I’ll never forget the day I knelt in prayer beside the bed in my college dorm room and popped the important question: “Lord, do you want me to serve You full-time?”
Almost immediately, the clear answer came, “Why, of course, Jim!”
I was thrilled. The following Sunday I went to church and proudly told my friend Bob Hahn about my call to ministry.
“Bob, while I was praying yesterday, I asked God if He wanted me to serve Him in full-time ministry. He said He did!”
My older and wiser friend paused, then looked me right in the eyes when he responded. “That’s good, Jim, but I’ve been seeing lately that full-time ministry doesn’t necessarily mean what I once thought.”
Quickly concluding that Bob was just jealous that he wasn’t called to full-time ministry, I didn’t hear much of the rest of his explanation. Looking back, though, I wish I had listened closer that day.
Now having the advantage of more than 35 years of hindsight, I think I have a better understanding of what Bob Hahn was trying to tell me about full-time ministry. At times I’ve indeed been a “full-time minister” as a senior pastor or staff pastor. But at other times I’ve been an attorney or done other “secular” jobs. Often this is described as “tent-making” or being a bi-vocational minister.
It often surprises people when I tell them my ministry while I was an attorney was just as fruitful as when I was a full-time pastor. Perhaps even more fruitful.
When I supported my ministry by means of a secular job, I was much freer from people’s expectations about what my “ministry” should be. In contrast, when my paycheck came from the church, I sometimes ended up serving church activities more than I was serving God!
When I was supported by my work as an attorney, it was far easier to tell people “No” when they wanted me to do something outside the sphere of ministry God had given me (see 2 Corinthians 10:13-16). When I was a full-time pastor, however, there was a great temptation to do whatever people expected, regardless of my calling or the Lord’s will.
I found that another pitfall in full-time pastoral ministry was that it tended to separate me from the “real world” where most people were living. It was especially difficult to have meaningful contact with those who didn’t yet follow Christ.
Too often, pastors who go directly from college, to seminary, to full-time ministry end up secluded in an ivory-tower world, with experiences quite different from those faced by the people we are endeavoring to disciple and lead. While we try to encourage those in our flock to reach out to their unsaved friends and co-workers, our friends and co-workers are all church folks!
By glamorizing the importance of full-time ministry, we perpetuate a myth that has seriously weakened the church for many centuries now. Bob Hahn was trying to tell me that, in a sense, every Christian is supposed to be serving the Lord “full-time.” Even if we gain our livelihood through work at a secular job, we are to see it as a ministry—for we are working as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:22-24).
Paul told the Corinthians that everything he did was “for the sake of the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:23). But sometimes that included working with his hands to make tents in order to support himself. Think of it: The mighty apostle was willing to be a manual laborer and small businessman at times, rather than beg for offerings!
I also love how Paul said the fragrance of Christ was supposed to be manifested through us “in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:14). He didn’t say believers should emit Christ’s fragrance just “in every church meeting,” or “every time we preach,” or “every time we lead worship.” No, his vision of “ministry” was much bigger than any of that.
Because of their detachment from everyday living, many “full-time” Christian leaders struggle to give their flock clear, practical instruction on how the gospel can be lived out in the marketplace. As a result, we give the faulty impression that ministry is something done mainly in church buildings.
It’s time to regain the perspective that every Christian is called to be a minister. Our ministry began the day were saved, because that’s when Jesus ordained us to serve Him and bear fruit for His kingdom (John 15:16).
If you are being obedient the Lord full-time, you ARE in full-time ministry—no matter whether a church gives you a paycheck or not. You have the great privilege and opportunity to minister to people every day and in every place—whether in office buildings, banks, construction sites, grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, neighborhoods, athletic fields, schools, and in every other place where people are found.
So what are you waiting for? If you are committed to full-time availability to God, your full-time ministry has already begun!