Sunday, May 01, 2005

A candidate's sense of calling

In my research of candidacy and placement, one of the emerging factors for successful placement (so far at least) is having a strong sense of calling as a candidate. While I don't have very much concern about my own sense of calling (if you've read very much of what I have to say here, you'll know that I am quite confident in what I am called to do), this is something that many of my classmates seem to struggle with, at least at some point.

I understand their struggles; when we first came to seminary, I was leaving youth ministry (never to return!) and was thinking in all different directions. I thought about college ministry, teaching (and possibly Ph.D. work), church planting... I was generally open to just about anything-- all I knew was that I didn't want to do youth ministry anymore. Add to that equation the fact that we left a difficult situation (and left it badly on both sides), and you can bet that I/we were practically schizophrenic about our calling.

Graciously, the Lord has whittled away some options and focused us on others. This means that, going into candidacy, I have a grid to sift through the many opportunities. In fact, this was one of the reasons that the survey respondents gave for the importance of knowing your calling: it helped them to know which positions and listings were “good” (as it relates to them) or “bad” so that, from the outset, they could eliminate some otherwise viable opportunities. And during the candidacy process itself, it also gave them a measure for discernment.

As a case study, consider “Jeff” (not his real name). Jeff knew he was called into youth ministry; that, in itself, eliminated dozens of prospects from the job listings. But more than that, he knew that he wanted to stay in a particular geographic region (due to a sense of calling to family obligations) and in a certain denomination (as a result of his calling for theological convictions). That limited him to less than 20 churches-- there just weren't that many that fit all of those criteria and were also large enough to hire an ordained/ordainable Youth Minister.

As Jeff went through a few interviews, he eliminated even more of them, because Jeff was committed to a certain philosophy of youth ministry, and it was simply incongruent with what some of these churches wanted in a Youth Minister. Jeff was left with only 5 or 6 churches that could even be on the short list, and none of them were hiring. But Jeff was doggedly committed to what God had called him to do, so he waited until an opportunity arose, and when it did, he was perfect. Jeff is a prime example of a successfully placed graduate, and I anticipate that he'll remain in his current calling for a long time.

Waiting, as Jeff did, is not easy-- particularly when your classmates are getting placed-- and can even feel threatening, causing you to question your decisions and your calling itself. But here again, having a strong sense of calling helps immensely: it provides a sense of confidence and direction when doubt arises. After all, God is calling you to a particular ministry in a particular place and time. Thus it is not simply our own discernment, our own preferences, or our own determination that will get us placed, but His work through us, our circumstances, and the Church at large.

How can you develop a stronger sense of calling? I see two ways, both through the responses of my survey's respondents and through what the Scriptures themselves teach. First, know and understand yourself, then have others know and understand you.

“Know thyself” said the old philosopher, and he was right. The Scriptures repeatedly discuss our giftedness, our functioning as a part of a larger whole, and as the new creation we (the Church) are in Christ. At the root, these passages are identity passages, and understanding our identity in Christ means, in part, understanding who and what we are called to be and do. The better we understand our identity in this way, the better we will place into ministry. Survey respondents agreed: they directly affirmed the importance of knowing what you are called to do, as precisely as possible.

One of the best books I've encountered on this subject is Maximizing Your Effectiveness by Aubrey Malphurs. We are fortunate to have a professor who requires all ordination-track students to work through a process very similar to the one outlined in this book; on top of that, he is one of the most intuitive and discerning men you will ever meet, and he counsels each of us personally about our calling. Not everyone is in a position to have someone like that; if you are struggling in this way, I welcome you to contact me-- I'll try to put you in touch with someone who can help you work through your sense of calling.

The other way that we can strengthen our sense of calling is to test it-- that is, to show others ourselves, and allow them to understand us in ways similar to how we understand ourselves. When in seminary, this means internships, field education, and general service in the local church. But beyond seminary, it means simply being involved in the church of which you are a member. If you are involved (as a layman, an intern, or whatever) then those in the church will know you; be assured, they will let you know how you are doing, in one way or another. This is the testing grounds: this is where you will learn if you know yourself well. This is where you will discover exactly how you are gifted, where your strengths are, and (most importantly) where your weaknesses are.

Testing will lead to confidence in some areas and uncertainty in others. But this is good, because it means that you understand yourself that much more. Knowing your calling is not simply an ability to list off what you are good at; it is also knowing how you communicate, what you're passionate about, where you need help and complementary staffing, and what you should stay away from altogether.

Get to know who you are and what you are called to, and you will be miles closer to a successful placement.


Anonymous said...

Appreciated your thoughts here, Ed, but help me with a cynical thought: What's the psychological difference between sticking to a calling and making the best career move?

Much of what you're talking about here (as well as much of the talk I've heard from graduates or soon-to-be graduates about evaluating their options) comes off to my skeptic mind as merely educated men looking for/finding the "best deal" among the offers.

It doesn't seem right, but I'm not sure what does in the candidacy process because, well, in a candidacy process you're having to "sell yourself" in many ways to the search committee. How long has this candidacy process been in place, by the way, and handled historically? Is there a better way?

Ed said...

Good points, and your question is perfectly worded-- the difference is essentially psychological. That is, in light of God's sovereignty in the situation, understanding His calling and acting on it is the best career move.

I would suggest that the psychological difference is a theocentric (God-centered) point of view versus an anthropocentric (man-centered) point of view. When it's all about me (man-centered) then it can quickly become "looking out for number one" and trying to find the best deal. On the other hand, that sort of self-focus is out of place with a God-centered approach, which calls the question, "What does God desire for His Church, and for this church in particular (that I am considering in candidacy)?" rather than, "what is best for me?"

You've also hit on some key ideas about "selling yourself" in the candidacy process. I've touched on this briefly, but I'll reflect on that in more detail in the near future. Thanks for bringing up a great topic.

Adam Tisdale said...


Great post. I believe that wrestling with your calling both before and after seminary can be the most important that one does. Many of the guys who go to seminary uncertain of their calling struggle the most with completing their training. I don't think that means you have to have it all figured out, but for me the struggle of 3 1/2 years of seminary would not have been worth it had I not been sure of my call to pastoral ministry.

Ed said...

Adam, I think you're right. Certainly the guys I know who have struggled-- changing degree programs, time off here, re-start there, etc.-- are also the ones who have the least sense of what they should be doing. I think having a more particular sense of calling gives you something to work toward in a way that just a general call to "ministry" doesn't. A lot of guys will say they feel called to the ministry, but the students with a particular calling in view have a driving force behind them.