Very excited to have Skye Jethani sharing on Rookie Pastor today. After several conversations on issues of calling and vocation he agreed to put some of these thoughts in print.
As I have written before Skye brings a very fresh voice for those in ministry that those who are just starting out need to hear. Also if you are interested in what Rob Bell is up to lately you should sign up for his newsletter.
How we’ve allowed a one-dimensional theology of mission to negate a robust theology of vocation.
When I entered seminary 14 years ago, I was humbled by many of my classmates. While we all suffered through “suicide Greek” (an intense six-week summer course that only a gifted linguist with a penchant for self-flagellation would enjoy), I learned that some students sacrificed far more than others to follow God’s call into pastoral ministry.
Scott left his position as a Navy pilot, with a stable salary and excellent benefits. David left his management job with a Big Three automaker and relocated his family. He attended classes all day and studied while working as a night security guard. I have no idea when he slept.
Gregory, an engineer from China, brought his wife and two young girls from Hong Kong to Chicago—he’d never seen snow before, let alone 12 inches of it covering his car. In six months Gregory taught himself enough English to successfully translate the New Testament from Greek into English, and then into Cantonese for his congregation in Chinatown.
These pastors represent the power of godly ambition. God’s call upon their lives, and their desire to serve his people, was the engine that drove them to make enormous changes and sacrifices.
But seminary revealed the dark side of ambition as well. On the first day in a small class, when asked to introduce ourselves and say why we had entered seminary, the first student said, “I’m here because I’m going to be the next Bill Hybels.” Really, I thought. Hope that works out for you.
The next said, “My grandfather was a pastor, my father was a pastor, and I’m supposed to be a pastor too.” Daddy issues? The third student revealed his three-year plan to become senior pastor and then transform his congregation into a megachurch. “My denomination wants me to have an M.Div. degree,” he said, “but once I’ve proven I can grow a big church, I don’t think they’ll make me finish the degree.” Good grief, I thought.
Then the scary realization: What if my motivations for being here are just as questionable? That introduced me to the dangerous side of pastoral ambition. It can drive us to make great sacrifices in service to God and others, but it can also be a veneer that hides far less noble motivations. The problem is that few take the time or effort to delve deeply into the motivations of would-be pastors to help them discover the existence of a shadow-motivation in their ministry–a motivation that may ultimately inflict harm on a church, community, or the pastor’s own family.
Why don’t we investigate our own motives, or those of others, more carefully before entering pastoral ministry? I believe it is because we have allowed a one-dimensional theology of mission to negate a robust theology of vocation. Let me explain.
In much of the evangelical church it is considered a victory when a young person commits to pastoral or missionary service. We interpret the event as an answer to prayer; the Lord of the Harvest is adding workers to his fields. And believing the advancement of God’s mission to be of paramount importance, we often celebrate the person’s decision without ever asking why s/he is pursuing ministry. The perceived urgency of the mission pushes aside our responsibility to pause and individually or communally discern whether a genuine calling from God is present.
Time for a history lesson. Reformation leaders, in response to the abuse of power evident among the Roman Catholic clergy at the time, affirmed the “priesthood of all believers” and the belief that all Christians were called by God to labor that honored him and served the world. Prior to the Reformation it was believed that only clergy had a God-honoring vocation–from the Latin root vocare meaning “to call.”
But Protestant theologians began applying the term vocation to farmers, builders, artists, teachers…everyone. All work honored God and each Christian was called by Christ to his/her vocation. This theology effectively put clergy and laity on even ground. One entered ministry, it taught, not because one sought power, significance, or esteem, but because the Lord had called you.
But since at least the mid-19th century and the rise of the modern missionary movement, the evangelical church has slowly abandoned the Reformation theology of vocation, at least in practice if not theory, and once again exalted the clergy. The urgency of global missions, as well as the need to raise up funds and workers for international fields, resulted in ministry becoming the most celebrated of vocations in most Christian communities. Discerning God’s call took a back seat to the needs of the world and the lost.
“Does the world really need another cardiologist,” one pre-med student asked me, “when there are people who still haven’t heard the gospel?” Notice that in his question there is no room for a theology of calling, only a theology of urgency. One’s labor should be determined by the world’s perceived need rather than our Lord’s call. Medicine would be a “wasted life” in his mind while becoming a missionary would be “significant.” This logic affirms that God’s will can be discerned with a simply formula:
A: God desires all to be saved (scriptural principle)
B: The world is full of unsaved people (analysis of the world)
A + B = My life will be most significant if I devote as much energy/time as possible to saving the lost.
But missing from this equation is any variable. There is no “X” factor; no room for variance, otherwise known as the Holy Spirit. There is no space for a theology of calling.
A century of this has significantly changed who is honored in most churches today. When was the last time someone was celebrated for teaching in a public school, for healing the sick as a medical worker, or supplying the community with food at the grocery store? These vocations never make it on the radar of most evangelicals. But if a teacher, doctor, or butcher leaves their profession to become a pastor or missionary we put them on a pedestal as a model for others to emulate. Now they are doing something really significant.
Am I saying ministers shouldn’t be honored? Of course not. Scripture tells us to honor these leaders for their service. But what concerns me is how the discernment of God’s calling rarely if ever enters into the decision about whether or not to pursue a ministry career or any other for that matter. And when pastors/missionaries are the only vocations celebrated in evangelical communities, we create an atmosphere in which young people may be attracted to these roles not out of a genuine calling that emerges from their communion with Christ, but out of a desire to be significant and valued by a community that honors missional effectiveness above all else.
This, I fear, is what I was witnessing in my early seminary classes–young men drawn to pastoral ministry from a shadow desire for significance, honor, prestige, or ambition rooted in self rather than Christ. Why do pastors leave the ministry at alarming rates? Why are we seeing an epidemic of pornography and other addictive behaviors among church leaders? Why do ministry families struggle so deeply and secretly? There are many causes, but I don’t believe these outcomes are accidental. As Dallas Willard is fond of saying, “Your system is perfectly designed to produce the results you are experiencing.” Our church culture is designed to attract, consume, and eject pastors.
This design is rooted in the loss of a robust theology of vocation and calling paired with our one-dimensional theology of mission that puts urgency and effectiveness above all else. In other words, we’ve created a church culture that attracts people to the pastorate for the wrong reasons and is then aghast when they don’t succeed. How do we change this system? I’ll begin to tackle that in my next post.