Many of us come to a point where we decide to examine seriously our strengths, personality, values, and passions; a point where we carefully examine our uniqueness and how God has wired us. We begin to contemplate how God is calling us to engage people and contexts around us, loving people as God would have them loved.
Regrettably, we live in what some theologians call a “postvocational” or “callingless” world. In such a world, jobs are just paychecks, relationships are random and unconnected, and deeper meaning in life is missing. However, when we recover a biblical sense of vocation or calling, when we live our lives with an understanding that our lives have purpose and meaning, then the everyday becomes holy.
Our calling or vocation has two aspects: a primary calling and functional callings. Our primary calling is to a living and dynamic relationship with God. Our functional callings are acts of loving service to others.
Your Primary Calling to God
Throughout Scripture, the chief concern is always God calling people into a relationship with God and to a life of holiness. Your primary calling serves as the umbrella under which you function as a believer. You are called first and foremost to God and not to a role, a career, or a location. The biblical writers describe a person’s calling almost exclusively in terms of being called to love God and to live a life reflecting that love. God’s primary interest in your life is who you are as an individual and your relationship with God.
Unfortunately, most of us naturally gravitate to doing versus being. Especially in a North American context, we jump to thinking about employment or marriage when we speak of the call of God or the will of God. What do you do for a living? What is your major in college? Are you married? We hear those questions on a daily basis—manifestations of North American culture’s practical and pragmatic orientation. Added to this, the idea that what a person does to earn a living is a true measure of the person is inbred in our culture. While these things are important, these things do not entirely define who a person is. The concept of calling in the New Testament is always focused on loving God and living a life that reflects that love, not merely on occupation or location or marriage. God wants you to seek him, not only his services. God wants your heart.
Your Functional Callings in Service to Others
Various functional calls are how you lovingly live out your primary calling to God in daily life among people. In fact, living out your primary calling in the particulars of your life transforms the spheres of your life into functional callings. As responses to God’s calling on your life, your functional callings matter as well.
The foundation for the Christian walk is laid with the paving stones of increasing love and devotion to God and loving service to others. This is exactly what Jesus meant in his response to the question of priority: “And one of the scribes came up and . . . asked [Jesus], ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these’” (Mark 12:28-31). So ask yourself, “Am I loving God and am I loving others?”
Do not confuse your functional callings with your career choice alone. Scripture does not equate following one’s callings with earning a paycheck. Moreover, completely identifying yourself with your career is dangerous. In fact, the most important things people do in life are usually the things that they are not paid to do. Every rightful human task is some aspect of God’s own work: making, designing, doing chores, beautifying, organizing, helping, bringing dignity, and leading. Our work then is to reflect God’s work. As the apostle Paul proclaims, “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people” (Col. 3:23).
You may be among those who will have the wonderful opportunity to receive a paycheck as you live out your functional callings in the body of Christ. But the vast majority of people find their functional callings without a paycheck from a church. The city employee, the pastor, the construction worker, the missionary, the farmer, the professor, the artist, the schoolteacher, the salesperson, the stay-at-home mom, the utility worker, and the retired person all serve functions in the body of Christ and in the greater world.
Confirmation in Community
One important element to consider as you uncover your functional callings is the role of the community of faith. Community is essential in spiritual discernment of functional callings, especially as you consider how to serve within the local church. The call to faith occurs in community. A transformed life is lived out in community. The purpose of your functional callings is loving service of others. Sober judgment of your functional callings can only take place in community. And trust me, community keeps you humble.
Consistent with Scripture and with two thousand years of church history, the community of faith typically affirms functional callings through the local church. This is often referred to as “corporate calling.” Theologians discuss the idea of a person receiving both a personal, inward calling and a corporate, outward calling. I strongly believe that when God calls a person into a functional ministry, the body of Christ confirms that calling. God’s normal mode of operation (again, exceptions exist but they are rare) is, I believe, the public confirmation of one’s functional callings as the community of faith sees the person function and as the Holy Spirit directs the actions of the community of faith.
Calling in a corporate setting is a natural extension of the scriptural mandate for godly counsel. Seeking wise counsel is a strong biblical theme, especially in Proverbs. Because of the human ability for self-deception, it is essential for you to seek an outside perspective from others. You might think you are the next great preacher or the next cutting-edge biblical scholar, but do the other people around you see the same thing in you? Do they see the giftings and passions that you perceive as yours? If you are to be honest with God, you need to be open to the honest assessment of those who know you well.
Slowing Down to Dance
Some people think a call from God can only come through some type of cataclysmic emotional experience. In reality, most people recognize aspects of God’s leadings as gradual in nature as they experience life. The key to learning the dance steps of discernment is prayer along with sound biblical study. You discern the leadings of God in the dancing relationship. You must remain in close communication with God to have any chance of discerning well. Instead of focusing your prayers on God revealing God’s will, focus on God creating godly character and wisdom in you. When your actions, thoughts, and desires reflect God’s priorities, then you are in a better place to discern well.
The problem with discernment is that many of us are so busy doing our own thing—moving too fast to dance the slow dance of discernment with God. You can only hear the heartbeat of God in your life when you slow down, quiet yourself, and invite God to dance with you. To slow down and listen takes a concerted and countercultural effort. The lights and sounds of society distract us if we are not careful. With so much vying for our attention, we must be intentional about disconnecting and taking time to hear what God is saying.
rom Ministry Greenhouse: Cultivating Environments for Practical Learning , copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute.
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Ministry Greenhouse: Cultivating Environments for Practical Learning by George M. Hillman, Jr.
The goal of Ministry Greenhouse is to help seminary and Bible college students, their supervisors, and the lay leaders who work with them create the best environment for leadership development through a beneficial internship. Hillman explores the meaning of “call,” identifies the ingredients of a successful internship, discusses strategies for establishing goals for an internship, and offers guidance for reflecting on learning during an internship. Ministry Greenhouse shows how to create an environment where God can work to develop calling, character, and competencies.
Shaping Spiritual Leaders: Supervision and Formation in Congregations by Abigail Johnson
Recognizing that supervision is important in the formation of lay leaders and in the life of candidates for ordination, Johnson has developed this book to guide all who supervise others in a congregation. She views supervision as a ministry and shows how leaders can use their own innate gifts to enhance their supervision skills. Supervision can become an opportunity for mutual growth and learning that strengthens all other areas of ministry.
When Better Isn’t Enough: Evaluation Tools for the 21st Century by Jill M. Hudson
Hudson identifies twelve characteristics by which we can measure effective ministry for the early twenty-first century. Not everything of the past is ineffective and best discarded, she says, nor will everything we try in the future be successful. But by faithfully listening for God’s guidance, congregations can improve their ministry, help members and staff grow in effectiveness, deepen a sense of partnership, and add new richness to the dialogue about the congregation’s future.