Sunday, June 03, 2007

How Many Callings Can I Have?

Under postmodern conditions, it is hard for young people to believe that God has a calling for their lives. The hard part is not that God has a calling, but rather that God has a calling -- just one -- for your whole life.

This reflection is the fruit of a conference on "Re-Forming Ministry." We have been charged by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to think about how to support pastors in congregations today. We have spent some time on thinking about the meaning of God's call, and whether we need to rethink the church's traditional conception under changed conditions today.

I am mostly skeptical of any postmodernism, but I have come to believe that we have begun to enter a condition of postmodernity. One consequence of this change for the church is that the notion of one fixed calling for life is hard to believe, and worth reconsidering. The Reformed notion of a calling for each believer still shows its roots in the medieval Catholic notion of a calling for priests, monks, and nuns to a special ontological status. Yet the rest of Reformed practice treats our calling not so much as a change in our essence as it is a particular task that God has commissioned us to do.

It is a short step from thinking about the call as a commission, to think about a call as one commission, which may be followed by other, different commissions.

The advantage of thinking about a call as a commission is that it allows for changing from one big job to another without seeing that change as a failure. Many seminarians have turned to ministry as a second career. One of the intriguing ideas to come from this meeting for me is to think that ministry might be a first career, which could legitimately be followed by a second calling to a second career. And so on.

I am still chewing on this idea. Your comments are most welcome.


Anonymous said...


It's an area of fruitful research these days. One of the more helpful points of attention is to how calling fits into the doctrine of eschatology as much as, or more than, it fits the doctrine of creation.

One of the weaknesses of the reformers was their overemphasis on calling as a function of birth and status. It was terribly undemocratic, and represented a truncated view of God's calling. Some theologians are focusing on eschatology, and on the ways in which calling is a function of living into God's promised future. Our birth status (male and female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile) is not determinative of our calling.

As a result, it's easier to consider that our lives can include many callings, different expressions of our one calling to belong to Christ. A balance of creation and eschatology allows us to discern our created gifts and our spiritual ones; it also allows us to be as flexible in our forms of service as circumstances might demand. In other words, a person may be called to be a banker first, then a minister, or vice-versa.

Mark Smith said...

I'd think that this idea would be obvious.

Many, many people are changing careers today. The whole idea of mid-life career change is mainstream. Gone are the days where your employer promised you a job for life.

We have no trouble with ministers being called to new locations. Why should we be surprised with them being called to new vocations? Why should we be surprised with people over 25 being called to the ministry?

I occasionally catch a glimpse of a future that has me wearing a stole. I don't know if that will ever happen, but at my own mid-life it still seems possible.

DennisS said...

I grew up in agriculture, went to college for a business degree, got into the transportation industry (14 years), picked up a degree in computers, moved into the manufacturing industry (5 years), picked up a third bachelors degree (this in Christian Ministry), headed off to seminary, and have now been a pastor nearly 2 years. With my wife of 19 years, we have 3 teenagers.

One of the amazing things is that another Elder in our small congregation couldn't understand how we could up and leave a very good paying job and take three children and move hundreds of miles away to attend seminary. After a few months, he announced that his family of five would be joining us in seminary. He had considered it impossible, and thus had been unable to "receive a call".

I too thought it was impossible, even 10 years ago. But I did want to be able to study the Bible, and so I took a course on Bible Study Methods. That led to leading a small group, and that is where others could observe my passion - and suggest that I could become a pastor. September 11 helped us to focus more on what is truly important, and a month later is when I understood my call to ministry.

I grew up thinking I might be a priest (RCC) some day. But my father kept saying something about carrying on the family name. I married a Protestant who didn't convert. When the kids got old enough to ask questions about the differences in our congregations, we realized it was time to find one church to attend. A few years later I became a Christian because of faith, rather than by association.

I grew up on a farm, and now I serve a PCUSA congregation in a rural area. I share something in common with nearly everyone in the congregation. Because of my varied background, I'm able to be a stabilizing presence here. Things have turned around considerably. My wife and I have no doubt of our call here.

In no way does our calling here at this time nullify anything which came before. Going to seminary at 40 meant I could speak with my classmates from life experiences. In fact, those in my graduating class in our 40's, have done well in ministry, while several younger ones have struggled.

It's possible to understand that we have one calling, and that calling is in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. That calling can be expressed in many ways over a lifetime.

Gruntled said...

Mark, I am thinking here of vocation as something that God gives me, rather than as a career that I choose for myself. Whether God calls us to one thing or many is a theological issue, more than a cultural one.