As I’m formulating an answer to this question, our daughter from the Fox Cities forwarded a television news link. The reporter describes an ongoing investigation of an apparent drive-by shooting that happened last night directly across the street from the parsonage where she and our son-in-law live. The house was sprayed with bullets and a man inside was wounded in the head. I didn’t think this was that tough of a neighborhood, but evidently more so than I expected. And, as always – and especially when dangerous things are happening – the angels of God are present to protect God’s believing people. But, the question still pops into a parent’s mind: “Are they living in the right spot?!” The answer is “yes”. Our son-in-law is called by God through the people of the church to this place. This is where he is supposed to be. This is where God wants him to serve – bullets and all – with his blessing. It’s a divine calling. And, that’s reassuring to know!
Due to the constant need for pastors in our churches and teachers in our Lutheran schools, and with a present shortage in that regard, we’ve been hearing often about “divine calls” occurring in our local congregations. What does that really mean? How is this way of securing needed workers different from the hiring that takes place in the other spheres of life, like by application or contract?
“Divine” means that God is intimately involved. In fact, he’s the Director, making sure he places the right people at the right time in the right place as public servants in the Church. Yet, he does this through people. It’s members of the congregation who do the calling. They ask a person to publicly preach and teach the Word on their behalf. And it’s leaders in the wider fellowship of believers – in our case in the synod – who assist as well. A “divine call” means that God calls pastors and teachers, yet he does it by working through the members of his Church on earth.
Paul wrote to leaders in the Church, like Timothy and Titus, and reminded them of their interest in making sure that qualified workers would continue to serve as pastors, teachers, missionaries, etc. “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will be qualified to teach others.” (II Timothy 2:2) “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5) At the same time, though leaders in the Church have a role, it is to all believers that Jesus said “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8) and “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19,29) Individual Christians, and those gathered together in groups like congregations, are possessors of the Gospel and are those commissioned to share it. They also have a vested interest in who will serve as public spokesmen of the Gospel among them. And they have the authority to ask or “call” such individuals to do so.
Church leaders have an interest. Members have an interest. But, above all, it is the Lord who is directing. So, every called worker heeds the words given to the elders in Acts 20:28: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” True, it is people who have gone to school and prepared for the possibility of serving. It is members who placed the call. It is church leaders who have assisted by proposing qualified names. But in the end, it is by God’s divine design and guidance that a pastor or teacher finds himself or herself in service at a particular time and place.
In Acts chapter 1 you can read about the calling of Matthias to replace Judas as one of the Twelve. The Church wanted to round out the number of leaders, according to what was foretold, and had special qualifications that they wanted from the new leader. Two names were proposed. A vote was taken. In this case, it was the casting of lots, which would be similar to rolling dice or picking a name out of a hat while trusting God’s direction. People were involved. As much room for the Spirit to do his divine work was given. One was chosen. The call went to Matthias.
Part of the initial question posed was: “How long have we practiced it (the way we do it)?” For as long as our synod has been in existence, for the most part we’ve followed the same procedure that we use today. And it comes very close to the calling of Matthias. The congregation has a need and decides to call. A district president, who represents the wider group of Christians in the fellowship of our synod, proposes the names of qualified candidates to meet the needs. Some information about the person’s biography is provided, though not as much as would be on a person’s resume’ in the business world. That’s because the next step is one that leaves the most room for the Holy Spirit to work. A vote is taken by the voting representatives of the congregation who simply pray and cast a vote based upon the basic information that is there and a person is chosen. Thus, a “call” is placed. It is “divine” because God is intimately involved and God gives believers the authority to call.
Finally, the one called must pray, think and decide if he or she should accept that call. Quite often, these people are already serving at another place, and therefore have two calls in their consideration. However, when they make a decision and begin or continue their service, they can be confident that they are there because the Lord has placed them there, not because they have placed themselves. The congregation can be certain also that the right workers are at the right place at the right time, and receives and respects them as servants sent into their service by God’s design.
The last part of the question was: “Do other church bodies do it the same way?” That I can’t answer. Some may. Many do it differently, like by appointment by bishops, or some by searches by congregational committees, for instance. God doesn’t say how it must be done. But, in our circles we try to maintain a system that has as much historical precedent in the Bible as possible and gives as much room for the Lord to work as possible. No system that involves humans is perfect. But, in hindsight through the decades, the Lord of the Church has blessed our churches and schools through our system. And for that, we give God our thanks, and we serve together in confidence!
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor Ethan Steinbrenner