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Yours, Mine, and Ours: The Sketch of a Family Discernment of Mission

By Abigail Woolley Cutter

When it comes to Christian vocational discernment, many excellent resources are available, like Parker Palmer’s Listening to Your Life and Gordon Smith’s Courage and Calling. Most of the guidance, however, pertains only to individuals. John Stackhouse’s Making the Best of It goes further theologically, situating individual vocations in the context of broader vocations of humanity and the Church. Sometimes we think of the “vocation” of Anglicanism (with Paul Avis), or the “vocation” or charism of a particular congregation or religious order.

In short supply, however, is guidance for families to think vocationally. When families must make an important decision together, these processes often come down to lists of pros and cons, with everyone’s individual needs and wants adding up to best outcomes, utilitarian-style. Some couples do think in terms of vocation, but because Christian vocation is most often framed as an individual trajectory, the decision of what to do together ends up looking like a zero-sum game expressed as “taking turns,” with only one spouse’s vocation followed at a time. Alternatively, some families might respond to the fact that vocations are conceived individualistically by treating one person’s vocation as coextensive with the vocation of the family, such that other members are assumed to play a merely auxiliary role.

Yours, Mine, and Ours is a classic movie about a blended family with 18 children. It’s also how I hope Christian families will think about vocation. On one hand, we are baptized into the Church, which transcends ties of kinship, so each of us must respond to God’s call on our lives. On the other hand, when we solemnize a marriage with vows before God — or form a family through fostering or similar commitments — our bonds to each other are holy and become embedded in God’s purposes for us. Not only does each spouse and child have a calling before God, which the family can help us discern, but the family has a story and a character that is other than the sum of its parts.

What I will sketch here is a proposed structure of a retreat for family vocational discernment, based on the formula of “yours, mine, and ours.” It reflects the conviction that in a family, neither an individual nor joint vocation should crowd out the other, though each informs the other. That is why the process alternates between the work of individual and joint reflection, and allows the discernment of family vocation to incorporate the prior discernment of individual members. I take as the norm a married couple, with or without children, since marriage binds our vocations to each other with a permanence that other relationships typically do not and should not. I have, however, tried to write this process so that it could also be used by single parents or families that include other adults. Multigenerational families who want to clarify a collective mission could adapt it to include an understanding of differing degrees of shared purpose, with a married couple sharing an intensified bond.

For this “retreat,” perhaps a family will have a weekend getaway available, along with the concentrated mental and emotional energy it provides. (Include times for relaxation, unstructured chatting, good food, and games.) But it will work best for some to stretch out the stages into a week of evenings or a month of weekly roundups. It should include the adults and any children old enough to join in. (specify Specify that the individual vocation process might only apply to older teenagers, as you see fit, and include young kids included in the family discernment process only in a modified way.) The process could be fruitful in the lead-up to a major decision, but this is not the whole template of decision-making. It could serve as a point of reference during major decisions. It would also be enriching at any time, helping a family to grow closer and to lean into a more purposeful way of life.

1. Preparing: As you develop plans for a process of family discernment, think about who you hope will be involved and to what extent. What time frame is realistic and not too draining? It will be important to get everyone on board with advance notice, so no one is feeling forced. The work of “listening to your life” is a tender process of calling out what is in your hearts, so it can’t be done when coerced. Consider agreeing to do some advance reading about vocation, such as Gordon Smith’s Courage and Calling.

2. Gathering: At a first meeting, lay out how you hope the process will unfold and invite comments and suggestions. Spend some time in prayer together, asking for God’s guidance. Then distribute questions for individual reflection.

3. Reflecting Alone: Alone, each person should brainstorm answers to these (or other) questions, in a process of listening to who God has made you to be. This could be divided into more than one window of time.

a. During what moments or seasons of my life have I felt closest to “what I was made for”? Why?

b. What are the moments in my life where I believe God acted most decisively or led most clearly?

c. What do I love doing?

d. What am I very good at, including things I take for granted because they come so naturally?

e. What gifts have others affirmed in me?

f. How do I see the world in ways few others do?

g. What do I add to the world that few others do?

h. What issues do I care about deeply?

i. What have I overcome, and how is my life shaped by those things?

j. What Scripture passages and prayers resonate with me most? Why?

k. What poems, songs, stories, or pieces of art always resonate with me or could be the “story of my life”? Why?

l. What have I always wanted to do “someday” — including ambitious, impractical, or whimsical ideas? What is at the heart of that idea?

m. When I consider the “gifts” listed in Romans 12:6-7 (prophecy, service, teaching, encouragement, giving, leading, and extending compassion), which is nearest to my heart? (I highly recommend reading Gordon Smith’s discussion of these gifts on pp. 60-68, esp. 66-68, of Courage and Calling.)

4. Reflecting Together: Brainstorm answers to each of these questions.

a. What values or considerations do we find ourselves regularly referring to as we make daily decisions? What questions do we find ourselves asking as we sort out what we will do?

b. In what moments have we shared wonderful memories of thriving with purpose? What is at the heart of those moments?

c. What do people notice about us (together) that is unique or different from other couples/families? How are people blessed by us as a team?

d. What ideas and dreams have we enjoyed cultivating together (including the crazy ones)?

e. What do we do really well together?

f. How and when do we bring out the best in each other?

g. What do we have to sacrifice or overcome in order to work as a team?

h. What do we both/all deeply believe about God and his mission?

5. Reflecting Alone (part 2): Return to the work you’ve done in the earlier stage of solitary reflection. Now you’ll begin to consolidate. This, too, may unfold in more than one session.

a. Looking for common themes in what you wrote. What seems to be at the center of your story? What sheds light on “Who has God made me to be?”

b. Begin to draft a mission statement that expresses what you believe you are here to do. Make it specific enough to be your life mission, not just anybody’s — but broad enough to carry you through more than one life stage or job description. Remember it’s a lifelong process and can be updated repeatedly.

c. Next, try to consolidate a list of values dear to your heart.

d. Finally, envision what it looks like in reality. What are some concrete things you expect to see in your life that indicate you are living your calling — i.e., living from the self that God made you to be? What would you see in your life that would indicate you are not living from the center of your calling?

6. Reflecting Together (part 2):

a. Bring your individual discernment work together and share, especially the “mission, vision, and values” statements you’ve consolidated. If you’d like, share some of the earlier details that helped you come to these understandings.

b. Ask questions to understand each other more fully. Share affirmations of where you have seen each other living truly into your respective identity and purpose.

c. Finally, compare your individual reflections. What do you share that could be added to the list of joint reflections you created before? Also articulate the differences between you — how are your callings and identities distinct?

7. Reflecting Together (part 3):

a. Drawing from all the work you’ve done together, including your reflections on your individual vocational discernment, note themes that run throughout.

b. Begin to draft sentences that articulate aspects of your family’s mission. There might be a whole list of sentences with different emphases, or different drafts of the same idea. They don’t have to be ruled out at this stage. Try statements with varying levels of specificity — some that are very broad, and some that are very specific. “To extend hospitality” or “To extend hospitality to high school students in our town.”

8. Reflecting Alone (part 3):

a. Once your list includes everything that your group wants to see included, plan a time of individual reflection on these drafted statements. Each family member should think and pray about what features are most central, and how the different aspects can be consolidated into a focused statement that reflects God’s calling on your family.

9. Refining Together:

a. Then come together again and work toward drafting a single, focused statement of mission. You might need to extend this process, if you’re having a hard time coming to a consensus. Parents may also find it appropriate for them to draft the final statement after going through this process of listening together, though it would be wise to ask the whole group for final approval. The goal for this stage is to arrive at one statement. It may have component parts, but avoid a run-on sentence. Remember, this statement should help your family focus its energy and make decisions, and it can’t do that if it is a mere list of everyone’s different interests and goals.

b. The next steps are where variety can be named. The statements of vision can identify a few concrete things you expect to see in your family when you are thriving according to your purpose. Also name a few things you will not see.

c. Finally, a list of four to eight values can also add color to your mission statement. In what manner will you pursue your mission? What priorities will influence what you choose to do together?

Whatever statements of mission, vision, and values you settle on together, remember that this is not final. Your understanding of how God is using you together will evolve over time. Every so often, return to these statements and update them.

Also keep in mind that concepts like mission and vocation are probably not expressed completely in each person’s professional life. It’s true that, when it comes to professional development, a couple may need to “take turns,” or one person’s professional work may be more determinative of the shape of a family’s life together. Articulating individual and family senses of vocation, however, will keep alive the conversations about how each person is called to serve God in ways that are not the same as the whole, how the family can pursue God’s purposes as a team, and how each member’s gifts shape the family’s joint calling.

1 COMMENT

  1. Abigail, thank you so much for this!

    Early on, Scott and I used to try to do some of what you outline here (at the very least, identifying common ground), but I wish we had gone farther. And I absolutely wish we had had time to do more. Now, however, I find myself looking at the world through “Scott-tinted glasses,” so I guess I am still honoring this joint vocation at some level. “Vocation” is actually one word we used to describe our lives together.

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