It seems to me that it’s been commonplace for Christians to speak of calling as some type of divine revelation in which God appears in a vision and tells someone to pursue a particular profession, in most cases as a pastor or missionary, saying “God has called me to be a missionary to Morocco” or “God has called me to pastor this church.” Sometimes, it’s related to making a crucial decision, such as going on a missions trip, marrying a particular person, or choosing one school over another. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “God has called me to go on the Mexico Missions Trip this summer.” Many people take this calling as a divine sign from above, such as the sign Joseph received when an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him about his fiancé Mary’s pregnancy of the Holy Spirit. Or perhaps it’s more like a small whisper of God during prayer time, where they feel God is telling them to do something.
But, without sounding anti-charismatic, I think this notion of calling might be inaccurate, Scripturally speaking. It’s not that I deny that God speaks to us today, neither do I disbelieve that God guides and directs us in certain directions, especially when we earnestly seek his guidance. I am not a deist and whole-heartedly affirm that God is actively involved in my (and your) life. But if we consider the usage of the word calling in Scripture, it is in a vast majority of times used in salvific terms (e.g., Eph 1:18; 4:1-6; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 1:9; 1 Pet 2:9). In other words, when the New Testament uses the word “calling” (κλῆσις and its cognates), it is almost always in reference to salvation.
I think what we generally designate as calling is actually just a combination of two factors: 1) desire and 2) giftings. The desire may very well be given from God, but nevertheless, that desire must be there. And this is not to say that there aren’t situations where one is convinced God has directly told them to pursue vocational ministry, but even in those cases, there must be a desire, and there must be a gifting. I get these two criteria from 1 Tim 3:1ff, where Paul talks extensively regarding elders/pastors. He begins with identifying the desire to be an overseer (i.e., elder or pastor), then lists several qualifications, namely referring to gifts and abilities.
So how do you know if you are “called” to ministry? According to the criteria I just identified, there are two questions you must answer affirmatively. 1) Do you have a desire for it? If not, then don’t pursue it. A lot of people seem to go into vocational ministry out of reluctance, outside pressure, or whatever other silly reason. Don’t do it! Better not to do it now and pursue a different path, than to spend five years working in a church and then quitting ministry altogether because you hate it.
2) Do you have gifts, or the potential for gifts, for vocational ministry? This is affirmed through the people around you and close to you. I would say that it is important to serve in a ministry context first, as a bible study teacher, small group leader, or some other type of role to test and see whether others confirm your gifts. If no one else confirms your gifts except yourself–especially those you worship with–I’d be highly suspect whether you are “called” to vocational ministry. On the flip side, if your close friends and church members are constantly affirming that you should pursue vocational ministry, I’d say, that’s a great indication. And if your elders affirm it, even better! The same thing goes with other vocational or significant decisions, right? Should you pursue medicine? First ask yourself if you have the desire to take the MCATs, go through med school, and make a minimum salary during your residency, as well as seeing patients and dealing with sick people (I’m aware it’s more complicated than that, but for the sake of simplicity, humor me). Second, ask yourself if you have the mental and physical abilities required to be a physician and whether others close to you affirm those abilities. I’d say, if you haven’t received affirmation that you are “called” to whatever you’re thinking about, ask five people close to you who can give you honest feedback. There you go. Now, go pursue your calling if you haven’t done so already!