So how do you find out if a call is truly authentic? Well, first ask them why they are called to your church. You need to do this so you can get past their prepared answers about their call. Listen attentively to what they say. More frequently than you will expect, you get hints of the lack of a true call even in their prepared answer. What you need to listen for in their answer is anything that smacks of what the person wants for themselves or what the world wants or expects of them. If they start talking about their career aspirations ("God is challenging me to move up to a larger congregation" -- How often do you hear them talk about moving to a smaller, less well-funded congregation?) or if they talk about how they feel this congregation is 'right' for their family (good schools, good education opportunities for them, moving up in terms of status or privilege) or if they talk about how God is challenging them to grow this congregation (as if numbers were the true and only measure of a 'successful' congregation) or if they talk about how they can 'help' your congregation ("You have been involved in a tragic controversy and I can 'heal' this church.) -- they are nearly always talking about their own 'success' and not about what God wants. If they avoid all these kinds of hints of worldly success, career advancement, heroic rescuing of your church, or benefits to themselves or their families, it may only mean that they have thought carefully about how to answer the question of their call.
You are not finished though. At this point you must ask a variety of follow-up questions that dig deeper into what they are really thinking without giving away that you are questioning the legitimacy of their call. This is actually easier then it sounds. All you need to do is take some of the obvious benefits of being a pastor at your church or being a part of your community and ask them what they think of those benefits. If those questions do not reveal what is really going on with the candidate, then ask about their immediate and extended family to discover why they think they are 'called' to this church. You may have to ask several of these questions. If they emphasize the benefits of your church or your community to themselves or their family, then avoid this pastor. They do not have a true call but instead or looking to benefit themselves or their family primarily. And 'primarily' here is a key word. It is acceptable that they speak of some benefits of your church or your community but if they fail to point out the difficulties, the problems, the hardships, or their own lack of qualifications for your church or your community, then they are missing what is happening in a real call by God. God's call is rarely convenient or beneficial -- at least 'beneficial' or 'convenient' in the way the world normally understands it (success, financial rewards, great status and privileges, etc.).
You must also ask some difficult personal questions of the candidate. These questions focus on their family background, their personal journey, their faith journey. If the story is one of consistent upward movement in terms of salary, status, or personal development -- be concerned. If there is no substantive issues of faith or questioning of God in their life or faith journey, then be suspicious. If you stop and think about this honestly, you will recognize that everyone has moments of despair and doubt. If your candidate is unwilling to confess to those, then you have a problem. If there is no 'doubt' about their call be wary.
You need also to be concerned about pastors who too quickly talk about their own life or religious traumas. Many pastors today are using their supposed 'call' for working out their own psychological, religious, or emotional problems. The pastorate is NOT a therapy session. This is truly frightening since they fail to openly admit this and instead use the pastorate as a means to overcome those problems. For them, the pastorate is a form of self-administered 'therapy' that in reality only masks the true problems and insecurities. They are the 'walking wounded' who fail to recognize their own 'woundedness' however much they may 'confess' it. Many times this originates as a childhood where they were bullied, where their families were broken and dysfunctional, where they suffered loneliness and despair, alcoholism is not uncommon in the family or even in the pastor themselves, and where they were isolated and tormented. Here the pastorate -- and their subsequent 'calling' -- functions in a frightening way as a self-induced counseling group that is, in reality, nothing more than congregants serving as enablers. Often times these candidates hide behind a religious fervor that is unwilling to acknowledge healthy and appropriate religious doubt -- or just the opposite situation where they are overwhelmed by their doubt. These two extremes are nearly always problematic but what you are looking for is not the middle ground between fervor or doubt necessarily. Instead, if the pastor comes to you openly confessing these issues without the expectation that your church or community will help resolve them, then you should take their calling more seriously. They are not seeking their own psychological or religious healing but are struggling themselves and uncertain where that struggle may take them. Then you have someone who admits their struggle and is being honest and open about their call and is uncertain how this call will help them heal -- which it may well do. However, if they are honest, they will acknowledge that their struggle may continue at your congregation and even throughout their life.
What is happening here? Are these legitimate tests of a true calling? No, not always but most of the time they are clearly indicative. Most pastors are so unprepared to answer detailed questions about their calling that they reveal their own desires. They reveal their own unintended duplicitous desires in that they couch their response as a 'calling' when, in fact, it is their own benefit that is really pushing them forward. The truly scary pastors are those who openly and brazenly pursue their own advancement. Stop and think about this for a moment. If the pastor is answering these questions by focusing on the benefits they gain from your church or your community provides them or their family, there is a emphatic problem. Do they really think that God arranges the entire universe for their own or their families benefit? Hardly. The vast majority of authentic callings are not to the immediate benefit of the person. The call is normally a hardship. Look at the stories of Jesus calling his disciples. Read Matthew 4: 18-22 or Matthew 9:9-13 or any of the other calling of disciples. Read the calling of the prophets. Did Moses want his charge? Was that at all 'convenient' or 'beneficial' to any of them? Definitely not -- I don't care how you interpret what is going on with these callings -- each was a dramatic departure from the expectations of the world, of their community, their families, and likely for themselves. That is the 'gold standard' of a calling. Does your pastor measure up to that? Granted that is a very high standard so you do have to be careful of the pastor who speaks of the benefits of your church and community because they do not want to denigrate those aspects. Sure -- that is acceptable. They must, though, talk candidly about the problems, the issues, the controversies for themselves, their families, and your church.
So how do you tell? Well, you tell by their discussion of the difficulties and their concerns. Yes, the benefits maybe there but are their concerns and fears far behind? Are they being honest if they speak only of the benefits without discussing their fears? What is their focus -- is the benefits they may get or is it their fears? If the pastor talks about how they are not prepared to handle this congregation or community, then you should be interested in that person. They may speak of the advantages of your church but if they are unafraid of talking about the problems -- bluntly and realistically -- then you are far more likely to have a genuine call. If they speak of the financial hardship your church or your community may impose on them and their family, then the call is likely serious. If they only give you 'happy talk' -- what a wonderful church you are, what a great move this would be for them personally and for their families, then be very suspicious. If they speak of difficulties for them, for you the church, and for the problems your community faces in a substantial way, then start taking this pastor more seriously as a candidate.
Nothing illustrates this better than prostitutes --- something I, as Hosea's wife, know intimately. No woman wants to be a prostitute. Hosea certainly DID not want to marry a prostitute. I did not want to be a prostitute. This is the epitome of an 'inconvenient' and 'non-beneficial' calling for both Hosea and for me, Gomer. Both Hosea and myself were asked by God to do something we did not want to do, that our families did not want us to do, and that our communities did not want us to do. Despite that, we did what God wanted. This is scary for some of you because it says that God may call some women to be prostitutes -- including myself. It is scary for me because it makes it seem as though God wants me to be a prostitute -- that is hard to believe. I do know that I became a prostitute for the money, money to feed my children. As disgusting as being a prostitute is, seeing my children starve seems far worse. I had no alternative if I was to care for my kids. So many women become prostitutes because there are no alternatives for them. Is the wrong theirs? Perhaps -- to some degree -- but are you willing to cast the first stone? Or is it our society that fails to give us prostitutes better options? Well, as wrong as prostitution is, I am the first to admit that I, for one, do not know the mind or purposes of God.
And prostitution -- in its worst and ugliest form -- is exactly what pastors are doing by adulterating their supposed 'call' and using it as a means to too frequently advance their own worldly agendas or personal therapies. They are prostituting themselves and their faith to their own benefit and far too many of them are getting away with it because churches let them. This must stop.