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On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work

On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work

by Derek J. Prime, Alistair Begg, Al Mohler

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The ministry of pastors is not simply a job; it’s a vocation and a lifestyle.

A pastor’s responsibilities are unique, demanding that he not only nurture his own spiritual life but also the lives of those in his care. What a challenge this can be!

Derek Prime and Alistair Begg provide practical advice for both the spiritual and


The ministry of pastors is not simply a job; it’s a vocation and a lifestyle.

A pastor’s responsibilities are unique, demanding that he not only nurture his own spiritual life but also the lives of those in his care. What a challenge this can be!

Derek Prime and Alistair Begg provide practical advice for both the spiritual and practical aspects of pastoral ministry. They delve deep into topics such as prayer, devotional habits, preaching, studying, and specific ministry duties. The result is an essential tool for those in pastoral ministry.

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On Being a Pastor

Understanding Our Calling and Work

By Derek Prime, Alistair Begg, Cheryl Dunlop

Moody Publishers

Copyright © 2004 Derek Prime and Alistair Begg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8024-9073-5




The ministry of undershepherds and teachers is not simply a job. Rather it is a vocation, the answering of a specific call from God. It is the highest calling in Christian service. As a young man, F. B. Meyer shared his call to the ministry in a letter to a friend:

For friendship's sake I do not like to conceal from you, or in fact from any one else, the decision to which I have come. So to be frank, I have decided my future course, and am going, with help from above, to be a minister of the Gospel. Now I can imagine your astonishment, but it is a fact. I need only add that it appears to me to be the noblest aim in life to live entirely devoted to the one object of bringing others to know Him who has accomplished so much for us. When weighed against the hereafter, earth and its careers sink into insignificance.

Six months after his conversion, John Stott, still only seventeen, "was sure of his future calling to the ordained ministry of the Church of England." When he was completing his university course, his parents were unhappy at his pursuing his call. In a letter to his father, he gave the reasons for his decision, the first of which was, "Obedience to my call. Whatever you may think of it, I have had a definite and irresistible call from God to serve Him in the Church. During the last three years I have become increasingly conscious of this call, and my life now could be summed up in the words 'separated unto the gospel of God.' There is no higher service; I ask no other." To make such claims about God's call we must define our terms. By call we mean the unmistakable conviction an individual possesses that God wants him to do a specific task.

The task in view is that defined by the New Testament as being a pastor and teacher. God calls men to shepherd God's flock and to care for its well-being, to show God's people by example and instruction how they should live lives worthy of God their Savior. Sometimes pastors and teachers may be described as elders, bishops, or overseers, but whatever their description and title, an essential qualification is that they should be "able to teach" (1 Timothy 3:2).

They are all called to take their share in the direction of the affairs of the local church, but not all are called to give the whole of their time to the work of shepherding and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). We have both in view, but our particular focus is upon those set apart to give the whole of their time to this calling. However we view a pastor, or minister, or leader among leaders, within a Christian fellowship, we should think of him in terms of the New Testament elder, and as an elder among elders. We are thinking not so much of an office that may be held but of the exercise of a spiritual gift. The church has often tended to be office-oriented instead of gift-oriented, and the right balance needs to be struck.


Advice frequently given is, "If you can avoid entering the ministry, do so! If you can do something else, do it!" This is sound counsel. If it is right for a man to give himself completely to the ministry of the gospel, he will feel that it is the only thing he can do. John Ryle, a nineteenth-century bishop of Liverpool, had no early sense of call, and when he shared his decision to enter the ministry it came as a complete surprise to everyone. His explanation was, "I felt shut up to do it and saw no other course of life open to me." And thus it has ever been.

Such advice makes good sense about any employment. Where possible we should enjoy what we do in life and engage in it with enthusiasm. Few make any impact for good upon others if they work halfheartedly. The ministry demands much of a man and his family. Before entering upon it, therefore, he needs to count the cost. Our Lord's words about the importance of a man not looking back once he has put his hand to the plow have particular relevance to pastors and teachers. Many have begun and then, sadly, stopped.

More important still, behind this advice there is the basic truth that God always gives a clear call to those whom He has chosen for the ministry, so that when that call comes they can do nothing other than respond to it. They will not be able to say no to it. It follows that if someone thinks he may be called to the ministry but is not absolutely certain, then he should wait until he is sure. God does not give uncertain calls. As Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones expressed it, "It was God's hand that laid hold of me, and drew me out, and separated me to this work."

In focusing upon the call of pastors and teachers, we are not suggesting that God's call does not come equally to others for different tasks. Nevertheless, the call to shepherd God's people and to teach them His Word is a special calling because of its strategic and unique importance for the spiritual wellbeing of Christ's flock.

The Call in the Context of God's Calling of All Christians

The words call and calling are used in a number of ways in the New Testament, and the call to the ministry is not the first call from God an individual receives. First Corinthians 1:1–9 provides a typical example. The primary call is to fellowship with God's Son Jesus Christ (verse 9)—a call to union with Christ and all its glorious benefits. The second call is to holiness (verse 2). Calling and justification bring the inevitable consequence and privilege of sanctification. The third call is to service, and frequently to specific service. In Paul's case, his primary service was to be an apostle (verse 1). God's call to be a shepherd and teacher is a specific call.

Old Testament Examples

The prophets' experience exemplifies the manner in which God works in commissioning His servants. The Old Testament prophets found God's call irresistible, much as sometimes they shrank from its implications. The call came in a variety of ways and circumstances, but it was essentially the same. For Moses it came forty years after his failure to wait God's time as he foolishly took matters into his own hands by physically defending a fellow Hebrew. At the time of his call he was carrying out his daily occupation of caring for sheep in the desert (Exodus 3). He was immediately aware of God's holiness (verse 5), and he was so overwhelmed at the implications of God's call that he asked, "Who am I, that I should go ...?" (verse 11).

Isaiah's call came when he visited the temple during a period of national crisis (Isaiah 6:1). He, too, was acutely conscious of God's inexpressible holiness. But in hearing God ask, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" he could do no other than say, "Here am I. Send me!" (verse 8). Jeremiah was told that before he was formed in the womb God both knew him and set him apart for the work of a prophet (Jeremiah 1:5). This staggering truth did not stop Jeremiah from responding, "Ah, Sovereign LORD ... I do not know how to speak" (verse 6). But the call was irresistible.

Apostolic Example

The apostles are the principal examples of those called to be shepherds and teachers. Ministers are not apostles, but apostles were ministers—they were shepherds and teachers. The apostle Peter's manner of addressing the leaders of the churches in Asia Minor in his first letter is significant: "To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder ..." (5:1). What the apostles did in the Acts of the Apostles, when they took steps to ensure that they gave priority to prayer and the ministry of the Word (6:2), ministers today ought to do, for their priorities are identical.

The gospel writers describe how the apostles each received a distinct personal call from our Lord Jesus Christ to the ministry for which He was to prepare them. The same was true for the apostle Paul, whose call came after the others'. From the moment of his conversion Paul was aware of God's call. When Ananias was somewhat hesitant to go to Paul at the announcement of Paul's conversion, the Lord reassured him, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel" (Acts 9:15). Referring later to his conversion, Paul elaborates upon this and relates that when he asked, "Who are you, Lord?" the Lord replied,

I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.... Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:15–18)

It was with the conviction of this call that Paul worked and wrote, so that he begins the passage we have referred to in 1 Corinthians 1 with the words, "Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God" (verse 1)—a conviction consistently echoed in his other letters (cf. Romans 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Timothy 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:1; Titus 1:1).


The call to shepherding and teaching comes in a variety of ways—and history shows this has always been the case. The key factor is that it is God the Holy Spirit who issues the call. The call comes about through sensitivity to God's dealings with us as we pray, through reading the Scriptures, and through listening to the preaching of God's Word, and often it is reinforced as we discover how God's call has come to others both at the present time and in the past.

The call usually begins with a desire to care for the spiritual well-being of others and to preach God's Word. Circumstances may put us in the position where we feel that we must do something to help people. Alan Stibbs was an extremely able expositor and teacher. His testimony to the way in which he developed his gifts was that although the Scripture Union group at his school in England was well attended, there was no one who would undertake the leadership of the group. So for two years between the age of sixteen and eighteen, he carried this responsibility alone. And so it was that three times a week he had to stand before his school contemporaries and seek to show them that, from a Bible passage fixed by others, God had something to say to him and them. Let him give his own testimony from this point:

During the same period, when I was seventeen, I "discovered," and was arrested by, 1 Corinthians xiv. Here I found an injunction to covet spiritual gifts, especially to prophesy (see verses 1, 12, 19). In the light of other statements in the chapter I understood prophesying to mean, not foretelling the future, nor receiving new revelations from heaven, but expounding revealed truth in a manner both intelligible and helpful to the hearer. Such an exposition should be related to men's condition, and should be expressed in words that they can understand. Its aim should be to bring to the hearers instruction, challenge and encouragement (verse 3).

So I began as a schoolboy of seventeen to pray for this gift, and—on each occasion when I expounded God's Word—to pray for the grace worthily to exercise the gift to the glory of God and the blessing of men. Such prayers I have continued often to pray since; and I can humbly testify that God has answered my prayers.

Our circumstances may be entirely different, but the desire to assist others by means of the Scriptures will be present. It may not be put into words and shared initially with others, because we may feel that it is rather presumptuous to have such thoughts. Reserve is not out of place. But where there is a genuine call, the desire to serve in these specific ways will grow and become dominant. The early Church obviously expected individuals to be drawn to pastoral and teaching responsibilities, and to recognize God's call, since one of the "trustworthy sayings" that they regularly quoted to one another was, "If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task" (1 Timothy 3:1). Although it can be sheer presumption to have such a desire, it will equally be simple obedience on the part of those called by our Lord Jesus Christ.

If genuine, the desire to be a shepherd and teacher will be nurtured. There will be a desire for preparation and training, since one of the evidences of a call is the possession of the qualifications for it. An obvious example is the knowledge of the Scriptures, and anyone with a call from God will make the most of every opportunity to study them. Opportunities for sharing in the care of others and of teaching and preaching will be seized. These tasks will never be irksome, but sheer joy. As opportunities are taken, people will become aware of the gifts of pastoral care and preaching and will comment on them. Such encouragements will fire the desire to pursue God's call all the more.

Most important of all, the spiritual leaders of the church to which a Christian belongs may take the initiative in raising the issue of the call to the ministry, particularly if, as they ought, they regularly ask God for sensitivity to the gifts Christ gives to His body.

We may not always be aware at first as to whether God's call is to give all or part of our time to shepherding and teaching—for there is a place for both. That ought not to be a major preoccupation, in that such uncertainty simply indicates that the time is not yet right for action. At the appropriate stage God will make it plain.

Sometimes the call may come to its climax through the invitation of a church to become its pastor. As an occasional or regular ministry is exercised within a church, God the Holy Spirit may give the leadership and membership an unmistakable conviction as to God's call, which they then publicly recognize and obey by their invitation.

The confirmation of the call to the ministry is of vital importance. It is not enough to feel that we may possibly have a call to the ministry. Such uncertainty leads to tragic mistakes. It has been traditional to speak of the double call to the ministry: There is first the inward call an individual becomes personally aware of; there is, second, the outward call of God's people as they recognize the calling and gifts an individual has for the ministry. Acts 13 provides a powerful example of the latter in the call of Paul and Barnabas to Gentile missionary work. As the church met together for the worship of God and for prayer, the Holy Spirit instructed the church to set them apart for the work to which He had called them (Acts 13:2). In one verse Luke writes of the church sending them off, and in the next of the Holy Spirit (verses 3, 4).

If formal training is part of the preparation for the ministry, then the call should also be put to the test by those responsible for the training. This is a good double check of the outward call of God's people, but it ought never to replace the confirmation of the individual's call by the company of God's people to which he belongs. No church is better able to confirm a call to the ministry than a man's home church—it is the natural and appropriate proving ground. He should submit himself, therefore, to the spiritual leadership of his church fellowship, asking them to test his call. Situations exist where someone may not have the advantage of belonging to a church fellowship where his call can be properly tested. In such circumstances, besides the tests any training establishment may apply, it is important that he should willingly submit himself to the judgment of Christians who know him well and who may be relied upon to be completely honest in stating their convictions.

Sometimes a man's call may be immediately obvious to his own church fellowship and leadership. The outward call then straightaway matches the individual's inner call. On other occasions time may be required to allow the gifts of shepherding and teaching to emerge more clearly. It may be appropriate for the spiritual leadership to consider how they may deliberately provide scope for the exercise and development of the gifts appropriate for a call to the ministry. Ideally the church leadership should be able to share with the membership the possible call a member has, and to say that they will provide him with opportunities of ministry within the church fellowship with the specific aim of testing his call. Members will then not be surprised to see him asked to preach or to help in pastoral work or in the conduct of worship.

When inner and outward call match and come together, then is the time to proceed further. According to an individual's circumstances, formal training may be the next step. For others it will be a matter of waiting for a call to a church. But the testing of the call we have suggested is imperative and must not be bypassed. Mistakes made at this stage will be disastrous for the person concerned and—more important still—for the well-being of God's flock.

Writing in his diary on February 15, 1835, Robert Murray M'Cheyne wrote, "Tomorrow I undergo my trials before the Presbytery. May God give me courage in the hour of need. What should I fear? If God see meet to put me into the ministry, who shall keep me back? If I be not meet, why should I thrust forward? To Thy service I desire to dedicate myself over and over again."

What could be worse for a church fellowship than to have someone attempting to be a shepherd and teacher without God's call? It is important, too, because throughout a man's ministry the enemy of souls will contest his call, especially when the going is tough. Tremendous strength comes from reviewing the manner in which God confirmed our call through the unanimous understanding He gave others of His will concerning us. That was clearly the point of Paul's reminders to Timothy of the way in which God's call to Timothy to be a shepherd and teacher had been confirmed (1 Timothy 1:18; 4:14).


Excerpted from On Being a Pastor by Derek Prime, Alistair Begg, Cheryl Dunlop. Copyright © 2004 Derek Prime and Alistair Begg. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Being a pastor is a high calling, which requires devotion, skillfulness, and unique spiritual preparation. Derek Prime and Alistair Begg provide clarity for the call, wisdom for the journey, and experience for the task. This book is like a conversation with good friends providing no nonsense counsel for the ministry challenges of the 21st century.
-Jack Graham, Pastor, Prestonwood Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas

On Being a Pastor is an outstanding book, which should be on every pastor’s shelf. I have read and consulted the previous version from the pen of Derek Prime for many years. Now it has been revised and enriched with the cooperation of Alistair Begg, and the result is splendid!
-Eric Alexander, Retired Pastor, St. George’s-Tron Parish Church, Scotland

Meet the Author

DEREK PRIME was born and brought up in London, where he received his secondary education at Westminster City School. National Service immediately followed for eighteen months, during which time he was attached as an army teacher to the Royal Scots Greys in Germany. Upon demobilisation he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he studied history and then theology. For the next three years he taught at a London Grammar School, prior to his ordination to become pastor of Lansdowne Evangelical Free Church in West Norwood in south London. After twelve years at Lansdowne he was called to Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh where he was pastor for eighteen years. He then devoted himself to writing and an itinerant ministry. During this time, sadly, within a few years of one another, both his younger daughter and his wife died of cancer. However, he is greatly blessed in having his other daughter and older son in Edinburgh and second son in London, giving him the joy of eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, an ever-growing family! Now living in Edinburgh, he is fully retired.

ALISTAIR BEGG (Trent University; London School of Theology; Westminster Seminary) was born in Scotland and spent the first 30 years of life in the United Kingdom. Since September of 1983, he has been the senior pastor at Parkside Church in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. He is the daily speaker on the national radio program Truth For Life which stems from his weekly Bible teaching at Parkside, and is the author of Made For His Pleasure, Lasting Love, and What Angels Wish They Knew. He and his wife, Susan, have three grown children.
ALISTAIR BEGG (Trent University; London School of Theology; Westminster Seminary) was born in Scotland and spent the first 30 years of life in the United Kingdom. Since September of 1983, he has been the senior pastor at Parkside Church in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. He is the daily speaker on the national radio program Truth For Life which stems from his weekly Bible teaching at Parkside, and is the author of Made For His Pleasure, Lasting Love, and What Angels Wish They Knew. He and his wife, Susan, have three grown children.

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