Hearing God's Call: Ways of Discernment for Laity and Clergy

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How can one discern if a calling truly is from God? How can one be alert to the fact that one call is ending and another is beginning? In this insightful book Ben Campbell Johnson gives inspiring, experience-based advice on these and other questions concerning the call of God.

Johnson begins by relating several stories of both laypersons and clergy who have experienced God's call. He does so in order to underscore two significant points: God is still calling believers today, just as he did in earlier times, and God's empowering call extends to clergy and laity alike. In the rest of the book Johnson explores various aspects of the call, offering spiritually wise observations on how best to discern and respond to the voice of God.

Although Hearing God's Call is about a serious spiritual subject, Johnson never discusses it in a vague or nebulous fashion but always anchors it in instructive particulars. He uses numerous relevant anecdotes to illustrate his principal points, and he provides a thoughtful series of discernment exercises at the end of each chapter. The book concludes with an appendix that examines prominent biblical figures who experienced God's call, including Peter, Paul, John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Filled with rich spiritual insights, many inspirational stories, and much practical advice, this book will help anyone seeking to hear God's call with greater clarity and act on it with greater conviction.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802839619
  • Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 752,124
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.44 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Hearing God's Call

Ways of Discernment for Laity and Clergy
By Ben Campbell Johnson

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-3961-4

Chapter One

The People Connection: Reflections from Others

Where does a person turn for help in discernment? Most individuals turn to other people. The sixteenth-century mystic Ignatius of Loyola confessed that at the time of his conversion he had no one to help him. Because he had no one else to instruct him, the Lord himself taught him as a schoolteacher teaches a little child. During that brief period of divine instruction, Ignatius claims, he learned more than he did in all the remaining years of his life. But few of us receive such direct guidance from the Lord. Maybe we don't take the time for it; maybe we're not as discerning as Ignatius. But we can seek out friends and other people we respect to find the help we need. This is the next step in discernment of call.

Thus far in our search for clear discernment of a call, we've examined the anatomy of a call, the contents of our memory, the signs of God's presence in our lives, and the inner struggle the call often produces. No matter what the call may be, all serious disciples look for clarity and confirmation before making a decision. Both of these words are key here: clarity about the direction of the call, and confirmation in our hearts that we have heard rightly.

The call mayhave originated within us as a yearning or a desire to do a particular thing, or it may have come from without, a direction that felt almost like a demand. In addition to the type of call that seems to engage us so intimately, there also may be calls from others to assist in a particular type of ministry. Only in retrospect do we recognize God's voice in the human voice that extended the invitation. Some of us may even have been engaged with a ministry for a long time without having recognized that we were responding to God's call. I suppose that from a utilitarian perspective, the matter of personal calling doesn't matter as long as the mission is being accomplished. But I would argue that to be clear about your vocation as a response to God adds a dimension of intentionality that focuses both you and your vocation on God. In the new church of the twenty-first century, clarity about God's presence and intention will hold a much higher priority than it did in the cultural church of the century just passed. What I'm suggesting is that the present cultural church will evolve into a new and more Christ-directed community as the new century unfolds.

In our attempts to clarify the call of God, numerous resources abound. If we wish to know more about a particular situation, both the library and the Internet offer us opportunities for extensive reading and research that will expand our understanding of the context and import of our call. Increased knowledge will offer us insights into the task, with all of its risks and possibilities. Many of the people I've spoken with have told me that these resources have directed them to numerous sources to better inform them about their call.

Scripture is also a primary resource for discerning our call. I've already told you how Bible study was central to Daniel's search for clarity in his call. Laboring over the text for long hours every evening until he had made his way through the whole Bible confirmed the work of God in his life. Certainly Scripture offers all of us a rich resource of examples, norms, and directions for discerning our call.

Another way of discernment may be more practical and better-suited to those individuals who want to think rationally about their call. Elizabeth Liebert, a friend of mine who teaches spiritual formation at San Francisco Theological Seminary, recommends a down-to-earth approach to discernment. She suggests taking the following steps:

1. Form a clear question for discernment. It is important to be as clear and specific as possible.

2. Pray with an eye turned toward God rather than the transient things of earth. Ask others to pray for you. Pray until you desire God's will more than your own.

3. Gather appropriate information about your issue. Gathering information from the library or the Internet requires practical skills. What issues are raised around the specific issue you're considering? Whom does it affect and how? What does Scripture have to say about your issue? What does the Christian community - past and present, near and far - say? What have you learned in your life that addresses this issue? What do other people and the culture around you say?

4. List the pros and cons of your issue and pray through them. Here the process of discernment goes beyond standard ways of analyzing data. As you bring these items before God in prayer, pay attention to how you feel about each one of them - uneasy, angry, full of distaste, apathetic, fearful, happy, or at peace.

5. Make the decision that seems best. Often at this stage of discernment, the choice has become obvious. If it hasn't, have the courage to make the decision that has the most evidence, both internal and external, in its favor.

6. Bring your decision back to God in prayer. This time, pray from the perspective of having made the decision. This way of prayer permits you to "live" into the decision and to discover how it fits your life in Christ.

7. Live with your decision for several days or weeks before acting on it. Living into the decision provides space for you to see how you really feel about it. Are you embracing the decision - or is it making you feel uneasy? Uneasiness is a signal for you to reconsider your choice.

8. Look for inner peace and freedom. The peace of God signals confirmation for you. Peace is one of the important dialects in the language of God. Ignatius of Loyola emphasized peace as a sign of God's presence and affirmation. By this I mean that when we've made a tentative decision and lay our choice before the Lord, a continued sense of peace becomes assurance of our decision.

9. Follow your call step-by-step. Don't expect to see the end from the beginning. Learn the ways of God and the assistance of God as you go. Keep a sense of humor and a sense of trust. When your sense of humor is faltering, trust. When your trust is shaky, draw on your sense of humor.

Professor Liebert's approach is practical - but it isn't a mechanistic way of discernment. She offers us principles, not wooden steps. You may move through the steps in a sequence that's different from the one you see here. For example, you may receive your answer before you've reached the final steps. It's important to remember to stay attuned to God throughout the discernment process. Continue on your own journey, and trust the Spirit to guide you.

You can also perform an "as if" experiment to get a feeling for the consequences of a decision. "As if" suggests that you make a tentative decision and live with it for a few days or a few weeks as if it's the direction for your life. Clarity often comes by living into the decision. I suggest that you look for both clarity and peace as the confirming marks of the Spirit. You may also consider confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety as signs that the direction is wrong for you or that you should wait a while longer before making the decision.

The Discernment of Others

All of these possible approaches to discernment can be enormously helpful to the seeker after God's will, and I commend each of them to you. But in this chapter I've chosen to focus the primary attention on discernment through other people - because most of us, in fact, are helped by others. When I asked my golf partner how his call to a ministry with the homeless came about, he said, "It came to me through another person, which is how it always happens for me." Although this isn't the only way for us to hear the Voice of God, it is perhaps singularly the most significant way for many of us. So I want to look with you at the role that others play in your discernment process.

I've called this chapter "The People Connection" because I believe that other people do reflect their perceptions of our call, and in their perceptions we often hear the Voice of God. The very act of stating our sense of call to another person clarifies it for us. Hearing the feedback from others also enhances our understanding. I emphasize the "people connection" because turning to others is the most natural thing to do, and often the most fruitful as well.

When you're struggling with a call, or even when you've arrived at clarity about a call, I believe it would be beneficial for you to get together with your trusted friends on a one-to-one basis and share your perception of call with them. In addition to such one-on-one conversations, you may also find it helpful to talk with a small group of spiritually sensitive people, inviting them to pray with you about discernment. The Quakers have developed a special way of using the people connection that has been helpful to many of us. They call it a "clearness committee." In this situation, a group follows clearly defined guidelines to help an individual "get clear" on the call of God. Finally, the church itself should be part of the people connection. Those who have authority over us in the church should also confirm our call after we have received it and clarified it by connecting with friends, a small group, or a clearness committee. If we are called to a ministry within the church or expressive of the church, this requirement needs no elaboration. Even when our call leads beyond the church, however, we would do well to get the church's affirmation before launching into it.

Unfortunately, not all baptized believers or even ministers know how to receive a person who is struggling with a call. A friend of mine provides a sad example. When she had a sense of call, she went to her minister and shared her perception of it. As she described the visit to me, she said, "The minister looked at me as if I had five heads, dismissed me, and that was that." Be sure that the person you choose to speak with has a deep knowledge of the love of God and the divine way of working.

Reflections from a Friend

Nothing is more natural or more safe than speaking with a friend about the deep things of the heart. We have seen how Mary, the mother of Jesus, struggled with the words of the angel until they were clear to her. Once they became clear, she yielded herself up to the Lord's service, and said as much to the angel. But soon after the angel's departure, Mary rushed into the hill country to speak with her cousin Elizabeth.

When she met Elizabeth, she told her everything - about the angel's visit, about her acceptance of the call, and about the miraculous conception. Why did she hasten to see Elizabeth? Why was she so eager to tell someone? I believe that Mary was seeking greater clarification of her call and the acceptance and affirmation of someone who loved her. Elizabeth gave her both when she said, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" Just like Mary, we also need someone to affirm our good news and celebrate it with us.

When we open our hearts and share our struggles with a friend, we also seek clarification. But receiving the clarifying word from a friend isn't always easy.

A friend once came to me with a big question. "What do you think about my running for Moderator of the Church?" he asked.

"Well," I said, "can you handle it if you don't win?"

"Yes, I think so. But I sure hope I win."

I think my question was hard and unexpected. My friend hadn't considered losing - and he didn't want to lose. In fact, some individuals take loss very hard. I've seen more than one person shattered because they interpreted a loss as an indicator of their worth to God and to themselves. I knew my friend would find it difficult to lose - hence my question. Hard questions help our process of discernment.

Another good friend also came to visit with me when she was seeking discernment. She had graduated from seminary and served two different congregations for about eight years. In recent months she had studied group spiritual direction, an offering of the Certificate Program at Columbia.

She explained that she had resigned as pastor of her church. She had decided to leave because her vision for the church didn't match that of the congregation.

"Now," she said, "I have to discern what I'm going to do."

"What do you think your gifts are?" I asked her.

"I'm an entrepreneur," she responded. "I'm ecumenical, and I'd like to remain in the city where we live because of my connections with the people there. I have a seat on the Presbyterian Foundation Board, and that's important to me." She continued by telling me that she enjoyed creative worship and that she had a vision of training laypeople as servant leaders.

I listened to her elaboration of a vision for lay ministry. Then I asked her if she had ever thought about forming a house church - by which I meant gathering a small group of people (from a dozen to twenty) in a home for worship and prayer and ministry.

"Yes, I've thought about it."

"Then why not do it?" I inquired.

She was very honest in her response. She told me that she was anxious about the possibility of members from her former congregation joining the house church, and she also wondered if the governing body would permit it.

As we continued our conversation, it seemed to me that God was speaking to her through my questions and tome through her responses. In a person-to-person interchange, God speaks to us and through us. This mutuality characterizes the interaction of people who are discerning Godspeech.

I hope these two examples give you a picture of the natural, honest conversation that friends can have when they are discerning together. But you may still be wondering exactly what you should discuss in a discerning conversation with a friend.

When you meet with a friend to talk about your sense of call, begin by telling this person why you're speaking with him or her at this particular time. Let your friend know that this conversation isn't a casual matter to you. Be sure to explain how the sense of call came to you and what your struggles are. Listen carefully to the responses your friend gives, and pay close attention to the questions he or she asks. Explore these questions and honestly confess both your struggles and your fears. When you've finished the conversation, ask your friend to pray for you (if you feel comfortable enough to make that request).

Reflections from a Group

Dependence upon group consensus and group response in the process of discernment has long been a part of the Christian tradition. This approach to discernment reaches back to the earliest days of the church, when it was seeking a successor to Judas, electing deacons, and discovering exciting modes of worship. The approach has deep roots in Saint Paul's vision of the church as the Body of Christ. According to his vision, we are all baptized into one body and are members one of another with gifts to share with each other. The sharing builds up the Body of Christ and contributes to our common good. (See 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-13, 27.)

After the ascension of Jesus, Peter declared to the other apostles that someone had to be chosen as a witness to Jesus' resurrection. The successor of Judas had to be someone who began with them at the time of John's baptism and continued with them until Jesus ascended. Two people who had these qualifications were nominated from the group. At that point Scripture says, "And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles" (Acts 1:26). Apparently the "casting of lots" method didn't achieve accurate discernment, because later Paul claimed that he was made an apostle by Jesus Christ, thus making himself one of the twelve (Gal. 1:1). This incident suggests that the early church understood and used the group principle, but it also indicates that not all decisions made were perfect ones.

In another instance, the work of the apostles became so demanding that they couldn't attend to all of the details involved. The Greeks complained that their widows weren't getting the same treatment as the Hebrews' widows. In the midst of this controversy, the apostles called the believing community together and said, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables" (Acts 6:2). They asked the community to select worthy persons for the task of giving food and assistance to the needy. The suggestion pleased the community, and seven persons were chosen and ordained. (See Acts 6:1-6.)

In the Corinthian correspondence, Paul gives us a brief glimpse into group participation in the worship life of a congregation. He says, "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up" (1 Cor. 14:26b). Although this text focuses on worship and doesn't specifically mention discernment, it nevertheless illustrates the "body principle." Each person in a group brings to it a gift that is valuable for building up other members.


Excerpted from Hearing God's Call by Ben Campbell Johnson Copyright © 2002 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix
1. God Is Calling Today 1
2. Is God Messing with Your Life? 15
3. Sources of God's Call 29
4. The Fingerprints of God 48
5. Wrestling with God--and Ourselves 65
6. The People Connection: Reflections from Others 84
7. Discernment to Act 101
8. Living into the Call 115
9. From Call to Call 134
10. Dealing with the Living Stones 150
Appendix Biblical Illustrations of God's Call 166
Bibliography 180
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