How do ministers know where to serve? Balancing desires, burdens, open doors, and needs.

By Joshua Winslett

The gospel ministry is different than any other vocation or activity. You see, God alone calls men to preach his gospel and God alone directs their field of labor. Ministers are not, as it were, “mamma called and daddy sent.” Nor is gospel ministry a field of labor where we decide the direction that we would wish to take. This makes the ministry somewhat more difficult because it takes more discerning than the way many laity make decisions. To quote Elder Wilson Thompson, “God fixes the field of labor for each of His called ministers, and in that place alone will they be profitable.” This is a truth that all ministers would affirm, but how do we determine the correct field?


This may sound strange, but the first thing every man must do is throw everything he wants out the window. Bluntly, God isn’t that concerned with our opinion. We see this principle manifest in Acts 16:7, “After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not.” Notice that Paul desired to take the gospel east, further into Asia. Yet the Spirit overruled their own unction and gave way to a better one. The text does not say how this door was closed. It may have been with an overwhelming burden brought by the Holy Ghost. It may have been through dire circumstances. We don’t know. What we do know is that God overruled their desires. The example of Paul intensifies when we see that his “desire” was for Israel but God made him the apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 9:1-4,10:1; 11:13). Once again, God worked in a way that we would consider contrary to someone’s desire.

This principle can even be seen in situations that we would view to be ideal circumstances. Someone may say, “he knows so many people that it just makes sense that he labors in that community.” This observation is commendable in that it is seeking the betterment of the kingdom itself. With that said, God doesn’t abide by what we often consider to be the most obvious path. Using again the example of the apostle Paul, it would seem too perfect for the apostle Paul to be sent to Israel. Paul was an a exemplary Jew. He had been a Pharisee. He fulfilled the law. Yet, God had other plans. What we would view as a perfect situation, God ignored and worked contrary to what we would consider best.

Our personal desires can also be problematic simply because the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). Unfortunately, just because we are called of God does not mean that we are above carnal motivations. It would be easy to unknowingly base decisions on being too tired, or too busy. We may even overlook some churches viewing them as unexciting and small. Maybe even the commute would seem as an inconvenience. As a minister myself, I am man enough to acknowledge that these carnal thoughts can enter our minds.


With this understanding, how then can we know our field of labor? We often speak of a person having a burden for a church or community. Let’s consider how the word burden is defined in the 1828 Webster’s edition as both a noun and a verb:

BURD’EN, n. burd’n; written also burthen. L. fero,or porto.

1. That which is borne or carried; a load. Hence,

2. That which is borne with labor or difficulty; that which is grievous, wearisome or oppressive.

3. A birth.

4. The verse repeated in a song, or the return of the theme at the end of each verse; the chorus; so called from the application of this word to the drone or base, and the pipe or string which plays it, in an instrument. A chord which is to be divided, to perform the intervals of music,when open and undivided, is also called the burden.

5. In common language, that which is often repeated; a subject on which one dwells.

6. A fixed quantity of certain commodities; as a burden of gad steel, 120 pounds.

7. The contents of a ship; the quantity or number of tons, a vessel will carry; as a ship of a hundred tons burden.

8. A club. Not in use.

BURD’EN, v.t. burd’n. To load; to lay on a heavy load; to incumber with weight. Hence,

1. To oppress with any thing grievous; as, to burden a nation with taxes.

2. To surcharge; as, to burden the memory.

Notice that a burden is not defined as a romantic attachment, or some kind of emotional crush. A burden is defined as carrying a laborious difficulty. In essence, desiring a ministerial office is more than just desiring a title. A man burdened for ministry or a church, desires the work that’s involved. This is why 1 Timothy 3:1 reads, “This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” As Elder Ronald Lawrence once said, “A man called to preach will more typically answer ‘yes’ to an invitation than no.” I have found this to be true. Not that we wish to get our name out, but our positive answer derives from the fire in our bones to preach the gospel. If a church needs us, we say yes. That yes comes whether it is convenient or not. A man that is burdened is burdened for the difficult labor. Likewise, using the verb tense of the word, when God burdens a man to preach, that burden is in a sense to oppress us with a grievous task. Consider that Paul counted himself as a prisoner of God to preach the gospel. It is true that this is a fire in our bones (Jeremiah 20:9). A man called to preach does look at preaching with fondness and emotional desire, but a burden is more than that. It is not a romance for a title or office, the fire in one’s bones establishes him a glutton for the grievous difficulty of service. By itself, knowing the definition of the word burden does not answer how a man decides where to serve. But it does illustrate to us that essence of all ministerial calls and open doors, service to a labor.

How are men sent?

There are two ordinary methods through which God has shown to supply pastors to church, 1) raising them up from among the congregation and/or area, 2) being sent from without from other established churches/areas.

Raising up from among: Elders are traditionally raised up in a church or area. This example can be seen through the pen of Paul, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Titus 1:5). It is evident that elders should ordinarily come up from the congregation (a specific church) and/or a general area (a geographic location with many churches). This is expedient for many reasons. One is that the man already knows the area and people. Avenues for evangelism are typically greater with so many connections in a community. There can be some down sides, such as people may view the newly ordained ministry with little respect because he they think of him as a child (Matthew 13:57).

Sent from without: When there is inadequate availability from within a church or general area to find a pastor, the Bible makes it clear that men are often sent from without. Timothy and Titus both work as examples of this principle. Timothy was left to Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). Titus was sent to Corinth, left in Crete, and also sent to Dalmatia (2 Corinthians 8:8:18, Titus 1:5, 2 Timothy 4:10). Lack of ministry can be for a variety of reasons. The congregation could be made up of mostly women. Men in the congregation that may feel a call may not be willing to step up into a leadership position. There could been a lack of retention of young men within the congregation. There might also be an absence of evangelism that creates a void of gifts. Either way, men are often sent by God to “set in order the things that are wanting” (Titus 1:5). Admittedly, a down side to this pattern can be that many churches may start looking to outsource good local men in a pursuit to find the “perfect” big name preacher.

How to discern your calling?

This is probably the most complicated aspect of serving God’s people. The question always arises, where is God sending me? Here are a few guidelines. First, pray for wisdom from God (James 1:5). After that, consider what you feel with what you know. Is there a place where you feel a specific burden? If the answer is yes and it is a church without a pastor, then accept appointments at the assembly and be honest with them. If the answer is yes and the church has a pastor, then move along because a man’s gift makes way for itself (Proverbs 18:16).

A person does not have to make room for himself in way of ministry. God sufficiently provides the open doors needed to practice one’s gift (Revelation 3:7, 2 Corinthians 2:12). This is not to say that there will not be adversity (1 Corinthians 16:9). The ministry itself is characterized in terms of war ( 2 Timothy 2:1). Yet, regardless of adversity, when God opens a door it is effectual. This principle gives us a further directive. If God has not opened a door where we feel that he has burdened then the door may not be opened. Again, consider Acts 16:7. Paul would have taken the gospel east into Asia but the Spirit stopped him. It also is true that it might be a legitimate burden that has just not come to fruition. With that said, that coming to fruition may be a small period of time or it may be years. A cursory look at the book of Acts shows that sometimes God waits years to open doors in some areas. What then? What should I do if God has not given me a specific burden nor opened a door where I feel that he has burdened me to labor? Simple, serve where there is need.

Elder Michael Gowens once told me that “the need is often the call.” This principle is also biblical as can be viewed in Acts 16:9, “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.” Macedonia needed help, and Paul obliged (Acts 16:9). It is true that a man may not feel called to move 5 states away to fill a need. Yet, in our day of comfortable mass transportation, commuting to serve a church is certainly an option. Presently, I am serving a church that takes over an hour commute to reach. This may seem inadvisable to some, but they are God’s bride and in need of a shepherd. You see, service is never easy nor is it on my terms. On a practical note, God would not raise up men to preach if there was not a need that needed filling. If God is calling men to preach then there is a reason for that call. So the question is never whether there is a need, but instead, where can I sacrificially fill a need?

Thinking on how this positively affects churches, I have known many churches that are currently experiencing revival that were at one time served by men that drove far distances. Likewise, you can read from history past of men riding trains and horse carriages to serve churches that needed them. What would have happened if men had not been willing to commute? Any answer is purely speculative, but it is still sobering food-for-thought.

Sobering Motivation

Motivation to serve God and his people is universal for all believer, but it is amplified in the mind of God called ministers. Our motivation comes in many forms. First, sobering fear reminds us that we will one day stand before God (2 Corinthians 5:9-10) and that he already actively tries our ministry while we live (1 Corinthians 3:13). My ministry, though often seemingly let without oversight, always falls under the watchful eye and judgment of the King of Kings. Second, our greatest motivation that constrains us is that Christ did in fact sacrifice ALL for us (1 Corinthians 5:13-21). Any sacrifice or commute we make is small in nature when compared to him who commuted from Heaven to give his life for the church. I will never live up to that standard, but the motivation of gratitude is still ever present. Finally, the past 2,000 years of ministers and martyrs constantly weighs on my mind. As I view the men that went before me, I look in wonder at their example. We are truly compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1).

All things considered, I am only assured that I am given this present moment to serve God’s kingdom. I am not promised tomorrow. Nor am I promised future doors. I am only given the present to serve God and his people to my fullest. May God grant us the strength and wisdom to discern desires, burdens, open doors, and needs.

“The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.” 1 Peter 5:1-4

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