I recently attended a conference on preaching which included a passionate discussion about a person’s call to preach. My own experience with the concept of calling has been different from what I hear from others, so I thought I would share it here.
The Prophetic Call
The concept of a call to preach is rooted in the holy Scriptures. Any prophet worthy of his mantle has a good calling story to tell. Moses before the burning bush (Exodus 3). Isaiah with his burning coal (Isaiah 6). Jeremiah with his burning bones (Jeremiah 20). Likewise the Apostles are called away from their lives and careers. Peter, Andrew, James, and John called from a life of fishing (Matthew 4). Matthew called from a life at the tax collector’s booth (Matthew 9). Saul of Tarsus called from a life of scholarship and zealous religious leadership (Acts 9).
Many ministers I know speak of their own call. Rarely are they quite as dramatic as those listed above, but they often speak of a burning within or a moment of deep conviction. They can point to the day they felt it, the day the sense of deep obligation sank into them and drug them kicking and screaming from a path not taken towards the work of ministry.
I envy them.
I have no such day to which I can point, nor even a still small voice calling my name. It’s not that I necessarily doubt their stories, only that I am equally certain that I have none to share. Instead, when I search the recesses of my memory for what drove me to this vocation, I find not an event, but rather a story with more questions than answers.
I’m not the only one with this question. I remember reading an old article by E.M. Borden titled, “My Call to Preach.” He stated with clarity, “No man has a divine right to preach unless he has been called, and every true gospel preacher has been called.” However, Borden also believed that he had no right to hijack the calling of the apostles and prophets, neither did he have such a moment of his own to compare to theirs. To the contrary, he was extremely skeptical (and condemnatory) of anyone claiming to have such a direct calling experience. Instead, he claimed the commission of Timothy as his own (2 Timothy 4:2). I appreciate some of Borden’s thoughts, but he still leaves me with a question. I am not Timothy any more than I am Paul or Moses. How can I be sure that Timothy’s commission was my own and that his call was my call? Many faithful Christians read 2 Timothy without ever concluding that they must be a minister of the Word. Why should I be different?
The Minister Without a Call
My father was and is a gospel preacher. I can remember the first memory verse he ever asked me to remember. “Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16b, KJV of course). He was and is my chief role model in preaching, shaping me to this day, even if on occasion I find myself in an area of disagreement with him. I tagged along with him to a hundred lectureships and sat listening as he swapped stories and doctrines with his preacher buddies. He never told me I had to preach. In fact, he told me once not to preach if I could do anything else.
I started preaching some as a teenager. I cannot tell you why exactly. I never saw a burning bush, but it seemed like a good thing to do. No one told me back then that a shy kid with stage-fright would be better off in almost any other life than preaching. Instead I was encouraged by many saints to continue the pursuit, each too kind to tell me how awful I was. I preached hundreds of bad sermons before I ever got to an adequate one. My nerves drove my tongue to rattle off words at a dizzying pace. Folks told me to slow down, but no one told me how to stop feeling terrified of being in front of people. Time took care of that the hard way. Eventually I settled down a bit and slowed down. It only took a decade or two.
I remember our high school had a career day with professionals coming in to talk about their work. Enough people requested something related to ministry that the school had a local pastor come in to speak to us. He was an older man, the local Methodist pastor I think. His first words are the only ones he spoke which I still remember: “Do not go into ministry unless you are called to it by God.” It bothered me then that I didn’t know what to make of his claim. I dismissed it as silly Methodist talk and went on about my day. I never forgot it though.
Somewhere in this span of time I became interested in science. Part of my curiosity came from an apologetics seminar I had attended as a boy. Another part came from the fact that I was just good at it. Dad had always said that a preacher should have a “tent-making skill,” something to fall back on when the ministry left him high and dry. I figured physics was as good as anything, though now I think learning to be a plumber or electrician might have been nearer to Paul’s tent-making.
When I arrived at college, I stopped in at a church I had spoken for a few times and placed my membership. I volunteered to help out, which they interpreted as a job application. The Barnes Church of Christ hired me the same day as their associate minister at the exciting wage of $100 per week. Still, my attention had been turned to science, and it wasn’t long until my new wife and I were making plans for moving to Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell University. Not sure why that one held my attention, but it is where I decided to go. I never went. I took a job in sales. Then full-time preaching. Then sales again. Then I started putting out applications for ministry jobs. Then another sales job.
I don’t really know if I was trying to get out of ministry or for that matter if God was trying to keep me in, but here I am at the Glenpool Church of Christ in my seventh year with the church as their minister.
The Nagging Doubt
In my few years in ministry, I have always been haunted by the concern that it isn’t where I’m supposed to be. Some reading this will find it strange, but it is true. I have clear memories of people telling me, “You are doing exactly what God wants you to do!” I appreciated their sincerity and their certainty, but rarely shared it.
While going through graduate school in theology, I would frequently ask professors about the concept of calling. Should a quiet introvert like me be content in the academy instead? Is preaching what I am supposed to be doing? Several kind and gracious professors told me I’d know the answer on my own. I didn’t.
At one point, it drove me to a place I never thought I’d find myself. I took a long drive to spend part of a week in the middle of nowhere, ironically parallel to where I was in my search for certainty. I drove to a cow pasture in Hulbert, OK, home of Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey, a community of benedictine monks. I imposed on their hospitality for a few days. I sat quietly in my room reading or sometimes walked in the woods. I attended their masses as a stranger, not understanding their ways or speaking Latin, just observing and listening. On the last day of my stay, I requested “spiritual direction” from a monk, a service the monks offer to protestant guests who are not interested in making confession. I asked my question, the question that had chased me all this way. “How did you decide to be a monk? Were you called?” The kind monk looked at me and gave an answer both helpful and useless. “I was raised as a Catholic,” he said, “and I knew serving God would be a good thing to do. I knew the tradition of the monks was good, so I joined. I never heard a voice from God.” Just then the bell tolled for evening worship, and he excused himself, leaving me no closer to my goal. I hadn’t expected much, and that is about what I got.
I went home shortly thereafter, refreshed but not resolved. No one had the answer to my question. No one would tell me what I must do, and God was silent still. I had other experiences like this as well. I stood by the ocean on a family vacation and stared silently at the crashing waves. I listened, but God did not speak discernibly to me then either. Always I tried to listen. Never did I hear.
The Long, Quiet Call
The conclusion I have come to may not be the same as others. Some speak of a passionate fire, a roaring in their bones which will not let them do anything other than preach or minister. I feel the heat some days, but it isn’t the same for me as it is for others. I sometimes envy them still, but I’ve grown more content with another kind of flame.
I remember listening to a sermon by Dan Jenkins a few years ago on serving God in old age (I was by far the youngest person in the room). He said that when you light a fire, the initial flame is intense, but that isn’t what keeps you warm at night. Warmth comes from the back log, the slowly burning embers rich in fuel and energy. They aren’t flashy, but they stay the course. He said that faith in old age should look like that, a fire which burns but does not consume. As I reflect often on my work in ministry, I have found that metaphor useful for several purposes. For me, it is the picture of my calling. God has not led me with a shout or even a whisper, but rather he has walked in front of me imperceptibly, leading me – to borrow Eugene Peterson’s phrase – in “a long obedience in the same direction.”
I am called of God to be a minister of the gospel, though I have had no burning moment. God gave me a role model to teach me. God gave me an intellect to study. God gave me a stubbornness to work through my weaknesses as he turns them into strengths. God has defeated me every time I have tried to pursue a life without preaching. God has blessed me every time I have given ministry my all. God has never left me nor let me go.
I am not bitter towards God over his silence, because his silence was not empty. In it I can find my first memory verse, my first role model, my first sermon – each followed by many more like them.
I am the recipient of the long, quiet call.