A collection of helpful articles and books on the topics of discernment, vocation and ministry. The notes below were written by Rev. Heidi De Jonge, former Pastor for Discernment at Calvin Theological Seminary.
Awakened to a Calling: Reflections on the Vocation of Ministry.
Svennungsen, Ann M., and Melissa Wiginton, eds.
For a new generation of vibrant ministers, for the vitality of religious life, and for those who want to explore the longing of the soul and the call to minister in our communities, these sermons come from trusted and wise guides for discerning ministry vocations: Brad R. Braxton, Barbara Brown Taylor, Walter Brueggemann, Fred Craddock, Ellen Echols Purdum, Tomas G. Long, and Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. (from back cover)
I love these sermons - they cut - deep and quick - to the core of calling - to the core of the heart. Ellen Echols Purdum describes the deep gladness we search after when we search for our calling:
...Somewhere inside of us lies a deep spring of gladness of which we are becoming aware. You may have experienced this deep gladness as a ripple, or as a sudden, overflowing gush, or as a slow and steady drip, or even as one single, cool drop. However you are beginning to experience it, you know how it makes you feel, and it’s the opposite of anxious and distracted. It feels life-giving and liberating. (24)
Tom Long imagines how the apostle Paul might respond to someone asking him how he got into the ministry:
There [Paul] stands with his corn chip over the avocado dip being asked how he happened to choose the ministry. He tries on various ways of expressing it. "Well, when I thought about my vocational options..." "I took the Myers-Briggs test and it seems to me that, um..." ... Finally, he simply blurts out the truth. "Of this gospel, I was made a minister." Something happened outside of him. Whatever was inside of him was summoned by something outside of him, and he was called into a place he would never have dreamed that he would have been. (39-40)
When Barbara Brown Taylor expressed her fear of having to be near-perfect upon entering the ministry, her mentor encouraged her with these words:
"Oh, lovey, that’s not your job. If you decide to do this, then you’re not promising to be perfect. You’re just consenting to be visible-to let other people watch you while you try to figure out what real life is all about." (56)
Courage & Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential
Smith, Gordon T.
(Intervarsity Press, 1999)
What is my calling? How do I live it out in the midst of difficult relationships and moral challenges? Does my vocation change as I enter a new stage of life? In the midst of so many needs and demands, how can I craft a balanced, ordered way of living? Where do I find the courage to follow God’s call and embrace my God-given potential in the midst of daily life? Smith addresses these questions and more, pointing the way toward freedom and emotional maturity. Here is richly thoughtful insight for all who long to hear and follow God’s call. (from back cover)
The part of this book that I’ve referred to the most in my work with discerners is Smith’s commentary on the chapters of our lives (Chapter Three). Vocational discernment tends to cluster at three critical points in an individual’s life: at the transitions into adulthood, midlife, and the senior years. First we differentiate from our parents and choose a broad path. Next, at midlife, we find ourselves narrowing our focus or completely changing direction. And around the age of retirement there is the time and space to realize that the six decades that came before were but the ‘prelude’ to a season revitalized season of reflection and service. Smith writes:
Each transition will involve some kind of loss. Growth will be costly; a new venture will always involve some form of letting go. It may be a matter of separation-from parents or from those who are part of an old way or an old world. It may involve leaving behind the comfortable and the secure. Each transition will be a small death, and the new life, the new opportunity and the new challenge will only come as we let go. (80)
Let Your Life Speak
Palmer, Parker J.
With wisdom, compassion, and gentle humor, Parker J. Palmer invites us to listen to the inner teacher and follow its leadings toward a sense of meaning and purpose. Telling stories from his own life and the lives of others who have made a difference, he shares insights gained from darkness and depression as well and fulfillment and joy, illuminating a pathway toward vocation for all who seek the true calling of their lives. (from back cover)
Palmer is a spiritual guide to the undercurrents of our lives, to the "river of life hidden beneath the ice" (57). He writes:
Vocation at its deepest level is not, "Oh, boy, do I want to go to this strange place where I have to learn a new way to live and where no one, including me, understands what I’m doing." Vocation at its deepest level is, "This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling." (25)
I thank Palmer for defining vocation "not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received" (10). Amen!
Listening Hearts: Discerning Call In Community
Farnham, Suzanne G., Joseph P. Gill, R. Taylor McLean, Susan M Ward
This work draws on centuries of classic Christian literature and "the silence of prayerful listening" to show how to recognize and define God’s call. It explains how to eliminate barriers and prepare one’s heart to receive that call-whether it is emphatic, subtle, or seemingly obscure. (from back cover)
A helpful little list from this little book (47):
Signs of God’s Call:
- The central sign of peace.
- A deep interior joy.
- Disorientation followed by calm.
- Tears that are comforting instead of disturbing.
- A sudden sense of clarity.
- The convergence of seemingly unrelated strands of experience.
- A persistent message that recurs through different channels.
Listening to God in Times of Choice: The Art of Discerning God’s Will
Smith, Gordon T.
(Intervarsity Press, 1997)
Gordon T. Smith suggests that we develop discernment as a spiritual discipline. By stressing the personal aspects of growing in our relationship with God, we can understand his will, not just in times of crisis but throughout our daily lives. (from back cover)
"To discern is to distinguish the voice of God from the noise of this world and the false witness of the Evil One" (34).
To date - this is my favorite book on discernment. I recommend it to most and refer to it often. Smith steers a course between the ‘blueprint’ school of discernment which assumes "that there is one and only one perfect plan for each individual" and the ‘wisdom’ school within which people whose minds have been renewed by Scripture "essentially trust their own capacities to make choices" (16). Smith affirms that there is a spiritual discipline of listening to God which affirms the conversational and dynamic relationship we have with the Creator of the universe without the fear and anxiety of that comes when looking for the perfect plan.
Smith writes within the traditions of St. Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas Merton - affirming the place of feelings and desires within a discernment process. Smith also dialogues with Wesleyan and Calvinist takes on discernment:
Discernment is most effective where there is a healthy balance between a Calvinist self-suspicion and a Wesleyan self-confidence. We see through a glass darkly, we are sinful, and our motives are never pure. On the other hand, we have the assurance of our Lord that he will be our Shepherd and the promise of Christ that the Spirit of God will be with us and in us. (65-66)
The Discerning Heart: Exploring the Christian Path
Au, Wilkie and Noreen Cannon Au
(Paulist Press, 2006)
Integrating the wisdom of Christian tradition and recent psychological findings on effective decision making, The Discerning Heart presents the powerful tool of Christian discernment that honors the body-spirit unity of the person and the broad and mysterious ways we can be led by the Spirit of God in our life choices. (from back cover)
The authors of this book describe themselves as ‘formers.’ Wilkie is a former Jesuit priest. Noreen is a former Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. They are now married. Their authentic and painstaking discernment processes and their understanding of theology, spirituality, and psychology give them the credentials they need to speak truth through this book.
I found the most helpful chapter to be that on the place of desires in the process of discernment (chapter 5). They distinguish between wishful, instinctual, tentative, and definitive desires; between root and branch desires. "While all desires are real experiences," they write, "they are not all equally authentic." Authentic desires are vocational, they move us to glorify God, and they are, in some way public and communal. (155-56)
When done earnestly, the process of discernment reflects our desire to live in harmony with God. Even when we do not get it all right, our very desire to open our lives to the guiding influence of God will inevitably draw us closer to God. (158)
My other favorite part: their commentary on ‘liminality.’ So many people I talk to are in what the Au’s call "unknown space." They don’t know the next step in the journey. For many of these discerners, the ‘unknown space’ is exactly the place that they should be:
"Some people will never learn anything," states Jesuit Anthony de Mello, "because they grasp too soon. Wisdom, after all, is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.... To know exactly where you’re headed may be the best way to go astray. Not all who loiter are lost." (209)
The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work
Work concerns all of us: we spend more of our waking hours working than doing anything else. The importance of work and the need to reflect more fully and meaningfully on it make Lee Hardy’s Fabric of This World a highly relevant book. Thoroughly researched, historically grounded, philosophically and theologically informed, and practically oriented, The Fabric of This World makes a unique contribution to the evangelical literature on work and career choice. (from back cover)
Hardy gives us some of the best of John Calvin on vocation, focusing on the importance of discerning our giftedness in the discovery of our vocations: "All the gifts we possess," writes Calvin, "have been bestowed by God and entrusted to us on condition that they be distributed for our neighbors’ benefit" (61).
The bit of Hardy’s work that I’ve referred back to the most often is his articulation of concern. We all have different concerns that break our hearts. A heart properly oriented to God’s broken heart will break for others and have concern to care for others, to care for our neighbors. All of our hearts don’t break in the same places or in the same ways and this is just fine. Hardy tells his readers that some of us have deep concerns for ideas rather than persons - and that this is also just fine. A concern for ideas will benefit others in turn. (91)
Hardy also holds a delicate tension in place. Our work will sometimes delight us and sometimes depress us. There will be sacrifice and there will be joy.
...Making the best decision about what to do with one’s life may involve a degree of personal sacrifice, even self-denial. But behind [this] lies the exquisite paradox of the gospel message: those who seek to gain the world will lose themselves in the process, while those who deny themselves for the sake of Christ will gain themselves back again a hundredfold. (99)
The Will of God as a Way of Life: How to Make Every Decision with Peace and Confidence
We’ve all heard that God has a plan for our lives. But how do we find it? The Will of God as a Way of Life reassures us that God’s will is not difficult to find, confusing to follow, or easy to miss. Even in the face of our sometimes foolish choices, God can lead us back into the center of his perfect will. (from back cover)
This was the first book I read on the subject of discernment. Sittser argues against the ‘blueprint’ school of discerning God’s will (wherein people are obsessed with finding the exact path that God has ordained for them).
The Bible says very little about the will of God as a future pathway. Instead, the Bible warns us about anxiety and presumption concerning the future, assures us that God is in control, and commands us to do the will of God we already know in the present. (22)
Sittser downplays the importance of our vocational decisions. Of his own life he says,
I finally concluded that the choice of medicine or ministry was beside the point, for if I was not attentive to the little choices I made every day-to be a diligent student, a kind husband, a disciplined Christian-then whichever path I chose would never lead to the kind of fruitfulness I really desired for my life. (24-25)
Sittser stabs his pen into the balloon of the unknown and draws out the toxic anxiety, showing us our ‘astonishing freedom.’ "If we truly seek God above all, then we will always be doing the will of God, no matter where our particular choices lead us, because seeking God’s kingdom first is God’s will" (39).
Sittser gives a helpful critique of the ‘blueprint’ school, but I believe he overstates the pointlessness of some of our decisions. A choice between medicine and ministry may not be the whole point, but it’s not beside the point.