Do Ministers View Call to Ministry as Important?

Empirical research on leadership reveals that ministers place great significance on calling. This brief review will organize thoughts from ministry leaders about the importance of calling into three categories 1) calling in general, 2) the internal call to ministry, and 3) external calling.

The Importance of Ministry Calling

Recent research on pastoral development demonstrates the importance of calling. McKenna, Yost, and Boyd compared significant developmental events and lessons identified from interviews of one hundred senior pastors.[1] The pastors identified key events and important lessons significant to their development such as transitions, training experiences, and handling relationships. The pastors also acknowledged general ministry calling, “knowing that one is called to ministry” as an important event in their development.[2] McKenna, Yost, and Boyd classified this call to ministry as the most statistically significant event in the setting the stage category about ministry beginnings.[3] A study on clergy and organizational culture revealed that calling plays a significant role in the narrative of many who seek ordination.[4] The research found that the divine call represents an important reason why clergy embrace the ministerial vocation.[5] McKenna and her colleagues’ study about learning agility in clergy also demonstrates the importance that ministry leaders place on calling.[6]  The study explored the personal strategies and situational factors that enable pastors to learn and develop as leaders. In the study, the pastors recognized “relying on faith and calling” as a significant personal strategy they utilize to grow as leaders.[7]

Internal Calling in Empirical Research

Recent empirical research demonstrates the importance of the internal call to ministry. Researchers at Wheaton College studied important factors in maintaining resiliency in ministry by analyzing 398 surveys and twenty-six interviews of evangelical protestant clergy.[8] Internal calling phrased as “sense of calling into ministry” was identified as extremely important to pastors in their quest to maintain health, resiliency, and endurance in ministry.[9] The researchers recorded one senior pastor’s quote about the importance of internal calling, which was echoed by many of the other respondents: “I think the most prominent feature of being a pastor is not choosing the profession but being called of God.”[10] Meek and her colleagues noted that counselors should “rejoice” with pastors in their calling and should “respect the monumental importance” pastors place on their calling.”[11] Researchers at Seattle Pacific University categorized data from surveys and interviews about how pastors measure their ministry effectiveness.[12] The researchers recorded a significant frequency of pastors reporting that an important factor in how they measure their effectiveness in ministry is “faithfulness or obedience to their calling”[13] The theme of internal calling resonated throughout the study as researchers concluded that pastors are “driven by a deeply rooted calling to their ministry.”[14]

Empirical studies related to burnout also reveal the importance of the internal call. According to Paul Tripp, one sign that a pastor might be headed toward burnout is when he begins to question his call to ministry.[15] Pastors struggling with burnout often experience a growing sense of cynicism and disillusionment which threaten to undermine the “very convictions which define their calling.”[16] Burnout among clergy represents a danger to one’s sense of life calling.[17] Research reveals that burnout often includes disillusionment and a loss of a confidence in the internal call of God upon one’s life—when a “sense of calling erodes.”[18] Those that experience burnout often have lost their sense of God’s internal calling upon their life and ministry.

The Importance of External Calling

In addition to calling in general and the internal call to ministry, research also demonstrates that the external call to ministry represents an important aspect of the identity of ministry leaders. A study of seminary students found that external calling had a significant influence in their choice of Christian ministry as a life vocation.[19] In McKenna and her colleagues’ study on learning agility the external call to ministry was viewed as a significant aspect of pastoral identity and development. The “affirmation of calling” represented an important situational factor that helped the pastors grow as leaders.[20] The researchers also identified that “confirmation of calling” through others helped the pastors create strategies to learn from their experiences and develop as ministers.[21] Researchers T. Scott Bledsoe and Kimberly Setterlund studied support systems and self-care practices that prevent burnout among experienced pastors.[22] Looking back on early ministry, these veteran pastors identified support systems that helped them develop. Researchers identified the theme of external calling in the category of early support. The pastors mentioned external calling, the encouragement and confirmation they received from the church, as an important factor in affirming ministry as their profession.[23]

How important, then, is the call to ministry for pastors and ministry leaders? Calling represents a significant factor in their lives, ministries, and professional development.


[1] McKenna, Paul R. Yost, and Tanya N. Boyd. “Leadership Development and Clergy: Understanding the Events and Lessons that Shape Pastoral Leaders,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 35, no. 3 07), 179-189.

[2] McKenna et al., “Leadership Development and Clergy,” 182.

[3] McKenna et al., “Leadership Development and Clergy,” 182, 184.

[4] Terry Grey, “Divine Calling, Organizational Voice: A Discursive Study of ‘Calling’ and How it informs Clergy Organizational Identity,” The Journal of Adult Theological Education 9.1 (2012): 44-60. Grey found that their service is “grounded” upon the understanding that they are called by God.

[5] Grey, 44.

[6] McKenna, Yost, and Boyd, “Learning Agility in Clergy,” 190-201.

[7] McKenna et al., “Learning Agility in Clergy,” 195, 197.

[8] Katheryn R. Meek, Mark R. McMinn, Craig M. Brower, Todd D. Burnett, Barrett W. McRay, Michael L. Ramey, David W. Swanson, and Dennise D. Villa. “Maintaining Personal Resiliency: Lessons Learned from Evangelical Protestant Clergy,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 31, no. 4 (2003): 339-347.

[9] Meek et al., “Maintaining Personal Resiliency,” 339. Forty-two percent of respondents experienced a distinct moment of calling and the other fifty-eight percent described a more gradual call to ministry, 343.

[10] Meek et al., 343.

[11] Meek et al., 344, 345.

[12] Robert B. McKenna and Katrina Eckard. “Evaluating Pastoral Effectiveness: To Measure or Not to Measure,” Pastoral Psychology 58 (2009): 303-313.

[13] McKenna and Eckard, 307.

[14] McKenna and Eckard, 310.

[15] Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 38-39.

[16] Jonathan Golden, Ralph L. Piedmont, Joseph W. Ciarrocchi, and Thomas Rodgerson, “Spirituality and Burnout: An Incremental Validity Study,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 32, no. 2 (2004): 115. Also notable works supporting this point are Roy M. Oswald. Clergy Self Care (New York: The Alban Institute, 1991) and J.A. Sanford. Ministry Burnout (New York: Paulist Press, 1982).

[17] Golden et al., “Spirituality and Burnout,” 115. Researchers Vaccarino and Gerritsen in their study on self-care explained that even extremely competent clergy may suffer strains while trying to sustain their calling. Tony Gerritsen and Franco Vaccarino, “Exploring Clergy Self-Care: A New Zealand Study,” The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, 3 (2013): 69.

[18] Laura K. Bernard and John F. Curry. “The Relationship of Clergy Burnout to Self-Compassion and Other Personality Dimensions,” Pastoral Psychology, 61 (2011), 150.

[19] Marvin Judy, “The Professional Ministry: The Call, Performance, Morale, and Authority,” Perkins Journal (Winter 1977): 23-24. Judy defines the external call as the “ecclesiastical call” according to Niebuhr’s categories. “The summons by some person or persons in the organized church to accept the ministry and to be recognized by the denomination as qualified for the ministry.” Judy studied surveys of over 1,000 first year seminary students and found that this ecclesiastical/external call had a significant influence in their choosing the ministry as a life vocation.

[20] McKenna et al., “Learning Agility in Clergy,” 194. rely on God and others

[21] McKenna et al., “Learning Agility in Clergy,” 194, 199.

[22] Scott Bledsoe and Kimberly A. Setterlund. “Thriving Ministry: Exploring the Support Systems and Self-Care Practices of Experienced Pastors.” The Journal of Family and Community Ministries 28, (2015): 48-66.

[23] Bledsoe and Setterlund, 54.

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