The Objective Call of God

(On Mondays, The Preacher considers the vitally important subject of The Call – how God calls a man into a pastoral and preaching ministry. Each week we look at some scriptural principles and some practical considerations, as well as learn from a wide range of individual testimonies.)

Having looked at the necessity of a call from God into a pastoral ministry and the internal or subjective sense of call that often begins that process in a man’s heart, today we look at the external or objective call of God on a man’s life.

…the crowning validation of a man’s call to the pastoral office is effected when a specific congregation, objectively assessing a man’s graces and gifts, and acting by the authority of Christ, does by its corporate suffrage, acknowledge that man as a gift of Christ to them, leading to his formal ordination and installation to that office in that specific congregation.[i]

In preparing for this study I was struck as I went through the sizable pile of books on Pastoral Theology books that currently live on my desk, that there is barely a mention in any of them offering advice to the man or church who is seeking to know God’s will as to whether he is called to be their pastor or when he feels it may be the right time to move from one church to another.  Perhaps the scenarios are so numerous and varied that they feel they can’t address the subject, but advice needs to be given for this is one of the most important questions that an individual or a church will ever consider.

Let me be so bold as to venture where others fear to go.

First, and I cannot stress this to strongly, from both perspectives – that of the individual and that of the church – limit your considerations to one man and one church.  The man who considers more than one church, and the church that considers more than one man at any one time, will find themselves in great difficulties in making the right decision for the right reasons.

In both cases, the danger is that decisions will be made based, for example, on personal preferences or financial considerations rather than on what is God clearly saying to everyone in this situation.   The decision to call a man or to choose a church becomes something of a ‘beauty contest’ where comparisons are made between different options.

I was once deceived by a congregation that I was in conversation with about being their pastor at the very beginning of my ministry. In fact I was spending a long weekend with the church, speaking at various meetings and getting to know the church as well as possible.  During the Sunday morning service at which I was preaching, it was announced that on the following weekend a second candidate for the pastorate would be doing precisely what I was doing at that moment in time, and after his visit a vote would be taken to come to a decision.  As soon as the service was finished, I spoke to the church leadership team and withdrew from their considerations.

Apart from anything else, if, as is the normal situation, a vote is taken on which of two, or perhaps more, men is to be invited to serve as pastor; and if, as is the norm, a majority of perhaps two-thirds, or 80% is required, if one man can get that the other candidate(s) must be of such poor quality to only get perhaps 20-30%, in which case why were they even being considered at all?

Where more than one man is being considered, the danger is that a decision will be made on the basis of personal preferences about style or appearance or personality rather than on the Spirit’s anointing and confirmation.

When more than one church is being considered, the danger is that a decision will be made on the basis of the financial package offered, the accommodation that goes with the job, the size of the congregation etc, rather than on the witness of the Spirit within.

Getting to know you

I cannot stress too emphatically the importance of taking time, as much as is possible, to get to know the prospective congregation.  This process must not be rushed, for whatever reason.  It is more important for a church to get the ‘right man’ at what appears to be the ‘wrong time’, than to get the ‘wrong man’ at what appears to be ‘right time’.

This needs to be a period of familiarisation and examination on both sides.  Opportunities need to be given to both church and candidate to get to know the other as much as is possible.

In this day and age, even before any serious conversations take place, there are opportunities for church and candidate to become acquainted with one another.   The prospective pastor can find out a great deal about the church by visiting their website and listening to the sort of ministry they are used to.

The seeking church can listen to sermons preached by the candidate, even before inviting them to preach for the first time.  In the past, it was often the case that a church would call a pastor based on perhaps only hearing him preach two or three times; hardly a good basis for making such an important decision and the candidate may be tempted to pull out of their file their ‘best’ sermon, in order to impress.

When there are face to face meetings there will be different levels of conversations

  1. Between the prospective pastor and the spiritual leadership of the church

In my opinion this conversation needs to happen early on in the process because the outcome of this may determine where there is any future in the process.  There needs to be a frank, honest, open and far-reaching discussion – a two-way conversation – about doctrinal matters and personal convictions.

It is important that nothing be assumed, simply because of the individual’s reputation or church background, or current ministry.  Nothing should be ‘off limits’.

The following are the sort of questions that should be asked of the church leaders by the prospective pastor:[ii]

Theological and Ecclesiological

  • What is the church’s statement of faith and how did the church devise it?
  • What has been the most vexed theological question the church has faced?
  • Has there ever been a church split over theology or practice, and, if so, why?
  • On the wider scene, what theological trends and strands of false teaching would the spiritual leaders be particularly concerned about at the moment?
  • What are the leadership structure of the church and how does it work in practice?
  • If there is a plurality of elders, what is the relationship of the elders to the pastor?
  • What are the primary and secondary issues for this church?
  • What is the church’s position on the role of women – complementarian or egalitarian?
  • What is the church’s position on the function of the charismatic gifts and other contentious issues?
  • What is the process of being baptised and becoming a church member?
  • How is baptism and membership encouraged?
  • How is communion practiced and it the table ‘guarded’?
  • What are the expectations laid upon church members?
  • How does the church practice church discipline?
  • What examples are there of church discipline being practiced in the past?
  • What is the vision of the church leaders for the future; do they have one?
  • What, if anything, would the elders want to see change or develop in the future?
  • Do the church members generally, and happily, follow the lead of the eldership?
  • What is the church’s current commitment to world mission?
  • What are the views about worship, use of modern hymns, instruments etc?
  • What is the church’s preferred Bible translation and how fervently is that position held?
  • Can the elders give evidence of an openness to growing in their role? (by eg. reading resources on eldership, attending conferences, having a weekend away with pastor, etc)
  • How would you sum up the spiritual health of the congregation in qualitative terms (against measurements like prayer, heart for evangelism, love for one another)?
  • Pardoning the expression, are there any ‘sacred cows’ in the church?
  • Who are the ‘power brokers’ and problem people in the church?
  • What is the church’s view of the role of the pastor’s wife?
  • What are the congregational/eldership expectations (these two may be different) regarding pastoral visitation?
  • Is the church open to change?
  • What relationships does the church have with other churches and what are the criteria on which those relationships are based?

Practical

  • What accommodation, if any, is provided by the church?
  • How easy might it be to buy an affordable house in the area?
  • What is the view of the elders related to the pastor developing his gifts and feeding his own soul through reading, conferences, sabbaticals etc?  Are there any expenses for these things?
  • resourcing himself? (conferences; the odd retreat to read & plan, etc)
  • What is the ‘rule’ regarding days off and holidays?
  • What is the ‘rule’ for releasing the pastor to preach elsewhere on occasions?
  • What are the schools like in the area?
  • What would be the minimum and maximum expectations be of the frequency of the pastor’s preaching?
  • What items in the current services are non-negotiable?
  • What other items are deemed acceptable and have been featured in the past?
  • Is the pastor responsible for putting together all orders of service?
  • How often are business meetings conducted? Does the pastor moderate this? Are they productive and generally positive? What is typically discussed?

You may notice that there is one issue that is intentionally omitted from this list of issues to be discussed – finances.

My own personal view and practice is that I have never and never would discuss the matter of salary/stipend/allowance etc until after I am resolved in my mind as to the rightness of accepting a call should it come.  I don’t want to allow for even the possibility of being tempted or deterred on the basis of money.  As the old saying puts it, ‘Where God leads, God feeds’.  (Philippians 4:19)

“In my many years in the pastorate I have never established a dollar amount as the basis for my coming to a church. When church leaders have asked what I thought I should receive, I have asked them to make a comparison between the salaries of other men in churches of similar size, take into consideration the cost of living in that particu­lar community, and then compare the figure they have arrived at with the dollar amount the church believes it can raise. If I felt that I was genuinely called of God to that group of people, I knew that God would be faithful in meeting my needs. He never has let me down. Through the years, never have we lived lavishly, but God nevertheless has consistently supplied more than our needs.

“I have used this personal illustration because I am becoming increasingly alarmed at the number of young men graduating from the seminary who have exaggerated ideas of their own worth to a church as a professional. Often these men state a minimum figure they believe is necessary for them to receive before they will agree to serve the church. Even though they are still an untested product, many demand a salary that exceeds by several thousands of dollars the salary received by many of their seminary professors. I am not Opposed to God’s servants living comfortably What I am concerned about are those who make salary a major consideration and never seem happy no matter how much money comes their way. That, to me is an unworthy motive to seek the pastorate.” [iii]

  • Between the prospective pastor and the membership of the church

There should be the opportunity for the individual to spend some time with some of the members and families of the church, in order to get the ‘view from the pew’, which is often very different from that which he will gain from meeting with the leadership. These could be individual families and individuals or small groups meetings with an ‘open microphone’ type facility.

“During the candidating week, the prospective pastor should visit as many homes of the congregation as possible to get a cross-sam­pling of the people he and his wife will be serving. He should meet with as many groups of people as possible, and he should encourage them to ask questions of him just as he, in turn, will ask questions of them concerning what they expect from a pastor.

“As the candidating week progresses, he should do his best to pene­trate the power structure and learn where the real power of the church lies. Especially should he try to learn who the tribal leader—or leaders—are. When he does so he should then arrange to meet with that person or group of persons. Such meetings may have to be arranged discreetly, because many times the real leaders of the church do not occupy any official office. If the candidate feels com­fortable working with the power bloc of the church he may want to pursue further meetings with the pulpit committee and the board of the church.” [iv]

  • Between the church and the home church of the prospective pastor

Since it is – or at least ought to be – the home church that has, over a period of time, evaluated and examined the character and gifting of the man under consideration, it is important that there is some interaction between the leadership of the two churches so that, as was true in the case of Timothy, it can be said that “he was well spoken of by the brothers at…..” (Acts 16:2).

“It should be standard procedure that a church considering a person to be their pastor go into the community where the man is presently living and talk to the non-Christians with whom he has contact to see what kind of a reputation he has among them. What sort of a neighbour has he been? Has he exemplified the Lord Jesus Christ among those in his neighbourhood? How has he reacted when a neighbour’s child beat up his child? What about those people with whom he has carried on business? Was he always looking for a special ‘deal’ because he was a clergyman? Did he pay his debts promptly? Was he honest and straightforward in his business dealings with members of the community? If he was in a business other than pastoring, what kind of a business reputation did he enjoy? Did he treat people honestly and squarely? Did he back up the product he was representing with service to his customers? If he was employed, what did his boss and, his fellow workers think of him? By now the reader is discovering on, the basis of this list of characteristics that many people already in the pastorate should not be there.” [v]

This last stage is probably not possible in most cases where a pastor is moving from one church to another, but is important when a man is entering pastoral ministry for the first time

Let me suggest one more conversation that could be had, at least in certain circumstances, that between the prospective pastor and the former pastor of the church.  In my own situation, as a young first-time pastor fresh out of College and, as they say, very ‘wet behind the ears’, that was an invaluable and truly providential blessing.

“Books giving advice to new pastors used to warn the pastor that under no circumstances should he discuss his new church with his predecessor lest it color his opinions and thus his actions toward the people whom he serves. Such advice may be in order if the new pastor is easily impressed and incapable of making up his own mind, but usually it is not. In the last two churches I served, before agree­ing to become pastor I made it a point to sit down with my predeces­sor and try to get an objective view of the congregation. Rather than flavoring my view prejudicially, his comments gave me rich insights into the congregation. They enabled me to tread softly in certain areas and avoid making some of the mistakes my predecessors made. It also gave me a better picture of the power structure of the church so that I knew from the start that was really in charge. I was thus able to spare the time it would have taken me to learn the power bloc. I could begin to work immediately with those who determined what would or wouldn’t move in that church.” [vi]

For the church seeking a pastor:

  • There is a need to be explicit with the candidate about the process that is being followed, the rough length of time that it is envisaged to take and how the matter will ultimately be resolved.
  • For instance, will the leadership make a recommendation to the church membership, and will that recommendation be a majority or unanimous decision? I, for one, would not want to go to a church where the elders were not completely of one mind as to my call.
  • What percentage is required from a vote by church members?   In my experiences, churches generally require a two-thirds or 80% majority, and I would not want to settle for less than 80%.

For the pastor seeking a church:

  • It is important that even before serious conversations are held you identify what for you are ‘red lines’ and ‘deal breakers’.

Although not explicitly mentioned, all of the above is saturated with and accompanied by fervent and relentless prayer for the clearest of divine guidance.   There is much, almost unceasing, prayer by the men at the centre of all of this, but also prayer involving his wife and family, his church leadership and friends.   Perhaps a season, a retreat, of earnest prayer would also be appropriate and necessary.

One closing, but immensely important aspect I would stress; one which, in many ways, is covered by all the above – for the prospective pastor it is vitally important and critical that he gets to know the culture of the church that he is considering to the best of his God-given ability.  Every church has its own culture, its own way of doing things, its own values etc.   These are deeply ingrained, often unconsciously, until they are challenged.   As you get to know the church, its leadership, people and history, cry to the Lord to enable you to discover its culture and how cherished it is and whether in any way it would become a hinderance to you in ministry there.   Some church cultures are stubbornly resistant to change and may be best avoided altogether.


[i] Martin, A. N. (2018). The Man of God Vol. 1 Pastoral Theology. Montville: Trinity Pulpit Press.  p208

[ii] Many of these questions I have borrowed and adapted from Colin Adams’ excellent preaching blog – http://www.unashamedworkman.org/popular-old-posts/41-questions-to-ask-a-potential-church/

[iii] Anderson, R. C. (1985). The Effective Pastor. Chicago: Moody Press. p13

[iv] Anderson, R. C. (1985). The Effective Pastor. Chicago: Moody Press. p106

[v] Prime, D. (2003). Pastors and Teachers. Hants: Christian Books.  p31

[vi] Anderson, R. C. (1985). The Effective Pastor. Chicago: Moody Press. p116-117

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