Calling: More than a Moment
Artists. Poets. Performers. Pastors. Teachers. Mothers. Fathers. Inventors. Leaders. Many professions, many walks of life, host people who are clearly called to that work and life.
Many people sense a “calling” to a particular type of work, or lifestyle, or service, or cause. It is not unusual to hear those who work in a field that serves human need talk about their work as more than a job; to them, it is their calling in life.
In the life of a Jesus-follower, calling is a sacred trust between Lord and disciple. In the Christian sense of the word, a calling is a summons by God to a particular type of life, work, service, or cause. God calls people to lead in His body, the Church, as well as to teach, to invent, to account, to manage, to parent, to create businesses and systems and resources. The directions in which God calls people are as varied as God is creative. Any work is sacred if it is done for glory of God, or if the calling to the work comes from God.
God’s calling to me came in my early teen years. I was in a Sunday morning worship service when I sensed God’s Spirit speak to my spirit. “I am calling you to ministry,” He said. Clearly. Quietly. Unmistakably.
I was elated. I had desired to go into ministry as a vocation, but I had never sensed God’s direction to do so. That moment set my life on a specific path. I did not know it then, but I was embarking on a lifelong journey of not only ministry but also of walking with God through development of my calling.
Research in the field of calling has yielded some insights that can be helpful to those who are asking about calling – what it is, how it works, and how it works out in real people’s lives. It can also be helpful to those who lead others in discerning their calling. This is social science research, which scientifically examines a human experience or intangible concept (known as a construct) and seeks to understand it. In a helpful study by Tunheim and Goldschmidt (2013), the researchers found that calling can have three phases, or stages.[i] The stages they identified in their data are:
1. Initial awareness of a calling
2. Interpreting or understanding the calling
3. Living out a calling
My observation from more than three decades in ministry and more than two decades in faith-based higher education is that we tend to assume an initial awareness of a calling should immediately morph into full-fledged fulfillment of that calling. In Pentecostal circles, we expect God to speak and, when He does, we believe that we must instantly understand what God meant. We often even begin taking action, with the expectation that the big picture as we imagined it when God spoke to us will become reality in a very short period of time. When that does not happen, we can become discouraged, disappointed, and distracted from the calling. If it does not come to fulfillment quickly, some conclude that their sense of calling must have been a fleeting emotion or a misunderstood moment of compassion.
What if we recognize that calling often unfolds in stages? What if we encourage people to seek God’s direction and calling for their lives, and then when that initial awareness comes, we coach and mentor them through the process of understanding or interpreting that initial sense? In this middle step, people begin to imagine what this calling might look like in its fulfillment – and see many different possibilities.
For this reason, many Christian colleges and universities engage students in a deliberate process of exploring their sense of calling. At Northwest University, our students all take a course called “Life Calling.” On our campus at Northwest University Oregon, we begin in new student orientation and continue throughout a student’s enrollment to help them understand the way God designed them and see how that connects to God’s calling on their life, using CliftonStrengths© and other resources. Fully engaging in each step of the process is critical for those discovering and understanding their calling, and walking with others as they take their own calling journey is richly rewarding.
The next three posts in this blog will be about each of these phases of calling, respectively. We will consider what social science has observed as God works in people to call them, help them understand and develop their sense of calling, and lead them in living out their calling. I believe that shifting our perspective to see calling as a process will help us live our own calling more faithfully and lead others in doing the same.
See also Barnes, 2013, for three stages with some differing distinctions from those found by Tunheim and Goldschmidt.