the shape of leadership

Vocation and Calling

Helping people discover and embrace God’s plan for their lives

Throughout Scripture, we see God calling people in a variety of ways and to a variety of opportunities.

Take the apostle Paul, for example. God called Paul to specific groups of people: Gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel (Acts 9:15). God called him to specific places, such as Macedonia (Acts 16:9-10). And He called Paul to a specific role — that of an apostle (1 Corinthians 1:1). In all of these circumstances, Paul was called to the task of preaching the gospel.

God also called Nehemiah to a task (rebuilding the wall), a people (the Jewish remnant), and a place (Jerusalem). That calling came to life when Nehemiah asked his brother about the condition of Jerusalem and its people.

Vocation and calling are divinely intertwined. The word “vocation” means “calling.” Much of that calling finds its expression outside the four walls of the church.

As author Gene Edward Veith Jr. writes, “The priesthood of all believers did not make everyone into church workers; rather, it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling.”

Recently, I was discussing calling with a group of young leaders. In that conversation, a question suddenly struck me: What comes first: calling or role? In other words, is a person called by God before pursuing a role that opens doors for the fulfillment of that calling? Or does a person find a role, and then the calling emerges out of that role?

I believe the answer is both.

Some people sense God calling them to a specific task, people or place, and that calling drives them to find a role giving them the opportunity to fulfill the calling.

For example, someone who feels called to the task of education might pursue a role as a teacher. Someone who feels called to another country might pursue a role as a missionary or international business leader. God reveals the calling, and then the individual hunts for a role to help him or her live out that calling in a very specific context.

Vocation and calling are divinely intertwined.

However, sometimes — and perhaps more frequently — the process is reversed. Sometimes people step into a role, whether as a teacher, artist, writer, coach, musician, waiter, entrepreneur, police officer, architect or some other position of service. Once they start serving in that role, something comes alive inside them. A passion is awakened. A dream is born. God uses the role to reveal the person’s greater calling.

In God at Work, Veith shares the story of a student who was struggling to keep his grades up. The student kept having to retake classes because — despite his dedication and determination — he kept failing. Exhausted by his efforts, the student decided to take a semester off and get a job working on cars.

Veith writes, “As an auto mechanic, he found himself rising in the ranks at the garage, taking on more responsibilities, and earning more and more money. He felt that he should go back to school, but he could not bring himself to quit his mechanic job.”

What happened to this student? He found his calling. In other words, the pursuit of a role revealed the calling God had for his life.

Is it possible that every person carries a calling, and every career contains a calling? Some people discover their calling and express it through a role, while others step into a role or career where they discover their unique calling.

One of our responsibilities as leaders is to help people discover the calling God has for their lives. We can’t discover the call for them, but we can offer wisdom and perspective on the process. That means helping people realize how calling and role interact with each other, and assuring them the discovery of calling isn’t the same for every person.

If somebody expresses to you a calling they sense God is pulling them toward, help them process that pursuit. In other words, help the individual clarify his or her gifts, and then offer wisdom and encouragement for taking early steps toward a role that will help fulfill their call.

On the other hand, if somebody shows excitement and talent for a role in which he or she is already serving, affirm the contribution that individual is making. Help the person see the work as more than a position or a paycheck, but rather a vocation — a calling from God.

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