In my roles in ministry and education, many have come to me seeking help to discern their “calling.” Perhaps you have, too. The whole idea of Christian “calling” can be confusing and can create stress and confusion for people who sense a call from God but aren’t sure what it is or how to respond. My own vocational path has been long and circuitous—certainly not a straight shot at a clearly determined end goal. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about how God calls and equips his servants for the work that he has dreamed up for them. I’ve also learned much from years of walking alongside people of all ages, who were seeking to follow where God was leading. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned, in the hope that it may help you guide others along the path of discerning their calling.
Listen to their story
Each person’s path is unique. The range of call-stories in Scripture portray a wide array of ways that God calls his servants and a vast scope of the types of service. The best way to begin to help someone who is struggling with a sense of calling is to let them tell you their individual story. Listen to their experiences; ask them what they have discerned so far. Probe a bit into why they feel and think as they do about their calling. This information will help you adapt any insight or advice directly to their situation, and avoid generalized platitudes.
It may help to begin by letting them know they don’t need a clearly defined mission statement. Often a person approaches their calling from the perspective that it must be some specific goal, such as a type of ministry or service in a certain place or to a people group. It may be, but in the vast majority of callings that I’ve encountered, it is rarely so well-defined. Some people get the Moses-call: “Go do this specific thing for these particular people.” But more often I think they get the Abram-call: “Just go. I’ll tell you where and when, and let you know when you get there.” Assure them that they don’t need to have a clear final goal. The key is if God is calling them to do something (other than what they are currently doing), they should respond.
Help them broaden their possibilities. It’s important to remind them that all Christians are called to follow and serve Jesus, so it may be that someone’s calling lies outside of what most would consider a “ministry.” They don’t need to be thinking inside the box of pastoral, or even exclusively “Christian” service. Many Christians are called to what are considered “secular” vocations.
Explain that a calling isn’t an end point on a journey. It’s the journey itself. Simply put, our calling was voiced by Jesus to the first disciples, and hasn’t changed: “Follow me.” If we are doing our best to follow Jesus each day, then we can trust him that we are fulfilling our calling. Any changes we need to make in life will arise out of the events and decisions in our daily lives. I was fulfilling my calling when I taught middle school. I was also fulfilling it when I did youth ministry during seminary. In each stage of life that led me to where I am now, my calling was to do what God called me to at that time. Our calling includes every day of every year of our lives.
This leads to a key principle for fulfilling our calling: you only need to know the next step. God rarely shows us the end at the beginning; but he does shine a light on the path right in front of us. If you can help them determine what their next step is, they’re making progress.
Finally, assure them it’s not something they can “miss” or “mess up.” God’s plan already includes “all things” (Rom 8:28-29), so trust him to work out his calling in his timing. We are not required to follow God’s plan perfectly, just to trust and follow him as best we can. He’ll take care of the rest (see Phil 1:6).
Offer some practical tips
Once you’ve allayed their fears, move to some practical advice. Be sure to tailor your comments to their personal call-story that they’ve shared. Help them identify the types of things they do well or have done well in the past. Then brainstorm with them the types of service that match those skills and tasks. Always relate this back to what they have already shared about their interests and hopes.
As Dr. Swope pursued his MDiv at Ashland Theological Seminary, he realized this was a place he could thrive. Though he had no guarantees, he harbored a hope of coming back to serve and teach. God fulfilled that dream, and he is grateful. Dr. Swope offers insights gained through years of ministry experience.
Having worked in a wide range of institutions, Dr. Swope appreciates that the ATS family is made up of people who are authentic and transparent. He finds that his coworkers are well aware of their own failings and who trust God to shine through those limitations. This level of authenticity paves the way for grace to be freely extended to others and allows Christ to be the centerpiece of life.
In his spare time, Dr. Swope tackles adventure and fun. He loves to travel and comes alive anytime he stands on a peak overlooking a massive view of stone, trees, snow, and clouds. Since the day he married his lovely bride Catherine, Dr. Swope’s main hobby has been his family.