My hero-in-the-faith, John Richardson, was called to ministry in 1959 at the age of 47. This wasn’t quite a mid-life career change since today he is a very healthy 97 year-old, but it was close to mid-life. [Pastor John passed away October 21, 2012 at 100 years of age.] (CCCC members will remember John as the banquet speaker at the 2007 conference.)
John was a senior manager at a textile company and could see that the industry had nowhere to go but to decline. While quietly looking for another management job, he was asked by the pastor of London Gospel Temple to come and help him at the church. John had no plans at all to enter ministry. He had no Bible college education or any other experience that would qualify him to be a pastor other than he was a man on fire for God. A call to ministry was really out of the blue for him. But when he considered his options, John discerned that God was indeed calling him to leave secular employment and enter full-time pastoral ministry. He prepared his family for a change in lifestyle, resigned from the textile company, and moved to London, Ontario.
Pastor John served in several churches over the next twenty years, but never sought a church in his career; all his pastorates were offered to him. I met John in 1981 when I joined the last church that asked him to come and help. He retired while at that church and he still attends every week to this day.
This gifted pastor discerned his call to ministry based on love for God, personal circumstances and opportunity. This will be a long post. It has taken a lot of time to write it and I don’t want to break it up into two posts because it is one big thought. So please be patient as I think you’ll find it helpful. There are learning points below, but the story of my call precedes them in order to demonstrate that your call doesn’t have to be just like someone else’s and so that I can refer to my story in the learning points.
My call was different
My call to ministry was not like John’s. I knew from my preteen years, I think almost to the time I was saved, that somehow God was going to use me some day to serve his church. I don’t know why I thought that, I just did. I continued to have that thought many times over the years, but I had no idea how one serves the whole church. A church or a denomination, I understood, but the broader church? I thought it quite presumptuous to even think about it! Who am I? So I just went on with my life.
But on May 25th 2001, I asked God a question, “Why have you given me so much vision for my church, for my clients, for everyone around me and nothing for me?” The answer was so clear that I pulled over to the side of the road in shock. I knew instantly that God had given me a call and the call was still valid this many years later! I went home and told my wife I was going to go to seminary to prepare for whatever God had in mind for me. She instantly agreed without reservation (now that’s confirmation!). I met with trusted people from my church who supported my sense of call to ministry. (Thank you Marshall, Jim, Ray, Laurie and Walt.)
Two weeks later I was enrolled at Tyndale Seminary and two weeks after that I started my first two courses during the summer term. I was not then aware of a call to CCCC, I was just being obedient in taking the next step in preparation to serve God.
When my wife and senior pastor saw the job ad for the executive director of CCCC, they both recommended that I apply. God orchestrated events in a marvelous way during the next six months. The key for me was a one-week spiritual retreat that was part of my MDiv program. The issue I brought to the retreat was whether I should pastor a church or lead CCCC, which had been offered to me subject to one more interview. I thought one was a test for the other! The spiritual director said something life-changing and liberating. “Why do you think God has only one perfect plan for you? Don’t you think in his graciousness God may give you two opportunities, equally pleasing to him, and then take delight in watching you make your choice?” He suggested a prayerful walk in the woods during which I realized that neither ministry option was more spiritual than the other, they just fulfilled different purposes in God’s plan.
I came home and conferred with Marshall Eizenga, then associate pastor at my church, who had watched my spiritual formation for fifteen years by that time. He confirmed the appropriateness of CCCC for me.
So my call was discerned based on a clear call to prepare for something (I didn’t know what) coupled with opportunity and guidance from several people that all aligned with a long-standing feeling I had as to God’s plan for my future. The other half of the equation is that the CCCC board independently discerned that I was called to lead this great ministry. My denominational advisor also agreed it was a good use of my gifts. We were in agreement and God’s call was confirmed in community.
Everyone has their own story about their call
As I travel for CCCC and visit our members, I always ask people how they got into the ministry that they are now in. And every time, I get treated to a unique story of how God worked in someone’s life. I’ve never heard the same story twice, and since God works in different ways with different people, I don’t believe there is a formula for discerning your call. What we learn from those who have gone before us is: 1) to be open to God working through us in unexpected ways; and 2) that we discern his leadership by engaging in Christian spiritual practices and spiritual reflection.
How to discern your call
Here are some observations you may find helpful.
- God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways (Isa 55:8). You cannot plan your way into a call from God. If you are asking God to bless your plans, you are probably not going to live out your highest and best purpose that God has in mind for you. At one point while at seminary, I thought God had forgotten me, so I helped him by getting some job interviews with Christian ministries. At one interview, the Holy Spirit clearly indicated to me “This is not what this is all about. Withdraw all your applications!” My plans were frustrating God’s plans. His direction was to stop planning, sit back, and watch what he would do. I would do nothing but respond to what others initiated. It reminded me of the truism “Let go and let God.” Experiencing God is a great book that says God never asks people to dream up what they should do for him. You can’t call yourself. You are called. Are you asking God to bless your plans, or are you seeking God’s plans?
- What if God seems to be silent about your call? Whenever there is silence, the standard advice is to check for sin first and deal with that. And if sin is not the issue, then keep doing the last thing God told you to do before the silence and wait for him to initiate change. And lastly, if you’ve never felt you had a personal call, perhaps the general call that all believers have is your only call (in which case, see the next bullet point). While at seminary I had no understanding of what kind of ministry God was leading me into. God seemed quite quiet. All I knew was that I was done with secular work. I also didn’t know how I could finish the degree as a full-time student with no income. Yet in spite of all the things I did not know, I did know with certainty that God wanted me in that MDiv program and that is what I hung on to. I said to myself many times, “But this one thing I know…” It was the last call that I had from God that gave me the fortitude to persevere and push through some tough circumstances.
- There are different kinds of call. A corporate call is shared by all believers while an individual call is for one person alone. Os Guiness says the ordinary (or corporate) call is to a life response to “Follow me!” A special (or individual) call is a clear communication from God to a task. Some people have no sense of individual call, in which case they live their lives following the call they share with all other Christians, believing that God will use them ad hoc as they live their lives. They are fully living a called life by doing so. I don’t know that we can say everyone needs an individual call. I do question Guiness’s definition of the individual call as a call to a task. I prefer to think that God calls us to a particular part of his mission. I feel called to the mission of equipping God’s church, more particularly the leadership of churches and Christian agencies. I am currently fulfilling that call through my role at CCCC because the board and I both feel that this role, with me in it, serves both my personal mission and CCCC’s organizational mission. If my time at CCCC ends, I am sure I would still feel called to serve the church but God would be leading me to another means of doing so. In my opinion, discerning your call usually means discerning two things: 1) what mission you are called to; and 2) with whom you are called to do it.
- Sometimes we are in circumstances that we don’t understand. At one point I was really, really mad at God because I was doing everything for him and he was doing nothing for me. I came home late one night on a real spiritual high from a three-day retreat of silence and solitude to discover I had received a fax from someone whom I had forgiven in my heart for some really bad behaviour a few years before. The person came to mind during the retreat and I wrote out a script about how I would tell the person of my forgiveness. So when I read the fax and saw the same bad behaviour all over again, I lost it with God. I composed my own imprecatory psalms that night!!! But God was big enough to bear my complaint and revealed to me that these circumstances were building character, to help me become the person he needed. Had I truly forgiven the person in my heart? This was something of a test. Far from doing nothing for me, God was actively working to make me more useful to him. When you don’t understand your circumstances, ask God to show you his perspective on your circumstances and follow through on what you learn. If circumstances do not support what you feel called to do, then it might not be the right time, so continue doing what you are already doing.
- Os Guiness, in his book The Call: Finding And Fulfilling The Central Purpose Of Your Life, says that you should do what you are. He believes that God’s call is normally in line with the gifts that you already have. “Normally” is an important concession, because God might call you to something outside of your abilities and interests, and give you the passion, grace and gifts needed once you start work. I’ve heard many stories where this has happened and people are doing things they never thought they would have the slightest interest or skill to do. Much of my life has been fighting against who God made me to be, in particular a voracious reader and researcher. We tend to devalue the things that come easiest to us and admire in others what we find difficult to do ourselves. There are many reasons why I feel my role at CCCC suits God’s call on my life, but one of the unexpected benefits is that it also allows me to use the talents and interests that come easiest to me and that I had devalued: my love for reading, researching, thinking, reflecting and writing. Does God give gifts to support a call or does he call according to the gifts he has already given? I suspect the answer is both, but normally you already have what you need. Perhaps it just needs developing.
- Sometimes when people feel called to a mission they mistakenly think they are also called to create or lead an organization that pursues that mission. For example, someone might feel a call to full-time evangelism, but it is a very different thing to be called to be an evangelist than to be called to lead an evangelism ministry. And it is quite a different thing to be called to lead an existing organization and to be called to create a new one from scratch. An evangelist and an executive director have two very different sets of skills and gifts. It also takes vastly different skills and gifts to build on what someone else has founded than to be a ministry entrepreneur. Paul recognized these distinctions (1 Cor 3:6). So, are you called to do the work itself or to lead an organization that enables others to do the work?
- In The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders For God’s People, Ray Anderson says, that in deciding what ministry to do or how to make decisions, don’t be guided by the past but by God’s eschatological preference. In the midst of the now and the not yet, the Holy Spirit is guiding us to be the church Christ wants when he returns, not a copy of the one he left. Therefore, you should expect that your call will contribute to the church moving forward in some way (or at least the particular segment of it that you will lead). Being oriented to the future will help stimulate creativity while discerning your call. Gary Harbaugh echoes Anderson’s future-orientation. He wrote in Pastor as Person that pastors are called by God to lead God’s people into the future. This involves choices about change that must include risk. Don’t follow your instincts, he says, follow your faith. You aren’t called to maintain a church but to lead it forward within the context of our culture and society. What attracted me to CCCC was the realization that it already had a great ministry, but there was a lot of room to expand its work. At one interview, the board said my mandate is to explore to the edges the full mandate of CCCC. This is a ministry that is not resting on its laurels but seeking God’s direction as it strives to fulfill its mission. Perfect! I can, with God’s help, lead CCCC into that future.
- It is crucial that other Christians who are close to you are part of the discernment process. You might get away with missing out on one of the above points, but this one is critical. The corroboration of your call by other mature believers is central to correctly discerning God’s call to ministry. We serve, even if in different ministries, as fellow-workers. We bless each other through the laying on of hands, prayers of dedication and so on. We work in community, not as lone rangers. Some people think they are called to ministry leadership, but if no one else supports that understanding, you must seriously question whether you have properly heard from God. I tested my call with my wife, my pastor, my prayer partners, some mature Christian friends and a few others. Along the way I had guidance from my professors at Tyndale that was invaluable. There is wisdom in receiving advice from counselors (Prov 13:10).
So, assuming God is calling you to some particular part of his mission, he will do it in some way that is likely to be unique to you. You’ll have the delight of seeing God give you your own story of how you were called. But these tips should help you be ready for the call when it comes. May God bless you richly with a satisfying life of service, whatever your call. Would you like to share the circumstances of your call? I’d like to hear it.