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What Is Calling?

Defining this “super-spiritual” word

Image: Photo by MD Duran / Unsplash

What Is Calling?

Defining this “super-spiritual” word

I can’t remember when I first heard the term calling. I just know that by the time I got to seminary at age twenty-four, I was using the word to describe why I was there and why I picked the particular seminary I attended.

Why did I come to this seminary? Simple. “God called me here,” I replied, to knowing nods and murmurs.

By then, I had marinated in Christian subculture for long enough that I think the word had just seeped into my vocabulary. Growing up in church, I heard missionaries talk about how they were called to specific countries and people groups. I heard my pastors talk about how they had been called to (or away from) our church. In college, I probably heard chapel speakers talk about the importance of following God’s call. I also talked with friends who had been dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend who felt God “telling” them to do it. (Of the validity of that last “calling,” I was often skeptical.)

As a Christian, calling definitely seemed like a super-spiritual word. A “call” from God implied a close relationship with him. Who wouldn’t want to hear from God directly? Plus, using the word calling raised the speaker and his or her behavior above dispute. How do you argue with someone who claims to act on the voice of the Lord?

As I continued through seminary and then into vocational ministry, I heard and used calling frequently. I heard it used in so many ways, however, that I wasn’t actually sure what it meant. And as I progressed through different stages of my own life, I continued to wrestle with calling: both what it was in general and what mine was.

So, what is calling, really? Can it be defined?

Defining Calling

In Scripture, calling is a broad and encompassing concept, but in the centuries following the early church, the term began to take on a narrower meaning: that of ordained service specifically to the church. One contemporary ramification of this historical shift is that the term call now has a specific definition and use in some church denominations. In these circles, a call is generally understood as an invitation to pastor a church. A “called position” requires a personal sense of “call” by the minister, a confirmation of that individual’s call by the denominational governing body, and an actual “call” (or invitation) by the congregation to a specific position within that church. As you can imagine, the variety of uses of the concept and term calling between various denominational and theological understandings makes for confusing conversations!

So, how can we define calling for the purposes of this article? One of my doctoral professors once said, “The person who controls the definition controls the discussion.” We should try to find a simple yet clear definition to make sure we’re starting from the same place. But calling is something known as a construct— an intangible, often hypothetical concept, like human intelligence, happiness, or initiative—that is difficult to define or quantify. Here are how some others have tried to capture calling:

The truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service. —Os Guinness

Individuals’ calling to partnership with God in which particular gifts are evoked and developed in concert with their discernment of the particular role God has given them to play during a certain period of their lives. —Richard Robert Osmer

A conviction [that] steadily deepens. —L.T. Lyall

A strong urge towards a particular way of life or career. —Oxford Living Dictionaries

[Calling] at its deepest level is, “This is something I can’t not do.” —Parker J. Palmer

Looking at the definitions above, we can’t miss the consistent theme of conviction—an inner persuasion, in this case toward a particular life direction, that cannot be ignored. If we follow Christ, both the conviction and the direction are given by God.

But conviction isn’t the whole sum of calling. I think that good ol’ Webster’s dictionary actually defines it best:

calling (n.): a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence.

So let’s apply some algebraic simplification principles and move terms around to put all of these things together:

Calling is a God-given conviction about your life’s direction.

A person’s calling can take many forms. But at its core, calling comes from God, it involves a deep inner assurance, and it has the potential to change the course of a person’s life. Calling is powerful stuff.

No wonder so many people spend so much time and energy trying to discern theirs.

Calling and Leadership

What is the relationship between leadership and calling? While each of us has influence, not every woman is cognizant of or intentional about that influence. Among those who are, however, leadership is a critical part of their identity. They may also have a leadership role or title, but they view themselves as leaders regardless of any particular position or rank on an organizational chart. It’s just who they are because of how they see the world and their place in it.

Leadership, then, can be a calling to a role, but it can also be a calling to responsibility as a person of some type of influence. I am a leader—I view myself as a person of potential influence, and others automatically view me that way as well—even in situations where I don’t have a formal leadership role and no one knows anything about me. For me, and for many other women leaders, women is an adjective that colors and informs my identity as a leader. I’m not a woman who happens to have a leadership role; I am a leader who happens to be a woman.

This is a critical distinction, and it explains why many woman leaders (including myself) don’t always feel they “fit” within women’s traditional ministry roles or expectations. Given the unique challenges that women leaders face, they (we) may sometimes feel they are a leader “trapped” in a woman’s body, struggling to figure out how to faithfully live out this part of their identity. It might be helpful for you to reflect on the nature of your own leadership calling. Keep in mind that this leadership identity provides an overlay to any other role to which God may call you.

What Now?

So what does all of this mean for you and me as women ministry leaders?

First, you have been called.

This calling begins with an invitation to follow Christ. It then extends to the corporate calling of Christlikeness, then to your personal responsibilities, and finally, to a more specific God-given conviction—a “special” or “secondary” calling—regarding your life’s direction.

Take a few minutes to sit with this truth: You have been called.

The God of the universe speaks to us. He catches our attention. He asks us to follow him. He gives us a new identity. And to top it all off, he invites us to join his work in the world. That’s a whole lot of love at work, right there.

God’s calling is not about fear, force, or coercion; it’s about his bottomless love.

Second, there is no one-size-fits-all calling when it comes to a person’s “specific” call. God can call any person to any number of things, using any number of ways. Many of the women I’ve talked to prefaced their stories with, “For me . . .” to clarify that their experience was personal and not prescriptive.

Because each woman’s calling is unique, we should never let ourselves fall into the trap of comparing callings. No calling from God is better, more important, or more spiritual than another. God has created each one of us for a special role. Instead of comparing, we should focus instead on clarifying—seeking God’s direction about our own calling and helping other women discover theirs.

Angie Ward is a leader, popular speaker, seminary professor, award-winning writer, and pastor’s wife. Her latest book, I Am a Leader: When Women Discover the Joy of their Calling, releases from NavPress in March 2020. Taken from I Am a Leader: When Women Discover the Joy of Their Calling by Angie Ward. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.