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Vocation and Discernment: Issues for Teachers, Ministers, and the Teachers of Minister
by Fr. Kurt Messick   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, February 17, 2004
Posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2004

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A short piece on some readings and reflecting I have been doing about the call in my life.


What is a call?

Generally, people won’t pursue their callings until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so.  - Gregg Levoy


The idea of vocation, discernment and finding the call in life is often a mysterious one.  It begins early for most people, but not in any systematic way.  ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ is a frequent question asked of children; it is a frequent refrain repeated by adults who feel that there might be something missing, or something more, to what they should be doing in life.  Indeed, even in the retirement centre, there are people who look for their calling in life, and still wonder what it is they will do when they grow up.

One of the problems with vocational discernment is that we are encultured to an active lifestyle, and one that prizes results, the quicker the better.  Vocational processes are often not active (by typical understandings of the term) and the kinds of results and timeframes don’t fit well with our modern sensibilities.  Also, vocational discernment is not an act of will or desire in the conventional sense.  ‘Vocation does not come from willfulness.  It comes from listening.  I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about – or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.’  (Palmer, LYLS, p. 4)   Because it is more of a passive process, the idea of discernment remains problematic at best.

            Similarly, the idea of vocational discernment can be confusing from a biblical standpoint.  Our hopes and embedded theological ideas might tell us one thing, but our experience tells us another. 

It is important not to misunderstand the nature of God’s call.  God is not likely to speak to us from a burning bush, or to strike us blind, like Paul.  Signs and wonders do not have to be present in order to experience God’s call.  In fact, very few believers experience such dramatic encounters with God, and churches seeking ministers rightly worry about candidates who claim to have had them.  (Schuurman, p. 23)



We want clear signs, but rarely get them, in trying to figure out our call to ministry (and often, for anything else in life).  One would think with the high level of lack of clarity present in the world that living by faith would come naturally, but it remains frustrating.

            There is a dualistic nature to the discernment of vocation, the personal and the communal, but this division does not have sharp boundaries, and both are subject to problematic interpretation. 

There are profoundly personal and individual dimensions to making pivotal decisions.  Often it is in the dark nights of the soul, or in the brightness of an experience of God’s presence, that we perceive God’s callings.  Prayer, honest self-examination, and clarifying one’s motives and intentions are all very difficult personal work that should accompany pivotal decisions.  As in the case of responding to God’s call to be a Christian, responding to God’s particular callings requires individual decision in the sanctuary of God’s presence.  (Schuurman, p. 149)



Discernment is not always a happy process.  It can be difficult, murky, unclear, even outright painful.  This pain can come from personal confusion and the need to give up something to grasp something else, or it can come from the communal elements, which while often motivated for good, is still subject to the same human failings as any human process.

There are also important communal elements in the process of discerning God’s callings.  Traditionally, those who felt called to the ministry of Word and sacrament must have their internal sense of call confirmed by the external confirmation of the Christian community….  Though God’s calling often comes through community, it does not always do so.  Communities, like individuals, are plagued by sin.  (Schuurman, pp. 149-150)


One might trust in God, but not the institution; conversely, sometimes one might want to put trust in the institution or community, but still fall short of trusting God’s movement in life.

            Part of this comes from the difficulty of dealing the power of God, which tends toward an absolutising that is increasingly offensive to modern (and postmodern) sensibilities.  God’s call can be an all-encompassing, universal pull.  This is related in many ways to God’s power of creation.

It’s very important, for instance, to remember that in the Old Testament calling and creating are closely associated.  Look at Isaiah 40:26 – God creating the stars and calling them by name – and the echoes of that in the psalter….  So in the most basic sense of all, God’s call is the call to be:  the vocation of creatures is to exist.  And, second, the vocation of creatures is to exist as themselves, to be bearers of their names, answering to the Word that gives each its distinctive identity.  (Williams, p. 149)



The Latin root of the word vocation comes from the verb vocare, to call.  One can sense the similarities with the related English words voice, vocal, and even evoke/evocative.  God’s creating was through naming, and the naming was through speaking, calling things into being.  ‘Ultimately, creativity and discernment have much in common.  They increase our ability to ‘draw out’, to call into being, what didn’t exist in our lives before.’  (Levoy, p. 123)  God creates us anew in God’s call to us.



The space I’m trying to enter may not be an interior castle, but like the makeshifts that dot out landscape, it will have to do. -  Heidi Neumark


The question inevitably arises, to what are we being called?  In community, the primary way we organise is, for better or worse, around institutions. There are advantages and disadvantages this framework, as most ministers and teachers realise when trying to live out their vocations.

There are dynamics in all kinds of institutions that deprive the many of their identity so the few can enhance their own, as if identity were a zero-sum game, a win-lose situation…. Things are not always this way, of course.  There are settings and institutions led by people whose identities do not depend on depriving others of theirs.  If you are in that kind of family or office or hospital, your sense of self is enhanced by leaders who know who they are.  (Palmer, LYLS, pp. 86-87)



Sometimes it is the nature of the institution, and sometimes it is the people involved, but most often it is the combination that makes the community a good place or bad place for initial discernment and ultimate fulfillment of vocation.  Sample, in his search for a school programme that matched his vocational hopes, demonstrated on side of this.  Neumark most clearly saw the limitations of institution on her vocation as she was leaving her church for ‘greener pastures’, while contemplating this as the ground of vocation for her possible successors.

            Sample also looked at the way individuals and communities interact with each other to shape each other – one pastor, Tom, wanted to use a management style (Management By Objective) that he mistakenly believed his congregation desired; later Sample discovered that the congregation had been agreeable for Tom’s sake, and not through any commitment to the management style.  However, this was not necessarily a bad aspect of institutions and communities.

If one has to choose, I would rather have someone like Tom, even doing M.B.O. in a church like that, than someone who did not have his relational skill and compassion.  At the same time, Tom’s inexperience and misplaced enthusiasm set in sharp relief a range of practices in terms of organizational and social change that are externally imposed on traditional and oral people.  (Sample, p. 46)



While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does highlight the need for careful discernment, not only of one’s own call, but also of the institution and community context in which this vocation will be lived.  Again, human beings being what they are, are subject to being wrong, and to being abusive, even in communities of the most pastorally-concerned people (as churches are supposed to be) or the most intelligent people (as academia is supposed to be).

Fear, the search for security, personal ambition, clerical careerism, misguided efforts of conserving the ecclesial status quo of a particular age, the lack of self-criticism in terms of appreciating the particularity of any appropriation of faith, and the temptation to prescribe one way of responding to God’s call as the only possible one for all times: these and other dangers will always need to be recognised and met with critical eyes and repenting hearts.  (Jeanrond, p. 109)



These are concerns that will never disappear, and always be part of the mix of discerning vocation. 

            A more pervasive difficulty in vocational discernment often comes not from any deliberate intention or moral failing, but from lack of understanding how the vocation process is supposed to work in community.  This happens in the church and in the academy.

Often, we fall unwitting victims to the groupthink that prevails in our area of practice.  We defer unthinkingly to the broadly accepted assumptions, justifications, rules and explanations that seem to account for all the dilemmas we encounter.  At other times, we mistakenly think that we have transcended our history and culture to work in a way tat is separate from what surrounds us.  For all these reasons, our autobiographies as teachers are problematic.  (Brookfield, p. 71)



Particularly among educated persons presuming right intention on the part of themselves and their colleagues, even if this presumption is correct, the tendency to overlook areas of concern is all the more troubling.  When the appeal for authority can be made to both church and academy, the possibility of victory through some sort of subtle intimidation is hard to ignore.  ‘Karl Rahner was correct to warn against all too quick references to God’s authority in order to sanction or challenge particular expressions of human authority and power.  He reminded us that our understanding of God’s authority arise always from human experience.’  (Jeanrond, p. 103)  What higher authority is there than God?  Yet, how sure can we be of our interpretations?  But, if we cannot trust our interpretations, how then do we live?



Jesus promised those who would follow him only three things, says writer Marty Babcock: ‘That they would be absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble.’ – Gregg Levoy


One of the things to do to live through the ambiguities of our vocation is to hold to practices that have sustained those living faithful lives in the past.  Various spiritual and scholarly practices can inform and feed us, but must be lived in the context of our present world, with the difficulties such entails.

In the eighties and early nineties, it seemed that whenever I sat down to pray, I was interrupted by gunshots.  It has been said that prayer is easy when bullets are flying, but I never found it so.  It’s one thing to be gathered into silence on a retreat, but what was I supposed to do back home?  I had a terribly distracted time at prayer and not for any of the usual reasons.  I’ve always found the counsel of spiritual elders—to incorporate mental distractions into one’s prayer rather than to fight against them—to be sensible advice.  At times it even works.  But I found it increasingly difficult to incorporate the POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP of bullets and automatic weapons.  (Neumark, p. 57)



Even if we are lucky enough to avoid the actual weapons fire that Neumark experienced in her inner-city parish, we still suffer the slings and arrows of many kinds of attack in the modern world, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.  Incorporating spam emails and telemarketers and tax time and automobile breakdowns into one’s overall spiritual life can be just as difficult and demanding as hearing a nearby-but-still-distant gunfire.

            One can find stress and difficulty even in the more joyous parts of ministry and teaching, as Sample indicated in his conversations about the difference between oral culture and more typical culture persons, such as the etiquette and understanding around gift-giving.  Gifts are not merely (and sometimes, not ever) things that fit in boxes wrapped up with bows.

In most traditional settings the gifts that clergy are asked to provide in the context of the United States are mainly the duties of calling, of hospital visitation, of presence, of listening, and of laughing and crying with people through the good and hard times.  When one goes to a traditional setting to do ministry, it helps to listen to what a previous pastor did that endeared him or her to the people.  Lurking in the midst of these stories are hints and instruction on the rituals of gift exchange.  One will find clarification about what the appropriate gifts and reciprocity are.   (Sample, p. 67)



It can be difficult to be the recipient of the gift when one does not understand the basis upon which one receives the gift, or how one is to reciprocate.

Today's pastors often end up more as social workers or CEO's than as apostles or disciples, to the detriment of the church as a whole. But the ordained ministry is not simply a profession, which one may pick up and put away at will. It is a lifelong calling to a way of being. If there is an ontological shift that takes place during ordination, it is not in the being, but rather in the way of being.   Neumark saw one of the pastor’s practices as a way of being with her congregation apart from her professional role. ‘Friendship was something outside a pastor’s working hours.  I am slowly coming to believe that friendship is actually an essential part of our ministerial work, a vital component of healing in a broken, disconnected world.’  (Neumark, p. 95)  Friends have relationship in love, which exalt each other yet leave each other free. Friends do not call each other into obedience, but rather into cooperation. Friendship is rarely hierarchical.  With a framework of friendship being paramount, the pastor no longer has to see herself/himself as a martyr, a sacrificial person, but rather can be fully engaged with God and others (and oneself!) by befriend the people of God.  'As a friend, the pastor sees people as whole human beings.... As whole human beings, the pastor and the people are both called to be fully alive through relationships with God, one another, and themselves.'  (Zaragoza, p. 35)

Choosing to become friends in addition to being a pastor or teacher involves a conscious and intentional choice – it does not happen naturally.  There are many choices to be made in the overall practice of living out one’s vocation.  However, there is a down-side.  ‘Making choices means ruling things out as well.  Part of the pain of it all is the sense that we might have been more fulfilled, more real, if we had or hadn’t…something or other.’  (Williams, p. 158)  Vocational discernment involves a very real limiting of oneself in significant ways, but it opens up other aspects of self, which continue to grow over time, like a vine trained on a trellis is no longer free in the wild sense, but will probably grow in a more healthy way by following the appointed directions.





You ought to wish all to be your equals; and if by wisdom you surpass any, you ought to wish that they also may be wise.  – Augustine of Hippo


My particular call is one that is not unique at this seminary, but less common than the typical pastor-in-training model that is dominant.  My call is more to one of teaching than of preaching, to helping others learn in a more scholarly-academic model.  The issues of vocation remain constant here in many respects. 

The Christian teacher-scholar has a specific calling and does his or her work in light of that calling.  Soren Kierkegaard likes to describe a Christian as a person who tries to live his or her life as one who stands before God.  As he puts it, the astounding thing about Christian faith is that each one of us, however unimportant we may feel ourselves to be, has the privilege of being personally addressed by God, the almighty one, the ruler of the universe.  A person who might feel incredibly lucky to shake the hand of a presidential candidate in fact has a much more exalted status: he or she is called to live continually in the presence of God.  And God has a unique name for each one of us, a unique set of tasks.  (Evans, in Henry and Agee, pp. 30-31)


Both the minister and the teacher have a special responsibility before God and before the community.   Like the vocational call of a minister, the call of a teacher is similarly both individual and communal in nature.

Encounters with mentors and subjects can awaken a sense of self and yield clues to who we are.  But the call to teach does not come from external encounters alone – no outward teacher or teaching will have much effect until my soul assents.  Any authentic call ultimately comes from the voice of the teacher within, the voice that invites me to honour the nature of my true self.  (Palmer, TCTT, p. 29)


Like the call for ministers, the call for teachers, particularly that of the call to teachers of subjects in theology and ministry, there is no sharp division between ‘ordinary life’ and ‘on the job’.  As the Army used to proclaim their programme was ‘not just a job, it’s an adventure’, so too is the vocation to teach in theological and ministerial areas far more from being just a job. 

Especially for teachers in theology, a commingling of work and play, labour and leisure, is natural and even inherent in the definition of vocation.  Following a vocation requires more than learning a specific task and completing it.  Recognising one’s vocation means recognising a way to use one’s full life for the glory of God.  (Miller-McLemore, in Jones and Paulsell, p. 56)


Those who look to teaching as the fulfillment of their vocation draw upon many different aspects of the life of God.  The diversity of students in a seminary or university is similar to that which can be found in congregations, but the stability over time of the population fluctuates.  Thus, theological teaching as a vocation is more akin to mission than to parish ministry.  This is one of the un-sung mission fields of the church.

If we embrace theological education as a vocation it means we envision what we do not as a job or career, but as being faithful to a grace.  What we do with the gifts and talents entrusted to us is determined not primarily by our interests and inclinations, but by our conviction that teaching is what God calls us to do; it is a commission more than a choice, a ministry as much as a profession.  (Waddell, in Jones and Paulsell, p. 130)


However, as with all vocations, while it is played out in community, it becomes a matter of individual embodiment.  There is a certain element of incarnational thinking in the way vocation manifests itself.  ‘Ultimately, my vocation should be shaped not so much by whether I find it fulfilling, or whether it makes more of me, as by whether it enables me to be faithful to the God of Jesus Christ and to particular communities of people.’  (Jones, in Jones and Paulsell, p. 217)  This is as true for those in teaching roles as in ministerial roles.


Being on one’s own

I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…- Psalm 23


Living a vocation can be a lonely life.  Sample knew it; Neumark knew it.  Most ministers and teachers come to realise at some point that, while they saw their vocations as being very people-oriented, there can be some very lonely times.  In the history of the church, some have been called into solitary situations, devoting themselves to prayer, meditation and other spiritual practices.  Some have removed themselves physically (like the Desert Fathers), some have cloistered themselves (monastics and cathedral solitaries), and others simply retreat into private life.  This is rarely a once-and-for-all decision, but is rather a developmental process, to seek a single direction in life.


The decision to live an undivided life, made by enough people over a long enough period of time, may eventually have social and political impact.  But this is not a strategic decision, taken to achieve some political goal.  It is a deeply personal decision, make for the sake of one’s own identity and integrity.  To decide to live divided no more is less a strategy for attacking other people’s beliefs than an uprising of the elemental need for one’s own beliefs to govern and guide one’s life.  The power of an authentic movement lies in the fact that it originates in naming and claiming one’s identity and integrity – rather than accusing one’s ‘enemies’ of lacking the same.  (Palmer, TCTT, p. 168)


The decision can be difficult, as indicated earlier, as it often requires the giving up of something.  In my own experience, I had to give up my church – not just my parish, but my denomination, my friends and support coming from this community, and entered my own ‘dark night’ where I was more concerned to accuse the enemy; my vocation became more clear as I put aside the difficulties of individual hierarchs, such that my ministry and my teaching has grown, and my personal integrity even permits my honest celebration of another’s vocation to what I once thought was mine.

            There is the tale of Sir George Hell, who had a personality and face to match the name.  He fell in love with Mary, the fairest maiden in his province, but with such a manner and face and name, he had no chance.  He purchased a mask of a pleasing countenance, and wore this while courting Mary.  She was quite taken with his winning personality, which he worked hard to make into a pleasing one.  He was mysterious, not allowing her to know his name.  However, there was another man, who was jealous of the maiden and determined to get Mary for himself.  One day as Sir George Hell was chatting with Mary amiably after church, the jealous man snatched the mask away.  All were amazed.  Sir George Hell’s face had completely changed, to fit his new character, and Mary fell even deeper in love.

            What we do often enough becomes part of our nature.  The discernment of vocation is a lifelong process, one that never stops.  We learn to recognize things along the way, but the process itself shapes our very nature, a change that can sometimes even be seen in the face.

With enough practice, when an intuition finally tips the scales in favour of following a calling, precisely because you have devoted time to practicing it, you will know that ‘just a feeling’ now carries the weight of authority you can trust.  Still, a calling is ultimately mysterious, and the process of discernment is always a bit of a guessing game.  In Greek, the word mystery means to close the mouth, which may refer to the secrecy to which initiates into ancient mysteries were sworn.  (Levoy, p. 50)


As Levoy indicates, this process remains a mystery, just as God in God's presence in our lives remains a mystery, even as we feel and recognise that presence over time.

            The one difficulty I face is that there is very little of the community aspect I need for my vocation.  Neumark knew the feeling well, when it came to fitting in to her new community.  She wrote, ‘My favourite Christmas hymn will not be sung.  No one knows it here, so I sing it to myself.  I sang it to the children as a lullaby.  That’s what I do with some of my old favourites that don’t work here because of the cultural context.’  (Neumark, p. 228)  While my congregation at Bell Trace supports me, it is not the kind of faith community one needs for long-term sustainability.  Without outside supports for the ministry, drawing on companionship and resources of a larger community, the stress will eventually become too great.  Even with such outside supports, many denominations recognise the need for occasional if not regular movement of the clergy.

            A similar situation happens here at Christian Theological Seminary.  As a teaching assistant, I have no community for my vocation as a teacher.  I am excluded from the faculty community by design, and am excluded from the student community by function. 

Teaching theology is an exciting adventure, but it can also be a perilous one.  There is no way any of us can survive the journey, much less delight and flourish in it, without the support, encouragement, and companionship of friends, including friendship with God who called us to the journey in the first place.  (Waddell, in Jones and Paulsell, p. 134)


I find great truth in Waddell's words, but it only serves to highlight the lack of support I receive as I fulfill my role as a teacher here.  God's presence is occasionally felt (although admittedly not always), but the support of a faithful community is missing.  It does cause me to reflect on the importance of community (something I sense strongly in the absence of such) as well as the true test of vocation as a teacher – knowing that I might not ever have a community for support, will I in fact continue to pursue this vocation.  The inevitable answer (so far as I can discern at present) is yes, but the dark night continues, the interior castle is dimly lit, and the perilous aspects present with every step. 




Brookfield, Stephen.  Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  1995.

 Henry, Douglas and Bob R. Agee.  Faithful Learning and the Christian Scholarly Vocation.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.  2003.

 Jeanrond, Werner.  Call and Response: The Challenge of Christian Life.  New York: Continuum Press.  1995.

 Jones, L. Gregory and Stephanie Paulsell.  The Scope of Our Art:  The Vocation of the Theological Teacher.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.  2002.

 Levoy, Gregg.  Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.  New York: Harmony Books/Crown Publishers.  1997

 Neumark, Heidi.  Breathing Space:  A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.  Boston:  Beacon Press.  2003

 Palmer, Parker.  Let Your Life Speak:  Listening for the Voice of Vocation.    San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  2000.

 Palmer, Parker.  The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  1998.

 Sample, Tex.  Ministry in an Oral Culture: Living with Will Rogers, Uncle Remus, and Minnie Pearl.  Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox.  1994.

 Schuurman, Douglas.  Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.  2004.

 Williams, Rowan.  A Ray of Darkness.  Boston:  Cowley Press.  1995.

 Zaragoza, Edward.  No Longer Servants, But Friends:  A Theology of Ordained Ministry.  London: Abingdon Press.  1999.



Reader Reviews for "Vocation and Discernment: Issues for Teachers, Ministers, and the Teachers of Minister"

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Reviewed by Candida Eittreim
Often when God calls us, we find ourselves, I think perhaps, by His design, in this dark night of the soul. There, we naturaly turn to Him for succour and sustenence, rather then looking outward for it. Since my own dark night, I have found a deeper, richer inner spirituality and strength, as I place my trust in Him, rather than on externals. Well written and insightful article.

Reviewed by Jan Peregrine (Reader)
Hey Kurt! I'm not convinced that a dark night of the soul should be a way of life instead of a temporary state. If God wants anything for us, it's a clear choice for our life that we can find fulfilling. Not endless misery!
Reviewed by m j hollingshead
excellent work, as always
Reviewed by Vesna Vanessa
One insight I gained from having taught theology in my younger days, is that many laypeople, even in a comparatively educated congregation, have given up on theology. While some recalled something of Niebuhr or Tillich, several indicated that they thought of theology as unrelated to the church or to personal faith. They viewed theology as either a highly personal, individualized matter or as an essentially academic discipline conducted in universities and seminaries, something not germane to the life of the church or to personal faith.Dear friend..please re-evaluate your desire in continuing to be that which you deam yourself to be..the dark night of the soul is assisting you to confirm your vocation..or weigh the pros and cons..


Reviewed by Tinka Boukes
Thank you for sharing this wonderful offering!!

And also a big thank you for all the lovely reviews!!

Love Tinka
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