“Just as soon as I finish my degree, I can really begin to live out my calling,” a student told me with enthusiasm and a hint of impatience. It was a senior capstone class, and she was looking forward to graduation just around the corner. Over the years, I have heard some form of this sentiment from many students. They are often convinced that living into their vocation is something that lies just down the road: When I finish college, once my internship is complete, once I get accepted to medical school — then I’ll get to work and serve God.
And of course this is not just a tendency among students. Most of us can recall times when our eyes were so fixed on what lay ahead that we missed an opportunity in the present. But often, the calling from God that matters most is the one that is right in front of us. As Jerry Sittser writes in his book The Will of God as a Way of Life, “the little choices we make every day often have a cumulative effect far exceeding the significance of the big choices we occasionally make.”
Vocational questions can also arise as life progresses. Perhaps a person finds a healthy connection between her calling and her career. But then a major life change sets in: She retires or loses her job, experiences a major health issue, or takes time away from work to raise a family. A clear sense of vocation now gives way to vocational crisis. How can I serve God now that the job that gave me a vocational identity is gone?
Both tendencies — to look forward or to look backward with anxiety — betray the common misconception that faithfulness to our calling depends on a certain set of circumstances. Until those circumstances are in place, or when they are no longer in place, we worry that we may not be able to serve God in any meaningful way.
To address this worry, I often use the language of missional calling. One’s missional calling is not a job, though it often is lived out through one’s work. Rather, missional calling is a particular theme or pattern that shapes the direction of one’s service to God and brings together one’s gifts, loves, and the needs in the world that one longs to address. For one person, it might be helping to provide clean water for people who need it. For another, it might be fostering spiritual formation for young professionals. The key is that it can be lived out in a variety of different ways as a person’s circumstances change.
In order to recognize a missional calling, of course, it is necessary to engage in a process of discernment. And that process takes time. I regularly teach two classes on vocation — one for first-year undergraduates and one for seminary students. In those classes, I describe three linked aspects of vocational discernment: self-reflection, communal reflection, and the practice of the spiritual disciplines.
Self-reflection involves asking questions that help us look deeply into our lives to recognize the unique ways in which God has equipped us. I often ask questions such as: What was an experience in your life that really energized you or made you feel most alive? What breaks your heart? Communal reflection is a practice that acknowledges that we were not meant to discern calling in isolation.
In this step, we invite trusted people into intentional conversation about what they see as our gifts, strengths, and joys. Many questions will be the same as in the process of self-reflection, but the insights of people who know us well can be illuminating.
The entire process of discernment grows out of the healthy soil of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, reading Scripture, fasting, and giving. Such practices shape our ability to sense God’s leading in our lives.
There is no need for us to wait, therefore, to live faithfully into our vocations. If someone does not know what his missional calling is, then perhaps his immediate vocation is to begin a process of discernment. And once it is found, the beauty of missional calling is that it remains throughout the many different circumstances of our lives. Wherever we are, no matter what we face, we can live faithful lives as acts of worship.
Doug Koskela is a professor of theology at SPU. This article draws on his latest book, Calling and Clarity: Discovering What God Wants For Your Life (Eerdmans, 2015).