Hundreds of students over the years have shared with me the story of their call to ministry. They have ranged in age from their twenties to their seventies, and varied in almost every other way imaginable. Still, there is a thread common to the overwhelming majority of the accounts: some person or persons spotted and then encouraged them. It is as likely to have been a layperson as a pastor. Whoever they were, they saw potential in the other and suggested that they think seriously about ministry.
This is something any of us can and all of us should be willing to do, especially if we care about the future of the church. It used to be that ministry was one of a small number of default career options that able people typically considered, but that is much more rarely the case today. A hundred years ago, it was relatively common for a Rhodes Scholar to become an ordained member of the clergy. I know of one today (a friend and former student).
But what should you look for? What follows is by no means an exhaustive list. Moreover, a great variety of gifts and forms of service exist. That Rhodes Scholar I just mentioned cannot do everything equally well and has a distinctive calling. So take this a general guide, not a formal checklist. Also, I have not attempted to put these in rank order. The idea is simply to help you to be, like Barnabas in the book of Acts, one whom God uses to encourage others in their vocation. So, who might be a potential church leader?
- One who assumes responsibility. Do they already see problems and attempt to solve them? Good leaders care about finding solutions, not laying blame. They are not scorekeepers. They do not believe that because they did not cause it, it is “not their problem.” They have a record of thinking both realistically and optimistically.
- One who possesses integrity. This should go without saying, but too many clergy fail because they make fatal, often secret, compromises. One should not ask for perfection, of course, but for a solid moral core. Do they keep their promises? Are their public and private lives in harmony? Do they ever take an unpopular stand?
- One whose faith is growing. Decades in ministry require an ever-expanding and maturing faith. Do you see evidence of such growth, both in depth but also in breadth, over the past few years? As far as you know, do they attend to their own spiritual health?
- One who has a servant’s heart. Are they giving themselves to something greater than themselves, or is their time, attention, and imagination focused on themselves? Do they do things for others even when their acts are unheralded? In other words, are they humble or are they self-aggrandizing? What seems to give them the most energy? The most joy?
- One who shows empathy. As always, we need leaders capable of empathizing with those in physical, mental, or spiritual need. Increasingly, we also require leaders who display empathy toward those with whom they disagree. We live today in what some have called a “culture of contempt,” in which ideological opponents are vilified as evil and/or stupid. Do they demonstrate a willingness to understand the other side and to reach across divisions? This does not mean being a doormat but, to change the metaphor, to be instead an open door to others.
- One who thinks clearly and communicates compellingly. Do they put together ideas well and express themselves coherently and convincingly? Most ministers are, in effect, professional communicators. This is truer for some forms of church leadership than for others, but for many it is a matter of essential importance. Good preaching is perhaps the commonest request made by congregations. It can be taught to some extent, but the best communicators as pastors are nearly always those who already were excellent thinkers and communicators prior to seminary.
- One who works well with others. Most of us have known pastors (a small minority, thankfully) who are domineering, self-involved, temperamental… (I’ll let you fill out the list!) Is there evidence that they thrive on teamwork, recruit talent, delegate authority, celebrate the contributions of others, and admit mistakes? If so, they are likely to have a fruitful ministry. Those who do not usually leave a human debris field in their wake.
- One who sees opportunities. There is much to bemoan about the world today, not least in the church. It is easy to see the problems but much more challenging to identify the resulting opportunities. Have they started something new, especially at some cost or risk to themselves? Thriving ministries are typically creative ministries, and creativity requires some tolerance for experimentation and failure.
- One who builds community. Over the past fifty years, we have witnessed a dramatic erosion in what sociologists term “social capital.” The majority of Americans today are significantly less connected to others than were previous generations. Most so-called “middle institutions” (that is, institutions with which one is closely identified that exist between the individual and the state, such as the PTA, the Lions Club, the VFW, and the church) have declined precipitously over these same decades, while the human need for association remains. Do they like to bring people together? Do they see church as a place for involvement, not simply entertainment?
- One who already leads. Most future church leaders already lead in some capacity. Those who lead informally–for example, without holding a title or office—might not realize that what they do even constitutes leadership. Indeed, the best leadership is often unself-conscious. Someone else (you, I hope) might well recognize their gifts before they do. This is especially true of people who, for one reason or another, are unlikely to be identified through formal channels. Recall that Barnabas saw something in Paul, the church’s former persecutor, that others did not (Acts 9:26-27). Are they already leading, though perhaps under the radar?
That’s a daunting and humbling list, but I have known many people who match up well against it. You probably do, too.
Of course, one could possess all of these traits in spades and still not be called to ministry. But why not ask? After you’ve done so, one of our “Ministry Discernment Associates” would be happy to help them consider in detail whether they are indeed called to serve in this way; visit our admission site here. You can also refer a student directly by clicking here.
I shall always be grateful for those, both laity and clergy, who did much the same thing for me.
Wishing you joy in the New Year,