Turning a Calling Into a Career

I preached this message at Truett Seminary Chapel a couple of years ago. I think it is still relevant and you might enjoy it as well.

These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. “And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give. “Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support. Matthew 10:5-10

         At the age of 21, I sensed a call from God.  Because of the nature of this place, many of you in this room know exactly what I am talking about.  A call from God is difficult to explain.  I believe that every follower of Christ is called to evangelize, encourage, and explain the faith.  But, some of us are the recipients of an assignment to give the majority of our lives to the work of the Gospel.  In the thirty-nine years since that call, I have been a pastor for only about fourteen of those years.  However, at any point of my life, if you ask me what I do, the answer has always been, “I’m a preacher!”

Preaching has not always paid the bills.  I have made a living by being a salesman, consultant, denominational employee, writer, and book publisher.  There have been times when I preached at three to five churches a week.  There have been other times when I went three to five months between preaching opportunities.  But it does not matter how often I preach, at any point of my life, if you ask me what I do, the answer has always been, “I’m a preacher!”

As I neared graduation from college, the head of the Religion department told me it would be very difficult for me to have an opportunity to pastor a church because of the wheelchair.  At seminary, they excused me from preaching requirements and tried to steer me toward counseling, assuming that I was not physically able to preach.  After thirteen successful years as a pastor, when it was time to move on, churches were not interested in even talking to me, in spite of glowing recommendations from denominational leaders.  However, it does not matter who thinks I can be a preacher, at any point of my life, if you ask me what I do, the answer has always been, “I’m a preacher!”

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In spite of being frequently encouraged to pursue another career, it is the call of God that has shaped my life and determined my experiences.  I have given my life to pursuing this call of God.  I am enamored and overwhelmed with this call of God.  I can honestly declare to you today that I have exhausted my resources striving to be faithful to this call of God.

Because of that, not only am I deeply in love with following Jesus, but I am also deeply in love with the church – the Body of Christ – the physical presence of my Lord and Savior.  Not only have I spent thirty-nine years studying Christ, I have also spent thirty-nine years studying the church.  I have preached in nearly five hundred pulpits, provided extensive consultation with more than two hundred pastors, and read books and articles about the church vociferously.  Needless to say, I have a lot of opinions about the church and church leaders.

Having said all of that as a means of introduction, my plan today is to discuss what I consider one of the more discouraging characteristics of church life today.  To be honest, I am not very optimistic about the American church, which is exceptional for me since I tend to be the ultimate optimist.  I not only see the glass as half full, I normally see it as flowing over the top.  But, I am concerned about the church today and one of my primary concerns is that we have taken the call of God and turned it into a career. 

The tenth chapter of Matthew is a record of Jesus’ “call” to the Twelve.  He called them and then sent them out with a task.  Essentially, He gave them three tasks – to preach, heal, and trust.  It is the work of the church and He has been calling men and women to the task ever since.

However, there is a prevalent trend in the church today to turn the call of God into a career.  The dictionary definition of “career” is an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.  Basically, it is the answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  The answer – I want to be a doctor, lawyer, baseball player, or preacher!  It is a chosen profession for the purpose of providing an acceptable living.  This is what happens when you turn a calling from God into a career.

Change the Message

When Jesus called the Twelve, He sent them out with a specific message – they were to preach that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Theologians have written numerous volumes on the meaning of the kingdom of heaven and while you are in seminary you will be asked to read some of them.

Since I must operate in the real world (not the world of academia) let me offer my real world understanding of this task.  Obviously, “kingdom” speaks of the place where the King rules. Since it is the “kingdom of heaven” then it must be a reference to the place where God in heaven rules.  The message that those who have been called are to proclaim is that the King of heaven is here.

Put yourself in first century Palestine, a land controlled by Caesar.  Caesar is the king.  If you are tending your field or shopping in the local market and you hear the announcement that “Caesar is here!”  What would you do?  It would make an immediate difference in your life.  It would be a call to change what you are doing and possibly even change who you are. Something significant is about to happen!

The message of the church is that God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, has broken into history, sent His Son to open up a relationship with us, and is ready to radically alter our lives.  It is a message of redemption and transformation.  Like a first century Jew hearing that Caesar is coming down the road, it is a message that is shocking and will impact every area of our lives.

However, the announcement that the kingdom of heaven is here is no longer the primary message of the church.  Instead it has been replaced with, “Let me tell you how to be successful.”  I did a Google search on the phrase, “How to be a successful Christian” and received nearly 41 million results.  A search of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” did reveal 17 million results, but the first two pages concerned an R-rated movie about the 12th century Crusades.

The message has been changed for the purpose of making it less offensive and more acceptable to our 21st century world.  The rationale is that in order to get large numbers of people into our church buildings, we must tell them what they want to hear.  We call it “seeker-sensitive” but in reality it has become “seeker-driven.”

  • People want to know how to have a good family life so let’s offer a series of sermons explaining what to do to make it happen.
  • People are struggling with their finances so let’s provide a workshop on managing your money.
  • People are fighting depression so let’s tell them how to overcome despair.

There is nothing wrong with any of these (and God knows I have done my share), but this is far less than the call we were given.  We have been called to proclaim a much more important message than how to get along better in this world.  Our message is an announcement to rearrange our lives according to a different world – there is a new king!

Jesus has asked us to invite folks to participate in a new world, but too often we try to help them be more comfortable in the existing world. The problem with the church today is that we have changed the message so that it sounds as if Christianity is nothing more than living the good life.

Change the Method

The method that Jesus gave to those He called is startling.  They were to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons,”  I’ll be honest, this sounds more like a Benny Hinn crusade than anything I am comfortable with.

Apparently, the disciples were not as sophisticated as me.  They went out preaching the kingdom and doing the works.  Even before the Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples proclaimed the message; using the methods they were given.  Later we are told that they came back to report what they had seen.

I am going to say very bluntly that we do not see much sick-healing, dead-raising, unclean-cleansing, or demonic-outcasting today.  What has happened?  I think we have changed the method, primarily as a result of changing the message.

Once the message became more about being comfortable or successful rather than living in a different kingdom, it was easy to change the methods.  If the message is nothing more than feel good and enjoy the best this world has to offer, we do not need to worry ourselves with healing, raising, and cleansing.

The method becomes more about comfort, entertainment, and education.

Since the message is to live the good life, it is necessary to provide comfort in a very uncomfortable world.  We have turned our churches into sanctuaries where folks can go to have all their needs met without rubbing elbows with unpleasant people and challenging situations.  The really “dynamic” churches provide all the sports leagues and entertainment venues for our children, relationship needs for the entire family, and all the God-stuff we need in our lives – all within the confines of a colorfully designed state of the art facility that makes us want to relax and stay a while.

While running the risk of being accused of taking the wrong side of the worship war, let me simply say that much of what happens when the church gathers today is more about entertainment than anything else.  That is why we need monolithic congregations because providing the necessary entertainment is expensive.

A third aspect of our method is to educate.  Listen to this quick list of real sermon topics:

  • Living in the Sweet Spot of Success
  • Taking Steps Toward Making Change
  • Opening and Closing the Right Doors
  • Avoiding Personal Burnout
  • Twelve Keys to Abundant Living
  • Save Me I’m Drowning in Debt

These sermons are very typical of what happens in church today and it seems clear that our approach is to help people enjoy the here and now rather than arranging for life in a new kingdom.

The Hospice Movement began in this country in the 1960’s.  If you have ever had a loved one experience the process of dying under the watchful eye of a hospice professional, you know it is a valuable resource.  Caring, well-trained people are there to help the entire family be comfortable and at ease with the entire process of dying and death.  In my opinion, hospice care is a very good thing.

However, when it comes to the work of the church, providing hospice care is not a good thing.  Yet, that is what I think we are doing.  We are providing comfort for those who are dying in the wrong kingdom.

Change the Motive

The final thing I want to mention about changing a call into a career is that it happens when we change our motive.  This is really the heart of the message by Jesus in this passage and it is the central focus I would like to make today.

Several years ago I was working with a young pastor and the subject of pastors from different generations came up.  I was not quite old enough to be his father, but not far from it.  He was curious about the approaches by pastors in different generations.  I provided an example by asking a simple question – when you spoke to this church about being their pastor, did you ask about taking time off – vacation days, and days off, etc.?

Almost incredulously he said, “Of course, what’s wrong with that!”

I quickly assured him there was probably nothing wrong with asking but it was a huge difference.  I would have never asked.  In fact, at his age, if a church was interested in me being their pastor, I would have never asked if they were even going to pay me.

There is nothing wrong with paying the preacher, in fact, Jesus makes it very clear in our text that the workman is worthy of payment.  God provides, and for pastors He normally provides through a salary given by the church.  But we have to be careful with motive.

When I was the pastor of a very small Texas Baptist church, every spring we would receive a survey from the state office.  The survey sought for answers about pastor’s salary and other benefits.  The information was compiled by the Stewardship Department and then provided for help in putting together the church budget.  I dutifully filed out my survey every year.

Later, when I went to work in the Stewardship Department, I learned that the survey was discontinued.  I was told by the man in charge at the time that the survey created a problem.  Pastors who were receiving a salary that was higher than the average were very upset.  It seems that when their church leaders compared what they were paying their pastor compared to other churches, they wanted to make some changes.

When Jesus issued the call, He clearly said, “Do not acquire…”  But, the evidence that we have turned this calling into a career is that it has been changed to, “What’s in it for me?”

I’m going to be honest – choosing the ministry is not a bad career move.  The pay is much better than it used to be, time off is good, most churches provide decent benefits, including insurance and retirement.

In times past, joining the army was seldom seen as a very good career choice for most people.  However, times have changed.  My youngest son, with a Master’s Degree in Forensic Psychology, recently joined the army and will soon be a 2nd Lieutenant.  He didn’t make the decision because he wants to be Rambo, it is simply a good career move for what he wants to do.

The same is true for the modern church in America – it can be a good career move.

In Fort Worth where I live, there has been two very well known pastors caught up in scandals this past year over the ownership of a private jet.  Some have turned the call of God into a very lucrative career.  However, that is not my primary concern.

I am concerned about pastors of small and medium size churches who have locked themselves into a lifestyle that requires significant financial resources to maintain.  They have put themselves in a position where they can no longer follow the call but must first seek a career.  Their biggest concern has become doing whatever is necessary to insure that the offerings at church stay at a certain level.  Decisions are made, not necessarily on what is best for the church but for what is most profitable.

I am also concerned about soon to be seminary graduates who will be tempted to allow the lure of “gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff” distract them from the place where God has called them.

If you have been called, it is imperative that you keep yourself in a position that allows you to respond to that call.  That means you must keep yourself free from relationships and obligations that will keep you from going and doing.

There are some very practical considerations resulting from these words of Jesus.  First, if you plan to be in full-time ministry, plan accordingly –

  • Avoid excessive debt – It is common for a seminary student to graduate with a large burden of student loans and other debt.  The problem is that it becomes very difficult to find a church that can afford to pay enough to allow these debts to be serviced.
  • Adopt a lifestyle that can be supported by a church, without being burdensome to the church – do not expect the church to make it possible for you to live according to your desires, be willing to accept what they can do or be willing to seek other sources of income.
  • Accept the possibility that you will have less of the world’s stuff than most – I think it is safe to say that if you respond to the call of God for ministry, you might have to turn you back on the great American Dream.  In most cases they are incompatible.
  • Make sure your spouse makes the same commitments – you can’t do this without the support of the most important person in your life.
  • Consider earning your living doing something other than ministry – This has been the normal practice throughout most of the history of the church and is still the practice in most of the world.

Recently, I read a very good book by Eugene Peterson, “The Pastor: A Memoir.”  He provides a valuable observation about what has taken place in the church.

…one of the most soul-damaging phrases that had crept into the Christian vocabulary is “full-time Christian work.” Every time it is used, it drives a wedge of misunderstanding between the way we pray and the way we work, between the way we worship and the way we make a living.              

        One of the achievements of the Protestant Reformation was a leveling of the ground between clergy and laity. Pastors and butchers had equal status before the cross. Homemakers were on a par with evangelists. But insidiously that level ground eroded as religious professionals claimed the high ground, asserted exclusive rights to “full-time Christian work,” and relegated the laity to part-time work on weekends under pastoral or priestly direction. A huge irony—the pastors were hogging the show, and the laity were demeaned with the adjectives “mere,” “only,” or “just”: “He or she is just a layperson.”

        Most of what Jesus said and did took place in a secular workplace in a farmer’s field, in a fishing boat, at a wedding feast, in a cemetery, at a public well asking a woman he didn’t know for a drink of water, on a country hillside that he turned into a huge picnic, in a court room, having supper in homes with acquaintances or friends. In our Gospels, Jesus occasionally shows up in synagogue or temple, but for the most part he spends his time in the workplace. Twenty-seven times in John’s Gospel Jesus is identified as a worker: “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (Jn. 5:17). Work doesn’t take us away from God; it continues the work of God. God comes into view on the first page of our scriptures as a worker. Once we identify God in his workplace working, it isn’t long before we find ourselves in our workplaces working in the name of God.  (Peterson, Eugene H. (2011-02-22). The Pastor: A Memoir (pp. 280-281). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

If you have been by called, then you have been called to the work – the work of proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom by healing, raising, and cleansing.  It is essentially the work of the church.  However, if you put yourself in a position of needing the ministry to provide you with a certain lifestyle, it is likely that you will adapt the work of the church to serve your purpose.  Here is the way that progression normally works:

  • Need more money
  • Attract larger crowds, they bring more money
  • Provide services that draw larger crowds
  • Need more money to pay for these services

I met my very good friend Charlie a couple of years ago.  He was the interim pastor where I was attending church.  Sharon and I became involved in a weekday Bible study Charlie was leading, which deepened our friendship.  Over the next year (to make a long story not quite so long) Charlie and I came to the conclusion that we should start a new church.

About a year ago, Bread Fellowship was born.  Together, Charlie and I have more than 60 years of experience in church work, but neither of us has any experience with starting a new church.  Charlie has led some very large churches and I have consulted with hundreds of churches.  No doubt, we are doing some interesting things and we will be the first to admit that not everything we have tried has been successful.

One commitment that we have made is not to allow this new fellowship to get in a position where we need large amounts of money.  Neither of us is dependent upon the church to put food on our table.  There is no need, in a city like Fort Worth with hundreds of underused church buildings, for us to ever own property.  Our hope is that Bread Fellowship will never be about the money.  This does not mean we will not encourage folks to give and share (an important aspect of the Gospel message).  It simply means we will try not to put ourselves in a position of needing something from the church that causes us to alter the task.

It has taken me until age 60 to arrive at this conclusion.  I now understand that I am not dependent upon the church meeting my financial needs – that is God’s work.  Until you know this truth, you will not be free to follow the call that God has issued to you.  “Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two coats, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support.

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