Discerning a Call to Ordained Ministry

When do you hear it? How do you hear it? Why do you hear it? From whom do you hear it? What will you be doing if you do hear it?

Seminarians and pastors often reflect on questions surrounding the meaning of a pastoral call. Call committees often ponder these questions from their varying perspectives as well, and pastoral candidates do their best to articulate the somewhat mysterious and powerful gift of a call to Word and Sacrament Ministry.

I have found it most helpful to speak first about the call that all Christians have from the day of their Baptisms, the moment the water was poured over their entire being in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the chrism was drawn in cruciform shape across their foreheads. “You are mine,” claims the LORD God, “You are mine forever.”  Every Christian is called to a vocation of ministry whether he or she is a baker or a banker, a hospital orderly or a truck driver. All the work that we do is to be in service of our neighbor. That is our vocation, and by doing it honestly and with integrity we are living out the calling to be holy. As the prophet Micah declares, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” Let it be noted, as well, that we always have multiple vocations as parent, neighbor, child, and citizen, and because we are baptized, because we are “called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified” by the Holy Spirit, God wants us to live out each of these dimensions to his glory. Life is a gift from this good and gracious God, and despite sorrows or strife, we can look to him with thanksgiving for the world he has made.

To hear a call to Word and Sacrament ministry, to ordination in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, one hears a word (notice, one does not create this word) from a voice that comes from the church—scripture, liturgy, a Sunday School teacher, a grandma who sits down the pew, a pastor—one hears a word that says, “God is giving you a vocation to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who need to hear it.” This is a particular calling, and it is a public calling to spend your days, and sometimes your nights, praying with the dying, studying Holy Scripture and faithful witnesses, learning the Great Tradition of the church, bringing comfort and hope, saying no to all the things that lead people from worshiping God, etc., etc., etc. Every true pastor can add a few dozen more tasks to this short description, but all them say, at the heart of this vocation, God, through the church, has called them to preach the Gospel and administer the Holy Sacraments, which in audible and visible form, bring healing, life, and salvation.

Let me be perfectly clear that the discernment process is rarely clear. It may even stop along the way and then without warning come back at you full force. The process takes time, growth, prayer, study, and conversation with those who have been asking the same questions for decades, even centuries. Just how is it that God brings his love to humankind generation after generation? How is it that God justifies, that is, sets right the ungodly? How is it that God makes himself known in such a way that we are stopped dead in our tracks as we dance after all the false gods of this world, gods whose faces and modes of operation take on new masks as quickly as we change the stations on a television?

Our “favorite” Reformer Martin Luther was bold to say that the primary way of justifying sinners, of releasing the terrified from their failure to love God above all others and to love their neighbor as themselves, was done through the Office of Ministry, where the God who has spoken to us in eternal love continues to do so through the gospel words and deeds of a pastor, for “ordination was the means of ‘instituting’ servants of the Word” (1). This is what is in the balance as each seminarian or potential seminarian enters into a discernment process.

In the Schwabach Articles of 1529—a predecessor of the Augsburg Confession, Luther reminded us that Christ did not write a book, but came preaching: oral proclamation, in-person proclamation, in-the-flesh proclamation, from mouth-to-ear proclamation. In his 1539 work “On the Councils and the Churches,” Luther addressed what we have come to call the seven marks of the church. He named the Word of God as the first mark of the church and declared the Word that calls to faith is not simply that which is written, but that which is “preached, believed, professed, and lived” (2). He makes it clear that the primary way of justifying sinners, of releasing the terrified from their failure to love God above all others and to love their neighbor as themselves, is done through the Office of Ministry, where the God who has spoken to us in eternal love continues to do so through the gospel words and deeds of a pastor.

Is your call getting any clearer now?

God chooses us in love. God endows each of us with a multiplicity of gifts. By God’s grace and by God’s design some of his children are called into the life of public proclamation, where God intends for them to feed his sheep, to tend his flock, to speak his mercy, to weep his love. God intends for them to serve as trustworthy vessels, speaking the truth that puts an end to humanity’s sinful delusions of self-reliance so that then they may speak the greatest truth: that his love is even greater than our greatest sin. People come to faith by hearing such love is for them; people come to faith by receiving such love in their bodies; for at the core of human existence, love is the way that life is given, the everlasting love that breathed life into the universe, the unending love breathed life into us at our conception, the mighty love which is the Almighty’s love that proclaims to us in any and every storm, “You are mine. No one will snatch you out of my hand” (John 10:28).              

Are you discerning a call to the Office of Ministry?

If your answer is “I am, and I ask God to help me,” then talk with your pastor, talk with staff at the seminary, talk with folks who know you and whom you trust, and most of all, talk to God through prayer, and he in his time will open your eyes to see the path to which he is calling you.

(1) Timothy J. Wengert, Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation & Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 19.

(2) LW 41:148 ff.