My call to pastoring felt like a mix of divine prank and human bumbling. I was one day minding my own business, the next setting up office in a small-town Baptist church. The door had a fresh-engraved plaque on it: "Pastor Mark."
How did that happen? Even now it's not entirely clear to me. I wasn't looking for it, dreaming of it, wishing it were so. I wasn't trained for it. It fell out of a blue sky. It leapt out of still water. It rounded a corner and came straight at me.
It took me completely by surprise.
In spite of that, because of that, it took me years to crack the enigma of calling. Was I truly called? Was I deluded? Was I a fraud? Was I an exemplar? Was my call akin to the Apostle Paul's—a holy ambush—or more like that of the Sons of Thunder, James and John: a self-appointment, a willful and selfish choosing of my own seat in the Kingdom?
Just as I was getting some handle on that, another challenge was thrust on me: how do I, as Pastor Mark, help those I am called to serve discern their calling? This challenge distilled in one memorable appointment with a young single mother. She wanted to put her child in foster care because, as she vehemently claimed, "God is calling me to lead the nations in worship, and he wants me to go to Australia and train under Darlene Zschech." She had no money, no connection with Darlene Zschech (an Australian worship leader), and no great talent. Nevertheless, she was utterly convinced God required this of her.
It's easy to mock something like that, except the Bible is full of likewise examples - preposterous, outlandish, costly calls that require wild abandon, breathtaking audacity, fixed resolve, and the brazen defiance of common sense. To name a few: Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Esther, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Peter, Paul. And then there's all the preposterous, outlandish, costly calls history serves up. To name a few: Polycarp, Augustine, Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Gary Haugen. Any of these stories seem inevitable only in hindsight. From foresight, they seem impossible, hubristic, delusional.
So I took her seriously, and walked her through a series of questions that had become touchstones for discerning my own call.
Am I running from something?
Sometimes ministry seems like a refuge from difficulty. It never is. But try to discern if the main motivation for seeking ministry is to evade something that needs to be faced.
Is it a genuine call or simply a desire?
Aspiration is not calling. We obey a call; we remain available to a desire.
Does this, surprising as it is, fit who I am, how God has shaped me?
Frederick Buechner's definition of call: where your deep joy and the world's deep need meet. In all true calls, deep calls to deep.
If this is my calling, is it for now or for later?
David was anointed and called to be Israel's king at least a decade before he actually stepped into the role. The vision sustained him through many hard, lonely, hungry nights. But it was a long time coming.
If this is my calling, is it something I'm to pursue or to await?
Joseph was called to rule a nation. But he had to wait, and never push, God's time for its fulfillment.
Do others independently perceive it?
Both Saul and Jonathan, in very different ways, perceived David's call to be king. Saul tried to destroy him. Jonathan gave him his full support. A true call is always seen by others, for good or ill.
Is it rooted in the deeper call of God?
Our first and deepest call is to know Christ and be conformed to him. All specific calls derive from and are anchored in this greater one. Too often we rush to the specific call without being firmly established in the deeper one, and end up disappointed, not fulfilled.
By such discernment, I just passed 23 years in pastoral ministry.
And the young single mom? She's now middle-aged, married, raising three children, and lives down the road.
Both of us fulfilling a call.
Mark Buchanan is pastor of New Life Community Church in Duncan, British Columbia.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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