The work of parish ministry is one of the most daring and demanding journeys that one can take. It is not without profound meaning, but it also tests an individual in every dimension of experience. It provides great opportunity for friendship, but it also requires maturity and poise in the face of life’s most devastating issues. It depends upon a growing capacity for theological wisdom, but it requires compassion and humility in the personal application of one’s theology. Above all, perhaps, it involves the capacity to understand one’s life as a special calling.
In the Presbyterian Church, we have the opportunity to encourage men and women to consider the ministry as a special calling from God. Our involvement is important, for the sense of call which finally compels a person to accept this journey of ministry is far from being one that is highly individualistic. The call to ministry is, as is everything else in the life of the Christian church, a product of a profoundly deep and satisfying acknowledgment of one’s place in the Christian community.
In our church, we may have underestimated the significant role which our encouragement of candidates for ministry plays in preparation for leadership in the church. Those to whom we offer encouragement are those who will lead our church in the years ahead. We must be alert for those whom we think Christ might be calling to this special task, and we must look for special characteristics that in some measure indicate their qualifications for the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments. While not everyone is possessed of all characteristics equally, they are all significant.
The Great Commandments
The first characteristic is, of course, a growing sense of importance of the love of God and neighbor above all else. Jesus’ emphatic admonition of the summary of the law and the prophets is the one thing that will hold a person’s life together when many other parts of it seem to be challenged. It is thus the fundamental feature that will hold a person steady in the midst of many crises. This growing conviction that this love of God and neighbor will be an absolute commitment in a highly personal way will enable the potential minister not only to maintain direction during the years of training but will also enable the minister to maintain a strong sense of personal priority through the years of service.
A Sense of Personal Identity
Theological education includes the testing of one’s knowledge in many areas and the development of skills in many areas of pastoral service. It seems to work best, however, when an individual has completed some of the basic stages of personal maturation and when one has a reasonably accurate appreciation of one’s own abilities and strengths. One, of course, learns a great deal more about oneself through an in-depth encounter with the Word of God. As scripture is studied in depth, the theological student will learn to appreciate more about the incredible complexity and subtlety of the human spirit. Nevertheless, it is important that a certain degree of personal stability and maturity be achieved. This will enable the theological student to gain the most from the educational experience and to emerge from it better prepared to serve a local church with a sense of personal satisfaction, enthusiasm, and appreciation for the gifts of other people.
Stable Family Relationships
If a person is married, one should expect an enjoyable, stable structure of family relationships. It is simply a fact, proven from experience through the years, that one is not going to be able to minister to others very effectively if family issues are unresolved. It is not possible to seek perfection in family life, for it does not exist, but when we encourage another person to consider the calling of the ministry, we must be aware of the strength in this person’s family life. The ministry requires as much stability in this area as possible. If a person is single, it is wise to be reasonably confident that this person has a strong and positive appreciation for family life as well as for the role of a single person in the ministry.
Financial and Professional Responsibility
The stewardship of one’s own life and resources, as well as one’s capacity to serve in a leadership position in the life of the church, requires a certain amount of resourcefulness and clarity about one’s own financial needs. If a person is saddled with heavy debts, this may not be the time to turn to theological education. A potential pastor must also be considered in light of the professional or business responsibilities which this person may already carry. A man acknowledged to me recently that while he was very deeply interested in going into the ministry, he was aware that if he terminated his own business organization and ended those relationships, he would be responsible for putting a number of people out of work. His awareness of his sense of responsibility for the lives of others spoke to me in a very clear way about his genuine aptitude for the ministry even as it also indicated that this might very well not be a calling for him at this particular time in his life.
Steadfast Convictions and Creative Response
To serve faithfully requires an ability to hold fast to certain fundamental, central convictions while remaining open and flexible with their application. That is to say, one must come to realize, as a pastor, that the service to the church is one which involves a heritage of beliefs and values. It is not one that is to be reinvented on the basis of a sense of today’s particular needs and concerns. The pastoral ministry has a remarkably strong, persistent identity in western society, and it is one which is very deeply rooted in the church’s history of the care of souls. Thus, the individual who feels a sense of rapport with this great heritage, who understands that the ministry involves a personal sense of responsibility to the historical development of this calling, will have a very strong sense of assurance about the nature of this work. It is wise, therefore, to be aware of an individual’s potential to enter into the historic nature of this work with a great degree of appreciation for its enduring spiritual principles and purposes. At the same time, the pastoral ministry requires an unusually secure person who is able to respond with fluid, adaptable style. The chances are great that a pastor will be called to serve varied congregations and interact with diverse personalities. Thus, the capacity to maintain certain basic commitments and convictions while applying them with innovation and creativity is essential.
The Spiritual Dimension of the Call
It is one thing to enjoy working in church activities. It is even understandable that a person might have participated in many areas of the church’s life and received a great deal of reward and encouragement from these responsibilities. It is quite another, however, for us to be aware that an individual is growing spiritually and that we can at least surmise that somewhere down the line the significance of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ will become the most important element in this person’s life. In the end, what matters the most is the pastor’s capacity to interact productively with the parishioner’s growing commitment to Christ. Here is where the critical issue in the pastor’s life will ultimately be faced one day. Only as a person is drawn toward the significance of that reality in the lives of others will that person really come to enjoy, and to succeed in, the role of the minister of a local church. What this will mean, in the life of the individual, is impossible to predict with precision. Nevertheless, what is important, is that this individual be aware in at least some elementary way of the central significance of Christ in the formation of the church’s work.
An Enthusiasm for Leadership
Those who take a genuine delight in helping draw others into the work of the church and in developing its outreach of witness, care, and compassion will be those who provide strong and able leadership for our church in the years to come. The personal capacity to find satisfaction in this work and to become enthusiastic about it is essential. The ministry has at least two points of special concern. One is, of course, profoundly spiri-tual in nature. The other, without a doubt, is essentially social in application. Only the person who enjoys drawing others together into a unified community will have the capacity that is needed to direct a congregation’s ongoing passion for ministry. This characteristic, the delight and the enthusiasm in drawing people into the work of the church, will be especially important in years to come. The formation of community, the creation of fellowship opportunities around the worship and work of the church, will be increasingly important in a society which is as fragmented as ours is today. The ministry, apart from its specialized areas of service, will always require an essential capacity for social organization. A person who can take the initiative in forming opportunities for service and discussion and who has a genuine pleasure in opening up dialogue with others will be one who has remarkably positive contributions to make to the health of a congregation.
I am convinced that responsibilities of the pastoral ministry remain much the same, however novel and diverse the circumstances might be in any particular situation. It is still a very special calling, one which is primarily spiritual in nature and which is respected and trusted to the degree that this spiritual character is accepted and observed. I am very enthusiastic about this calling because I believe there is no greater adventure on this earth. It is not a time to become discouraged about it. It is, instead, a time to be alert for those whom we suspect God may be calling to this service. We can help to open the door for those who are seeking to follow God’s will for their lives.
This essay appeared in a brochure entitled, “As I See It,” of Union Seminary, Richmond, Virginia, Summer 1994.