Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

22 Apr 2019

Is Pastoral “Desire” a Qualification for Ministry?


The question of a pastoral “call to ministry,” reminiscent of God’s call of biblical prophets and apostles, has long been a issue with which ordination councils have been concerned. Many operate on the assumption that no one aspiring to the ministry may proceed without such a “call.”

I concede, of course, that God’s Spirit is active in distributing gifts in his church “according to his own will” (Heb 2:4) and “as he determines” (1 Cor 12:11, cf. v. 18). It is for this reason that the Scriptures may state plainly that God has appointed the church’s teachers (1 Cor 12:28) and has sent its laborers into the harvest (Luke 10:2). Indeed, we have reason to believe that God’s providential preparation of his ministerial appointees is extensive and complex (see, in principle, Gal 1:5 and Jer 1:5). Please do not hear me saying anything less than this.

The question under consideration in this post is not whether God appoints men to the ministry (he does), but how we know it. The Personal Call Model, if I may call it this, vests primary weight in answering this question in the candidate’s own testimony. Does he have a personal desire for the ministry (so 1 Tim 3:1) and has he had one or more private experiences (even revelatory ones—otherwise, why use the word “call”?) whereby he has become existentially convinced that God wants him in the ministry? If so, then the council may proceed to examine his life and doctrine. If not, the council may not proceed.

I would suggest that the Personal Call Model is not only incorrect, but is positively contrary to the spirit of Paul’s discussion in 1 Timothy 3. Rather than agreeing with Paul that the choice of church officers is not a personal one, but an ecclesiastical one, the Personal Call Model front-loads the whole ordination process with questions about the personal experiences and desires of the candidate. Of course, it would be rather strange for someone to arrive at an ordination council without a desire to be an elder, but that’s not the issue. The council is not called to probe a candidate’s desires; it is called to examine his competencies.

By offering the church a list of qualifications for eldership, Paul is informing us that the decision to pursue eldership (or any other church function, for that matter) is emphatically not something that someone makes after he has become existentially convinced that it is his “calling” in life. You can make other decisions that way (i.e., you can personally conclude that becoming a doctor or a lawyer is your “life calling” after becoming existentially excited by the prospects of one of those careers), but you can’t choose to become a pastor on these grounds. And that’s because it’s not your decision to make. The church makes that choice (let’s call this the Ecclesiastical Call Model).

It is important to notice, I would contend, that the “desire” for the good work of the pastorate in 1 Timothy 3:1 is not one of the qualifications for ministry. The qualifications actually run from verses 2–7, and consist of an evaluation of whether the candidate’s life and doctrine validate his desire. As such, the first question of the candidate for ministry is not, “Do you desire the good work?” or “Do you feel this is your ‘calling’?” (we rather assume that this is the case—why else would he be here?), but rather, “Are you a man who is above reproach?”

The modern church is, I think, making good progress in escaping the error of revelatory calls to ministry. But the idea continues to haunt when we make the candidate’s “desire” for the good work the first (and greatest?) of the qualifications for pastoral ministry.

5 Responses

  1. Thank you for this post, especially given its emphasis on the church in the decision-making process. I would submit that, at some level, overemphasis on pastoral “desire” comes from when that person first felt that desire. For example, to “submit to the call of pastoral ministry” after a sermon invitation, a conversation with a college professor, or a week on a missions trip would seem to be out of order. Instead, those who would know the person best, i.e. his local church, would be best qualified to speak into his life. I’m not saying the aforementioned circumstances can’t be influential; rather, they should be subordinate to the normal (unsensational?) means of local-church orientation. Fair?

  2. Nathan

    Dr. Snoeberger,

    Thanks for these reflections. The shift away from the experiential focus is happening around the globe. Miraculous personal healings have been the standard for ministerial calling in my part of the world for some time… But a younger generation is finding these answers less satisfying.

    I know you’re not throwing out the subjective desire entirely, but assuming it would be present should someone find themselves facing evaluation for pastoral qualification. But I’m not sure that’s the only question people are asking (an after the fact one). In the case of the young man, he wants to know, how do I know if this might be for me before I sit down and get grilled by an intimidating group of theological buffs (after all getting ready for such a thing took some of us more than 5 years…).

    You’ve stated negatively that this aspiration is not the first qualification for pastoral ministry. I agree. Positively then, what is this aspiration and why does Paul place it here as at least (debatably) part of a “trustworthy saying”?

    If we merely say he holds up the office as noble, indicating it is worthy, why doesn’t he just say that? Why doesn’t he objectively hold up the value of the office? Why does he argue its value through the subjective desire of the one pursuing it? And why then would it be wrong to include that subjective piece as just that, a piece of the puzzle (all the while agreeing that making the whole puzzle subjective makes more of a puzzle of things) in considering one’s pursuit of ministry?

    As an aside, I’m a little surprised by your association of 1 Tim 3:1 with the Personal Call Model. isn’t 1 Tim 3:1 appealed to more often by the Composite Wisdom Model (like that of Clowney in “Called to the Ministry”)? It seems like the Personal Call folks aren’t very inclined to look at 1 Tim 3:1 at all. Instead they prefer going to the miraculous calls of the prophets and apostles for their support. Indeed, it seems like the Personal Call folks that I know would see aspiration to the office as irrelevant. Often they tell their story in contrast to what they desire: “the last thing I wanted to do was serve the Lord, but then I had such and such an experience…”

    Not trying to be contrary here, just trying to think these things through to better walk this road with brothers considering ministry.

  3. Mark Snoeberger

    Mike and Nathan, good thoughts.

    What I’m arguing here is that while fixation on a Call to Ministry “event” is diminishing, there remains at times an emphasis on The Desire as the first point of examination—an emphasis so strong that it seems the Call To Ministry has simply been rebranded as The Desire. The idea is that God imparts an overwhelming passion, unique to elders, that must be observed before any further examination can commence.

    My suggestion is that there’s little in the syntax of 1 Timothy 3:1 to suggest this. The emphasis in this pericope is on the church’s examination of the candidate’s character, family, motives, doctrine, skills, sympathies, etc., before appointing a man to the pastoral office (vv. 2–7). I’m not suggesting that having a desire for ministry is something of which we should be suspicious, or that pastors should be dragged kicking and screaming into the ministry, or that the desire itself has to originate in an ecclesiastical setting to be valid. My point is to say that verse 1 functions as an entrée into the list of pastoral qualification that begin in verse 2. It’s not Paul’s burden, per se, to examine the desire itself.

    Analogy (and analogies break down, so bear me out):

    Suppose my son came to me and said, “I want to be a Marine.” I’d probably start out by saying, “Wanting to serve your country is a good thing…but son, the qualifications are intense: (1) you have to be physically fit, (2) you have to be mentally fit, (3) you’ll need to be spiritually fit, because regular times of spiritual mentoring will be difficult in the military; etc.” In saying these things, I’m not really examining the desire itself. I’m telling him that wanting something is irrelevant if you can’t meet the qualifications. The question under consideration is not whether he has The Desire; it’s whether he’s qualified to serve.

    I see something similar here in 1 Timothy 3. A young man tells his pastor, “I’d like to give my life to doing what you do.” A good reply might be “Becoming a pastor is a good thing (despite what society says)…but son, the qualifications are intense: (1) you’ve got to be above reproach, (2) you have to be a one-woman man, (3) you’ve got to be steady and even-keeled, etc.”

    What I’m suggesting is that the first questions shouldn’t be, “When did you first get this Desire? After you got this Desire, did you go forward and dedicate yourself to full time ministry? Has the Desire ever diminished or has it remained steady? Have you tried other things and keep coming back to The Desire?” There are some wisdom issues imbedded in such questions, I’ll concede, but, syntactically speaking, this is not Paul’s burden. Paul’s burden is whether the aspiring candidate is qualified according to a list that starts in verse 2 and runs to verse 7.

    Hope this makes sense.

  4. Perhaps the larger context of 1 Timothy casts a bit of light on the intent of 3:1. Timothy was charged with the task of setting things in order in Ephesus. Disorder had taken root under the influence of unqualified leaders. As Timothy led the churches to make difficult changes involving confrontation, it seems reasonable that he would simultaneously need to affirm the value and nobility of the office. 3:1-7 clearly communicate something like, “The office of overseer is worthy of a man’s aspirations (and I encourage men to consider it), but no one has the right of self-appointment.” Self-appointed leaders were the cause of the church’s disorder in Ephesus and remain so today.