Editor’s note: At the beginning of a new year, many people make resolutions. This article reminds us that a Christian’s enduring primary resolution must be “to follow God’s call for my life.” Louise Johnson also offers wise counsel on how we might encourage one another in discovering and following the vocation or calling God issues to each believer. —Michael Cooper-White

For most of my years working in the church, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of walking with others as they discern God’s calling in their lives. Daily I’ve heard profound stories of faith punctuated by the need for certainty. Nearly all with whom I have worked would give themselves over to a life of service if they could be sure it was the exact thing to which God was calling them.

What I learned from listening to others wrestle with the Spirit’s elusive pursuit is that vocational discernment is messy work, filled with mystery and ambiguity. It’s a journey toward the cross, an invitation to die to the self and to live for the other. The mysterious and countercultural nature of vocational discernment makes it challenging work.

In recent years, vocational discernment often has taken on a formulaic quality. Driven by a misused quote from theologian Frederick Buechner’s book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper and Row, 1973), vocational discernment has become a matter of plotting coordinates on a spiritual graph and finding the job best suited for us. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” Buechner wrote.

And we’re off and running. To discover our deepest gladness, we take spiritual gifts inventories and poll our closest advisers. To discover the world’s deep hunger, we survey the cultural and political landscape around us. We find the logical intersection of these points and, voila, we have an answer to one of the deepest mysteries into which our Creator invites us.

Except that engaging holy mysteries doesn’t produce answers. Instead, it yields transformation. Mysteries invite us into deeper relationship with the Creator and those whom we are called to serve. And through these relationships, God transforms us. Rather than plots on a graph, transformation entails the reframing of a question, making peace with a difficult decision, exercising patience in times of uncertainty. Unexpectedly, God often calls an ill-equipped, unsuspecting servant (like Moses, Mary, Jonah, Paul).

Stewarding the mystery

So how do we steward the mystery of vocation?

‘For several years I worked with colleagues on a project supported by the Lilly Endowment Inc. Project Connect’s mission was to work with young adults in vocational discernment.

One of our initiatives was to host vocational exploration retreats where participants came together to hear fellow travelers reflect on their own story, the biblical story and theological themes about holy callings. They engaged in small group conversations, often led by young adult seminarians. They did some writing and reflecting in a journal tailor-made for the event. We often centered the work around Buechner’s quote, offering participants a lovely rubric by which to organize their thinking and future.

It was a strong model and our initial retreats were well-attended and well-received. But as time wore on, registration for these events tapered off. Searching for a better way to engage people in search of their life’s callings, we turned to a pastor with a long track record of success working with young adults. He suggested that we leave behind all of the story-telling, well-informed presentations and small group conversations. “Engage them in discerning their vocation by serving,” he counseled.

The pastor’s advice resonated with us, so we took a risk and created weeklong events in which young adults spent their days scattered around cities or rural communities. They worked alongside congregations and social ministry organizations. They served and talked with those on the margins. The evenings were filled with singing, Scripture and reflection — a fluid space to give thanks for the opportunity to be of use, to grieve the cruelty of the world in which we live, and to beg God to bless and change us.

Serving at the margins

As it turns out, young adults were not willing to give up a weekend to talk, but they were willing to commit an entire week to serve. Each time we offered these events, they were filled to capacity. These service opportunities became important entry points for young adults who were on the margins. The “spiritual but not religious” were engaging in vocational discernment. Young adults who seldom set foot in a church were beginning to wonder if the Spirit might be calling them to lead communities of faith.

At the heart of this approach to encouraging church vocations is the practice of serving, of giving of oneself for the sake of the other, which enables people in search of their life’s calling to sidestep the logical processes and experience deep spiritual transformation.

In each of the baptized lives a God-given desire for agency in the world, to give of ourselves in ways that makes a difference. Spiritual seekers who get a glimpse of what it is to live like that are opened to a conversation about ministry in a whole new way. Suddenly, faith is not lined up neatly in rows and read responsively from a cranberry-colored book. Ministry is not just committee meetings and stewardship campaigns. Vocational discernment isn’t coordinates on a graph, the end of a methodical and logical process.

Instead, Jesus Christ crucified becomes not just a lovely story or a compelling theology, but the experience of the almighty God in the thin spaces between us. And the practice of faith calls out what is deepest in us in response to the ambiguity, pain and extraordinary beauty of real life.

Early in his novel Cutting for Stone (Vintage Books, 2001), Abraham Verghese gives voice to this kind of vocational discernment:

“I chose the specialty of surgery because of Matron, that steady presence during my boyhood and adolescence. ‘What is the hardest thing you can possibly do?’ she said when I went to her for advice on the darkest day of the first half of my life.

“I squirmed. How easily Matron probed the gap between ambition and expediency. ‘Why must I do what is hardest?’

“‘Because, Marion, you are an instrument of God. Don’t leave the instrument in the case, my son. Play!’

“I was temperamentally better suited to a cognitive discipline, to an introspective field — internal medicine, or perhaps psychiatry. The sight of an operating theater made me sweat. The idea of holding a scalpel caused coils to form in my belly. (It still does.) Surgery was the most difficult thing I could imagine.

“And so I became a surgeon.”

In these days when fewer people are responding to the call to serve the church, it’s imperative that we rededicate ourselves to encouraging fellow believers to do the most difficult things. Vocational discernment is finally about the practice of faith, the exercise of our primary vocation — to serve God in our neighbors.

Louise Johnson

Johnson is president of Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.

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