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Calling: Take 2

The Take 2 series continues some thoughts from a previous conversation sparked by my Ministry Formation class. Here is the first draft of my second attempt at thinking about ‘calling’, so please ignore the poor writing. But help me out – what do you think of the argument? What’s obscure or confusing? What’s clear or convincing?

The language of call itself can be confusing. First, the word ‘call’ belongs to a very verbal set of words. Even a simple thesaurus search suggests words such as cry, shout or hail. Allowing for both internal and external call is helpful here. The notion clarifies that the ‘call’ may not necessarily be verbal, but rather that God, in his sovereignty, may ‘call’ people by their own desires or circumstances, such that they may not be able to distinguish a particular ‘call’ experience though they are certain that God wants them. This is an important distinction, for the very word ‘call’ carries connotations which obscure this.[1]

Second, the idea of call carries with it the notion of response, and response to do something. A call is a summons and but what is it a summons to? Pastoral theologians remain divided on this issue. Banks and Stevens argue that there is but one biblical call, given to all Christians, and that it is to a person, Jesus.[2] However, this seems inadequate, for if there is but one biblical ‘call’, why do all Christians not end up in the same vocation?[3] Besides this, there are other biblical examples of calling individuals to specific ministries and places of ministry, for example, Acts 13:2 and Acts 16:9-10. Similarly, many in full time ministry testify to having their own special call from God.[4]

Richard Niebuhr makes sense of such complexities by identifying four calls: the call to be a disciple of Jesus; an experience of feeling invited by God to take up the work of ministry (the secret call); a matching of an individuals gifts and temperament to need (the providential call); and the church’s invitation to a particular person to fill an office (the ecclesiastical call).[5] However, these might better be understood if we take the first as the call to Jesus (as Banks and Stevens suggest) and the next three as various internal and external facets of the second call, that is, to full-time ministry.

My own calling into ministry reflects at least three of these four elements. I was eight years old when I first experienced a secret call. Sitting in my Grade Four classroom, hearing about our teacher’s experiences as a missionary in Tanzania, I thought that this too was what I wanted to do. As I continued in church and involvement with various mission organizations, I continued to feel this tug in my heart, though the notion of how or where was still vague. As I headed into my later years of high school and university, I chose teaching as a career path because I thought it would give me opportunities for missionary work and it became apparent that my gifts lay in this area. However, though I experienced this providential call, the tug in my heart grew more specific, away from teaching on the mission field to full-time ministry on the mission field, and, more specifically in university ministry. The years since then have continued to confirm both my desire to do ministry and my giftings for it. My training for ministry has involved being called to particular positions, at St Matthew’s Kensington and Evangelical Students North Terrace (hereafter ES). These may be mini-ecclesiastical callings but they were also part of my training (providential calling) and, being located in Australia, only partly fulfilled my calling. The question for me, then, is what the fourth element of Niebuhr’s calling distinction will look like for me. Stay tuned for the next post!

[1] Cullinan, Alice, Sorting It Out: Discerning God’s Call to Ministry, Philadelphia: Judson, 1999, 23.

[2] Banks, Robert and R Paul Stevens, The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.

[3] The language of full-time ministry is insufficient. After all, some who regard their vocation as ministry are not full-time, and there is a sense in which those who work in ‘secular’ vocations are also involved in God’s action in the world. It seems no matter what term I use, some objection could be levelled against it! Thus I ask for the grace to use this inadequate term.

[4] Cullinan, Sorting It Out, 5.

[5] Cullinan, Sorting It Out, 5.

Categories: Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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