I never felt a "calling to ministry." It just happened. I respect those who have had a calling experience to be in ministry, but honestly, these stories leave me confused. Isn't everyone who places their faith in Jesus and begins to follow him "called" into ministry? For some it might be serving on a church staff. For others the calling might be serving as a full-time mom or a plumber or an engineer. Each of these is a sacred calling. We all interact with other human beings, and we all represent Jesus. We are all called into a sacred vocation. We're all on mission.
Perhaps I'm more sensitive than most to making a distinction between those who are called (into full-time ministry as a pastor) and those who aren't. About one third of the people at our church are college students. We also have a lot of young families. Members of this generation have serious reservations about trusting the church. And they are wary of building a hierarchy of those who are "called" and those who supposedly are not.
When we label only career pastors as "called," what does that say about all those in the church who also have pastoral gifts? They may be using their pastoral gifts to lead a mid-week Bible study or to shepherd people in a small group. But are they "called" differently than the one who does it all week as a job?
To encourage everyone to see their vocation as a sacred calling, our church offers a class twice a year called "Church and Mission." We walk people through the theology of vocation, and challenge them to see their callings as sacred. When they finish the class and formally join the mission of the local church, we commission them in front of the whole church body, just as you would missionaries going oversees or when a pastor is ordained. In our worship gatherings we explain what it means to be called into mission and each person tells the church what their sacred calling is. You may hear someone say, "My sacred calling right now is serving as a full-time mom to my children, raising them in the ways of Jesus, and befriending other moms I meet." Another might say, "I am a university student and my mission and calling is to represent Jesus well on campus and at my job as a barista." In those commissioning times, we hear from salespeople, youth workers, and technical workers. We anoint them with oil, as a symbol of the Holy Spirit empowering them for their mission. Then many choose to kneel and we pray for them.
To communicate that everyone has a sacred calling and not just the "pastors" or staff at our church, we downplay titles. In our bulletins you won't find the title "pastor." Not that we don't have pastors, but we don't want even to subtly undermine those people who, in various ways, pastor people but don't do it as their job. We're careful not to use language that suggests some have a special calling while others do not. In our literature, we also don't differentiate between paid staff and volunteer staff. And we consistently teach that sacred ministry is not only what people do inside the four walls of the church or what happens in a Sunday service. Someone who is stewarding their calling in their job as an engineer or a teacher has just as sacred a calling as someone who is on staff at the church.
I believe in calling. I just believe all are called. The local church has an amazing opportunity to help people understand that whatever they do can be seen as a sacred vocation. But doing so demands dispensing with hierarchies and abandoning the elite status we've bestowed on career ministers. This is especially crucial when engaging members of the younger generation. They won't be satisfied with any system that relegates their vocations to second-class endeavors. And they shouldn't be.