It’s not usually expressed quite so blatantly or bluntly; but however well the call to the ministry is dressed up, there is usually at least an element of desire for leadership present. Some might say, “No, no, I don’t want to be a leader. I just want to preach the Gospel and teach God’s people.” However, even teaching and preaching involve leadership (1 Tim. 2:12).

The question is, “Does the ambition or desire to lead automatically disqualify a person from the ministry?” As J Oswald Sanders asks: “Is it not better for a position to seek out a person than the person to seek out the position?”

In earlier American history, it was thought improper of anyone to want to be President. If it happened, it happened, but you certainly didn’t seek it. So what about the ministry? Does the desire to be a pastor or preacher disqualify a person? There have been notable cases, like Calvin’s or Knox’s, when men were virtually forced into church leadership. That’s rare today, although in some limited circles the idea persists that a man is not called to the ministry unless God has more or less forced him into it against his will.

What usually happens today is that a man goes to his pastor or elders, and says something like, “I believe God is calling me into the ministry.” That sounds very passive and humble. The desire and activity is all on God’s side.  But, there is nothing wrong with a man wanting to be a pastor and taking steps to implement that desire. Paul said that if any man wants to be an elder, he desires a good work (1 Tim. 3:1). As another version puts it: “To aspire to leadership is an honorable ambition.” The potential problems do not lie in the desire or aspiration itself, but with the strength and nature of the desire.

Powerful desire
When a man tells me he feels he is being called to the ministry, I want to test the strength of that desire with questions such as: “Do you really want to be a pastor or minister? If so, how much do you want it? What difficulty would stop you from becoming a pastor? How would you respond if your pastor or elders rejected your application? Is there anything in life you desire to be or do more than be a pastor?” There should be very clear and definite answers to these questions. If a man does not have a strong desire to be a pastor, he might just about get through his Seminary studies, but he won’t last long in pastoral ministry. (Similar questions may be asked of anyone seeking other kinds of ministry positions.)

Pure desire
Once a strong desire is established, then the motive behind the desire should be examined. While Paul commended the desire to lead, Jeremiah said that if anyone seeks great things for himself, he should stop right there (Jer. 45:5). Diotrephes, who loved the preeminence, was a classic example of what Jeremiah warned against (3 John 9-10). Church History is littered with the ministerial corpses of those who had strong but unholy desires to lead.

Maybe Jeremiah’s words are more relevant to Americans than Paul’s. When Paul was complimenting men who wanted to be church leaders, he and they both knew that such positions guaranteed persecution, financial hardship, and a lifetime of stress. In that context, the desire to be a church leader was good and honorable – and rare.  But when there are significant rewards associated with being a church leader, as there are in many American settings, then sinful ambitions and selfish motives are going to be much more common.

So, if some desires for church leadership are good and holy, while others are sinful and selfish, how do we distinguish them? Well obviously anyone with a bit of savvy can say the right words to please a questioner. No question on earth will guarantee the exposure of real motives if someone is determined to disguise them. All we can really do is ask the man to prayerfully examine his own motives over a period of time. Perhaps provide him with a list like this and ask him if he finds his desires in the God-glorifying column, or in the self-glorifying column.

God-glorifying desires
1. I want to exalt God by my life and my lips
2. I want to serve God and His people
3. I want to see sinners saved and Christians equipped for works of service.
4. I want to teach people about the Bible and lead them in worship
5. I want to prepare people for eternity
6. I want to see the Church reformed and strengthened
7. I want to see the Church make an impact on my community, country, culture

Self-glorifying desires

1. I want to be famous
2. I want to be rich
3. I want to be powerful and influential
4. I want to be respected and recognized
5. I want to serve on important Committees and Boards
6. I want to be more fulfilled in my life
7. I want more time at home with my wife and kids
8. I’m getting on in life and fancy an easier job
9. I’m not happy in my present work, and thought I should try ministry
10. I want to make up for the wrong I’ve done in my life
11. I want to be the next Tim Keller, John Piper, Joel Beeke, etc
12. I want to make something of myself
13. I want to control others’ lives
14. I want to be wanted
15. I want to be free of a boss
16. I want to read and study
17. I want a title
18. I want to work where I don’t have to listen to cursing and swearing all day.

You’d be amazed at how many of these self-centered motives I’ve actually heard expressed!

May God give His servants powerful and pure desires!

  • Joel Zehring

    I’m intrigued by the “forced-into-ministry” model that you describe.It strikes me that I don’t need permission to do any of the things on the “God-glorifying desires” list. If I want to join God in his work, I start by praying and serving where God leads.If I want people to pay me for joining God in his work, that’s a different story. Who decides that I deserve monetary support or a even a full salary for my service? In America, it seems that many would-be-pastors decide unilaterally that they want to be paid, often without demonstrating any aptitude for ministry and leadership in a volunteer capacity.What if would-be-pastors started as volunteers, and the believers they served sent them to seminary to enhance their ministry knowledge and skills for the strengthening of that local body? Perhaps the number of “ministerial corpses” would decrease, along with the number of pastors leaving seminary shackled to student loan debt.

  • Fred Jonkman

    I do think one of the errors made by the church or denominations is that they give free rides to seminaries, or in other words, they pay the seminary costs and living expenses for the “students”. To test if it is a real “desire”, it would be good to see that person pursue this desire by paying for his education as all other professions young Christians have to do to fulfill their desires in a calling. When does the church pay for higher education for others which would be legitimate callings also?

  • Daniel Biddle

    I have a question or two for you, Mr Murray, if you have time to answer. I have finished a four year course of ministerial study, but I am reluctant to seek a ministry position until I am absolutely 100% confident that it is God’s will. I can only say with confidence that the Lord has/had called me to study, but not necessarily to the ministry. Now I am at this stage, my thoughts much upon the ministry, but I don’t feel I am (or maybe ever will be) any closer to certainty. Many of the points of the first list I can say characterise my desire; but yet at the same time, some of those on the second list might characterise my desires. Thus I am at an impasse; I guess really I am looking for advice.1. If a man has pure and God-glorifiying desires at the beginning of his ministry, is there not still a danger of self-glorifying desires creeping in later on in that man’s ministry? Should truly called man never have a selfish desire in relation to his ministry?2. Though of course i admit the selfishness of the points of the second list, is it always wrong to (in some respects) be selfish? For example, is it wrong to desire to read and study? Or is it always wrong to seek fulfilment in your life by service to God? If you could take the time to answer my questions I would greatly appreciate it.

  • jeff weddle

    The best cure for a desire for leadership in the church is to be given leadership in the Church. The tests, temptations, challenges, discouragements, defeats and suffering that will arise will show soon enough whether the desire was real. We must be careful not to disqualify people who learn by doing, because no seminary, volunteer work, or anything else adequately prepares a man to do this job.

  • David Murray

    Fred: You make a good point. We wrestled with this issue in Scotland. The end result was that the Church paid some and the student paid some – although local congregations also contributed at times. The difference between pastors and other “professionals” (at least in Scotland) is that while Seminary credits cost the same as Law and Medical credits, pastors will never be paid a similar salary to recoup the costs. as lawyers and doctors can. I think that’s why churches have stepped in to help. Jeff: I agree 100%. I much prefer men to be tested first. It is the biblical way. The problem is that the church is sometimes not willing to give that opportunity until they have had seminary training. Bit of a chicken and egg situation.Daniel: (1) You’re right, we are all a mixture of motives to one degree or another. And yes, a man can start out well-motivated and degenerate over time. The question is really where does the major balance of motives lie. And do we hate, repent of, and fight against the more ignoble ones.(2) I think it is imperative for a pastor to enjoy studying. If he doesn’t, it’s unlikely that he’s called. But too many pastors want to just stay in their studies. And too many are attracted to ministry because they want to study and study and study. Study is not the end, it is the means to an end. Do you have someone you can talk to about your own situation? I would just be very honest with a pastor (ideally), elder or mature Christian friend. And pray it through with them over a period of time.

  • Trevor Ruby

    God Help Us! Please pray for me brother, I am sure that i often fall into the trap of selfish motives. I need the Lord help with this. Pray that he shows me if this desire to preach of mine is built on the wrong foundation.