This post continues a series on Vocation in the Episcopal Church. The other essays in the series can be found here.
By Ian Lasch
Is there only one occupation or field of work in which we can labor that will be pleasing to God? While most of us would answer no, the prevailing theology of discernment in the Episcopal Church is, intentionally or unintentionally, founded upon the idea that there is. To speak of discerning a call or vocation, as we often do, presumes that what will be heard is singular — that God has one specific vocation in mind for us.
A theology of discerning vocation has several built-in shortcomings. First, such discernment seeks to ask a yes or no question: “is God calling?” Worse, we tend to further narrow this question to “Is God calling me to ordained ministry?” which does our theology and practice of discernment no favors. Discerning how we might live faithfully into our fundamental baptismal call as followers of Christ rarely, if ever, yields a singular answer.
More often, we discover a multitude of ways in which we can faithfully serve God. We might faithfully do a great many things in our lives, including changing occupations. Because our lives are not monolithic, neither should our discernment be. The idea that God issues a single vocation to each of us does not seem consonant with the experience of most Christians, including those who have gone through formal discernment.
Further, no matter how much we might say discernment ought to be an ongoing process, discerning a vocation lends the impression that this is a once-and-done process. Once a final answer from a discernment committee has been given regarding vocation, we tend not to expect those who have participated to continue engaging in formal discernment. After all, if the point is to discern a vocation (especially one to holy orders), why continue if the question has been asked and answered?
Discerning vocation also sets an unreasonable expectation of certainty from a process that does not always result in a clear and undeniable answer. If God is speaking and we are listening, then we ought to be able to hear clearly. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes discernment yields multiple possibilities, rendering decisions unbelievably difficult. There may not be a clear correct answer, forcing us choose between competing goods. If our theology is vocational, then in these cases we must believe either that God is issuing multiple contradictory calls to the same individual, or that, despite our prayerful consideration, there is a correct answer, but it is unknowable. This also would mean that the only possible responses are either obedience or disobedience, increasing the pressure on an already difficult decision-making process.
A vocational framework also tends to privilege a certain type of story. We tend to look for calls like Samuel’s, perhaps: repeated but unmistakable, and eventually interpreted by someone wiser and more experienced (1 Samuel 3:1–10). Or maybe ones like Jonah’s: insistent enough that even the stubborn must eventually acquiesce to God’s will. But these are hardly the only scriptural models for discernment. In Acts, for example, we see discernment take place by drawing lots — to select an apostle, even (Acts 1:12–26)!—or on the basis of whether candidates fit necessary criteria (Acts 6:1–7). Discernment, in other words, is context dependent. Does a theology of discerning vocation offer this necessary flexibility?
Finally, a theology of discerning vocation can lead to an adversarial relationship between those discerning and those facilitating discernment, as many who have gone through formal discernment can attest. If one feels called to something greater and seeks discernment, committees based around a theology of vocation default to answering either, “Yes, we too hear this call,” or, “No, we do not.” Discernment committees often end up acting as (or feeling like) gatekeepers. A no answer can be devastating to someone’s life in the faith; a feeling of one’s yearning being denied can lead to wondering about how much one can trust oneself, the Church, or even one’s experience of God.
If a theology of discernment based on vocation has these shortcomings, then what is the alternative? One option can be found in Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit, which proposes a theology of work based on charisms rather than vocation, a framework with much to commend it.
Discerning charisms –gifts of the Holy Spirit – can yield a multitude of possible answers. Instead of seeking a yes or no answer, such a process would anticipate identifying a range of spiritual gifts, thereby more naturally integrating the whole of the discerner into any answer. Instead of saying yes or no to, “Is there a call (to ordained ministry)?” discernment focused on charism can presume the answer, “Yes, this yearning you feel to do something more, something deeper, is real.” It can then seek creative solutions for how best to use this individual’s (likely unique) constellation of gifts in ministry.
Discerning charisms, then, would seem to lend itself more naturally to follow-up questioning: How can this pattern of gifts be best applied, at this moment, and in this context? It allows for the possibility of numerous ways to live faithfully at any given moment, rather than expecting a single answer to suffice. It likewise leaves more room for the possibility of uncertainty. If one is called, the only option is to answer or ignore, but one can use one’s spiritual gifts in a variety of acceptable ways. Understanding gifts and strengths for ministry can even help give an idea of what form future ministries might take, leading more easily to a process of continual discernment throughout one’s life in the faith, rather than ending with the sense of completeness bestowed by discernment focused on vocation.
Charism-based discernment allows for more flexibility based on circumstances. If, for example, a diocese recognizes that its context requires certain gifts from its clergy, discernment of charisms enables the identification of fitting candidates. This can even help identify potential areas of growth for those involved in ministry, by encouraging discerners to pray for and seek to develop necessary gifts from the Spirit that they don’t already possess.
Charismatic discernment also enables (and perhaps even expects) that anyone overseeing such a process has gone through it themselves. While processes of discernment for holy orders do (and must) involve laity, including those who have never gone through a formal vocational discernment process, we know that spiritual discernment is itself a charism (1 Cor 12.10). Thus, anyone serving on a formal charismatic discernment committee can and should go through their own discernment process to ensure they possess the charism of spiritual discernment that empowers them to serve in such a role.
Perhaps most vitally, discerning vocation, especially when only used in context of discerning for ordained ministry, can help foster the erroneous impression that the only way of serving God is to become an employee of the Church. Discerning charisms, however, recognizes the Holy Spirit as source of even those talents that some might mischaracterize as “secular.” It more naturally lends itself to an understanding of the ministry of the baptized, wherein laity and clergy are all following their fundamental vocation to follow Christ in ways that vary based on the individual and the context. Every Christian can be faithful by making good use of the gifts they’ve been given by the Spirit.
Ian Lasch is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Jefferson City, Missouri