The Ongoing Need
First, some facts and figures. Fifteen of the thirty-five active ministers—nearly one-half—are approaching or are older than sixty. In the next ten years or so, these ministers will need to be replaced. Of the thirty-five active ministers three are serving as missionaries, three are teaching in the denominational seminary, and one is functioning as a minister-on-loan to a sister church. Of the thirty-one congregations in the denomination, three congregations are presently vacant.
Not only is there going to be a large number of ministers needing replacements, but compounding the urgency of the situation is the fact that over the next four years there will be only three anticipated graduations from the seminary: one in 2013, one in 2014, one in 2015, and none in 2016.
And what about the possibility of additional mission opportunities in the United States or abroad in foreign lands? What about future labors in Myanmar or India? And what about further assistance to sister churches?
This is currently the situation faced by the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. Our Lord’s words are as true today as when he first spoke them: “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few: Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37, 38). Are we praying to the Lord of the harvest? Are we praying fervently? Are we praying personally? Are we praying in our families, in the Christian school classrooms, in the congregational prayers? Are we beseeching him to send forth laborers to gather in the harvest of the elect in our own generations, as well as the elect among the nations of the world?
We are, and the Lord of the harvest has heard our prayers. Nine young men will be entering the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary this fall. But this does not take away from the fact that our churches will have an ongoing need for ministers, and this certainly must not be a reason for us to cease urgent prayer to the Lord for laborers in his vineyard.
Have You Considered the Call?
The Lord does not call every young man to the ministry, but every young man ought to consider whether the Lord is calling him to the ministry. If you know a young man who appears to have the gifts for the ministry, have you asked him if he is considering the call to the ministry? Parents need to put this question before their sons. Christian school teachers ought to pose this question to promising students. And ministers and elders need to ask the question of gifted young men in their congregations.
Young men, have you given due consideration to the call to the ministry of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? Are you perhaps struggling with the call? Have you in the past put it out of your mind, only to find that the question keeps coming back? Do you ask, “How do I know for sure that the Lord is calling me to the ministry? How do I know for sure that he is calling me to prepare for the ministry?”
God calls men in different ways and at different times in their lives. Some have had the sense of the calling all their lives, as far back as they can remember. Some God calls when they are in high school or college. Some God even calls later in life, after several years of work as a carpenter, as an engineer, as a Christian school teacher, or whatever else. Some God calls when they are still single; others after they are married and even have a family.
But just as God’s call to faith and salvation is irresistible, so too is his call to the ministry. There may be struggles, doubts that need to be put to rest, questions answered, obstacles overcome, but those whom God calls cannot escape that call.
The ministry is a high calling—there is none higher. But it is also a demanding calling, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. In the ministry a man must be spent and be willing to be spent. He must not only be willing to give some of his time and make use of some of his gifts, but he must be willing to give himself for the cause of God’s name, God’s truth, and God’s people. Because it is such a demanding calling, whenever a young man comes to talk to me because he wonders whether the Lord is calling him, I always advise him that if he can find satisfaction in any other vocation, he ought to pursue that vocation. But if he cannot find joy in any other calling and cannot put out of his mind the call to the ministry, then he ought at least to be assured that God is calling him to prepare for the ministry of the gospel.
If you are a young man wrestling with the call, confide in a close friend, talk to your pastor or an elder in your church, or a trusted teacher at school, or come up to the seminary and talk to one of the professors. It is best, at least initially, to talk to someone who knows you well and will be honest with you. In the end the Lord through the church judges whether a man is called to the ministry. But an initial honest assessment by a trusted friend or respected superior may prove to be the encouragement needed to carry on, or the necessary restraint from continuing to pursue the ministry.
What Gifts are Necessary for the Ministry?
Read passages of Scripture that set forth the qualifications for officebearers, and specifically for elders and ministers: Acts 6:1–4; 1Timothy 3:1–7; 4:9–16; 2 Timothy 2; Titus 1. On a piece of paper, write down the most important qualifications that are listed in these passages. Ask yourself: “Do I possess the spiritual qualifications set forth in Scripture?” Not all the qualifications to the same degree, to be sure; but do you possess them in some measure?
Do you love the church? Do you love our Protestant Reformed Churches? Do you have a desire to serve the church and its members? These are important questions to ask yourself. All his epistles give clear testimony to the apostle Paul’s love of the church. The church is beloved of God and therefore dearly loved by the apostle. He “longs to see” the members of the church in order that “I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established” (Rom. 1:11). The apostle did not become disillusioned with the church because of the abuse that he suffered at the hands of certain members. He did not become bitter and resentful on account of the harsh and unloving treatment that he endured from time to time. A man whose soul is filled with bitterness cannot serve effectively in the office of Christ. Do you love the church? Do you delight in fellowship with the members of the church? Read John 21:15–17 and put to yourself the question that the Lord Jesus put to Peter, “Lovest thou me?” Do you reach out to the members of the church who have special needs—the widows, the oppressed, those who seem not to have many or any friends? Love for the church is absolutely necessary on the part of the minister of the gospel.
Besides spiritual gifts, the minister must have intellectual gifts. Do you love to read? “Give attendance to reading,” the apostle exhorts Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13. This exhortation applies primarily to the Scriptures. Do you love to read and meditate on the Scriptures? Do you love to study, to delve into things, to do careful research? Both seminary and the ministry demand many hours of study. In fact, this is what the minister’s office is often called: the pastor’s study. That is what goes on in that room behind the closed door, in solitude— many hours a week of study. And what about writing, do you enjoy writing? The ministry demands writing, writing of sermons, writing of speeches, writing of articles for the Standard Bearer, the Beacon Lights, Perspectives in Covenant Education, the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal. Do you enjoy writing and are you interested in developing your writing skills?
How good a communicator are you? The minister is above all a teacher, and a teacher is a communicator. Are you able to express yourself clearly, logically, in such a way that your listeners are able to follow you? Do you love to teach and do you look for opportunities to teach, such as Sunday School? What about leading a young people’s society or a discussion group? Are your pastor and consistory able to judge your teaching ability? At the time of your entrance into the seminary, they will need to provide a recommendation and evaluation of your gifts. If you don’t love to teach, you cannot be a minister. That is what the ministry is all about. Jesus was a teacher. At his trial, he said to the high priest, “I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple” (John 18:20). His command to the apostles was, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The apostle Paul describes the ministerial office as that of “pastor and teacher” (Ephesians 4:11). The apostle himself was ordained “a preacher and…a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity” (1Timothy 2:7). He exhorted Timothy to commit what he had heard from the apostle “to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2Timothy 2:2). The minister must be “apt to teach” (2 Timothy 2:24).
The minister must possess a certain character and exhibit certain character traits. He must be a listener, one who truly listens to what others are saying. He does not suppose that he has all the answers, but is willing to learn from others. He must be open to criticism and show himself willing to receive criticism. Once in the ministry, there is no doubt that he will be criticized. The minister must not lash out at those who dare to criticize him. but he must listen to the criticism and never leave the impression that he is above criticism.
The minister must be a kind and gentle man, willing to bear personal abuse without flying off the handle. “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men” (2 Timothy 2:24). At the same time the minister must be bold for God’s truth, bold for the gospel, bold against the enemies outside of and within the church. After the apostles had been imprisoned and threatened, the leaders of the Jews having “commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18), the apostles returned to the company of believers and prayed to the Lord that he would “grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word” (Acts 4:29). Immediately after they prayed, we read that “the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). The days are not far off when we too will be commanded to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, stop preaching faith in Jesus as the only way of salvation, stop preaching Jesus’ commandments and calling people to conformity to an objective standard of right and wrong. Great boldness will be required of the faithful minister of the gospel.
In conclusion, pray about the calling to the ministry. Ask the Lord to make plain to you what his will is. Pray that if it is his will that you prepare for the ministry, you will be open to that. Pray that if it is his will, he will open up the way for you. And ask those in whom you have confided to pray for you and with you. In the end, in the way of diligent prayer, be assured that the Lord will make plain to you what his will is.
Two passages of Scripture come to mind, passages that I often turned to when I contemplated the call to the ministry. I still often contemplate these passages. The first passage is Isaiah 6:8. After he saw in a vision the Lord sitting upon his throne and the angels proclaiming “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3), Isaiah “heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8a). The rest of verse 8 contains Isaiah’s response, the response worked in him by the Lord through his call of Isaiah: “Then said I, Here am I; send me.” By God’s grace that is the response as well of those in the new dispensation who are called to the office of minister of the gospel: “Here am I; send me.”
The second passage of Scripture that I often contemplated is 1 Corinthians 9:16:”For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” Necessity was laid on the apostle to preach, the necessity of obedience to the will of the Lord. Since not to preach and not to preach the truth would be disobedience to the will of the Lord, “woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” That same necessity, with its woe, applies to every preacher of the gospel, to all who have the call from God to preach the glorious gospel of his sovereign grace in Jesus Christ.
May the Lord continue to raise up in our churches faithful ministers of the gospel. May he put the call to the gospel ministry in the hearts of many of our young men. And may our churches and our mission fields continue to be blessed through the diligent labors of men who possess the gifts for the ministry and use those gifts to serve the church and its head, Christ Jesus the Lord.