand that it is wise to lock up your valuables. We put fences around our property and deadbolts on our precious possessions in order to protect them. The call to ministry is a precious possession worth guarding. It is for this reason that Paul instructs Timothy in I Tim. 4:16, "Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching."
Don’t worry about how to use your calling until you have first ensured that you are adequately protecting that calling by living a life that is above reproach.
And then you must depend upon your calling. If you are convinced that God has called you into His service, then you must be faithful to the task he has placed before you. Imagine the horror of Isaiah hearing the call of God to proclaim the truth and then choosing to walk away into the Judean desert the first time he ran into difficulty. Imagine the tragedy it would have been if Timothy had pulled “a Demas,” and instead of exercising “the spiritual gift within” him (I Tim. 4:14), he chose instead to “love this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10). If God has appointed you to the work, who are you to turn away when He brings trials into your life for the perfection of your faith?
A third action you can take while you wait is to exercise your calling right where you are. You don’t need a prestigious position or a fancy title in order to be faithful with the gift that has been given to you. Be faithful with what God has put before you today. When God providentially places a task in front of you, be faithful to it as unto Him, no matter how menial that duty may seem. In order to become a man of God, you must first be a man of God. Seminary is not a salvific experience where you are changed and made into something that you once were not. Either you are a pastor or you’re not. Additional training is not suddenly going to make you into a faithful servant. Faithfulness to your calling must be who you are today.
Finally, you must also be faithful to prepare for your calling. As you actively make plans for a lifetime of faithfulness, the work of preparation will either cause your desire to decrease (demonstrating that you’re not called to it) or it will be further enflamed (demonstrating that you must obey the direction of the Lord in your life). If the Lord is setting you apart for the work of preaching His gospel, then you must be prepared to effectively undertake that work. This requires that the man of God be educated in theology, pastoral ministry, and acquire the necessary exegetical skills in order to faithfully handle the word of God. For the vast majority of men, this means the pursuit of formal training through seminary education. This is simply the clearest and most expedited path for the acquisition of the necessary skills and material.
The First Seminary
A biblical justification for seminary education might be made from a number of passages, from Matthew 28:19 (and its emphasis on teaching disciples) to 2 Timothy 2:2 (and its emphasis on leadership training) to Titus 1:9 (and its emphasis on elders being equipped to articulate and defend the faith).
But there is a short passage in Acts that provides a biblical precedent for seminary education in a particularly insightful way. These verses, which at first glance may not seem overly significant, show the apostle Paul starting a theological training school in the city of Ephesus. As one commentator explains: “In Ephesus, Paul opened a school of theology to train future leaders for the developing church in the province of Asia” (Simon J. Kistemaker, Acts, NTC, 684).
It's unlikely that Paul called it Ephesus Theological Seminary, but in essence, that is exactly what it was.
How to Choose a Seminary
When the Scottish Reformer John Knox learned that he was going to be ordained, he went to his room and wept, because he was so immediately aware of the weighty responsibility with which he was being entrusted.
Pastoral ministry is a serious calling. It is both a great privilege and a great responsibility. And those who aspire to it ought to desire the best training they can possibly receive—because they long to be approved workmen, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:15, workmen who are not ashamed because they know how to rightly divide the Word of truth.
When a student comes to seminary, then, he is coming to be trained for the most weighty task anyone could ever undertake. So how one chooses a seminary ought to be primarily dependent on which seminary can best equip him for his God-given task.
With that in mind, I believe there are three questions that must be asked when considering how to choose a seminary. (1) What does it mean to be successful in ministry? (2) In which areas are pastors called to be faithful? And (3) what seminary can I choose where I will be discipled in the area of character and trained to understand and teach sound doctrine?
How to Fail Seminary in 10 Easy Steps
Dear First-Year Seminary Students,
The point of seminary is to make better servants. It is not simply to educate you in your Bible knowledge or increase your ability to communicate the Word of God, but ultimately to increase your love for Christ and His people.
I don’t want you to fail. So I compiled a list of ways others before you have wandered into failure. The following are ten ways to fail as a seminary student. I hope you will avoid these temptations.
1. Pursue a title rather than an education.
If your goal is letters behind your name, you will do just enough to get by. You will find yourself asking: how little do I need to do to pass? Make your goal to be a better student, more skilled preacher, and a greater blessing to the church—not simply to graduate. Don’t take shortcuts. Digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.
2. Substitute your classroom reading for your devotional life.
Your life is now a balance of work, sermon preparation, assignments, and devotional time. You often will be tempted to neglect the latter. There is a difference between opening the Word to finish an assignment and opening the Word for sustenance. At the end of each week, no amount of time spent writing a paper or reading will replace whether or not that week you communed with Jesus. Remember what John Owen wrote: “We read our Bible to know and savor Christ.”
3. Short-change your church ministry and blame it on seminary.
You are being blessed with the time and ability to study in seminary. Do not in turn use this program as an excuse to neglect ministry. Think of it like this: seminary is competing with your leisure time—with Netflix, Twitter, and sports—not visitation, discipleship, or sermon preparation. In the next several years, you will have to say “no” to plenty of good things in order to succeed in this program. Ministry is not one of those things.
4. Make this program your own personal journey without bringing others along with you.
Your church, friends, and family need to understand why you are doing what you are doing. As you are in this program, bring people along with you. Tell others what you are learning and how to pray for you in your studies. Let them know what you are reading and writing. Be vulnerable in how you are being convicted, on the blind spots you are finding in your life and ministry. Demonstrate for those around you that you can never outgrow learning about the Lord. Be an example of someone who is hungry for the Word. Help those around you to see that you are in this program out of love for the church, to better serve her. Don’t let this degree be an endeavor of self-promotion, but of care and affection for the church.
5. Neglect your wife and children, and justify it by saying there is just no other way.
Please do not withdraw from your wife and children and blame it on seminary. Nobody wins if you get several letters behind your name and lose your family. Redeem the time you lose with your family in this program by spending extra, unexpected time with them. Make up the time. Do not let your wife become (or feel like) a second thought to the church or seminary. Make your wife and children glad you entered seminary.
6. Make excuses for why you cannot do your work with excellence.
Every one of us has more work than we can do each week. Our schedules are filled with work, family, events, and meetings. And now add a rigorous graduate program. If you are not careful, you will convince yourself that your schedule and demands are unique. Be careful. Every man in this program has a family, the church, and this educational pursuit. Be slow to conjure excuses as to why you need more time for a paper than everyone else. Be careful of justifying why you can’t do what you chose to do with excellence.
7. Brush off critique from graders, mentors, and peers by telling yourself the weaknesses they see are illegitimate.
Everybody loves feedback until it becomes “constructive.” Brothers, listen to people who love you. When you are given feedback, do not let yourself become defensive. Learn from those who love you enough to help you. When someone is giving you feedback, be silent and listen. Fight against your natural response to explain or justify. It is in our nature to defend ourselves more than we need to. Critique is for your good. Embrace it.
8. Fail to connect with other men in the program and stay to yourself.
Push yourself to connect with one another in seminary. Learn to depend upon and trust these men. There is something unique about having a group of men in your life who you can call, and they care about you and the calling God has placed upon your life. Exchange names, emails, cell phone numbers, and build a brotherhood. Sound theological education is essential; so are meaningful Christian friendships.
9. Begin to see yourself as a scholar, having graduated from being a shepherd.
Scholars are revered, shepherds are taken for granted. Now that you are in a graduate program, be careful of thinking of yourself as more scholar than shepherd. Yes, you are a scholar, but not instead of being a shepherd. One of the ways you shepherd God’s people is by studying. Think like a scholar, but never instead of being a shepherd.
10. Graduate and then consider yourself as having arrived.
Don’t think that graduation is an arrival. This is a lifelong journey of knowing God’s Word and communicating it more effectively so that the body of Christ is built and Christ Himself is glorified. Read your assignments and write your papers with a desire to build the body and to glorify Christ. Then, receive every day of your life as an invitation to continue your pursuit of knowing Christ more deeply and helping others love Him above all else.
Why Learn the Biblical Languages?
For the future seminarians, I want to give you four reasons why you should spend your efforts learning and loving the biblical languages.
A deep knowledge of the biblical languages helps preserve doctrinal purity—both for the pastor and for the church. In fact, Luther himself credited the entire Reformation to the rediscovery of the biblical languages!
If we neglect the [the languages] we shall eventually lose the Gospel…No sooner did men cease to cultivate the languages, then Christendom declined, even until it fell under the undisputed dominion of the pope. But no sooner was this torch relighted, then this papal owl fled with a shriek into congenial gloom.
If the languages had not made me positive as to the true meaning of the Word, I might have still remained a chained monk, engaged in quietly preaching Romish errors in the obscurity of a cloister; the pope, the sophists, and their anti-Christian empire would have remained unshaken.
This is astonishing—Luther attributes the breakthrough of the Reformation to the use of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Learning these languages is not some cushy, ivory tower pursuit for those with too much time or too few friendships; this is about the purity of the gospel.
The English Bibles we have been given are both phenomenal and trustworthy. We can read from our English translations and confidently say, This is the Word of the living God. But if the central aspect of a pastor’s duty is to wrestle the meaning from a book and carefully apply it to his own life and that of his congregation, then we should want every tool at his disposal to engage and accurately handle that text (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15).
Total dependence upon English translations can often hinder the careful exegesis required in sermon preparation. Without intimate knowledge of the languages, the preacher often has to content himself with the general flavor of the text, and the result can be that his exposition will lack the precision and clarity that would have been his had he known the original languages.
When it comes to the languages, the issue is not superiority over those who don’t know them, but specificity on their behalf. This is not to be a pride issue, but one of precision.
John Piper writes: “Where the languages are not prized and pursued, care in biblical observation and biblical thinking and concern for truth decreases. It has to, because the tools to think otherwise are not present.”
And by this, I mean power in preaching. Where pastors lack the tools and confidence to determine the precise meaning of the text, the power of biblical preaching diminishes. It is difficult to preach with depth and power, week after week, verse after verse, if you are plagued with uncertainty when deciding between two competing interpretations as presented by commentators.
Again, Luther raises his voice: “When the preacher is versed in the languages, his discourse has freshness and force, the whole of Scripture is treated, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words.”
Our aim in preaching is not to impress our people, but to inflame them; our purpose is not to win fans, but to win souls! And the languages are a means to preach with a kind of power, clarity, and authority not likely to be ours apart from them.
And by pleasure, I mean devotional delight in the soul. In other words, why learn the languages only well enough that they are painful to use? Why not strive to learn them so well that they become pleasurable to the soul? Why not know them so intimately as to do our devotions in them? Shouldn’t our exposition on a Sunday morning be an overflow of our own glad-hearted affections for God?
What I’m arguing is this—knowing the languages affords us opportunities to behold breathtaking vistas of God in the text that can often otherwise be missed.
George Muller, famous for his life of prayer and orphanage ministry in London, said this as a 24-year old man:
I now studied much, about 12 hours a day, chiefly Hebrew…[and] committed portions of the Hebrew Old Testament to memory; and this I did with prayer, often falling on my knees…I looked up to the Lord even whilst turning over the leaves of my Hebrew dictionary.
Oh for the day more men would have these kinds of encounters with the living God – on their knees, Hebrew text in hand, looking to the Lord, tasting the unfiltered honey of the Word (cf. Psalm 19:10)! Oh to see men who yearn to know what the Word means so desperately that they are searching through Hebrew lexicons on their knees—these needy men will have a markedly dependent posture and tone to their ministry and preaching.
Our preaching should be tough as iron, precise as a laser, profound as a poet, and warm like the sun – and the languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are one of the many ways to make this a reality. More than anything, learning the languages is a tangible way of expressing our neediness to hear from the very mouth of God—it is leaning in just a bit closer to hear the words of a loved one.
What I Wish I Had Known Before Starting Seminary
As a recent seminary graduate, I have been reflecting on some of the decisions I made during my time in school. My hope is that some new or prospective seminarian might learn from what I wish I had known before starting seminary.
1. I wish I had taken my time.
Going slower would have given me the opportunity to focus more attention on some of the assignments which, for time’s sake, I hastily finished just to get done. I know I would have benefitted more from the work if I wasn’t cobbling a finished product together at the last minute. It would also have meant not rushing through some of the assigned books, but wrestling with each author's ideas, and better developing my own thinking in those areas.
2. I wish I had invested more in relationships.
The men I got to know during seminary have become my comrades, confidants, and counselors. Even though they live all over the world, we share not only a common Savior, but a common experience and a common theology. I know that no matter the issue I'm facing, I can pick up the phone and get wise counsel from any one of those men. I only wish I had worked even harder to cultivate those relationships when we were together.
3. I wish I had gotten to know my professors better.
When I was trying to decide which seminary to attend, I came to a realization: The professors are the seminary. For me, it was not about an institution's academic prestige, rich history, or mahogany cafeterias. Those things did not matter to me. The crystal-clear question in my mind was, "Who do I want to train under?"
4. I wish I had been more strategic with my electives.
In this program, students are given a wide range of options for electives. While everything I chose was very helpful, I could have been smarter with how I "spent" those limited choices. Rather than planning what might be most helpful to my future ministry, I often opted for the path of expediency. During particularly busy semesters, I would avoid an elective rumored to be difficult, replacing it with one that was less work, yet also less essential for me.
5. I wish I had started sooner.
I trust that in the Lord's providence, He had good and wise reasons for not putting me in seminary until my early 30s. I am not questioning that. But I do regret my own immaturity during the years I spent in ministry before realizing I needed serious training. Words would fail if I tried to recount the times that I look back on now with embarrassment. I think of the things I taught in Bible studies and sermons and the faces of those who came to me for council but for whom I was unequipped to help. I was ministering to the best of my ability, but I was drawing from a shallow well. I wish I had not delayed.
Pastors as Men Accountable for Souls
In Hebrews chapter 13 the writer enjoins church members to obey their leaders, willingly submitting to them.
Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you (Hebrews 13:17).
In other words, every church member should take care to submit to the leaders in the church because those pastors and elders will be held responsible before the Lord Jesus Christ for how they kept watch over the souls in their care. A tall order indeed.
While this passage is directed at church members, it would be difficult for any sober-minded pastor to read those words without a shot of ice water running through his veins. This is a terrifying responsibility.
Only the humble realization of the weight of the task will drive us to the dependency necessary for fulfilling it. For He who calls also supplies, “who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). When you read Hebrews 13:17 and your blood runs cold, let it drive you back to the warmth of the Son. Cling to Him who supplies and equips His undershepherds for the noble task to which He has called them.
And that same humility which drives us to dependence on God-supplied sufficiency for ministry ought also to drive us to seek out whatever equipping is available to us. Seminary is not a requirement for ministry, but if you are able, and knowing the seriousness of the call to gospel ministry, why would you not avail yourself of every opportunity for preparation?
John MacArthur on Discerning the Call to Ministry
Dr. MacArthur is often asked the question, How do I discern if I am called to ministry? He answers succinctly in an interview with Ligonier Ministries:
Paul says if a man desires that office he desires a noble work. It starts with a desire of the heart and it is confirmed by the leadership of the church that you have the character qualifications, the skill to teach, and that there's fruitfulness when you do that.
If you think think this something you want to do, get in a church where you can be mentored by the leadership and pastors of that church. As you grow and develop the skills and they affirm those skills, then you'll know. At the end of the day I would say this: If you can do something else, do it. Because if you can do something else, there will be many days when you wish you did. This is something for people who can't do anything else.
Speak with a Counselor
If you are considering the call to ministry, schedule a call with a TMS counselor. We would be honored to answer your questions and help you think through this important decision.