The Idolatry of Vocational Ministry

Photo by Sylwia Bartyzel

Photo by Sylwia Bartyzel

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve spoken to a young man who was lamenting his day job and longing to be in full-time vocational ministry, I’d have 20’s of dollars. Over the last several years Steph and I have shared this observation: For many maturing Christians, they automatically assume that full-time vocational ministry is the next step for their spiritual journey. While this may be true for some of them, I would argue that it can quickly be an idol, or at least an unfair litmus test for godliness.

Several years ago I was having breakfast with an older pastor and he made this comment, “There are many people who go into vocational ministry because they are lazy.” Now my friend was known to not mince words, but before just dismissing him outright, I decided to engage that statement with him. After a few moments I began to understand what he was saying and had to pause and evaluate my own heart. Had I been looking to my goal of full-time paid vocational ministry as a false god (something that I put my hope in for joy) or perhaps I, too, was just lazy.

The question of laziness can cause us to easily become defensive, but when I began reflecting on the early years of ministry as a youth minister I realized how this observation might have some validity. The job was pretty cush. I had a great team of volunteers, a wonderful supervisor, and was expected to teach the Bible and ‘love on the kids’. There were many hours of ministry spent playing video games, watching movies, hanging out at coffee shops, etc. Not that there is not value in these things in building relationships and discipleship, but it wasn’t the same as the guys I knew who worked 60 hour work weeks away from their families.

Early in my traveling ministry I also met guys who were full-time youth pastors, but it was obvious that their callings were to be coaches, lawyers, or business men. They enjoyed the benefits of minimal supervision, decent salaries, and the flexibility to spend hours a day on ESPN.com. Compared to the guys I knew who worked ‘real jobs’ this could easily appear (or actually be) a form of laziness.

This is not to say that all who are called to vocational ministry are lazy. Not at all. What I am saying is, there are easily ways for laziness to creep into vocational ministry, and that can look quite appealing to the person feeling led into the ministry, especially if they are currently in a job that is not very satisfying.

The reality of idolatry is that it gives one hope in a person or thing that was never meant to give one lasting joy and hope. When people view vocational ministry as the next step then they experience great frustration when an opportunity isn’t immediately present.

Here are a few ways that I counsel folks to discern whether they are allowing the idea of vocational ministry to become an idol:

  1. Do you feel stuck? I hear a lot of people say that until they can get a full-time ministry job that they feel stuck in their walk and ministry. While this might actually be a holy, righteous angst, it may also be a sign that one’s hopes are misplaced.
  2. Are you so busy fulfilling the Great Commission where you are that you need more time to invest in this area? In Matthew 28:18ff Jesus is essentially saying, “As you go, make disciples…” Perhaps your lunchtime bible study you are conducting at the office is really a budding church plant, but most likely it is a gathering of other believers to be mutually encouraged throughout their work day. This is great, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the next step is vocational ministry.
  3. Does your vision match reality? Have you spoken to people who are in full-time vocational ministry and asked questions not only of the joys, but of the struggles? If not, you need to. You need to ask them about their joys, fears, struggles, insecurities, etc. A lot of times people approach the idea of vocational ministry with rose-colored glasses and need to be brought down to reality. Not to necessarily talk them out of ministry, but to bring a sobriety of what really goes on. The struggles, the critique from people you are called to serve, the tax on your family, and the feeling of being in a fishbowl are all considerations that should not be taken lightly.
  4. Are you willing to do what it takes? Part of a true, Holy Spirit inspired calling to vocational ministry is the willingness to do whatever it takes. This doesn’t mean you want to force God’s hand, but it does mean that you are willing to explore other work opportunities, start a company, do some freelancing, save some money, etc., in order to allow you to fulfill God’s calling on your life. This is not to say that God does not provide for the calling, but He may provide through you using your skills to make subisizing income in other arenas. I talk exhaustively about this in my Lost art of Tentmaking series.
  5. Does the community around you affirm your calling? This seems obvious to some, but I have met so many people who are “called” to vocational ministry, but are not willing to submit themselves to those around them who know them best. When vocational ministry is an idol, people are bent on doing it regardless of what God might be trying to tell them through the community around them. If your friends, family, church, and elders don’t affirm the calling, then that is worth slowing down and considering whether you are really hearing from the Lord or if you are telling the Lord what you will be doing. Informing God and hearing from God are very different things.

This is not an exhaustive list of questions, but might be helpful in helping you discern whether your calling into vocational ministry is truly a calling from God or a deceptive idol keeping you from being a missionary where God has you.  You may indeed be called to vocational ministry, and if so, these questions should encourage you, and not dissuade you from pursuing your calling.  To be called by God for full-time ministry should be taken very seriously and with great humility.

I’d recommend you read Lectures to My Students by Charles Spurgeon as you walk through your calling.


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