Is “Calling” Reserved for Vocational Ministry?

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The idea of “calling” is a source of mystery and confusion for many. As a seminary student, I often hear men and women speak of calling when they talk about their long-term plans. Some feel that the Lord is calling them to live and work in an overseas context, while others feel a call to disciple teenagers in the Bible Belt.

Everyone is seeking to find the Lord’s will for their lives — specifically the vocation He wants them to use in service to the kingdom.

While I don’t want to disparage this desire to align one’s career choice with God’s will, it seems that we have mistakenly isolated a call to serve in vocational ministry as some mystical experience reserved for the “varsity team” Christians. This sort of emphasis on a calling to vocational ministry enhances the sacred/secular divide in our churches. When we only highlight those who have “surrendered to a call” to vocational missionary, we are implicitly teaching that this sort of work is of more value than the work of postal workers, baristas, and stay-at-home moms.

We have mistakenly isolated a call to ministry as a mystical experience for ‘varsity team’ Christians.

To use the words of Darrell Cosden in his The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work, we often teach our congregations, either directly or indirectly, that there is a “hierarchy of callings,” where a call to serve as an overseas missionary is more significant than a decision to teach at the local preschool.

To be sure, we should be quick to honor those who are willing to forsake everything for the sake of the gospel, but a cross-bearing, Christ-honoring life need not be limited to a mud hut in the 10/40 window. Geographical location in itself does not determine faithfulness to the Lord.

A cross-bearing, Christ-honoring life need not be limited to a mud hut in the 10/40 window.

Churches, though, often cause unnecessary confusion and guilt for the church members who are serving the Lord through business or a trade, such as carpentry or auto mechanics. I believe one way to dispel some of this hierarchical thinking is by gaining a firmer grasp on the biblical concept of calling.

The Bible contains some very memorable and dramatic stories of divine calling.

  • God called Noah to the work of building an ark and preparing for a global flood.
  • The Lord called David through the prophet Samuel into serving as the king of Israel.
  • Jesus called Paul into missionary service through that dramatic experience on the road to Damascus.

The Bible is full of examples of men and women being dramatically called into service to accomplish His redemptive purposes for the nations, but that’s not always the case. For instance, as the apostolic age was coming to a close, the process for entering pastoral ministry was actually quite ordinary.

  • First, does the man have a desire to do the work (1 Tim. 3:1)?
  • Second, does he have the necessary skills to do the work, and has his local church affirmed his skills and character?

Without being too simplistic, these are the primary criteria for those who would serve as shepherds of a local church, and I believe there is significant overlap between evaluating a person’s “call” to vocational ministry and other vocations.

As pastors and church leaders help congregants figure out through which field of work they can serve the Kingdom, a good place to start is identifying the person’s desires and interests. God wires people differently, and their calling often goes hand-in-hand with the things that excite them or pique their interests. This is why some men and women love getting knee-deep in the administrative tasks of a small business, while others much prefer to be outside getting their hands dirty with the work of manual labor. These differences in desires are a first step in discerning a person’s vocational calling.

Calling often goes hand-in-hand with the things that excite people or pique their interests.

Competency in the required skills is also necessary to determine calling. A young man may desire to work as a chemical engineer, but that probably isn’t a good fit for him if he can’t handle high-level chemistry or math. He doesn’t have the skills to match the vocation, much like a young man who can’t teach doesn’t have the necessary skills to be an elder of a church.

When we step back and evaluate calling in this logical and practical manner, we see that God calls men and women to serve Him in all sorts of vocations — those in the church and those in His good creation. Christians need not limit this idea of calling to some mystical experience reserved for pastors and others in vocational ministry. As church leaders help congregants view calling through this lens, it will go a long way in dispelling the misguided sacred/secular divide.

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Cody Cunningham

Cody Cunningham serves as a missionary in Kenya with Reaching and Teaching International Ministries. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Cody and his wife Margaret have three kids: Josiah, Charlotte, and Levi.

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