Recently I received an email with an attention-grabbing question. It came from an influential seminary professor and supplied a backstory, but the entire email could be reduced to this call-defining query: “Should I leave seminary for pastoral ministry?” In an attempt to help him, I proposed four questions for him to consider as he prayed and pursued counsel. The thoughts below represent an edited version of what was sent to him.
The Preaching Question: Do I feel called to move beyond teaching to assume the role of preacher?
Your communication and/or teaching gift(s) already appear to be proven and fruit-bearing, so this is not a question of capability. It’s better to consider this question on the level of desire, aspiration, or internal draw. Do you find in yourself a growing desire to build a church through proclaiming the gospel to people and helping them apply it?
An additional way to consider this question might be to examine the fruit of your present teaching / preaching. Do your communication skills extend past merely educating, but also to building gospel values? Would your wife and friends say that your messages are relatively clear and easy to follow? Can you connect the Bible to people’s lives? How about the lives of unbelievers? Do people think you care about them after they hear you speak?
One of the things that drew John Piper out of his teaching role and into the church was the way his classroom devotionals affected his students. His pastoral gifts became evident as he opened Scripture for others. As you ponder ministry, take time to consider the role and preaching in your burden and how your public ministry affects others.
The Focus Question: How does the idea of becoming a ministry-generalist rather than a ministry-specialist hit me?
Teaching in a seminary puts one in a very focused role. You are teaching specific subjects that are familiar to you, and you are teaching them again and again. I’m sure this allows you to find a certain routine as each semester progresses.
Pastoral ministry, however, forces one to minister in a much broader, and more unpredictable role. You serve as preacher, teacher, counselor, hospital visitor, and administrator. You must be “on call”, so to speak, even in areas where you may have no expertise. When a crisis arises in a person’s life you must be available to minister to them. So, I think real consideration needs to be given to whether a lifestyle of developing broadly rather than deeply makes pastoral ministry more or less attractive.
The Model Question: Does the idea of building a more-fully orbed model of the things I believe seem more important or less important in this next season of life?
One of the things that drew me to pastoral ministry, and to a lead role in particular, was that it allowed me to build a working model of the things I believe. For example, I affirm and teach that the Christian life should be gospel-centered. Being a pastor allowed me to recognize what that actually looks like for the average Christian and how to help them get there. It allowed me to develop a working model (rather than a theoretical one) of what it means to be gospel-centered.
As I talk to pastor-leaders, building a working model for ministry is not an uncommon instinct. The model then becomes the laboratory and the platform by which certain theological ideas and practices are conceived, refined, and exported. When I think of Keller, MacArthur, or even Spurgeon (not to mention a host of other men), the strength of their ministries is not merely in their prominent gifts, but in the working model that they have built and stand upon. Arnold Dallimore once wrote of Spurgeon’s home church, “The Metropolitan Tabernacle was not, as some have assumed, merely a highly popular preaching center . . .The Tabernacle was a great working church” (emphasis mine).
An ache to build a ‘great working church’, which I take to mean a church devoted to application, could be an indication that God is moving you away from the Academy and more towards pastoral ministry.
The Bucket-List Question: Could I be satisfied if I ended my life having never pastored a church?
This is a very subjective question, so it must be explored carefully. Nonetheless, it is an important question. Is pastoral ministry an inevitable goal and it’s just a question of timing, or would you be content to finish your days as a seminary professor?
One way to get at this question might be to explore whether you believe God has called you to train scholars for the service of the church or to disciple and train regular church leaders and members. If you’re called to scholarship, then pastoral ministry will probably be an agitating experience. Most pastoral positions are going to push you towards simplifying the complex, and won’t necessarily allow you the time to develop deeper in specific areas (Unless you are phenomenally gifted, which you may well be, or pastor a very large church with a very capable staff led by a crack executive pastor). This doesn’t mean you can’t go back to the Academy after pastoral ministry. It only means that pastoral ministry will arm you more in applying truth broadly versus studying nuances deeply.
One thing to keep in view which, I hope, will resolve some of the angst regarding this decision: A move to the pastorate is not fatal to a future in the Academy, if you decide to make it. I think it helps men to avoid approaching decisions like this as if they are making a decision for the rest of their life. Think of this as a decision for the next season, perhaps the next three years. So if you decide on pastoral ministry, make only a three year commitment and build in a backdoor for yourself and the church to which you are called. This will provide both you and the church an opportunity to evaluate your effectiveness in pastoral ministry and, if necessary, supply a path back to the Academy.
Whatever decision you make, you can be confident that God will make you fruitful. The church needs scholars and the church needs pastors. May God give you grace and light to help you discover the role in which you will bring Him the most glory!
 Dallimore, Spurgeon Biography, 153.