This past quarter at Seattle Pacific Seminary, I taught a course entitled Vocational Discernment and Discipleship. This course is described as “explor[ing] various models of Christian discipleship that are intended to sustain a lifetime of ministry, and various processes of vocational discernment.”
One of the challenges many Christians face is having a narrow definition of vocation, as though only those who are working in pastoral ministry have a calling from God. To disrupt this assumption, I invited my seminarians to begin by listening to the experiences of vocation and discipleship from the lives of people they knew. My field is practical theology, so rather than starting with literary classics or biblical texts, we begin with the lived experience of individuals. Each student found someone to interview whom they believed could teach our class something about the relationship between vocation and discipleship. After the interview, my students came back to class and shared what they had learned. We learned from a wide and inspiring variety of folks.
This starting place of an interview was a bit disorienting for my students. We discussed how they should go about choosing someone to interview and how to respond if that person declined. These students thoughtfully considered how this invitation and listening might be a gift to those who have not thought of their “work” as a vocation. We also spent a lot of time defining “work.” We discussed how we believed God calls all people, yet some might not think they have a calling if we use the term “work.” As students talked about the specific person they wanted to interview, they employed language such as: “How do you follow Jesus (or be a disciple) in your daily life (or the work God has given you to do)?”
Most students’ initial thought was to ask someone they knew who was in pastoral ministry, but after talking for a while about what we were hoping to learn, many switched to someone they were genuinely curious about. They were interested in learning the answers to questions such as: “What prompted her to continue to work in communications even though she doesn’t like the job?”, “How does she see God in her life having experienced so many tragedies?”, or “I wonder what I might learn from someone who is living out his vocation in his 90s?” Each student contacted and met with their person, whether a neighbor, a grandfather, a roommate, a mentor, a long-time friend or a neighbor who lived on the street nearby. Regardless of their familiarity with one another, each student learned new things about this person and about God’s call within each person’s life.
As students came to class and shared with us about their person, our understanding of vocation, calling and discipleship expanded. We learned about God’s faithfulness and the role of a supportive community through one woman’s pursuit of a nursing degree after nine failed attempts to get accepted into a nursing program. We learned from a homeless veteran who feels called to be a listening ear to fellow veterans who are experiencing sleepless nights due to nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorders. One mother taught us about how God calls us through the needs of others by her choice to leave a successful career to care for her son with disabilities. One young woman posed the challenging question to one of my students: “What does it look like for me to be a disciple of Jesus when all of his followers at the church I grew up attending reject me because of my sexual orientation?”
Because we started with these personal stories, our orientation to vocation and discipleship was shifted. We were surprised to find that even those who had moved away from congregational communities were still able to see evidence of God’s call and presence in their lives.
Our texts for the class included Calling All Years Good by Kathleen Cahalan and Bonnie Miller-McLemore as well as Mary Clark Moschella’s book, Ethnography as Pastoral Practice. The first gave students valuable insights into the various challenges and demands of different seasons of life. As they read, they were able to identify the ways that their interviewee’s experience was both resonant and dissonant with life stage theory. The Moschella text offered students strategies for how to conduct interviews, as well as wisdom on how to prioritize the person over the interview. Clark taught students about the power dynamics that pastors encounter and how to manage these. She also provided wisdom on the delicate line between an interview and a pastoral care situation. This was especially significant for my students who entered this assignment in a researcher role, but found themselves playing the role of pastor.
One additional advantage this interview assignment offered my students was experience in offering another person pastoral listening. At Seattle Pacific Seminary, we have noticed that while some of our students come in with a clear sense of calling to pastoral ministry, some are not quite so sure that is the path they are called to follow. One way for these students to consider pastoral ministry is to have opportunities where they play a pastoral role within an assignment. In class, some reported that they felt as if they were a pastor to the person they were interviewing. For most, this was the first time they had played that role. For some, the person they were interviewing noticed and named this for them, which students experienced as both encouraging and terrifying. While this class is simply one piece of a larger education they are experiencing at Seattle Pacific Seminary, my hope is that my students will begin to learn and practice the skill of pastoral presence, perhaps finding in the process that God is calling them.