A pastor friend tells the story of a dear old soul he visited often in the nursing home. She would make ringing noises (BBBBrrrring! BBBBrrrring!), then turn her head and yell, "Somebody get the phone!"
Our conversation with Maxie Dunnam brought that story to mind. Often in ministry, we meet those who struggle with the concept of the call. They may not be certain whether they hear a call from God or if they're concocting the call themselves. And we wonder whether we should help them answer it.
During his lifetime of ministry, as pastor, denominational leader, and currently president of Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, Dunnam has helped many a prospective minister discern the call of God.
What do you say to someone who says, "I think I may be called to ministry"?
I say, "God bless you!"
The church as a whole and the academic community in particular aren't always friendly to the message that God intervenes directly in our lives, that he makes himself known by speaking to us. So I try to affirm what they're experiencing and that God does call and lead.
Then I try to put the specific call into a larger context. I talk about the fact that the first call upon our lives is the call to accept God's justifying grace. That's the first calling we all receive. Once we become Christians, there is a second calling, a deeper calling to be a committed follower, to take seriously being a disciple of Christ.
The third calling some receive is to "representative" ministry, the professional or ordained ministry wherein we "represent" Christ.
While I try to affirm the person's call, I also try to clarify his or her notion of calling. A calling from God is part of his work in all of us, not just in those who would be pastors.
What's the first step in discerning if a person's call is to pastoral ministry?
I try to uncover what models people have had. Who have they been involved with and who has inspired them? Our experiences bear on determining a life's vocation.
It's important, especially for young men and women exploring a call, not to nail down a specific expression of ministry too quickly. There are sets of gifts that accompany different ministries, and they need to deal with those gifts and graces, and taste involvement in the ministries to which they feel called, before determining just where the call is leading.
We had a banker who came to seminary five years ago. He had come to a much deeper Christian experience in the Emmaus Walk movement and felt God was calling him to ministry. But his only vision of vocational ministry at that point was pastoring.
He came to seminary intending to become a pastor. But in the course of his three years here, it became clear that God was calling him to use his gifts, graces, and his experiences elsewhere. God used his experience in finance to move him into a ministry at the denominational level that involves financial management.
Today he counsels pastors on money matters and church budgeting.
What do you do when someone's "call" doesn't ring true to you?
One of the greatest weakness of the church in terms of leadership is precisely at that point. What we need to do is put the call in the context of the community of faith, not strictly as an individualistic thing.
The calling to representational (pastoral) ministry requires a congregation to affirm that call. It requires the input of the church community.
How does the church test a person's call?
In the beginning of my ministry I made the mistake of sharing my negative discernments too early. I learned that it was better to put people who felt called into support groups, or discernment teams, for several months, so that others in the church could help them explore their giftedness or lack thereof.