How to Discern Your Calling
If you are heading toward seminary or praying about that decision, I would assume you have perceived a personal sense of God’s calling in your life. If this is indeed the case, I believe we can hold these basic assumptions regarding your personal experience:
- You are a Christian — i.e., you know Christ personally and have entrusted yourself to Him for your own salvation.
- You are committed to Christ — i.e., you have demonstrated a desire to submit to Christ’s Lordship and God’s Word, and God is working in your life.
- You have a love for Christ’s bride: the church.
If these realities exist in your life, then the next question to consider is your calling to ministry.
Let’s begin with what is termed the internal call. The internal call is apparent when you can state that you personally sense a call from God – you know that God is working in your life and seems to be leading you to serve Him in full-time ministry. Just to clarify, I define a call to the ministry as “all of your time (full time, not part time), all of your life (you can do nothing else with your life), for the rest of your life.” In addition to this sense of calling, one aspect of the internal call is a realization that you have desires for ministry — i.e. inclinations and a magnetic draw to do something you quite possibly never thought you would want to do or be able to do. You have begun to see fruit from your ministry efforts; something seems to happen in other people’s lives whenever you find yourself in a place of service for the Lord. You also recognize capabilities in ministry settings – you are developing and discovering useful gifts.
“…I define a call to the ministry as ‘all of your time (full time, not part time), all of your life (you can do nothing else with your life), for the rest of your life.'”
And best of all, you realize it’s not about you; it’s about the Lord and His working through your life. You have learned to die to self, growing to value the “unworldly” attributes of servanthood and humility. You have discovered that leading is based upon serving, and serving is what you want to do with the rest of your life — something you never thought could be. But as you have learned to walk by faith, you are ready to trust God more than ever before for your future and your needs. You are learning to give your worries over to Him (this attitude will become very relevant in future ministry experience). The bottom line defining one’s sense of internal call is that you can’t see yourself doing anything else but ministry.
This brings us to the external call. The external call complements the internal call and confirms it. Simply stated, the external call describes the reality that others, those who know you and whom God has placed in your life, have also discerned your calling to ministry, observing gifts commensurate to this calling. These outside observers have seen fruit born in your ministry and believe that this fruit bearing is a work of God. These
others are mature Christians – pastors, elders, deacons, church members or parachurch staff members – who, working closely with you, confirm your sense of calling to ministry.
One of the most significantly memorable statements I ever heard, a remark given prior to my third and final year of seminary, was made by my pastor, under whom I had served for three months as a summer intern. I was doing youth, college and some adult ministry, including preaching three of my earliest sermons (I’m sorry he and the church had to endure those trials). Although I was certain that the summer had been fruitful and had deepened my internal call to ministry, my pastor sat down with me at the end of the internship and said, “Well, it certainly appears you have a call to the ministry. I have observed that to be true this summer.” This pastor never knew how much that brief statement meant to me. Those words gave me a depth of reassurance – a confirmation from a credible outside source – that I should continue to pursue the call I believed God had placed in my heart. Confirmation of the external call of God on your life is wonderful, bringing a sense of settled peace in your soul.
When certain of your call, though, please beware of thinking that if you enter the ministry, you are called (and/or are able) to “save the world!” In reality, your calling to kingdom service is simply to faithfully proclaim the gospel wherever God plants you in ministry. So set your sights on walking humbly with Him and letting Him bless your work as He sees fit.
“Simply stated, seminary often helps mature the internal call and confirm the external call.”
At this point you may wonder, “What is the place and role of seminary in pursuing or defining my call to ministry?” Simply stated, seminary often helps mature the internal call and confirm the external call. I have observed that at least half the students who attend seminary initially have some sense of calling to ministry, but upon entering seminary, are still quite uncertain about their calling (especially concerning preaching sermons and
leading a congregation). Many students attend seminary still wondering if God is calling them to full-time Christian service. We might say they are exploring their calling.
Seminary is a great place to do such exploration. Your professors, classmates and (in a much greater way) pastor(s) can provide confirmation regarding your call to ministry. But I should mention that if your internal call has not been affirmed in some manner by an external call, you might be wise to wait before entering seminary. Also keep in mind that just because you attend seminary and complete a degree does not mean you should be in ministry or are called to ministry. A seminary degree does not necessarily validate calling to and giftedness for ministry. You might have the degree, but not the calling. But no matter what happens, you will have a biblically based education that will provide a foundation for life in God’s church and kingdom for the rest of your life, whether ordained or not.