It is widely recognized that there is a shortage of men coming forward for the ministry. One third year student in a theological college told me that of all the students in his year only three are intending to enter the pastoral ministry. Yet many churches are without pastors. Even among those men available, not all are adequately equipped. As one well-known Christian minister put it, “Not all men who are available are suitable.”
What is wrong? I believe it is fundamentally a spiritual problem. This is easily demonstrated. First of all, in times of revival, when the general level of spirituality is high, many more men enter the ministry. In times of refreshing men who previously were deaf to Christ’s call, hear his voice and respond.
Secondly, the Lord Jesus Christ clearly placed this whole matter in the spiritual realm when he taught that the answer to the shortage of shepherds is to “pray the Lord of the harvest that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). Clearly it is God’s prerogative to put men into the ministry. Part of the answer, therefore, is earnest prayer for pastors to be called. Yet how often do we hear such prayers in our prayer meetings?
One reason for that may be the pernicious opinion that has gained a hold in some circles, that there is no such thing as a divine call to the ministry. One Christian leader said to me, when I expressed the concern that an applicant might not have a call from God, “Oh, I don’t agree with that. There is no difference between a call to the ministry and a call to be a dentist,” thus implying, in the context of the discussion, that there is no such thing as a specific call to the ministry. But surely anyone can choose to be a dentist. Can anyone choose to be a minister? I think not. Jesus said to his apostles, “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you…” and in the context that statement is not primarily about salvation but service (John 15:17).
The idea that a man can just choose to be a minister, or be invited to volunteer with no sense of divine call may be one reason why some who do volunteer seem to be unsuitable. Moreover, if the call of God is ignored and never preached that may also be the reason for a lack of candidates. But such an idea flies in the face of a great deal of Scripture.
In the Bible, every man used by God was called by God, either specifically or by implication. Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah spring to mind from the Old Testament. In the New Testament Jesus specifically called his apostles (Matt. 4:18-22, etc.). Of John the Baptist it is written, “There was a man sent from God.” (John 1:6). The apostle Paul was clearly specifically called by God (Acts 9). The words concerning the Old Testament priesthood are remarkably telling: “And no one takes this honour to himself, but receives it when he is called by God…” (Heb. 5:4).
The call to the ministry is basically the inward conviction that this is what God wants for a person’s life. It is the growing assurance that comes to a man that he must give his life to Christ for the preaching of the gospel. The apostle Paul cried out, “Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). Jeremiah also felt a divine compulsion to proclaim God’s word (Jer. 20:9).
How is a man to know whether that conviction within him is of God? There are two tests. One is that sooner or later the church will recognize his calling and gifting. Secondly, again, sooner or later, there will be fruit of some kind, either saints being edified or sinners being converted or both. It may be meagre at first, but there will be some confirmation of the calling.
There is another reason why some candidates for the ministry may seem to be unsuitable, and that is that their training has been inadequate. Quite apart from the sad and serious fact that some colleges, once known as evangelical, have drifted into liberal theology, there is another fact that in some instances men have been taught but not trained.. However useful lectures may be for some purposes, men cannot be adequately prepared for the ministry by lectures alone. For many years Bible and Theological colleges have had Sermon Clinics in which the students practise upon, and are criticised by, their fellow students. But preaching is not the only skill a minister needs. Today many colleges operate a “placement” system in which a trainee is placed in a church alongside an experienced minister. That can be very helpful. After all, the Lord Jesus chose his disciples “that they might be with Him” (Mark 3:14). Being in close fellowship with an experienced minister is one aspect of being discipled. The Puritan minister, Richard Greenham, recognizing that a university education was not a sufficient preparation for the ministry, used to take young graduates into his home for personal discipling. A minister needs to live the life as well as preach. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 almost all the qualifications are to do with character, rather than teaching which has just a brief mention.
Some time ago I heard a minister give an address to a fraternal on “temptations ministers face.” What he said was very good, but he did not even mention three of the most dangerous temptations for a minister, namely, money, sex and pride. Are these dangers warned against in college? Is worldliness ever discussed? How many colleges teach prospective ministers the importance of personal devotions (the why and how); how to bring up children; the importance of family worship; handling personal finances; efficient reading and study methods; how to lead discussion groups, prayer meetings and Bible studies? Do colleges teach how to arrange and run a half-night of prayer in a church? What about husband and wife and family relationships, a vital matter according to 1 Timothy three? Are ministers today taught how to disciple someone? Yet this is a prime requisite according to Matthew 28:19, 20.
Excuses given might include: “There is no time for such things as we have to concentrate on the university degree curriculum,” or “We assume those things have already been taught in the local church.” I will also mention without comment the fact that some lecturers have never actually held a pastorate themselves.
Some years ago a minister showed me a letter he had received from the General Secretary of a large city mission. Five men had applied for the post of missioner with that society. The Secretary had set them a straightforward Bible examination. None of them did well in the test . They did not know their Bibles at all well. Yet four of the five had degrees in theology from British theological colleges. In fact the one without a degree did slightly better than the other four!
Teaching is not training, though it may be a part of it. Training involves telling the trainee ‘why’, showing him ‘how’, getting him started, keeping him going and checking up on him. The trainer will get the trainee to observe him in action. Then he will gradually introduce him to the work, until finally he can do the job on his own, reporting back to his trainer until the latter is established in the work. That is, in effect, what our Lord did with his disciples. And training should involve training in godliness and practical skills. Perhaps Richard Greenham had something to teach us.