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God does the calling   

11 November 2022

It’s not the end of the world if the Church gets it wrong, Julia Mourant advises


I HAVE had many vocational conversations in a variety of contexts, and many were not about “ministry”, but simply about life. The most formal exchanges were those that I engaged in as a Director of Ordinands and Vocations Officer, but before that, I had been involved in clergy — including post-ordination — and lay training. It seemed to me then, and it still seems now, that training makes sense only in the light of vocation.

Whether attending to one’s own development, or supervising colleagues, or encouraging vocations in the worshipping community or wider world, we need a strong sense of our own centre of gravity.

By centre of gravity, I mean an inner sense of who you are, which draws you back again and again. You may get lost, confused, experience a lack of direction, but when you remember that you belong to God, and that you are loved and named by God, this is an inner place to return to, to come home to be renewed.

Those who are exploring a vocation, or in training for lay and ordained ministries, are encouraged to find spiritual direction for good reason. Sometimes, people go right through a formal process and into training and ministry, and yet still carry an unresolved sense of uncertainty or unworthiness, which may be well hidden, even from themselves.

Spiritual-direction courses will be underpinned with theology and theory, and yet are largely experiential. Training for licensed ministry is formational as well as academic. You cannot learn formation from a book any more than you can learn to cook without entering a kitchen.

Discernment, training, and ministry, especially ministries of accompaniment, can go to the depths of your soul, turn you inside out. If you cannot bear to look into the mirror, don’t take this path. You will certainly need some accompaniment on the way.

The tradition of spiritual direction in vocational exploration provides an opportunity where there is no pressure, no agenda, no anxiety about outcomes.

Exploring your vocation begins with knowing your name, and celebrating what evokes your energy, joy, and compassion. Reflective exercises invited participants to find a place of spaciousness and contemplative listening. They also allow for recognising and celebrating the ways in which a vocation is already being expressed, and is already a source of energy and compassion.

The reflective exercises that I use with groups and individuals draw on a range of metaphors. “What is my name?” is a reflection that focuses on your sense of identity. “What time is my life?” invites you to consider what time it would be if your life had a clock face: does it feel like early morning or late at night for you?

In that contemplative space, people often name the anxieties about lost time, or wasted years, or the spiritual confusion that might otherwise become an undercurrent through the formal process.

The idea of ministerial training can generate huge anxieties about practicalities. These questions need to be held in the bigger context of a secure sense of belonging and purpose: that you have heard God call you by name, knowing that you are secure in your identity as known and loved by God; that you belong to God, and having that belonging at the heart of your sense of identity.

One reflection asks whether you have fixed points, like the true north on a compass, or a bearing that determines your path. These might be about faith and spirituality, or about life circumstances. Your vocation can be discerned only in the light of realities, but this raises another question for spiritual direction: “How can it be that, on the one hand, I feel that God is calling me, and yet on the other, God seems to be making it impossible for me to respond fully?” Certainly, no easy answers there, and the journey of making sense of what a vocation really means, and how it is to be pursued, can be a long road. There may be questions, too, of “Why not?”


A VOCATION rarely emerges from nowhere, though it can certainly surprise us. Often a new sense of direction has some continuity with what we have already experienced, learnt, and enjoyed. When we do not know what God has for us next, a good place to start is with a good look around where we are now.

The formal discernment process often begins with vocations days that attend to questions of identity and direction. These might include: “Who am I? Why am I here? What I am to do that no one else can do? How would I even know?” Explorers might already be considering such questions in spiritual direction, and so the vocations process picks these up and offers a context for further reflection.

On vocations days, it was only ever in the afternoons that we turned to understanding the distinctive parts played by a Reader, priest, chaplain, pioneer, or permanent deacon, and to practical realities of study, age, finance, and implications for family.

Formal discernment processes that lead to a “No,” or “Not now,” may leave some people feeling entirely at peace, and even relieved; but some will be left bruised, and may even carry a sense of betrayal.

To navigate discernment for licensed ministry, you have to become vulnerable, to mind and yet not mind, to invest heart and soul, and yet not cling or seek to possess. This spiritual deepening will offer grace and transformation, but it can also be hard and costly. Many tears have been shed over a sense of vocation.

The Church has to work out how to engage in mission and ministry, while holding faith with a long tradition and an enduring commitment to the gospel. Funding is more of an issue than ever. These things have an impact on how lay and ordained ministers are discerned, trained, and deployed.

An individual’s sense of vocation and naming may coalesce with that process, or not. It is like digging a tunnel from both ends at the same time. A person is seeking to listen to God, and so is the Church. Their tunnels may meet, or they may not, and when they don’t, it is not a reflection on the person’s sense of calling, and absolutely does not mean that they are not worthy, or don’t have a vocation: it is just not this one at this time.

Does the Church ever get it wrong? Probably, since the Church is a human institution. But what does “wrong” mean?

My book Listening to Your Life offers reflections that invite readers back to the heart of being called. When God has called your name, you know yourself to be seen, loved, and valued.

Perhaps no one is really called specifically as a priest, or a preacher, or to any particular post. The authentic call might simply be to invite people to encounter God, or to open the scriptures in engaging and prophetic ways, or to live as a healer, reconciler, or teacher in ways that are not limited to time and place. Particular post or tasks express a vocation, but are not the vocation itself: that is a gift that cannot be taken away and transcends circumstances.

If vocation as name is an enduring principle, so also is vocation as gift. No one owns a vocation: we have no right to it, it does not belong to us, and cannot be put in our pocket. We are sometimes too individualistic in our thinking.

Vocation does not depend on what the Church permits us to do, say, wear, or go. There is no reason to be arrogant, or to act in ways that are unaccountable. But we come to God with open hands, and God turns no one away.

I advise people to go back to the centre, to where they know they are named and loved. It may seem deafeningly silent and empty, or God may whisper the unexpected, but it is the only place to be. There, we can be honest, name our longings, and tend to our bruises.

However the vocational landscape of the Church changes, the invitation is the same: to hear your name spoken with tenderness, compassion, and challenge.

The Revd Julia Mourant is programme leader for the Sarum Course in Spiritual Direction, and Tutor in Spiritual Formation, at Sarum College, Salisbury. Listening to Your Life was published by Canterbury Press in 2016. Her new book, Listening to your Soul, is published at the end of this month (Canterbury Press, £13.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.19); 978-1-78622-336-4).

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