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Discussion Board – Spiritual Formation


Discussion Board – Spiritual Formation

Discussion Board – Spiritual Formation


Discussion Board 3

Spiritual Formation and Your Call to Ministry

Topic: Pettit, chs. 8-9

Thread Prompt:

How would you connect leadership and calling to spiritual formation?


  • attachmentDiscussionBoard3-SpiritualFormation.docx

Discussion Board 3

Spiritual Formation and Your Call to Ministry

Topic: Pettit, chs. 8-9 Thread Prompt: How would you connect leadership and calling to spiritual formation?


Chapter 8.

Leadership and Spiritual Formation

Andrew Seidel

Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.

—-James MacGregor Burns, Leadership, 158

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

—John 13:14-15

Leadership and spiritual formation have a symbiotic relationship. Both, by their very nature, require the production and experience of continuous change. From one perspective, spiritual formation involves individual change while leadership involves group or organizational change, which also requires individual change. Certainly spiritual transformation in a group or ministry setting requires effective spiritual leadership. But the most critical element of the symbiotic relationship is that effective transformational leadership1 in any environment, religious or secular, requires the spiritual transformation of the leader. As leadership studies have progressed over the last few years, the role of the inner life of the leader is becoming more commonly recognized.

Even with the avalanche of new books on leadership, there is still no common agreement on the meaning of leadership. A surprising number of these new books claim to provide the “secret” to effective leadership, as though there is some previously undiscovered simple key to leadership success. Definitions of leadership seem to multiply at an alarming rate, with each mutation focusing on the particular writer’s own perspective or reflecting the values of the current culture. The frustration with so much detail but so little definition is expressed by one of the leading researchers in the area of leadership: “Four decades of research on leadership have produced a bewildering mass of findings. … It is difficult to know what, if anything, has been convincingly demonstrated by replicated research. The endless accumulation of empirical data has not produced an integrated understanding of leadership.”2

While the lack of resolution is frustrating, what is encouraging is the fact that more and more writers in the area of leadership are recognizing the importance of the inner life of the leader. Leading “from the inside out” has become a recurring theme, even in the secular arena. The inner motivations of the leader are not hermetically sealed in a secure place within the leader. Rather, they stretch far beyond the leader and have a powerful impact on the followers as well as on the organization as a whole.

Jim Collins, in his excellent book, Good to Great, notes that one of the key factors that enable good companies to make the transition to become great companies is the presence of what he calls “Level 5 Leadership.” His researchers noted a striking similarity in the great companies studied: all the CEOs of these companies possessed two traits in common. They were not charismatic personalities; none were favorites of the media, and their names were not commonly recognized. But they were characterized by the two qualities of “extreme personal humility and intense professional will.”3 Together, these qualities describe the inner motivation of a leader who focuses his strong passion on the good of the company he leads, not on his own personal ego needs. In contrast, for self-centered leaders “work will always be first and foremost about what they get—fame, fortune, adulation, power, whatever—not about what they build, create, and contribute.”4

Collins might have called this type of leadership “servant leadership”; in fact, some of his researchers suggested that he do so. But the title was rejected because of the current common use of the term. In fact, “servant leadership” has enjoyed a resurgence in the secular leadership literature. Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, published in 1977, began the current interest in the connection between leadership and servanthood. Writers, both secular and Christian, now focus on servant leadership. The connection between leadership and servanthood moves the leadership discussion into the inner life of the leader. No longer can the leader’s inner life be crowded out by the pragmatic emphasis on the skills of leadership.

The Meaning of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is a biblical concept that Jesus worked diligently to impress on his disciples. They, like us, had a difficult time with it. Jesus’ last and clearest statement of servant leadership occurred on the way to the garden of Gethsemane shortly after the Last Supper. By this time the disciples had been with him almost three years. They had seen him heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons from afflicted people. They had heard his teaching, experienced close community with him, and, only a few moments before, reluctantly allowed him to wash their feet.

But as they walked toward the garden that night, they went back to a common issue among them: they got into a heated argument about which one of them was regarded to be the greatest! If it were not also so true of us, we might chide them, wondering how they could possibly be so blind and self-centered.

And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27 NASB)

With great patience Jesus draws their attention to the self-centered leadership of the Gentile political leaders of their day, leaders who had the audacity to require their subjects to call them “benefactors,” while these same leaders selfishly used their subjects and lorded it over them. This kind of leadership is better described as self-serving leadership. Jesus challenged his disciples to be different; in his view the leader is to be like a servant. While there is much talk about servant leadership today, there is also much confusion. Some suggest that servant leadership is simply a passive style of leadership in which the leader has no agenda. But Jesus himself was anything but passive, and he certainly had an agenda.

Servant leadership is not a style of leadership at all; it is much more foundational. Servant leadership is primarily expressed in the inner motivation of the leader. Stated simply, a servant leader is not motivated by personalized power or benefit. A servant leader is primarily motivated by two things: (1) the fulfillment of God’s mission for his or her ministry or organization and (2) the fulfillment of God’s purpose in the lives of the people who are part of the ministry or organization. This means that the passion of this leader is not focused on his or her power, benefits, reputation, perks, or privileges; it is on the fulfillment of a godly purpose and on the good of the people being led. This is a high and unselfish focus. No wonder we, like the disciples, have such difficulty living it.

How God Develops His Servant Leaders

Servant leadership is so critical to God’s purpose in the world that God will go to great lengths to develop it in his followers. The missionary statesman J. Oswald Sanders comments, “It has been said that in achieving His world-purpose, God’s method has always been a man. Not necessarily a noble man, or a brilliant man, but always a man with capacity for a growing faith. Granted this, there appears to be no limit to the pains God is willing to take in his training. He is limited by neither heredity nor environment.”5

In the past several years, leadership training has concentrated on knowledge and skills. But from a Christian perspective, there is more to leadership development than knowledge and skills, as important as both are. God is more concerned with the development of the person of the leader. Through the course of life, God works in our lives to mold and strengthen us, to prepare us to be his leaders. God either brings or allows experiences into our lives; some are pleasant and enjoyable, and others are excruciatingly painful and anything but enjoyable. Either way, God uses our experiences to work on our heart. He orchestrates our experiences as challenges to mold our heart, to jar us out of our comfort zones, to shake up our complacency, to make us look inward, deep into our heart, until some crisis shows who we have become. God focuses his effort on our heart, because, at its core, leadership is more a matter of heart than it is of knowledge or skills.

God will involve each of us in something that is more of a pilgrimage than a process. “Process” is much too mechanical; “pilgrimage” is much more personal. Pilgrimages are powerful experiences. A pilgrimage is “a transformative journey to a sacred center full of hardships, darkness, and peril.”6 People make pilgrimages in order to be transformed by the experience. Sometimes they are religious pilgrimages; most of the time they are personal pilgrimages. Either way, there must be an element of difficulty and hardship, even danger, something that challenges us to the depths of our souls. Without the hardship there would be no extending of ourselves past the boundaries of our comfort zone, no true transformation.

God will see to it that you are stretched far enough that the effect of your pilgrimage will be to get you to examine your heart, your inner life.

This is why your willingness to enter deeply into your own “life story” is so critical (see chapter 10 for a discussion of life story). We are so immersed in the pressured flow of life that we move from one crisis to the next activity to the following event, seldom if ever pausing to reflect on what those experiences are teaching us. Unless we stop and reflect on the formative experiences and relationships of our life, we will miss the transformative purpose that God intended. But there is indeed “no limit to the pains God is willing to take in our training.”7 In all our experiences, his goal will be to teach us to depend upon Christ … for everything, including a secure sense of personal identity.

Personal Identity: The Enabling Element in Servant Leadership

Through our pilgrimage, one of the primary elements God wants to deal with is our sense of personal identity. He has good reason for doing this. Leadership is primarily an expression of who we are. No matter what leadership style we use, or what leadership skills we employ, our actions as leaders always come through the grid of who we are. One might expect Christian writers to focus on the inner life of the leader, but even secular writers are recognizing that, first and foremost, leaders lead out of who they are. Bennis observes that “no leader sets out to be a leader per se, but rather to express himself freely and frilly. That is, leaders have no interest in proving themselves, but an abiding interest in expressing themselves. The difference is crucial, for it’s the difference between being driven, as too many people are today, and leading, as too few people do.”8 Discussion Board – Spiritual Formation

Leadership is about self-expression. In its best form, leadership is about the outward expression of the reality that is within the heart of the leader. The reality in the heart of the leader is related to the leader’s sense of personal identity. The importance of this for leadership is that we will either lead out of our sense of personal identity, or we will lead in order to establish our sense of personal identity. The difference is critical, for those who lead in order to build an identity for themselves will end up selfishly using those they lead to gain from their followers what they themselves desperately desire. At this point, servant leadership crosses that dim line in the sand into self-serving leadership. Discussion Board – Spiritual Formation

On that same night in which the disciples got into the argument about which one of them was regarded to be the greatest, Jesus had given them an experience that was a visible model of servant leadership. As the disciples entered the borrowed room that had been arranged for the supper, most of them seemed primarily concerned about getting the prime positions at the table. One of them was preoccupied with the betrayal he had already committed himself to accomplish. All of them passed by the basin and the towel set near the door to enable them to wash the dust of the road off their feet. Because it was a rented room, there was no servant at the door to wash their feet; and none of the disciples was willing to take on the role of a servant, not even temporarily.

The gospel of John describes in vivid terms what happened during the supper. Jesus got up from supper, took the basin and towel, and performed the role of a servant by washing the disciples’ feet, one at a time. Some were embarrassed, Peter so much so that he resisted. It was inconceivable to Peter that one in Jesus’ position, “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16), would be willing to act as a servant. Even today, two thousand years later, it is still astounding. But John gives us insight into Jesus’ thinking, which gives perspective on what enables the greatest leader to act as the humblest servant. If we diagram John 13:1-5, the insight becomes evident: Discussion Board – Spiritual Formation

John 13:1-5

1 Now before the Feast of the Passover,


knowing that his hour had come

that He would depart out this world to the Father,

having loved His own who were in the world,

He loved them to the end.


3   knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands,


that He had come forth from God


was going back to God,

4   got up from supper, and

laid asided His garments; and taking a towel, He

girded Himself.

5   poured water into the basin, and

began to wash the disciples’ feet. (NASB)

John indicates that it was what Jesus knew about himself that was a precursor to his washing the disciples’ feet. Jesus had a secure sense of his personal identity. He had a thorough understanding of his divine origin, his eternal purpose, his authority as the Son of God, and his destiny to be seated again at the right hand of the Father. With this secure sense of his own personal identity, taking the role of a servant was not the threat to him that it was to the disciples. For any of us, the ability to be a leader who acts as a servant will depend on the presence of a personal identity that is secure enough that we do not need to focus our attention on protecting an insecure identity that is threatened by unselfishly focusing our attention and efforts on the good of others. A secure sense of personal identity is what sets us free to focus on the good of others.

The Meaning of Identity

A sense of personal identity is a complicated concept to describe. It has many elements, some visible, some invisible. Parker Palmer describes the complexity this way: “By identity I mean an evolving nexus where all the forces that constitute my life converge in the mystery of self. … identity is a moving intersection of the inner and outer forces that make me who I am, converging in the irreducible mystery of being human.”9

Starting with the most concrete and visible elements, personal identity includes a person’s gender and ethnicity. These are outward marks of who we are. Identity also includes our temperament and our gifts, our strengths, weaknesses, and character flaws. Identity includes who we have become as a result of the life experiences God has taken us through. These experiences, and especially our responses to them, have shaped and molded us.

But identity is still more than that. Residing deep within us is a powerful need to feel secure and significant.10 Each of us desperately longs to feel warmly and securely loved and accepted and to sense that we are persons of substance, that our life makes a meaningful difference. Thus our sense of identity at a deeper level includes feelings of competence and a sense of significance, that our life has value and worth. Because of the strength of these normal human longings, our early experiences play a dominant role in the formation of our sense of identity. Our experience of relationship with our parents, siblings, and other family members leave a powerful imprint on our sense of identity, an imprint that we carry into later life. Feelings of rejection, criticism, shame, or abuse make us feel deeply devalued and expendable. Because our very survival seems to be at stake, and we do not have the maturity to know how to get the help we so desperately need, we develop coping strategies to dull the pain and create the illusion of being loved and valued. These strategies become such a part of us that we no longer recognize them, even while they control our search for identity. Discussion Board – Spiritual Formation

All of these elements, both positive and negative, are blended together in a powerful mix that strongly impacts the way each of us lives our life. One way of picturing our personal identity is to view it as a personal inner map, a map that is part of a larger map. In this view, our identity becomes a boundary that marks us off as different from others. The borders on our part of the larger map distinguish us from the rest of the map and show us how and where we fit into the larger scheme of things. Our identity, filled out by our gifts and abilities, indicates what we uniquely contribute. In this sense the boundary is one that frees us to focus on doing well those things that are unique to us. We can concentrate on the things God has gifted and developed us to do. We do not have to spend energy trying to focus on other parts of the larger map. This kind of boundary is an expanding boundary. The more we work and lead from the center of our giftedness, the greater our fulfillment. Discussion Board – Spiritual Formation

However, if we do not have a positive and secure sense of our personal identity, the boundary can be one that limits us to self-centered attempts to fill up that painful sense of emptiness we feel because we are insecure about who we are and what significance and value we have. In this case we begin to feel a sense of compulsion and drivenness to demonstrate to the world that we are persons of value and substance, worthy to be loved and respected. Discussion Board – Spiritual Formation

It is from within this boundary of identity that we exercise leadership. As Warren Bennis suggested, there is a difference between being driven and leading. A driven person feels a powerful sense of being compelled to gain a desired response from others in order to fill up an empty pit of internal need. He needs their approval, or applause, or acquiescence, or adoration. So he will relate to them in whatever ways he feels will get them to give the desired response. This is not real leadership; it is actually manipulation of others so that the person in a leadership position can gain whatever he thinks will meet his identity needs. His concern is for himself, not for the good of those he is responsible to lead. Discussion Board – Spiritual Formation

In contrast, true leading is enabled by the internal security that gives a joyous sense of freedom to use one’s gifts and developed skills to express oneself for a godly purpose and for the good of those led. This secure personal identity allows a leader to turn his or her attention away from personal needs to focus on the needs of the ministry or organization and the people in it. There is no servant leadership without it.

How Identity Impacts Our Leadership

Our sense of personal identity becomes a boundary that determines how we see reality. This is one primary reason why people see things differently. For example, a church was split into two opposing sides in a controversy over the form the church would take in the future. Would it become more contemporary and “seeker” focused, or would it continue in its more traditional and “blended” form? As the argument gained power, the opposing camps became more antagonistic toward each other. After an especially heated congregational meeting, a church member who had been out of town and missed the meeting asked friends from both sides of the conflict about what happened at the meeting. The two descriptions he heard were so different that he wondered whether they had been at the same meeting! The different accounts were the result of selective perception. People tend to see what they expect to see. Even more, we tend to see what we need to see. If our sense of identity is connected to a need to be right or to be on the winning side, we tend to see things in harmony with that, and other information is screened out. And, of course, people on the other side do the same thing. Our ability to lead well is in this way severely restricted.

Second, our identity tends to strongly impact what we do. If we are attempting to construct our identity from our work or ministry, we will feel a strong compulsion to be successful, or to be needed, or to be in control of things, or to be in a position of recognized power. Or we will feel an inner need to always be “right,” or always have the last word, or to be recognized and applauded. A leader in this situation will be strongly self-focused as he tries to make sure that he gets what he feels he cannot do without.

Third, it follows that our sense of personal identity will strongly influence how we relate to others. If our sense of identity is not satisfying and secure, we will sense a painful inner deficit. That personal deficit will become a powerful motivator to fill up our sense of emptiness, and we will begin to manipulate others to get from them that which we think will give us a satisfying sense of personal identity. In this way, an inadequate sense of personal identity leads directly to self-serving leadership.

Saul, the Example of a Driven Leader

Saul of Tarsus was clearly a driven man. He was driven to extremes of cruelty and oppression that would certainly qualify him as a terrorist in today’s terminology. The first time we encounter him in Scripture is in Acts 7:58, where he is cheering on the angry crowd in its stoning of Stephen. Putting several descriptions of Saul together, we get this picture of him.

• He was in hearty agreement with stoning Stephen to death (Acts 8:1).

• He was ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, and putting them in prison (Acts 8:3).

• He was breathing threats and murder against the followers of Christ (Acts 9:1).

• He asked for and received letters from the high priest authorizing him to search the synagogues in Damascus for followers of Jesus so that he might bring them bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:2).

• He persecuted the church beyond measure and tried to destroy it (Gal. 1:13).

• He was a blasphemer (1 Tim. 1:13).

• He was a persecutor (1 Tim. 1:13).

• He was a violent aggressor (1 Tim. 1:13).

The natural question is, “Why was he so extreme; why did he lead such intense and brutal opposition to the followers of Christ?” Surely he thought that his own religion was threatened by the growth of the followers of Jesus. But there was more to his violent opposition. Paul, in his own words, indicates that there was a deeper, more personal motivation in his heart. The first indication of this comes in Galatians 1:10, where Paul hints that earlier in his life he was “seeking the favor of men” and “striving to please men” (NASB). But, now, having become a bond servant of God, he would do no such thing, especially regarding the truth of the gospel. Three verses later (Gal. 1:13), he specifically states that in his former life in Judaism he went to extremes in persecuting the church. It was through his extreme zealousness that the Pharisees over him recognized him as a young man of promise. As Paul describes it, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Gal. 1:14 NASB). He is here pulling back the cover over his heart to expose the fact that the motivations for his extreme zealousness in persecuting Christians included competition with his contemporaries and a desire for personal recognition and advancement. His identity needs drove him to extremes in his search for significance and value through his persecution of Christians.

Paul is a good example of the power of identity needs because they drove him to such extremes in an attempt to fill the gaping hole within his heart. Most of the time in our lives the extremes will not be so clearly visible. Nevertheless, the identity needs show up in the pastor who is all about numbers, who is only too happy to announce to anyone who will listen that his church has passed the three-thousand mark. They show up in the elder who always has to have the last word, no matter what the discussion is, or in the leader who must always be in control of everything and is not willing to truly delegate responsibilities to others. What Paul did, and what each of these contemporary examples do, is allow their own identity needs to impact their leadership in such a way that they do not lead others; rather they manipulate others and use them for the leader’s own benefit. For such leaders, identity is a zero sum game: If I let you do things that strengthen your sense of identity, that takes away from my sense of identity. So in order to protect my identity, I take away yours. Parker Palmer put it this way: “When leaders operate with a deep, unexamined insecurity about their own identity, they create institutional settings that deprive other people of their identity as a way of dealing with the unexamined fears in the leaders themselves.”11

Palmer’s description is seen very clearly in Saul, whose bondage to his own identity needs drove him to extremes in denying other people their identity. It may be difficult to admit, but the same is true in varying degrees of all of us. In contrast, a leader with a secure sense of personal identity is free to create organizational culture that allows everyone to express their giftedness, take responsibility, and enjoy the blessing that comes from making a significant contribution. Such a leader can take pleasure in the success of others and has no hesitancy in celebrating that success for them.

Identity or Image?

Each of us must deal with two competing characteristics in our own life, and the competition between them spills over into every area of our life. Each of us has some sense of personal identity. It may be healthy and satisfying, or it may be deficient and demanding, clamoring for us to do something to sustain it and increase it. We also have an outward image that we project to others in our interactions with them. We inflate an image of ourselves much like the huge, inflatable gorillas car dealers put on the top of their buildings to attract the attention of drivers on the freeway as they speed by the dealership.

When our sense of identity is strong and satisfying, our need to project an image to others tends to decrease. This situation could be pictured like this:

However, if our identity is weak and unsatisfying, we will feel the need to project an image to others. We develop an image of what we want others to think about us, an image that seems to satisfy the emptiness within our own hearts. Then we relate to others through the medium of this image, which now looks like the one at the top of the next page.

We project an image in our interactions with others because we feel we must. We long for others to view us in the way the image suggests. We project images of competence, importance, superiority, knowledge, or value, hoping that people will think of us in these ways. The problem, however, is that others are not really relating to us, only to the image of ourselves that we are setting up and pointing in their direction. In normal relationships, this is empty and unsatisfying. In leadership situations, it is not only empty and unsatisfying; it is also painfully destructive.

The difference between leading out of a secure identity and leading from image, or insecure identity, is the difference between light and darkness. If I lead from a secure identity, I can be who I am. I can use my gifts

and abilities to the maximum. I do not have to hide my weaknesses; I can allow others, whose gifts and abilities are different from mine, to use them fully. There is a high level of authenticity in this. On the other hand, if I lead out of an image that I have constructed, I relate to those I lead out of who I think I have to be. In other words, I have to act a part, play a role. Of course, I have chosen the role myself; I have designed the part I play because I think that by playing that part people will think of me and relate to me in ways that I think will provide the sense of identity I am desperately seeking. The trap is that I have to continually play the part, because if they really knew me, they would not think of me in the way I desperately need.



Who I am Who I think I have to be

Authenticity Acting

Freedom that enables me to:

• Be concerned for others

• Serve others

• Trust others

Bondage that requires me to:

• Be concerned for myself

• Use others

• Fear others

Openness Control

Courage Avoidance

Relaxed Uptight

The difference between these two ways of leading is the difference between freedom and bondage. When I lead out of a secure sense of identity, I am free to be concerned about others. I can serve them by giving their needs priority over my own. Because they know I am concerned for them, they do not have to be in competition with me, so I can also trust them. But if I am leading out of image, I am in bondage, because I have to constantly make sure that the image I have blown up is not leaking. In fact, I have to use others to get what I think I need to fill up the emptiness within me. And, simultaneously, I have to fear them, because if I am not careful, they might withhold from me the very thing I desperately need from them. So, I have to always be in control and very careful to avoid anything that might expose the emptiness of the image or cause others to act in ways that are contrary to what I want.

If I am leading out of a secure identity, I am much more free to lead with openness and to invite the real participation of others in the process. I can also lead with greater courage, because if someone does not like one of my decisions and pulls back from agreeing with my position or even from following me, it is not a threat to my survival.

We might be tempted to think that we can control the expression of these identity issues so that they will not impact our leadership relationships. As appealing as this may sound, it is not true. The leader’s inner struggles always work their way into his or her leadership relationships. No matter how hard we try to hide them or cover them up, they come out in unexpected ways. “Leaders not only embed in their organizations what they intend consciously to get across, but they also convey their own inner conflicts and the inconsistencies in their own personal makeup.”12

This was the problem with the disciples; they continually argued about which one of them was the greatest. Their inadequate identities required it. The problem with the Gentile leaders was not only self-serving leadership, but also self-deceived, self-serving leadership. Rather than deal with their own hearts as leaders, they projected blame on others and elevated themselves by glorifying their own motives, congratulating themselves for being “benefactors” of the people (Luke 22:24-27)! Leaders struggling with their own identity rob those they lead of theirs! A modern-day version of this might look like the following examples.

Identity Issues: The Pastor Who Always Has to Be the Authority

The congregation of a church on the East Coast had been without a pastor for almost two years, so it was an exciting day when the new pastor arrived and began his ministry. The search process had been very thorough, and the congregation was sure they had called the candidate with the best credentials. Things started out well; Pastor Jim preached with compelling authority. Much to their delight, the church began to grow again. But it was not long before people began to notice an annoying habit in their new pastor. Whenever someone made a comment about a passage in the Bible or a concept in theology, Pastor Jim always had to have the last word. It did not matter whether it was a casual conversation or a discussion in one of their community groups, the resulting comment by Pastor Jim was inevitable. Sometimes the comment was overtly corrective; the original statement was not biblically accurate and needed Pastor Jim’s correction. The rest of the time there was still a hint of correction. At first, people were impressed with the breadth of their pastor’s biblical and theological knowledge. But, after a while, the inevitable comments and corrections became annoying. After a couple of corrections, people began to feel like they did not have much to offer; they just became quiet and did not volunteer any comments. After a while, they began to drift away.

Identity Issues: The Elder Who Always Has to Be in Control

After recently graduating from seminary and going through a long search process, Bill and Mary were excited to begin their ministry at Grace Evangelical Church. It was a small but growing group of people, excited about being a place in their community where people could find Christ and begin to grow in their relationship with him. One of the core values of the church was teaching the Bible, so Bill felt that the church was a great fit for him. As he became more and more active in the ministry of the church, he was gratified to see the church grow and was impressed with the responsiveness of the people. As the church grew, Pastor Bill and the other six elders had to make significant decisions about organizing the church to handle the growth. The elder meetings were congenial, and most everyone participated in the discussions, though one of the elders, Bob Driner, who had helped start the church, did not say as much as the others. After lengthy discussion, a decision would be made, and Pastor Bill would begin planning the steps to implement the decision. But more times than he liked to think about, Pastor Bill would get a call from one of the elders a day or so after the decision saying that three or four elders had gotten together to discuss the decision and had concluded that the original decision was a mistake. Usually they had an alternative that was “backed by a majority of the elders.” After this same scenario was repeated a few times, Pastor Bill pursued the details of the process only to discover that the same three elders would regularly meet at Bob’s house and discuss the recent decision made at the elder meeting. They would reject the decision for a “better” one and then lobby the other two elders to accept their new proposal. As time progressed, Bob’s three colleagues became more and more vocal in the elder meetings, and the other two elders became quieter. When Pastor Bill finally tried to confront Bob’s role in these maneuvers, he was accused of trying to get his way by criticizing Bob and trying to undermine his authority as an elder. The meeting got heated, but neither Bob nor the other two elders said very much, just Pastor Bill and Bob’s three allies. After a while, the two quiet elders dropped off the board. And most of the people in the church were surprised when, after only two years, Pastor Bill accepted a call to be the associate pastor of a church in the next state.13

A Secure Sense of Identity Enables a Leader to Be a Servant Leader

A secure sense of personal identity is so essential to servant leadership that God will work on our hearts to develop that identity. He will use the experiences of life to get us to do something that is counterintuitive to us, something we would normally avoid unless forced to deal with it. He will get us to look deep into our hearts to examine the motives and strategies that reside there, strategies that control the way we live life and the way we lead others. But most of us resist this process until we have no choice.

The reality is that in ministry our daily decisions will be determined by inner dynamics that we rarely reflect upon unless we have the courage to do so or we are forced by circumstances to do so. The problem, of course, is that sin has introduced a complication. Sin has corrupted elements of our inner being to such an extent that when we catch a glimpse of them, we instantly want to avert our eyes and go somewhere else. The pain and embarrassment is such that we would far rather deny the reality than deal with it. At that point we are extremely vulnerable to the attractive temptation to shift the blame outside and away from ourselves, and, if we are in leadership, onto other people!

This is why leadership development is much more like a pilgrimage than a pleasure cruise. Even though the transformative purpose of a pilgrimage is appealing, the hardship, darkness, and peril scare most of us into signing up for the pleasure cruise. “Why would anybody want to take such a difficult and dangerous journey? Everything in us cries out against it. That is why we externalize everything—it is far easier to deal with the external world. It is easier to spend your life manipulating an institution than dealing with your own soul.”14 It is so much easier to stay focused on the externals. So we try desperately to

• be successful;

• be in control;

• be in positions of power;

• be right;

• be needed;

• be recognized;

• be an authority;

• be known as a “water walker,” a “rainmaker,” a “key player.”

And the world cooperates with us. Most leaders are chosen to positions of leadership because they demonstrate competency in the external world, not because their internal world is in order. Our culture, in fact, separates the external and internal, saying that you can be whatever you want in your internal world, just so you produce results in the external world. It is not surprising, therefore, that our focus is so overwhelmingly on the externals. Nor is it surprising that we feel so much more comfortable staying on the surface, dealing only with the externals; and all the while we avoid dealing with our inner life, with our hearts.

Human beings have always employed an enormous variety of clever devices for running away from themselves We can keep ourselves so busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. … By middle life most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.15

But God will not allow us to remain fugitives from ourselves. He will orchestrate the experiences of our lives to make us deal with our internal identity and heart issues. For someone as extreme as Saul, the experience was dramatic. In the midst of his persecution of the Christians, Christ himself appeared to him unexpectedly on the Damascus road in such overpowering glory that Saul was blinded for days and was dependent upon a Christian named Ananias to recover his sight (Acts 9:1-19). Saul was converted, but his development was not complete. God took him through experiences of failure, disappointment, and rejection (Acts 9:20-30) before he began his ministry as Paul the apostle. Nor were the ministry years without painful learning experiences. The result of this process was a drastic change in Pauls thinking. In his letter to the Philippian believers, he exposes his previous source of identity and then reveals that he had exchanged it for something infinitely better (Phil. 3:3-11).

His confidence before had been in the flesh, in his Hebrew background and in the zeal with which he persecuted the church. He was creating an identity for himself through his own efforts, and he worked hard at it. But now, at this point in his development, Paul recognizes the foolishness and emptiness of his previous strategies. Earlier Paul had written to the Corinthians about a painful experience God gave him to keep him from exalting himself (2 Cor. 12:1-10).

What is illuminating in this passage is that at this point in his life Paul is boasting in his weaknesses rather that parading his strengths as he had done before. In verse 10 he is now content to experience the very things he used to inflict on the Christians as he persecuted them in a vain desire to advance his own reputation in Judaism. To say this, and to live this way as he did, required a different sense of identity than he had before. No longer is he trying to inflate his own value by his abuse of others. Rather there is a peace and contentment and security that enables him to give himself in serving others.

Not all of us will have a Damascus road experience. But that does not mean that God is not strongly at work in us, moving us to begin to look into our own hearts, to those places we don’t really want to go, to examine our motives and honestly see what we are trying to use to establish an identity for ourselves. Because of the depth of his love for us, God guides each of us through a pilgrimage process. He will not leave us where we are, hiding behind a self-constructed image, so he brings into our lives experiences that make us ask questions of ourselves, questions we would rather avoid. As our false attempts at identity construction are demolished and cleared away, the opportunity for true inner spiritual transformation is created.

The Source of a Secure Sense of Identity

After trying a multitude of ineffective and disappointing ways to establish an identity for ourselves, we, like Paul, will be brought to a point of emptiness. And there we will find waiting for us the one who has loved us through it all, even when we had not the slightest desire to look his way. If our identity has to do with our gender and ethnicity, abilities and limitations, gifts and strengths, he is the Designer who made us this way. If it has to do with our sense of being deeply and securely loved, he is the only one who loves us with such a love. If it has to do with a sense of significance that comes from accomplishing something that lasts forever, he is the one who has gifted us and called us and empowered us to make just such a contribution in his eternal kingdom.

Scripture from beginning to end is full of messages to us related to those things that make up our identity. The following are a representative sample:

• Psalm 139:1 I am known by God.

• Psalm 139:13 I am personally made/created by God.

• Psalm 139:14 I am fearfully and wonderfully made by him.

• Psalm 139:16 I am the object of his planning and will.

• Romans 5:1 I am justified, at peace with God.

• Romans 5:8 I am so greatly loved that, even while I was a sinner, Christ died in my place.

• Romans 6:6 I am freed from sin’s power.

• Romans 8:1 I am forgiven, not condemned!

• Romans 8:15 I am personally loved as God’s dear child.

• Romans 8:38-39 I am absolutely secure in the love of God through. Christ; nothing will ever separate me from his love.

• Ephesians 1:3 I am blessed with every spiritual blessing.

• Ephesians 1:11 I am an heir of God according to his will.

• Ephesians 2:10 I am his workmanship, and he has equipped me to make a significant contribution to his kingdom.

Of course there are many, many other passages that could be added to the list. These are simply representative. All of them say, in one way or another, that God is our true source of a secure and satisfying sense of personal identity. Only God loves us perfectly; only God loves us with a love that we can never lose. After all, he loved us enough for the Son of God to leave heaven, come to earth, be born as a man, and ultimately die for us even while we were still his enemies (Rom. 5:8-10)! Only God loves us with a love that is not connected to our performance. Only God equips us and empowers us to make an eternal difference. [Paul Petitt (2018). (p. 194). Foundations of Spiritual Formation. Kregel Publications. Retrieved from https://app.wordsearchbible.lifeway.com]

Chapter 9.

Calling and Spiritual Formation

George Hillman

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.

—2 Timothy 1:8-9 ESV

I was the king of changing majors in college. In my academic career, I think I had four different majors. I started out wanting to be a medical doctor—it sounded like a noble pursuit. I had good grades in high school and I liked science, so I thought that it was a fit.

My first semester, I made the best grades of my entire academic career in college. Granted, my classes were things like Biology 101 and Racquetball, but I was off to a great start. In my second semester, things definitely took a turn for the worse. The culprit was biology lab.

Now, I had loved my biology classes in high school and my first semester in college. I had even enjoyed some of the “lab stuff” that I had done in high school biology lab. I can remember dissecting a worm and a frog. But the biology class I was in this time around was a completely different animal (literally).

Our big project for the semester was dissecting a fetal pig. (OK, so it’s a little larger than the earthworm and frog that I dissected in high school, but how bad can a pig be?) Well, the lab teaching assistant gave us worksheets, and we had to fill in the blanks with the various discoveries we were making: How big is the heart? Where is the liver? And so on. I soon discovered that I was finishing my worksheets long before everyone else. I just wanted to finish my worksheet on the pig and move on. But I would look around at everybody else and see that they were being meticulous in their pig examination.

Then came the time for the final. After working on our pigs for a couple of weeks, our teaching assistant announced that we could take our pigs home to study before the exam. Excuse me? Who is going to take their pig home! Well, I was the only person who did not take a pig home that day.

You see, the other members of that lab had a passion for science. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the class. I loved learning the facts about this animal or that. Why, even today I find myself glued to the Discovery Channel, watching some show about the hunting habits of an obscure breed of penguins. However, I did not have the same passion as the other students. I could do the work, but it was a chore. These other students would make wonderful surgeons, with painstaking accuracy in their work. I probably would have ended up being the doctor with all of the liability cases because of my shoddy work. I probably changed my major the next week.

After a brief swim as a wildlife and fisheries major, I left my pursuit of science. For some unknown reason, I became a history major. Again, it was one of those subjects I liked, so I thought I would test out the water. The problem I ran into with being a history major was that I had to have two years of a foreign language. I had taken a year of Spanish in high school, but I was never particularly good at grasping languages.

So I finally ended up a sociology major. Why sociology? It was one of the only majors in the School of Liberal Arts that did not have a language requirement. Now that’s the kind of logic that makes your parents proud. “Hey, Dad, I picked this really great major with no real career options because I discovered that I am not a science, math, or language guy.” Some of you can really relate because you have been down that exact same path. Some of you have a very similar experience in life. Some of you graduated college and discovered that the career you trained for was not that great a fit. Some of you have really wrestled with your “call to ministry.” Some of you have shown up at school with no clear idea of why God has brought you here. Some of you are at a crossroads in life and have no clue what the next step is. And some of you are going to end up in future settings where you will begin to question all of this stuff all over again.

A Call for Calling

In the opening paragraph of his fantastic book The Call, Os Guinness lays out the following challenge:

Are you looking for purpose in life? For a purpose big enough to absorb every ounce of your attention, deep enough to plumb every mystery of your passions, and lasting enough to inspire you to your last breath?1

Guinness goes on to vividly describe the inward longing to find purpose in life, a purpose “bigger than ourselves.” Concluding that only the call of God can ever fulfill this longing, he describes calling as “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, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to his summons and service.”2

All of us come to a point in our lives where there is a serious examination of our gifts, our personality, and our passions. We come to a point in life where we really examine our “uniqueness” and how God has “wired” us. We come to a point in life where we really contemplate how to engage people and contexts around us, loving people as God would have them loved. We join the saints of old in looking at how God has called us.

For most of the last two thousand years, thoughtful Christians have struggled with the idea of “calling” and “vocation.” William Placher, in his recent compilation, Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, reflects,

Down the centuries, Christians have looked for definitions of “vocation” somewhere between the trivial sense of “just a job” and the hard-to-believe image of a miraculous voice from heaven. Central to the many Christian interpretations of vocation is the idea that there is something—my vocation or calling—God has called me to do with my life, and my life has meaning and purpose at least in part because I am fulfilling my calling. … Amid all the controversies Christianity has preserved the fundamental idea that our lives count for something because God has a direction in mind for them. … If the God who made us has figured out something we are supposed to do, however—something that fits how we were made, so that doing it will enable us to glorify God, serve others, and be most richly ourselves—then life stops seeming so empty: my story has meaning as part of a larger story, ultimately shaped by God.3

The concept of “calling” or “vocation” (from the Latin vocare, meaning “to call”) has been a central theme in Christian writers throughout the centuries. Unfortunately we live in what some people have called a “postvocational” or “callingless” world. In the postvocational or callingless world, jobs are just paychecks, relationships are random and unconnected, and deeper meaning in life is missing. With this outlook, it is very easy to slip into seeing life as boring drudgery, an aimless wandering. But when we recover a biblical sense of vocation or calling, when we live our lives with an understanding that our lives have purpose and meaning, then the everyday becomes holy.

Primary and Functional Calling

When I applied for seminary, one of the questions on the application asked about my call to ministry. Now, as far as I knew, I had not heard a voice from heaven telling me to apply to seminary. I had not seen any bright lights giving me signals as to what my career path should be. So how should I understand “calling”?

When someone throws out the terms calling or vocation, there must be an understanding of both our primary and our functional calling. While these terms are not found in Scripture, it is a helpful way of categorizing a sometimes confusing theological concept. The Puritans of American history actually coined these phrases, distinguishing these two aspects of calling.

Primary Calling

Our primary calling is to a living and dynamic relationship with God. Throughout Scripture, the chief concern is always God calling his children to himself and calling his children to a life of holiness. Our primary calling is the umbrella under which we function as believers. We are called first and foremost to God, not to just a role, a career, or a location. Our call to salvation and sanctification is paramount to any talk about the specifics of our life. The primary call for all believers is to God. The functional call (which follows) is how we live out our primary calling.

Below are just samplings of the Scripture references that discuss this idea of the primary call to God and to a life of holiness:

For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. (Acts 2:39 ESV)

… through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:5-7 ESV)

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom. 8:28-30 ESV)

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. … God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor. 1:2, 9 ESV)

But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:23-24 ESV)

… having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints. (Eph. 1:18 ESV)

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called … There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call. (Eph. 4:1,4 ESV)

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:14 ESV)

We exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thess. 2:12 ESV)

For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. (1 Thess. 4:7 ESV)

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power. (2 Thess. 1:11 ESV)

To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thess. 2:14 ESV)

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Tim. 6:12 ESV)

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began. (2 Tim. 1:8-9 ESV)

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9 ESV)

This quick swim through Scripture should show that God’s primary interest in your life is who you are, not what you do. Unfortunately for most of us, we naturally gravitate to “doing” versus “being.” Especially in an American context, we usually jump to thinking about employment or marriage when we speak of the call of God or the will of God. But God is not merely an employment agent or a matchmaker. The concept of calling in the New Testament is always focused on salvation and sanctification, not on occupation or location or marriage. God wants you to seek him, not just his services. God wants your heart.

Functional Calling

The functional call is how you live out the primary calling in daily life. The purpose of this functional call is always to serve the primary calling, not to find you a career or a spouse. You are called first to God, not to a particular job or location. Your primary call to God is so vast that how your functional call plays out is a comparatively minor issue.

But the truth is that you are called to be a Christian in concrete social locations. So the dimensions of your functional calling include the following:

• How do you relate being a Christian to your immediate and extended family?

• How do you serve your neighbor in Christian love?

• How do you function in the local body of Christ?

• How do you serve the greater society in stewardship and mission?

• How do you spend your time in work and rest?

Everything that brings you into relationship with other people is a part of your functional call. In fact, living out your primary calling in the various avenues of your life actually has the power to transform all the spheres of your life into functional callings.

More Than a Paycheck

Your primary identity is that of a “living sacrifice.” It is not, “I am a youth minister” or “I am a doctor.” What I have labeled a functional calling, Os Guinness labels a secondary calling. He notes that secondary callings “are our personal answer to God’s address, our response to God’s summons. Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most.”4 Too many of us, though, put the cart before the horse.

Never confuse your career choice (how you pay the bills) with your functional calling. Scripture never limits or equates calling with a paycheck. And there is a great danger to thinking only in terms of your identity being completely wrapped up in your career. In fact, the most important things in life are usually the things that we do not get paid for. Every rightful human task is some aspect of God’s own work: making, designing, doing chores, beautifying, organizing, helping, bringing dignity, and leading. Our work, then, is to reflect God’s work. As the apostle Paul proclaims, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23 ESV).

Some of you will have the wonderful opportunity to receive a paycheck for living out your functional calling in the body of Christ. For the vast majority of the body of Christ, their functional calling lies outside of a ministry paycheck. But the city employee, the pastor, the construction worker, the missionary, the farmer, the professor, the artist, the schoolteacher, the salesperson, the stay-at-home mom, the utility worker, and the retired person all have functions in the body of Christ.

Stations of Life

Unlike our primary calling, which does not change, our functional calling changes as we move through the many “stations of life.” As you change roles in life and as you go through the normal seasons of life, how you live out your primary calling in the many contexts of life will change.

For example, my first paying job was as a newspaper carrier in my neighborhood for my hometown newspaper. Since that day, I have received a paycheck from a wide variety of jobs through the years: retail sales in a toy store, day camp counselor, resident advisor in a dormitory, after-school day-care supervisor, nonprofit youth organization worker, college pastor, education pastor, and now a seminary professor. But while my resume for the past twenty plus years reflects a wide variety of paycheck sources, my primary calling from God has not changed.

Now consider my relationships. Before I was married, I had relationships with my parents and my two sisters, plus relationships with friends at school and church. Once I got married, my relationships changed for now I had parents-in-law, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, and nephews and nieces. Now as a parent, I have a relationship with my daughter as well. Just as my career roles have changed, my relational roles have changed too. But my primary calling from God has not changed.

So even with these changes in life, we must never lose focus on our daily call to love the Lord and love our neighbor, no matter what the context. As Jesus tells us,

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt. 22:37-40 ESV)

So whether you find yourself washing dishes, changing diapers, carpooling kids to activities, driving to work, buying groceries, or any other “humdrum” activity, your calling is to love God and love your neighbor in the circumstance God has placed you. The relationships, duties, and daily work that God has you in are where you live out your calling. The tasks are not sacred in and of themselves, but they become sacred because they come from God.

Gene Veith, in his book God at Work, reminds us, “Christians need to realize that the present is the moment in which we are called to be faithful. We can do nothing about the past. The future is wholly in God’s hands. Now is what we have. … The life of vocation is comprehensive and day-by-day, involving almost every facet of our lives, the whole texture of relationships, responsibilities, and focuses of attention that take up nearly every moment of our lives.”5

Most of the leaders of the Reformation saw this command to love God and love one’s neighbor as being very freeing. The main concern of the Reformers was not whether they had missed God’s will for their life but whether their decisions were made out of gratitude to God, trust in God’s word of grace, and desire to serve God and neighbors. If one was loving God and loving others, the choice of career or spouse was flexible. For example, the Reformation leader Martin Luther stressed that “so long as they seek God’s kingdom and its righteousness, it matters little whether they marry this person or that one or choose this profession or that one.”6 So as long as we love God and love our neighbor, the Reformers said that there is a great deal of freedom in our choices.

The primary calling to salvation and sanctification is the same for all believers in Jesus Christ. The functional calling in how you live out this primary calling in the contexts of life is unique to each believer. So the natural question is, How do you discover how to live out your primary calling in a functional way? Much of this is revealed in your divine design.

True to Your Uniqueness

A proper view of God and his works reveals that our very lives reflect God’s intentions for our lives.

For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;

in your book were written, every one of them,

the days that were formed for me,

when as yet there were none of them. (Ps. 139:13-16 ESV)

Your hands fashioned and made me,

and now you have destroyed me altogether.

Remember that you have made me like clay;

and will you return me to the dust?

Did you not pour me out like milk

and curdle me like cheese?

You clothed me with skin and flesh,

and knit me together with bones and sinews.

You have granted me life and steadfast love,

and your care has preserved my spirit. (Job 10:8-12 ESV)

There are no accidents or surprises in God’s plan. If you believe in a sovereign God, then you must believe that there is a fit between who you are and what God desires for you to do. Our heritage, our geography, our personality, our learning styles, our natural talents, our spiritual gifts, our life experiences, our opportunities, our values, and our passions all come ultimately from the hand of God. Even our limitations and our concerns are under God’s watchful eye. It is not fate or chance that rules our lives but the sovereignty of God. If you are able to discover this fit, then you are able to discover your functional calling.

Arthur Miller, in the very insightful book The Power of Uniqueness, stresses, “In truth, we cannot become anything other than who we already are, if we wish to be fulfilled in our lives and vocation. We must stop trying to ‘become’ something else, or to ‘develop’ or ‘cultivate’ some trait that we fundamentally lack, and instead start being who we already are by identifying our giftedness and living it out.”7

Assessing Who You Are

It is true that some people have served effectively in an area where they had no apparent capability for the required tasks. But those examples are very rare. God’s normal mode of operation (if I can be so bold as to say that) is to gift people for their service. Moreover, when the alignment of giftedness (based on God’s grace and not your efforts) and environment occurs, God-honoring and God-empowered ministry takes place. When this ministry calibration has taken place in your life, you have known it, and the people benefiting from your grace gifts have known it too. However, the reverse is true as well. When you have tried to force yourself into a role that was never meant for you, you have felt the frustration and, guess what, the people receiving your ill-fitting efforts have known it too.

This is exactly what the apostle Paul is saying to the believers in Rome.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Rom. 12:3 ESV)

This verse comes immediately after one of the crescendos in Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2 ESV). Romans 12:1-2 is an example of our primary calling of salvation and sanctification.

Our renewed mind (Rom. 12:2) must be active in evaluating our identity, our gifts, and ourselves. The original language in Romans 12:3 repeats the idea of “think” four times, emphasizing this role of the renewed mind. This is the idea of spiritual discernment. As a believer in Jesus Christ who is in the process of the transformation process of the renewed mind, you are capable of evaluating yourself properly through the Holy Spirit. Paul speaks of a balance of honest reflection on who we are, not overselling our strengths or selling ourselves short.

Paul’s emphasis is on the humble acceptance of the grace that we have received and of how we have been gifted. As Gordon Smith, in his book Listening to God in Times of Choice, reminds us,

Humility means recognizing both our limitations and our potential, recognizing where we need others and where we can make a contribution to meeting the needs of others. Humility graciously accepts both dimensions—our limitations and need for others and our potential, our ability to contribute to the well-being of others. The former does not diminish us; the latter does not inflate us. With sober judgment we simply accept who we are. And this humility is essential for effective discernment.8

Understanding our calling must force us to assess our uniqueness, talents, and personality. Your divine design reveals Gods call on your life. Ministering out of who you are is the only real key to Spirit-empowered effectiveness and joy. Miller poetically states, “[Giftedness is] the lifeblood of a person, the song that his heart longs to sing, the race that his legs long to run. It’s the fire in his belly. It’s his reason for being. So any time you tap into giftedness, you hit a nerve that runs right to the core of the individual.”9

Natural and Spiritual Gifts

As we continue on in Romans 12, Paul fleshes out how our primary calling is lived out in the body of Christ.

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Rom. 12:4-8 ESV)

And this is not the only place where Paul talks about ministering our giftedness. For example, Paul says a very similar thing to the believers in Corinth.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. (1 Cor. 12:4-11 ESV)

While in this brief chapter I am not able to go into an in-depth analysis of the various theological arguments concerning spiritual gifts and natural talents, suffice it to say that all believers in Jesus Christ are blessed by God with certain abilities to minister to others in love. One of the first steps in understanding your functional call is to understand your giftings. Through taking one of the many spiritual gifts inventories or (more importantly) as you serve others in biblical community, you can come to a better understanding of your natural and spiritual gifts.


Along with our giftings, God also has developed within each of us certain passions. Some have called this internal oughtness or compulsion. Passion is that thing that we cannot not do. God shapes each of us to have certain subjects, objects, or concerns that motivate us. The idea behind the concept of passions is that a person will naturally become more energized and work better in an area that he or she is passionate about.

Can passions be bad? Of course they can because we are still “of flesh.” But when we center our lives on the mandates of God’s Word and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, God is able to align our passions with his desires. As we walk close to God in our daily lives, God is able to shape our character and our passions. As King David noted, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4 ESV).

The discovery of passions can come from asking the following questions:

• What topics or activities excite you?

• What topics or activities keep you up at night?

• What topics or activities cause you to jump out of bed in the morning?

• What are the themes of the greatest accomplishments in your life?

• What activities or discussions cause you to lose track of time because you are so focused?

• Where do you feel like you are making a difference?


So how do we get to the point that his desires become our desires? That is where the dance of discernment begins.

The Dance of Discernment

I think that sometimes we long for the days of the exodus. We read that during the Israelites’ desert travels,

the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people. (Exod. 13:21-22 ESV)

In certain moments of life and at certain crossroads, we probably think how much easier life would be if we could just follow the trail of cloud and fire. We are sure life would be great if only every major decision of life could be accompanied by a supernatural trail marker like these pillars.

Does God speak to us today? Absolutely! For us, God’s leadings are no less spiritual but maybe less dramatic. However, we have two things that the children of Israel did not have. First, we have God’s complete Word in written form to offer guidance in our lives. Second, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit. Douglas Schuurman reminds us, “Though some Christians have encounters of a miraculous nature, God’s callings and leading are for the most part quietly and gently received, mediated by prayerful individual and communal discernment of gifts and needs. Though miracles can attend these processes, they usually do not.”11

Learning to Dance

Instead of living in the age of the dramatic, we as believers in Jesus Christ live in the age of the dance. What do I mean? Smith paints this beautiful word picture:

Discernment, indeed the whole Christian experience, is like a dance with God. God in his love and holiness invites us into a dialogue, a conversation, a relationship that includes not only submission but also the engagement of our will and our freedom with God.12

While we might long for the days of the pillar of cloud and fire, it is very hard to dance with a cloud or a flame. Instead of distance, God desires intimacy with his children. In his preparations for the next generation of Israelites to enter the Promised Land at the end of the desert wanderings, Moses reminded the people, “You have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place” (Deut. 1:31 ESV).

One Christmas, my daughter got The Barbie Nutcracker on DVD. Yes, you read right, The Barbie Nutcracker. It is a computer-animated cartoon in which Barbie and Ken reenact The Nutcracker in an hour-long movie. Before our purchase of this DVD, I probably could not have told you a single thing about The Nutcracker (of the Barbie variety or otherwise). But as any good dad would do, I watched the movie with my daughter too many times to count. After a while I could even whistle the tunes and quote most of the lines.

But my daughter wanted to do more than just watch The Barbie Nutcracker. She wanted to experience The Barbie Nutcracker. So at the big climax at the end of the movie, she would get up and dance as the role of Barbie in the grand finale. And as any toy aficionado will tell you, you cannot have a dancing Barbie without a dancing Ken. Since I am the only male in a house full of females, you can guess who got the part of the dancing Ken.

As I am writing this, I am smiling because my days of being the “dancing Ken” with my daughter are some of the most special memories of my life. Now my daughter has moved past Barbies, but I still get to steal a dance with my daughter now and then. My daughter dances with zeal to the music, but she will dance only when her dance partner dances with her.

God desires to dance with us as well. As we have said all along in this chapter, our primary calling to God is paramount. God desires us to draw close to him in relationship so that he can mold us into the likeness of his Son. God does not just want to give us answers to our questions. God wants to dance with us. There are no shortcuts to the dance of discernment. The dance of discernment is a slow dance. Discernment is the spiritual exercise of drawing near to the heartbeat of God so that he can lead us in the dance of life.

Charles Swindoll, in his book The Mystery of God’s Will, confesses,

I now believe that God’s will for us in this life is not some black-and-white objective equation designed to take us to an appointed destination here on earth as much as it is about the journey itself.

It is not so much about our own well-thought-through “mission” for our lives as it is about what matters to Him in our lives. Our human tendency is to focus solely on our calling—on where we should go, how we should get there, and what exactly we should do about it. God’s concern is the process that He is taking us through to mature us and ready us, making us more like His Son. In other words, all of us—including you—are works in process.13

Slowing Down to Hear God

The problem is that we move too fast in life doing our own thing to slow down to dance the slow dance of discernment with God. We are able to hear the heartbeat of God in our lives only when we slow down, quiet ourselves, and invite him to dance with us. Ronald Wilson, in his book Call Waiting, paints the following word image.

The discord and harshness of our culture is so overwhelming that it takes a special effort on our part to hear the voice of God. The bright lights of the carousel distract us, and the music drowns out any message God might whisper. It takes a special effort on our part and time set aside especially for the task to hear what God is saying to us and to read the obvious signs he has left for us.14

Unfortunately some people think that a “call” from God can only come through some type of “cataclysmic emotional experience.” In reality, most people come to realizations about certain aspects of God’s leadings in a more gradual nature through the experience of life. In fact, we are many times less likely to stick with commitments driven by emotional impulses alone.

Along with sound biblical study, the key to learning the dance steps of discernment is prayer. You discern the leadings of God in the context of the dancing relationship. You must remain in close communication with God if you have any chance of discerning well. Instead of the focus of your prayer being for God to “reveal his will,” your prayers should be for him to create his character and his wisdom in you. When your actions, thoughts, and desires reflect God’s priorities, then you are in a better place to discern well.

Called in Community

Community is essential in spiritual discernment of our functional calling. We are called to faith in community. We live out our transformed life in community. The purpose of our functional calling is for the service of the community. Sober judgment of our functional calling can take place only in community. And trust me, community keeps you humble. With very few exceptions, God’s functional calling comes through other people speaking truth into our lives.

Smith reminds us,

We never discern in isolation; we discern in community. Every significant choice we make reflects the fact that we are profoundly interconnected with the lives of others. Our decisions inevitably affect others but are also affected by the choices that others make. It is only appropriate that we are accountable to others in our choices; others need to be able to challenge us and confirm whether what we believe to be God’s will is truly of God. We need the wisdom and counsel of others.15

Serving Others in Love

Two brief things about the role of community should be noted. First, your functional calling is to serve the community of faith. Somehow in Western Christianity, we have forgotten this. Remember that you are not called to live on some island of self-existence. Self-sufficiency is just an illusion of pride. In the body of Christ each member belongs to each other, just like pieces of a finely crafted puzzle. Spiritual gifts are not to be hoarded and kept only for our own benefit. They are to be used for the benefit of the body.

As we already have seen earlier, Paul stresses this unity in diversity in several places.

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function. (Rom. 12:4 ESV)

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12 ESV)

There is a unity of the church, a plurality of the members, and a variety of gifts. Spiritual gifts mean that you are both weak and strong. You are strong in the area of your gift. You are weak in areas where others have been gifted. Thus, you must minister to the body of Christ and others out of your strength, and you are dependent upon the ministry of the rest of the body in your areas of weakness.

Under the umbrella of your primary calling to salvation and sanctification, your functional calling is how you love and serve others. With this proper understanding, loving others as God would love them becomes the benchmark of whether you are fulfilling your functional calling. As Reformation leader Martin Luther believed, “Reflect on your condition, and you will find enough good works to do if you would lead a godly life. Every calling has its own duties, so that we need not inquire for others outside of our station.”16 For Luther, serving one’s neighbor was the greatest physical manifestation of our love of God.

Confirmation of Calling

Second, the community usually affirms your functional calling. This is the idea of corporate calling. Theologians discuss the idea of both personal/inward calling and corporate/outward calling. I believe strongly that when God calls a person into a functional ministry, the body of Christ confirms that calling. I want to say that God’s normal mode of operation is the public confirmation of one’s functional calling, as the community of faith sees you function.

Seeking wise counsel is a strong biblical theme. Because of the potential for self-deception, it is vital for us to seek an outside perspective from others. Consider the following sample verses from Proverbs.

Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance. (Prov. 1:5 ESV)

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. (Prov. 11:14 ESV)

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. (Prov. 12:15 ESV)

By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom. (Prov. 13:10 ESV)

Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. (Prov. 15:22 ESV)

Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future. (Prov. 19:20 ESV)

Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war. (Prov. 20:18 ESV)

Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel. (Prov. 27:9 ESV)

Testing One’s Functional Calling

Many of you reading this chapter are in college or seminary. In school, you are in the process of confirming or nullifying different aspects of “vocational understanding.” Testing your functional call is what you are supposed to be doing during this time in your life. A great internship can help confirm or nullify different aspects of “vocational understanding.” As I constantly tell students who come into my office, it is much better to discover now what God is calling you to do than to spend thousands of dollars in tuition, move your family to the middle of nowhere, and discover that you hate what you have been trained to do.

For example, it is one thing for a ministry student to have grand visions of the “glorious adventure” of being a foreign missionary. It is quite another thing to actually live on the mission field for a semester and discover the reality of missions work once the honeymoon is over. My personal belief is that the student who is truly called to the mission field will find such an experience challenging, but confirming and fulfilling. The student who is not called to the mission field will only feel frustrated.

For some students with significant ministry experience background and clear vocational vision, an internship will help to confirm their known call and vocational direction. Their internship experience is just a verification of what they already know. For example, a veteran missionary returning to seminary and switching from a church planting focus to a Bible college teaching/administration focus could complete an internship in a formal classroom teaching setting and discover very quickly whether he enjoys developing syllabi and lesson plans for pupils.

For other students with less ministry experience, an internship will help to clarify their call and vocational direction. At most schools, this is probably the vast majority of the student population. In these cases, an internship serves as a “trial run” to see if there is a fit without a long-term commitment. For instance, a counseling student completing an internship with a women’s shelter will discover quickly if she enjoys the demands of seeing clients and facilitating support groups on a daily basis. If this student decides that she does not enjoy intensive counseling because of her internship, it is better to discover that realization now than to graduate with a counseling degree and take a job she dreads and finds frustrating.

Finally, for some students an internship will serve as a catalyst for discerning their call and focusing their vocational development. Some students show up on campus with no idea of vocational direction. The internship process and the wise words of a site supervisor might be just what is needed.

It is one thing to realize and accept that God desires the involvement of all Christians in ministry. It is another to understand what that involvement entails. Developing your ministry vision can give you that understanding. Ministry vision is where you fit in the body of Christ. Ministry vision articulates what your ministry will look like in a clear “word picture.” In other words, when you describe to other people your future ministry, what type of “word picture” do you paint?

Unlike a one-sentence mission statement, which expresses purpose, a ministry vision captures the essence of what it will look like when that purpose is met. Here is an example.

I see myself working with college students on a major state university through a parachurch ministry, such as Campus Crusade for Christ. I am passionate about evangelism, so I see myself on campus engaging students in spiritual conversations and introducing them to a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. I would love meeting with new believers and discipling them in a one-on-one context, teaching them how to read the Bible for themselves. I would also love to be involved in a true multiplication ministry, where the students that I discipled would be able to share your faith with others and disciple others in the basics of the faith as well. Finally, I would love to introduce college students to a passion for world missions.

Joy in Our Callings in Life

One of the tests of your functional calling is the experience of joy in your life. The author of Ecclesiastes joyfully proclaims,

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Eccl. 2:24-26 ESV)

Scripture teaches us that it is not wrong to have joy in serving. The apostle Paul even writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23 ESV). But biblical joy is very different from what the world calls joy. Joy is not just an emotional response. Joy is grounded upon God and derived from God.

Some of the greatest times of joy in my life have been when I have been serving “in my element,” allowing God to use me as his instrument in the lives of other people. Joy is one of the payoffs when you love others with your Spirit-enabled giftedness. True biblical joy is not merely self-seeking pleasure. True biblical joy is experienced as you live your life with a clear understanding of the sovereignty of God and the purposefulness that knowledge brings to your life. A true understanding of calling makes every task potentially sacred and joyful.

Actually the opposite of joy is not sadness but burnout. When you are forced to serve in an area where you are not gifted or where you violate your functional calling, burnout very easily sets in. Parker Palmer, in his revealing book Let Your Life Speak, reflects, “Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess—the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.”17

Of course there is a balance here Joy is a by-product of serving, but pleasure or even self-fulfillment should never be the intended purpose of serving. Most of Christian history has taught that pleasure and comfort should never be the intended focuses of your life. Our Christian heritage is lined with the blood of martyrs. Sometimes in your calling to love God and love your neighbor, you will be led to do things that are not pleasurable or enjoyable.

I doubt that Jeremiah or Hosea, for example, experienced pleasure in their God-given tasks. Sometimes we will serve others where there will be little visible rewards for our tasks. But ultimately you are called to love God and love others. As Paul reminds us, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23-24 ESV).

Gordon MacDonald, in an article in Leadership, states,

When one lives obediently in the center of a call, one feels God’s pleasure; one knows joy. Let us be frank: Men and women have obeyed God’s call and become martyrs. Others have undertaken unspeakably difficult and discouraging tasks and barely survived. Some have lived obscure lives in far off corners of the world and have finished the course never feeling that they accomplished anything of measurable value. There have been others, of course, whose lives have sparkled with spectacular results—who in their preaching, their writing, their organization-building, their ability to envision and empower people have left their mark on church history. What did they all have in common? They felt God’s pleasure; they had joy.18

Remember that the goal of serving is never joy, but we can be thankful when joy is experienced.

Being Comfortable with the Mystery of God’s Will

We must acknowledge that while we can strive to discern well, there are times when the work God is doing in our lives will be a mystery to our finite minds. Life is very rarely wide boulevards. Instead there are “detours, unmarked intersections, forced exits, blind alleys, and cul-de-sacs.”19 It always seems like just when we get things figured out, something happens in our lives that leaves us scratching our heads, wondering what God is up to.

Scripture very boldly pronounces that there are some things of God that we just do not understand.

How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep! (Ps. 92:5 ESV)

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable. (Ps. 145:3 ESV)

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Eccl. 3:11 ESV)

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. (Isa. 40:28 ESV)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa. 55:8-9 ESV)

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:33-34 ESV)

God’s work in your life is bigger than you. This mystery of God is one of the things that keep humility active in your life. Charles Swindoll humbly admits,

When we do a serious study of the will of God, we go from an unconscious to a conscious awareness of how mysteriously He leads us along. … No matter how educated we are, no matter how much power and influence we may think we have, no matter how long we have walked with Him, no matter how significant we may imagine ourselves to be in His plans (if any of us could even claim significance), none of that qualifies us to grasp the first particle of why He does what He does when He does it and how He chooses to do it.20

This humble admission should keep us from ever arrogantly proclaiming that we have all of the details of God’s plan figured out. It is dangerous ground when we boldly state, “God told me this morning …” Even with our best efforts in biblical study, theological reasoning, and Spirit-enabled discernment, we are still human, and God is still beyond our thoughts.21


So by this point, you are probably asking, “When is this guy going to tell me which job I should take?’’ While I wish there was a simple formula or easy process, spiritual discernment is more art than science. But more importantly, I am not sure that is the right question to be asking in the first place. Questions about God’s specific plans for your life’s work or finding your future spouse are not the crucial questions. The most important question is, Where is God in the circumstances of life in which you find yourself? When you are loving God and loving others in the various contexts of life, then you have your calling in life.

I want to return to the metaphor of dancing with God in drawing my thoughts together because I have never found a more appropriate image of the Christian walk. As I look at the path that God has taken me down, it has been a journey of incredible emotional highs and some dark times as well.

Bruce Waltke, in his provocatively titled book Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? states,

We ought to stamp out of our vocabulary the non-biblical and misleading expression “finding God’s will.” Rather than talk about “seeking the will of God,” we ought to speak of following the guidance of God. This is not just semantically different, since He is calling us to draw close to Himself and to live holy lives. God’s will for us is that we be holy; there is no mystery to His will. As for those questions about changing jobs, getting married, going to school, and the like, finding answers will require growing close to God.22

Throughout Christian history, the words calling and vocation have meant different things. Some read the word calling and think of professional ministry. But the call of God is so much bigger than that. In the simplest terms, calling is the place in life where God has brought you, and where in your uniqueness you can love God and love others.

[Paul Petitt (2018). (p. 216). Foundations of Spiritual Formation. Kregel Publications. Retrieved from https://app.wordsearchbible.lifeway.com]

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