Doubting Your Calling

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Have you ever doubted your calling to pastoral ministry? Have you ever found yourself wondering what in the world you were doing planting a church?   Perhaps some of these questions have crossed your mind more than a few times: “What was God thinking when He led me into pastoring?”

“Did God not get it right, or did I not hear Him right?”

“Does He want me to keep ‘banging my head against the wall’, or does He want me to hang it up?”

Nearly twenty years ago, when I was trying to determine whether God was leading me into vocational ministry, I remember asking God to make it so crystal clear to me that if I chose not to pursue becoming a pastor that I would recognize that I was making a conscious decision to disobey Him. I wanted Him to be that clear. The reason I desired this crystal clear clarity from the Lord was because I had been close enough to the inner workings of ministry leadership to know that this was not going to be a bed of roses. I envisioned myself five, ten, twenty years later in ministry, and when it became really tough beyond what I thought I could bare, I didn’t want to have an easy out. When ministry became emotionally intolerable, when opposition mounted against me, and when the fruit of the ministry seemed nonexistent, I didn’t want to find myself saying, “well, I thought this was what God wanted me to do, but maybe I was mistaken.” I wanted the kind of clarity from God that was in keeping with Cortes’ infamous order to “burn the ships;” there’s no going back now!

God was gracious to give me that desired clarity. It came in the form of an internal and external call, though I didn’t even know what those words meant at the time. The internal call from God came first and was unmistakable. I truly sensed that God had answered my prayer and was moving me to pursue vocational ministry. Although this “call” was unmistakable, I was led to seek external affirmation from my own church. [quote]Although this “call” was unmistakable, I was led to seek external affirmation from my own church.[/quote] This external call was also given to me as the elders and church congregation where we were members offered to ordain me and extend pastoral responsibilities to me.

I am so thankful for the clarity of this calling, because the times of doubt would surely come.

I had been in vocational ministry for 10 years, and was only a year into a new church plant, but I was done.  Leadership struggles, a lack of ministry “success,” and a complete withdrawal of pastoral support from our sending church left me wondering what in the world I was doing there. I felt inadequate to the task, unprepared for what was happening, and alone. I found myself complaining like Jeremiah,

“O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. . . . For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (Jeremiah 20:7-8).

This complaining led me to wonder if this was truly what God wanted me doing. After all, if it’s not “working," then why would God want me here?

Fast forward a few more years, to a season of unprecedented opposition from within the church. This was a season of deep hurt that drove me to again complain to the Lord that this was much harder than I had expected. And again, this complaining led to a questioning of God’s call.

In both of these instances God brought me back to this time of calling. He reminded me of the internal call that had been unmistakable at the time. He reminded me of the months of prayer when my wife and I were begging God to be “crystal clear”, and how He had graciously answered those prayers. He brought me back to the elder meetings of our previous church, sitting in front of the men God had appointed to shepherd our church and hearing them affirm that God had truly called me to serve Him as a pastor in the local church. He reminded me of the church body affirming this call and the “laying on of hands” as the church ordained me.

Not only did God remind me of my calling in the past, but used my fellow elders in our church to affirm a current and continuing call to pastor in the present. I brought these doubts to our elders, and God used them to help me identify the siren call of pragmatism that had been influencing my estimation of ministry “success”. I am so grateful for these godly men whom God used to help me stop complaining, stop doubting, and re-engage with the call God had originally placed on me.

I hope some of the lessons I have learned from these seasons of doubt will serve to encourage some of you who may find yourselves asking similar questions. Let me attempt to distill these lessons down to five

1) Doubt is normal.

Moses questioned God’s calling of him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Peter saw the waves and the wind and doubted that God could continue to keep him walking to Jesus on the surface of the Sea of Galilee. Although Scripture never explicitly shows that Jeremiah doubted his call, he certainly despised his calling at times. While none of these leaders are ever commended for their complaining and doubting, each of them are examples of men with whom God walked through seasons of doubt and continued to use on the other side of those seasons. If you find yourself questioning your calling (or even despising it like Jeremiah), know that God has not left you and will graciously and patiently walk with you through this season. Spend much time with Him in prayer and in His Word in these seasons, and nurture your relationship with Him.

2) Doubt demonstrates a need for greater faith.

Ultimately doubt is similar to worry. It often betrays a lack of faith in God, and an unwillingness to appreciate that He can still use you to accomplish His will. It demonstrates a need to trust God as you persevere in that to which He has called you. Doubt may also indicate that your expectations for what ministry would be are not in alignment with God’s sovereign plans for you and your church. Prayerfully beg Him to grow your faith in Him and to adjust your ministry expectations to His own. [quote]Prayerfully beg Him to grow your faith in Him and to adjust your ministry expectations to His own.[/quote]

3) Identify the source of your doubt.

What is happening (or not happening) in your church or in your life that is triggering these doubts? For me it was a misunderstanding of ministry success and unexpected opposition.

The American church’s preoccupation with numerical success is well documented. Most of us in the Pillar Network go into church planting with a healthy understanding that success is not defined by growing budgets, growing buildings, and growing membership roles; however, these are the cultural waters in which we swim, and if we’re not careful to swim against this current, we will find ourselves being swept downstream. I’ve found that comparing myself and the growth of our church to other “successful” churches around us is a recipe for what I call the “3 D’s” (disappointment, discontentment, and discouragement). If your measurement for success in ministry is anything other than being faithful to God in leading, feeding, and shepherding your flock alongside other qualified elders, then you should spend some time evaluating what is informing your measurements. [quote]If your measurement for success in ministry is anything other than being faithful to God in leading, feeding, and shepherding your flock alongside other qualified elders, then you should spend some time evaluating what is informing your measurements.[/quote] We are promised His constant presence in the ministry of the local church, but we are not promised growth. We are called to be faithful in making disciples of all nations, worshipping God, and shepherding the flock, but we are never exhorted in Scripture to produce the kind of ministry success that our church culture elevates so highly. We can want it; but we must resist the temptation to allow it to become the measurement of our success.

Opposition is another source of doubt. When we face stiff opposition, it can be difficult to find the passion to keep persevering. Opposition can be ugly and downright mean and unfair. I’ve discovered that opposition is normal for leadership, and the sooner we learn to expect some level of opposition as we serve and shepherd our flock, the sooner we will be able to handle the discouragement that usually accompanies it. [quote]I’ve discovered that opposition is normal for leadership, and the sooner we learn to expect some level of opposition as we serve and shepherd our flock, the sooner we will be able to handle the discouragement that usually accompanies it.[/quote] All opposition is not equal, however; and it is important for us to identify the nature of the opposition against us. Some opposition should be given greater consideration as it holds greater potential to be accurate and sanctifying for us. Weight should be given to opposition from inside the church over opposition from outside the church.  Furthermore, opposition from leaders and even fellow elders should be given greater weight than opposition from among the membership. Nevertheless, once we learn to expect opposition, we will be less discouraged when it comes.

4) Remember your internal and external calling.

As noted above, the internal and external calling you received should be an anchor that helps you navigate the coming seasons of doubt. If you journal, re-read the stories you captured of how you sensed God leading you during the time in which He called you into ministry. Call up those with whom you served and those who were instrumental in affirming your call. Perhaps ask them to remind you of why they considered you someone whom God had appointed to this calling. Ask the Lord to encourage you through these reminders.

5) Allow your existing leadership to re-affirm your calling.

Within the Pillar Network, we affirm the necessity for a plurality of elders in the leadership and shepherding of the local church. As such, you are never alone in your pastoring role. Don’t shoulder the burden of your doubt by yourself. Doing so isolates you from the gift of shared leadership and minimizes the important role of your fellow elders and their responsibility in pastoring every member, including you. If your fellow elders believe that your calling as a pastor is in error, they have a responsibility to tell you and guide you to a role within the church that better suits how God has wired you. But if they affirm your calling, you have a responsibility to listen to them and press on in this high and awesome calling to serve vocationally as a pastor.

The seasons where we find ourselves doubting our calling can be scary. Be reminded that the God who called you has not left you, and is walking with you still, and He will not leave you in this season without hope. The gospel reminds us that if He has called us to this task, then in His strength we have all that is needed to withstand the doubt and persevere for His glory.