Understanding the Call: The Second Phase in the Experience of Calling
In a previous article, I noted that researchers Tunheim and Goldschmidt (2013)[i] found that calling can be a three-phase experience. The first phase, Awareness, is the phase in which an individual becomes cognizant of God’s calling to a general area of service or focus in life. The second phase represents a period of interpreting that calling, or, as I learned in my own research, understanding what it might mean and imagining the shape it might take in the future. The third phase is the goal: living out one’s calling. The many benefits that researchers have found experienced by those “with a calling” are actually realized in that third phase, when one is fulfilling that calling, not just holding awareness of it. This article will focus on the second phase, interpreting or understanding your calling.
That Sunday morning when I first heard God’s voice calling me to ministry, I peered into my future with excitement. I wanted to help people grow in their knowledge of and love for God. I wanted to point people to Jesus. And now, at that moment, I knew that it would be not just my lifestyle but also my work.
Many questions remained. What kind of job or work would that be? How should I prepare? I knew I should go to college; whether or not to enroll in higher education was not a question for me, regardless of the field to which God would lead me. But where should I apply? What should my major be? What was I to “become”?
God did not answer any of those questions that day.
What He did do was to take me through a process of discovery. It included education that not only gave me practical tools but shaped my mind and my character. The journey included mentors, friends and leaders who spoke into my life, people who gave me opportunities to stretch into new roles and experiences. It included some failures, some successes, some hard lessons, and some amazing gifts. All this happened before I could step into fulfilling my vocational calling in an authentic way.
My own calling was to ministry, but many are called to business, teaching, parenting, practicing medicine, designing buildings, creating art, and a plethora of other ways of contributing to God’s redemptive work in the world. One of my dear childhood friends is called to be a funeral director. Whatever God’s calling is to, that calling is not just to the destination but to the process.
This is a biblical idea. The calling of Abram was to go, but God did not reveal to Abram where the journey would take him. It was a long time before Abram was told why God was leading him to a new land. There was no “big picture” for Abram until he had walked with God for a long time and changed – even down to his name. Jesus called the Twelve to “follow” him. They did not know what that meant in the beginning. If they had a big picture in mind, they found out the hard way that Jesus had not called them to be part of a political revolution. Their imagination of the future had to be shaped over time as they learned from and lived with Jesus.
Biblical figures often experienced some element of progression – perhaps it even felt like a delay – between the moment they initially heard their calling and the point in which they actually began living it.
It is that in-between part of the process which some researchers have referred to as the interpretive or discovery stage of calling (Tunheim and Goldschmidt, 2013; Lamm Bray, 2016). Most of us do not jump from initial awareness or discernment of calling to fulling living out that calling, but we do not talk a lot about the process of coming to understand and envision what our calling could look like.
My dissertation research[ii] focused on this aspect of calling development after female undergraduates in Christian colleges initially discerned their sense of calling. I explored what happened in their college experience – academically, cocurricular, spiritually, socially, professionally – that helped them gain understanding of what their calling means. Here are some of the results of my research with women undergraduate students, and an application-oriented suggestion for us as we help others grow in their sense of calling.
Calling Development and Identity Development
Many of my participants referred to calling development and identity development interchangeably. Some of the calling literature to that date had suggested that sense of self and sense of calling were related,[iii] but my research clearly showed that the two constructs developed in a reciprocal relationship.
How can we apply this? Encouraging people to discover the way God designed them can help them understand and envision their calling. Tools like CliftonStrengths©, which is based on sound scientific research and consistently relevant across cultures and contexts, can help us notice the way God knit us together and what He might want to do with His unique design.
Mentoring and Investment by Others
Participants in my research were greatly influenced by mentors and people who spoke into their lives. Interestingly, this influence came not just from formal, ongoing mentoring relationships; in fact, those were probably in the minority. Some of the most powerful investment of others occurred in single conversations or ongoing friendships that never took on the title of mentoring but certainly bore the same fruit. One participant in my study actually found great clarity in her calling because of one comment by one professor on one assignment.
How can we apply this? We have many opportunities to speak into the lives of those around us. What if we called out their best? What if we challenged them to stretch, and then supported them when they did so? Even one seemingly insignificant comment could be a powerful catalyst in someone’s journey toward fulfilling their calling.
The participants in my study came from varied backgrounds and, even though all were enrolled in Christian universities, they experienced college in different ways. Those whose personal lives and academic experiences had brought challenges or pain found even those painful experiences were useful in their calling journey. They came to a point of using setbacks and trials to propel them to greater determination in their development and service. They questioned God and themselves, then became more convinced of the genuineness of God’s call.
How can we apply this? Everyone encounters difficulty in life, but not everyone learns how to use it in healthy ways. Guiding, providing resources, and encouraging those around us as they experience pain can help them make meaning of their scars in ways that give space for God’s redemptive work.
This middle stage of calling development may be awkward at times. But embracing the middle gives us the opportunity to accept our uniqueness as given to us by the God who designed us on purpose. In the middle is where we learn to not compete with others or be unsatisfied with the ultimate direction of our work. In the middle is where we become, so we can do.
[i] Tunheim, K. A., & Goldschmidt, A. N. (2013). Exploring the role of calling in the professional journeys of college presidents. Journal of Leadership, Accountability, and Ethics, 10(4), 30-40.
[ii] Lamm Bray, D. (2016). Women Undergraduates’ Experiences in Developing a Sense of Calling (Doctoral dissertation). Azusa, CA.
[iii] For instance, see Dik B. J. and and R. D. Duffy (2012), Make your job a calling: How the psychology of vocation can change your life at work (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press).
This post references CliftonStrengths©. Information is available at https://www.gallup.com/cliftonstrengths/en/home.aspx.