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Thinking Outside the Calling Box

Have you ever defined your calling? Susan Maros helps us examine what might get in our way.


Thinking Outside the Calling Box

By Susan L. Maros

“I know I’m not called to be a pastor,” Juliette said with frustration in her voice. “But I don’t know what my calling is. I feel like I’m waiting and waiting for God to let me know.”

I’d met Juliette for coffee before class. She was an older student, returning to school after her youngest child started high school. Juliette was a successful business woman, having worked as an office manager in a real estate firm for many years before starting her own real estate business. She served a Bible study leader and a lay leader in her church. Now, Juliette sensed the coming of a new season of her life but felt anxious about her calling.

I’ve met many people like Juliette. I watch them go from book to workshop, class to mentor, prayer meeting to counseling session, seeking assurance in identifying their calling. What strikes me in many of these conversations is that people seem to have a box around the idea of “calling.” This box, made up of their expectations and assumptions, limits their thinking about calling and their interpretation of their experiences to focusing only on what fits in the box.

Three assumptions seem to be particularly common in defining people’s calling boxes.

Assumption #1: Calling = pastor or missionary

In some church contexts, the role of pastor or missionary is esteemed above all other roles. Only a call to one of these roles is “really” a calling. Even when we don’t actively believe calling is only for a pastor or missionary, we might frame calling in pastor or missionary terms. A teacher can be a calling, for example, because a teacher might impact a student’s life in a way that is similar to a pastor or a missionary. This assumption limits our capacity to see God’s creative and dynamic work in the whole of our lives and in every role and context.

Assumption #2: Calling = personal passion

Many discussions of calling focus on an internalized and individualized process depending on sustained emotional energy. This view of calling puts a great deal of pressure on a person to identify that one thing that they care about the most. It also presumes a high level of socioeconomic resources and family support that frees the person to follow their passions, or supports that bright star who can persevere to “rise above” their circumstances, usually (but not always) leaving their community behind. This assumption limits calling to the energy of the individual and ignores the calling of the community.

Assumption #3: Calling = success

A lot of discussion of calling focuses on numerical success. We affirm the person who starts a church with a handful of people and builds it to hundreds or thousands. We like the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” stories of the faith of pioneers and founders. We expect a person who is living out their calling will have fruit to show for it—defining “fruit” in terms of numbers. This assumption limits our ability to see that quiet and faithful expressions of diligently serving the people entrusted to our care may be an expression of living out our calling.

Invitation to the Outside of the Box

Part of Juliette’s process was to recognize how the assumptions she carried about the nature of calling were limiting her ability to perceive what God was already doing in her life. Her focus on the pastoral role limited her capacity to recognize ways in which she was living out elements of her calling. Juliette sensed that God was inviting her into a new season with new challenges. God was already drawing Juliette toward her next faithful step; she had a hard time recognizing this as calling because it didn’t fit her expectations.

What assumptions do you carry about your calling? Is it possible that God is already at work in your life but doing that work outside a “calling box” made up of those context-shaped expectations? Perhaps you are already faithfully living out some aspect of your calling with an invitation from the Spirit to a new season of formation.

Susan L. Maros (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is an affiliate assistant professor of Christian leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary, where she has also served as a doctoral supervisor, and an adjunct professor at the King's University, Southlake, Texas. She is a past president of the Academy of Religious Leadership. Susan is the author of the recently released Calling in Context: Social Location and Vocational Formation.


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