Ministry is not something we undertake after earning a seminary degree or other earthly credential. It is not so much a vocational jump as it is a vocational migration.
This is my story. Before I shared with others my sense that God was calling me to ministry, before I took a vocational ministry position or underwent the ordination process, I began serving my church in ministry-like roles. I taught Bible studies, preached in prisons and halfway houses, and led evangelistic outreach events. One reason I was confident God was calling me to ministry was that I was serving in ministry and enjoying God’s favor and pleasure in it.
Consider the lead-up to marriage. On June 26, 1999, I formally committed my life to my wife, Karen, in holy matrimony. I loved that girl and was irresistibly drawn to the altar, eager to spend the rest of my life with her. On that day, before God and gathered witnesses, I publicly promised what had been welling up in my heart for many months. My love for her had already shown itself in a thousand ways; instinctively I bought her flowers, spent time with her, and dreamed of our future together. The wedding ceremony was the final, glorious testimony of what was increasingly settled in my heart. God didn’t flip a love-switch in my heart at the moment we were wed. My love for Karen progressed from bud to full bloom in the season leading up to our wedding day. I was ready to state my commitment to Karen because I already had committed myself to her in my heart.
Similarly, the person most likely called to ministry is the person already practicing it; and the one who is most likely to know God’s blessing is the one already experiencing it. Often, by the time you choose to enter the ministry, you realize you’ve already chosen it in countless aspirations and forms.
A PASTOR IS KNOWN BY HIS FRUIT
If you read Paul’s New Testament letters closely, you will see that he often draws a connection between his ministry calling and his ministry fruitfulness, authenticating the former by evidence of the latter. To the Corinthians, Paul wrote:
Do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor. 3:1–3)
In the first century, a teacher often used “letters of commendation” to authenticate themselves. We might think of it as a referral letter. Paul points the Corinthians to themselves, and his work among them, as sufficient authentication for his ministry.Consider also what Paul wrote to the Philippian believers:
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. (Phil. 1:3–8)
Paul is confident that his prayer on behalf of the Philippians will be answered because his ministry among them has born increasing fruit. He knows God is blessing the work. Like he does with other New Testament congregations, Paul reminds the Philippian and Corinthian believers of God’s work through him in their lives, with the aim to encourage them and validate his ministry. He references this work not as a point of personal pride, but as a warm reflection on God’s call and favor on his ministry and on the church.
Charles Spurgeon, too, sees fruitfulness in ministry as an integral mark of one’s call. In Lectures to My Students, a classic that belongs on every minister’s bookshelf, Spurgeon boldly claims that the authenticity of one’s call to ministry is measured by the fruitfulness of his service:
In order to further prove a man’s call, after a little exercise of his gifts, such as I have already spoken of, he must see a measure of conversion work going on under his efforts . . . It seems to me, that as a man to be set apart to the ministry, his commission is without seals until souls are won by his instrumentality to the knowledge of Jesus. As a worker, he is to work on whether he succeeds or not, but as a minister he cannot be sure of his vocation till results are apparent. . . There must be some conversion-work in your irregular labours before you can believe that preaching is to be your life-work . . . Prophets whose words are powerless, sowers whose seed all withers, fishers who take no fish, soldiers who give no wounds—are these God’s men? Surely it were better to be a mud-raker, or a chimney-sweep, than to stand in the ministry as an utterly barren tree . . .
Spurgeon speaks forcefully here, arguably too forcefully. But the point is worth pondering: to the extent that we see God changing lives through our ministry, we can gain assurance He has indeed set us apart to it. The point is not so much how many lives have been changed, but if lives have been changed.
True, there are times in the Bible when God raises up a prophet to be, in essence, a prophet of doom. The prophet Jeremiah had such a ministry. He was sent as God’s agent to deliver words of warning and judgment. But Jeremiahs are the exception, not the rule. Typically, those called to ministry will see—at least to some degree—fruit in their ministry.
What might fruit in ministry look like? There are various forms it might take. It could include people coming to Christ through your influence, Christians being enriched by your biblical teaching, or your church being strengthened in doctrine and ministry vitality through your service.
If you are trying your hand in ministry but God’s blessing seems distant, the lost are not being reached, and believers aren’t growing from it, it may indicate God is not calling you. It definitely indicates you should give more time to prayer, careful reflection, and the seeking of wise counsel.
In any discussion of fruit in ministry, we must keep in mind that God is the one who grants it (1 Cor. 3:7). Many choice servants, including courageous missionaries, have labored years without seeing converts or growth. In some contexts, fruitfulness looks a lot like faithfulness. The point is not that unless you are seeing fruit in ministry, you aren’t called. The point is that as you see fruit in ministry, it can grant you greater assurance that God has indeed called you.
 C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 29.
*This article is an excerpt from Discerning Your Call to Ministry: How to Know For Sure and What to Do About It, by Jason K. Allen. If you are considering the ministry, there are two mistakes you must avoid. The first is taking up a calling that isn’t yours. The second is neglecting one that is.*
Available to purchase online at Amazon.com, Moody Publishers, and in LifeWay Christian Stores. Learn more at jasonkallen.com/calltoministrybook.topicsDiscerning Your Call to the Ministry, Pastoral Ministry