Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Calling and Happiness

Over the years and from various corners, I have heard this bit of proverbial wisdom:

"You should only go into the ordained ministry if you can't imagine yourself doing anything else."

I think that this is an unhealthy perspective to maintain. If you are an ordained minister or are otherwise working full-time in lay ministry, there will be days in your life when you can easily imagine yourself doing something else. I have certainly had days in the past year of my first pastorate when I have looked upon my former career as a librarian with fondness, if not envy.

To expect that every day in ministry will be so filled with elation that the minister cannot imagine doing anything else is an unrealistic and unachievable standard for happiness. For that matter, it's not even Biblical. Take, for example, the ministry of Elijah. He was a faithful prophet who proclaimed the Word of God to kings and empires. But even in the wake of tremendous victory, he could feel despair of God's call on his life:

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ (1 Kin 19:4 NRSV)

Jeremiah likewise expressed misery in his own ministry in the final days of Judah’s independence. He even went so far as to question God’s integrity in calling him:

Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail. (Jer 15:18 NRSV)

Hosea was ordered to marry a prostitute. Jonah physically fled from his call. Surely these ministers had days in which they could imagine doing some other line of work than ministry! Shall we, then, hold ourselves to be greater than the prophets of the Lord?

Those of us who serve in full-time ministry or are preparing to do not do so because we find it blissful.

We do so because we are called.


Matt said...

Thanks for these thoughts John. I've always been suspicious of that piece of advice.

Growing up, I met far too many pastors who literally couldn't do anything else, because they thrived on the lack of supervision and definition that the pastorate can sometimes provide in small churches. My calling crystallized when I met a pastor who could have done something else!

We need far more gifted men and women who could do something else, yet hear God's call to full-time ministry and respond in faith.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

JtM, thanks for this honest thought. Too many times the patoral calling is glorified and exalted to an unrealistic degree.

I struggled with that advice as well. Now that I serve in a church, I still have awful days and there are some days when teaching high school is appealing again! :)

Thanks Matt, for your thoughts, too.

(Oh, and don't forget to email this frederico dude :) ).

DannyG said...

It's true in any profession. I had a day at the hospital last week where I was ready to walk out and join my cousin flying float planes in Alaska. It passed. I think that this advice isn't focused on the continuous, minute-to-minute feelings, but rather the over-all feeling in the long haul. I have days when I would be happy to do anything else, but when I look at it, I'm doing what I felt called to when I was 16, and it is still rewarding in the long run.

Dan Trabue said...

Good thoughts.

Reminded me of this quote:

"The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work that you need most to do and that the world most needs to have done...The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

-- Frederick Buechner

John B said...

I think you misunderstand the meaning of that quote. At least in my mind, it's not about can you (as in, have the ability) do something else, but can you be satisfied doing something else. If you can be satisfied being a librarian you have no business being a pastor. Don't mean to pick on you specifically, just using your example.

Jeremiah understood this wisdom when he said, But if I say, "I will not mention him or speak any more in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. 20:9

Jeremiah wanted out, but because of the passion God planted within him, he knew that he couldn't do anything else.

I don't know any pastor who hasn't entertained the idea of doing something else, but for the vast majority of those who stuck it out, the call of God upon their lives was so strong they felt they had no choice, like Jeremiah, than to continue.

Ken Lowery said...

I see people talk about writing this way, too. And in the rare, romantic moments, it IS almost true... that you write because you cannot imagine NOT writing.

But the actual professionals? Man, they can imagine that just fine, sometimes. When it becomes work, it is undeniably work along with those wonderful, too-few moments. It's a love-hate thing, but you couldn't imagine living without it. That is what a calling (or vocation) is to me. No rose-colored glasses, just an understanding of where a person belongs.

the reverend mommy said...

Amen, brother.

Keith Taylor said...

This is a good post, John.

As I layman, it is very easy for me to pick out a pastor is doing the job when they weren't really called by God to do that job. Maybe they are doing it because their parents or family wanted them to, or maybe they are doing it because they are 3rd or 4th generation PKs, or maybe because they didn't know what else to do, but it isn't because they heard and felt a calling from God to be a pastor. Likewise, a genuine, Spirit Filled, called by God, real McCoy pastor is usually pretty easy to spot.

I've always told my wife and others that I'd have loved to have been called to preach. However, I was called to be a mechanical engineer, therefore, if I tried to preach I doubt I'd be much good at it since I'd be bucking the will of God.

John said...

I get what you're saying, John. I really, really liked my last job as a librarian. But I knew that it wasn't where I was supposed to be.

Of course now, after three years away from the reference desk, I've lost the ability to be a librarian -- my skills are far too rusty and the work has changed. And I knew it would be this way when I resigned from the Clay County Public Library and started seminary.

The Thief said...

I remember Mike Breaux (then pastor at Southland Christian Church) telling us how some days he'd rather be a greenskeeper on a golf course - and he went to Bob Russell, pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville and asked him if he ever thought about it and he responded, "Never."

Mike asked him, "You never contemplate doing something else?"

Bob responded, "All the time. But I'd never be a greenskeeper; I'd manage a Dairy Queen!"

psychodougie said...

i always find "calling" such an loaded term - all Christians are "called" in some sense, does that mean all need to be "called" as Jeremiah was "called"?

my best wisdom on the matter was full-time paid ministry is something you consider pursuing when you don't have enough time to do your secular work and ministry, and one of the two have to give.

we need to be careful to not push unsuitable people into ministry just because at some stage they felt a "calling", nor should people in the above scenario be discouraged because of their lack of personal "calling" (apart from the scriptural exhortations along that line!)

P-Mike said...

I think you have this wrong. I didn't understand it either until I was called. When God called me, I couldn't do anything else. I was so drawn by his calling that continuing in my landscaping business that I had been in for 23 years became hard. God's hand put a passion in my heart that overcame anything else that I had a previous passion for. I found myself not being able to do my former job because I no longer enjoyed it. I now see that God overcame any previous passions by placing a new passion in my heart and I couldn't do anything else but follow his calling. Sure there are hard times, but this new passion is what helps me overcome the struggles of ministry. I don't regret walking away from a thriving business and new home to follow God. To put it simply, I couldn't not follow him. If you are truely called, you won't be able to do anything else. The problem is, people fail at other jobs in life and think "maybe I'll become a minister. Big mistake. People couldn't understand why I decided to "become" a preacher. Some even said "you won't get rich doing that." But as some things are spiritually discerned, they couldn't understand that I didn't just decide to become a preacher; God decided for me and gave me a passion so strong that I couldn't do anything else.

Mike the Methodist in Penna.