I think a lot of nonsense is spoken about this question.
Typically, this question is dealt with thus. Those who are called will have a burning inner desire to preach. Folk will reference Spurgeon’s comment, ‘The first sign of the heavenly calling is an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work’ (Lectures to my Students). Then we expect that so-called ‘inner call’ to be ratified by the local church. In conjunction with this, we expect to see growth in godly character. We think folk should see it in themselves and the local church should see such character too. I want to suggest some of this is backward and misses the one thing that really means you are called to pastoral ministry.
For one, the intense inner-calling – particularly pressed by men such as Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones – seems to overlook the fact that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’ (Jer 17:9). It is so easy to convince ourselves that we have a call to ministry in exactly the same way it is easy to convince ourselves that the adultery we have just settled in our heart is also a good idea. Our heart, and our deep-seated desires, are not a reliable guide. Indeed, Spurgeon insists:
“Do not enter the ministry if you can help it,” was the deeply sage advice of a divine to one who sought his judgment. If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit by that for which his inmost soul pants.
I simply don’t see this in scripture. In fact, the Bible is full of leaders who really didn’t want to lead. Moses wasn’t keen, Gideon had no such inner-desire, Jephthah didn’t feel it, David showed no sense of calling, even Paul didn’t get an inner-call. This list is not exhaustive. Just because ‘if anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task’ (1 Tim 3:1) does not mean that the one who desires it has been called nor that the one who doesn’t express such desire necessarily hasn’t.
Second, whilst the affirmation of the local church is certainly important, all the local church can really say is that an individual is capable of pastoral ministry. The local church can affirm a person’s character, it can tell a person that they might, indeed, make a good elder. But this is not the same as calling. There are many men the church might affirm as having credible character and teaching gifts who are not called to pastoral ministry. The affirmation of the local church really does matter, but it is not the ultimate arbiter of calling.
Third, the criteria for eldership do depend, to some degree, on context. There is no objective period of time before one is ‘not a novice’, for example. How do we objectively define ‘able to teach’? If anything less than Spurgeon will not do, few of us should be in ministry. The ability to teach, to some degree, depends on the people needing to be taught. There is not an absolute standard of maturity. In a church full of ex-ministers and academic theologians, plenty of godly men might be viewed as ‘less mature’ or not as able to teach (rightly or wrongly). In a church without any such people, the determination of maturity and ability to teach may well not be the same. In the end, though growth in godly character cannot be dismissed, it is not the ultimate arbiter of calling.
I want to suggest a much more simple measure. It is a measure that comes before any of the above and the things listed above are (in a different order) brought to boot on it, not the other way around. In short, until a church actually calls you to pastoral ministry, you have not been called. You can have inner-desire, the affirmation of your local church and godly character. But unless you have actually been called by a church, you have not been called to pastoral ministry.
How do you know you have been called to pastoral ministry? In short, a church has actually called you. Within that, I would expect that call to be based on the affirmation that the eldership criteria is seen in your life. I would imagine that affirmation would also be affirmed by your local church. I would imagine the acceptance of an offer of a pastorate is attended with an actual desire to do the job. But you cannot consider yourself ‘called’ until such time as someone has actually called you. The rest is simply confirmation.
It is worth noting that some do not gain a burning desire to enter the pastorate until such time as someone considers them credible for the role. It is often the case that – though they ought to be looking out for capable men in the ordinary scheme of things – many eldership teams do not consider someone able until such time as another church come calling. You are not called until someone calls you – these other things are typically confirmations of the call.
It is right to say that if you do not have godly character, you shouldn’t accept the call. If your church elders cannot affirm the calling, you shouldn’t accept the call. But these things are not the definition of calling. If nobody calls you to the pastorate – despite your inner-desire, the affirmation of your church and the existence of godly character – you have not been called. At the end of the day, you are only called when someone has actually called you.