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Richard Baxter: When You Want To Quit Pastoral Ministry, Remember This

You’ll want to quit. There I said it. Sometimes you’ll want to quit being a pastor. Or at least wonder if you should. It took years of testing and praying and training to settle a sense of calling, and you’d think that, once there, you’d set sail on a sea of blissful, pastoral certainty. But it isn’t like that. At all. And surprisingly, the whispers of discouraged doubt and seeds of economic envy can press down on you in the subtlest of moments.

No matter how many times you practiced the cadence of the sermon and honed your illustrative game, your preaching fell flat. You prayed God would use it to devastate pride and launch a revolution to the nations, but instead you had the normal post-sermon conversation with “doctrinal precision guy”. He thought you could have made a clearer line of demarcation between Jesus’ earthly suffering and His divine nature. Patripassianism and all that. Another lady reveled in your story about the childhood cat. “Thanks Pastor, I love cats.” It could be right then, or maybe the moment when the counseling load just builds and builds, or denominational politics make you think that Robert should have kept his rules to himself. Right then, the calling question will be pressed forward.

What do you need right then? You need an anchor to tether you to pastoral life. It can’t simply be that you won “most persuasive” in middle school debate club. It can’t be that you love to study covenant theology or memorize scholastic period schisms. Honestly, it can’t even be that you have a pleasant disposition and people come to you for advice. When ministry drains and strains you, you’ll need a reason strong enough to sustain you through your existential crisis. You must be able to answer the question, “Why am I a pastor?”


Richard Baxter & The Reformed Pastor

Richard Baxter began writing a handbook for ministers in the year 1656, a work that would eventually become The Reformed Pastor. Deep in a section on motivations for pastoral ministry, Baxter details what he calls the “efficient cause” of the pastoral relationship. What an amazing and helpful thought. There is a cause to this calling. And an efficient one at that. Let me suggest you’ll need this efficient cause more than you think. Here is Baxter:

It is the Holy Ghost that has made us overseers of his Church, and, therefore, it behooves us to take heed to it.

The Holy Ghost makes men bishops or overseers of the Church in three several respects: By qualifying them for the office; by directing the ordainers to discern their qualifications, and know the fittest men; and by directing them, the people and themselves, for the affixing them to a particular charge. All these things were then done in an extraordinary way, by inspiration, or at least very often. The same are done now by the ordinary way of the Spirit’s assistance. But it is the same Spirit still; and men are made overseers of the Church (when they are rightly called) by the Holy Ghost, now as well as then.

Baxter is saying you don’t need a Damascus road experience to have a divine calling. That, in fact, you have a divine calling exactly because the Holy Spirit has ordained your character, your affirmation, and your opportunity for ministry. You ought to think back to your stirring to preach and consider it as divine unction. You ought to remember the leaders who prayed for you and tested you and affirmed you. They were led by the Holy Spirit. You ought to be grateful for the opportunity you have to commend Christ for a living. This door was divinely appointed and opened by the triune God. Precisely because these things are true, you cannot be lax about this call. Baxter continues:

God also gives men the qualifications which he requires; so that, all that the Church has to do, whether pastors or people, ordainers or electors, is but to discern and determine which are the men that God has thus qualified, and to accept of them that are so provided, and, upon consent, to install them solemnly in this office. What an obligation, then, is laid upon us, by our call to the work! If our commission be sent from heaven, it is not to be disobeyed.

When the apostles were called by Christ from their secular employments, they immediately left friends, and house, and trade, and all, and followed him. When Paul was called by the voice of Christ, he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. Though our call is not so immediate or extraordinary, yet it is from the same Spirit. It is no safe course to imitate Jonah, in turning our back upon the commands of God. If we neglect our work, he hath a spur to quicken us; if we run away from it, he hath messengers enough to overtake us, and bring us back, and make us do it; and it is better to do it at first than at last.

Do you have a sense of blessed obligation? It has become vogue in many circles to talk of ministry calling in rather relaxed terms. As though you really could have done anything in life and been just as effective or just as fulfilled or whatever. And that is partially true, or could be if you were not called to pastor. But that is not your course. And ministry as novelty or hobby or religious dabbling will not sustain you. It will not anchor a soul wearied by ministry and it certainly does not ring with the heart of Paul who cried, “…woe to me if I don’t preach the gospel.” We ought to be extremely careful about turning aside from this calling.


He Will Sustain You

God is the reason you are in ministry. He is the efficient cause. He will sustain you. Acts shows us that Paul anchored his assurance in this hope as well, “…if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). One of the means by which he sustains is for you to consider the efficient cause of your calling. Not only to consider, but to remember and honor and steel your soul upon this cause. When doubts arise, may we be like Timothy, who was exhorted to remember the gift of his calling.

2 Timothy 1:6–7 (ESV) — For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

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