For Pastors of Small Churches
This book is written specifically for pastors of small church. Most churches are small churches yet they are the backbone of Christianity. Kent Philpott has been the pastor of one large church and a few small churches for forty years, and in 57 chapters has provided some helpful material for pastors.
The Call to Pastoral Ministry
“I only went into the ministry because my parents wanted me to. I can’t take it anymore, and now it is too late for me to do anything else.”
Desperate words from a desperate man and what a tragedy for him and his family. At age fifty he felt there was nowhere else to go. “Why didn’t someone stop me, why didn’t anybody sit me down and talk to me for real?” he wondered.
Before entering the pastoral ministry it is necessary to be as clear as possible that it is the will of God. And this is not easily known. Though most of us speak as if our call was clear and undeniable, for many it was not always so. Family and friends may say, after observing certain talents and skills, “You are ideally suited for the ministry.” A person may want to be an electrical engineer, for instance, but due to some success doing ministry at a local church, other people do their best to send the young person off to seminary. Any call must come directly to a person and not to family or friends. Neither must success in ministry be equated with a call.
Every Christian is called to ministry—to serve and honor God. We are to be prepared to give the reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15). And we are all sent to bear witness to Jesus and the gospel (John 20:21). Yet I believe there is a distinct call to the pastoral ministry beyond the call and election of every Christian. At the very least, before entering into ministry, a person must be clear about what it means to be a preacher and pastor.
It is difficult to express the actual call to pastoral ministry, and probably impossible to describe what it feels like, if it feels like anything at all. Some people express it in terms of feelings and emotions. This was not true of me personally. Not that I am devoid of emotion, but I am not a terribly excitable person (outside of sports, that is). When it comes to religious things, I have even learned to mistrust my feelings and emotions; I do not equate them with the moving of the Holy Spirit in my life. I have found Scripture more reliable than my feelings. I do not deny my feelings, but they need to be corroborated by Scripture.
Is a “call” biblical? Is it something very specific and obvious? Frankly, both questions are difficult to answer. From Scripture we know that Jesus called the Twelve to Himself (Mark 1:16-20). They did not choose Him; He chose them. This is the great precedent. Also, Jesus called Paul, specifically and concretely. The seven deacons were also chosen or appointed, especially called out from the congregation (Acts 6:2-3). Ephesians 4:11 states that God “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” The word “gave” used in this verse is from the ordinary Greek verb for “to give.” It does not convey a meaning of appointment or ordination, just simple “gave.” But it is God who initiated the process. This is what I consider “the call.”
As I suggested in the first paragraph of this chapter, the obviousness of a call is debatable. My own call was undeniable, so much so that it is yet fresh in my mind. I simply wanted to a preacher, nothing else mattered, and a way was opened up for me to pursue my desire. I have read many other descriptions of a call to ministry, and I do not dispute any of them. This is far from an exact science.
My favorite description of the call to preach is found in a book by D. Martin Lloyd-Jones entitled Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan Publishing House, 1971). In the chapter “The Preacher,” four points about a call to ministry stand out in my mind. One, there is an inner or subjective drawing to the ministry. No person puts it there; it is specifically and uniquely one’s own. Two, there is a burden for unbelievers and an accompanying desire to do something about it. Three, there is a sense of constraint—that is, one can do nothing else than be a preacher. Lloyd-Jones quotes Spurgeon who said to his students that if you can do anything else, stay out of the ministry. And I very much agree with the great Spurgeon. Four, there should be a sense that the calling is so awesome it is beyond you, that you are not worthy of it, that you are inadequate for it. It is just as Paul asked, “Who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).
Such was the case with my own call to ministry. At the time, I was pursuing a masters degree in psychology at Sacramento State University in Sacramento, California. Right in the middle of a certificate program in counseling (I intended to be a school psychologist), I quit and took off for seminary. I had a growing sense that the only thing that mattered for me was to be a preacher of the gospel. I had an overwhelming desire to be in full time ministry in some capacity, either as an evangelist, missionary, or pastor.
At that point in my life I had many interests. I enjoyed surfing and playing baseball. I sought out adventure and great challenges. I even liked military life, and also enjoyed going to college. But nothing was of truly great interest to me.
I had always been interested in psychology. I spent five years earning a bachelor’s degree, taking far more psychology courses than I needed. But, when I saw the gospel for what it was, psychology did not interest me as much anymore. I could not imagine a career as a psychologist; it seemed a trivial pursuit. Psychology was no longer at the center of what I wanted, but gospel ministry was everything to me.
It does not seem to me that I had any other call than that—nothing else interested me. I could have earned my livelihood as a school psychologist and found other avenues of service and ministry. I certainly could have, but that was not in my mind. If it had been suggested that I could be a school psychologist and a preacher of the gospel at the same time I might have said that it sounded like a good idea. But I also wanted the training; I wanted to spend time studying the Bible. I wanted to learn about church history and theology. I already had a desire to learn Greek and Hebrew. I had heard various seminary professors and my own pastor, Robert Lewis, then at First Baptist Church of Fairfield, talk about Greek words and Hebrew words, and I wanted to know those words. I wanted to be able to handle a Greek New Testament. I wanted to know more of who Martin Luther and John Calvin were. I had heard the names of great Christian heroes mentioned, but I knew nothing of them. So in my own mind this was my call. Everything else began to fade in importance. The only meaning I could find was in gospel ministry. It was not so much that I wanted to be the pastor of a church; I just wanted to preach the gospel.
There was one major moment in 1965 when everything about my call to ministry crystallized. The occasion was a prayer meeting. Pastor Lewis had asked for prayer while he was preaching a revival. An Air Force lieutenant then asked me to join a small group for prayer during the revival (I was a lowly airman). We prayed for hours, though the passing of time was not evident to me. There was only prayer—no preaching, teaching, or singing. Only a few people even prayed out loud, and these prayers were tame Baptist style prayers. During that prayer meeting I had the experience of being called into the ministry. I would now describe it as a “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” although at the time, I was unfamiliar with that phrase. I now realize that the Lord Jesus baptized me in or with the Holy Spirit. There were no charismatic gifts involved at all—only intense, heartfelt prayer. I was never the same afterward. Now I had a strong desire to share the story of Jesus with others.
Not long after the prayer meeting, the pastor asked me to preach for him at the local juvenile hall (the Solano County facility in Fairfield). I was surprised that the pastor even knew who I was. I went and fearfully preached to a packed room of kids, then gave a standard invitation. Some twenty-six kids expressed a desire to trust in Jesus. All my previous attempts at witnessing had been met with either rejection or a lack of an outward, immediate response. What a difference!*
There are many ways to preach the gospel. My personal forum has been to pastor a church. I have often said, “I pastor a church in order to preach the gospel.”
Miller Avenue Baptist Church is a small church, and at present I do not have many people to whom to preach. However, I have sought out creative ways to preach the gospel to a wider audience. I am encouraged to think that, on any given Sunday morning or evening, maybe one or two non-Christians will be in attendance. Certainly I do not know whether someone is born again, so even if we have a small attendance there might be people who are not yet converted. And besides, I know that hearing the gospel story is always an encouragement, no matter how long a person has been a Christian. I personally love to hear the gospel preached by other people. I may have preached it thousands of times myself, and yet I love to hear the story told again and again. It encourages and strengthens and lifts up more than any other message I know.
I have never apologized for being a preacher of the gospel. When people ask me what I do, I tell them, “I am a gospel preacher. I present the message of Jesus, and that’s what I do.” This is what I was called to do in 1965, as far as I understand it. Whether or not my particular call is general or very unordinary I cannot say. I have talked to ministers who have had very specific calls; I have talked to others who have had calls that were more general like my own. But the one element that is common to all calls to pastoral ministry is a desire and drive to preach the gospel, because anything less will not be strong enough when the difficult times come.
Have you been able to satisfy yourself about your own calling?
How might you help someone else who was unsure?
* For more on the subject of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I recommend Joy Unspeakable: Power and Renewal in the Holy Spirit by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Harold Shaw Publishers: Wheaton, Illinois, 1984.
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