We spend a lot of time helping people figure out what they want to be when they grow up—and I’m not just talking about the 20 year olds—because we all circle back to that question multiple times over our lifetime. Some would even argue it’s an issue that will naturally emerge every 10–15 years.
We often approach this from the career angle, but I’m not convinced that the question of what “job” is the best place to start. When people come to us ready for a change in role, we start by helping them to articulate their calling.
Here are some things we talk about:
Your calling is different from a job, role, occupation, or field of expertise.
Webster defines calling as: “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence.” Calling is often used in the religious framework because we see areas of gifting in people that have a special “anointing”—places one contributes naturally with ease and power. But calling is not restricted to life in the church.
Your calling is what emerges from you in multiple settings, regardless of role or environment.
Calling is a reflection of a certain aspect of God’s character. Of course we each reflect multiple facets of God’s character, but your calling is the uniquely colored thread that runs through the tapestry of your life—in your relationships, in work, at home, in your activities, in crisis.
Your calling began to manifest from the time you were a young child.
If it was welcomed and nurtured, you may have aligned your passions, interests, and skills to further integrate your calling into a career. If it was squelched and neglected, your calling may have gone underground and you will have to begin a discovery process to dig it out. But chances are, your calling is already showing up in your life, even if you aren’t aware of it. Once you are able to identity your calling, you’ll better be able to tell what jobs, roles, and fields to pursue.
Let me give you an example. My friend and teammate Sue recently passed away from brain cancer. She had gone through many iterations of what she thought might be her “calling” over the six decades of her life. As a child growing up in an abusive home, she was a protector—always listening and watching for the signs that danger was imminent. As a hospice nurse, she was a helper walking with families through their grief and loss. As a leader, she was a truth-teller who kept challenging broken systems and unhealthy patterns. As a pastoral caregiver to missionaries, she was an advocate who came alongside of others struggling to persevere.
So what exactly was the thread of calling woven throughout her life?
A few weeks before Sue died, I came across a depiction of the mother of Christ captured in a 14th century sculpture.
I wrote this to Sue:
I saw this statue a few weeks ago and immediately, you came to mind. This is the picture that captures Sue Wilson for me. You are mother. You are protector. You are spiritual guide. You have invited many into your embrace no matter what race or station or gender. You have journeyed WITH us, keeping us under your watchful eye through your prayers and encouragement. You have lovingly spoken hard truths out of concern for our hearts and families. You have guided our steps with wisdom. You have called forth a generation of women and helped to equip them for the battle. You have planted and watered the seeds in this generation which have brought the Kingdom of heaven to earth. And the fruit of your life and faithful living will outlast you and your children’s children. You have been like a sheltering Mary to so many.
Sue’s calling was to be a Sheltering Mother. Her vocation and roles changed over the years: hospice nurse, mother, caregiver, student, pastoral care, mentor. But no matter the vocation, her spiritual mothering would emerge.
Of course, the hope is that you will find a vocation/career that aligns with your calling. But we will all go through seasons of life where we don’t feel fully aligned with with our calling. Even in the seasons where our calling is more hidden, we can begin to explore investing ourselves (and our calling) in multiple arenas, not just at work. Gordon Smith, in his excellent book, Courage and Calling, says this:
We must live and work within the context of both the limitations and the opportunities that are current and real in our lives. I am convinced that in principle we should be able to fulfill our vocation anywhere, even if we are confined to a concentration camp. The question remains the same: What needs to be done here? What are the strengths and passions that I can bring to this situation and this opportunity, in light of the needs and in view of the opportunities before me?
Do you understand how powerful calling is?
Your calling is not restricted to one role, one field, or one season of life.
You can thrive in your calling in retirement, from a sickbed, as a teenager in high school, caring for an aging parent, raising young children, hidden under a burka, in a dead-end job, and yes, even in a concentration camp.
Had Sue been in a concentration camp, I have no doubt she would have mothered, protected, encouraged, and advocated. She lived her calling even from her deathbed when she roused from her semi-conscious state, no longer able to articulate words, giving a guttural cry of approval when she heard the people around her were going to lunch. They all knew she wanted to say, “Eat! Enjoy each other! Take a break!” The thread of Sheltering Mother was woven into Sue’s life to the very end.
May I issue a challenge to you today, to answer and articulate… What is your calling? As far as you know today, what do you uniquely bring to this world, that oozes out of you in multiple settings?
Think more broadly about calling than just your occupation. You may be a nurse, but what specific aspects of nursing have particular power? Your presence? Your words? Your ability to build team with other nurses? Your intuition about diagnosis or treatment? And where do you see that in other places in your life?
We’re not talking about a mission statement. Try to think in terms of a metaphor or an image: Warrior for Hearts, Spiritual Midwife, A Sheltering Tree, Hope-Giver, Voice for the Underdog, Bridge Builder, Relational Glue, Strategist in Crisis.
Don’t worry, you aren’t committed to this description for the rest of your life. In fact, you’ll get more clarity as you gain more life experience. In our retreats we say, “To the best of my knowledge today, my calling is…” and that’s a great place to start. Because more clearly understanding your calling helps clarify your decisions, determine the things to which you say “yes” and “no,” and point you towards careers where you can make your best contribution.
What is thread of calling you see woven through your life?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Amy Galloway and her husband, Alex, have three teenage daughters and live in Málaga, Spain. They serve together on CRM’s Staff Care and Development Team, running a hub for missionaries that provides counseling, training, leadership and transition coaching, and spiritual direction. Amy writes a blog on life transitions called Beautiful Upheaval, where this reflection on calling was originally shared.