In his book on staying fresh in Christian leadership, Paul Mallard starts by reflecting on how Psalm 78 refers to David:
[God] chose David his servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
to shepherd Jacob his people,
Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
and guided them with his skilful hand.
He notes these three things:
- Conviction – the awareness that David had of being called and chosen by God;
- Competence – David led with ‘skilful hand’;
- Character – he shepherded the people with ‘upright heart’.
For the purposes of this post, I’d adjust Paul Mallard’s terms slightly, preferring ‘call’ to ‘conviction’.
James Lawrence, in Growing Leaders, also highlights the importance of discerning God’s call, developing Christ-like character, and cultivating competence.
All of the leaders I interviewed in my recent research referred in some way to calling. Ruth Haley Barton highlights the profound significance of being called by God: ‘it is a place where God’s presence intersects with a human life.’
Of course the most fundamental call is the call to believe in Christ and follow him. But within that call, one can find the seeds of a subsequent vocational calling. Some people have such dramatic conversion experiences that all of life is reoriented, a new direction and new priorities are set, and it can lead to a path of vocational leadership. The seeds of a call to leadership can be found in their conversion.
Often the call to leadership comes later. Sometimes it can be in the form of a ‘gradual awakening’ to one’s life purpose, though it can also happen in a moment of crisis, say in response to a stirring appeal.
Os Guinness has helpfully distinguished between two kinds of calling: what he calls an original, ‘ordinary’ calling, and a later, ‘special’ calling. The first is a sense of life purpose that comes in response to God’s call to follow him and its implications are lived out even if there is no direct, even supernatural, communication from God about a special calling.
He suggests that this latter ‘special’ calling has to do with tasks and missions given to individuals through some specific communication from God. Reggie McNeal says that ‘the call is the leader’s personal conviction of having received some life assignment or mission that must be completed’.
Much of the biblical narrative reflects the theme of God’s call. From the voice of God addressing the fugitive Adam and Eve in Eden, through the call of Abram to leave the familiar for the unknown, to the invitation of the Spirit and the Bride in Revelation, Scripture is the call of God to his people.
There are remarkable stories of individuals being summoned to a specific role in serving God. Think of Moses and his dramatic exchange with God at the edge of the Midianite desert. Or Isaiah and his life-changing vision of God’s holiness in the Temple. Or Saul who became Paul: the persecutor turned pioneer preacher.
But are these stories meant to be paradigms for today’s leaders? Can a Christian leader lead without having experienced the drama of a Moses- or Isaiah-like call? How might a leader sense the ‘call’?
Traditionally, within the evangelical world at least, there has been what you might term a tri-partite view of the will of God. Which means that God has a sovereign will – his plan for the universe, a moral will – how wants his people to live, and a specific will – his plan for an individual’s life. According to this understanding it is important to discover this specific aspect of God’s will: what is God’s plan for my life? The answer, it is suggested, lies in being able to line up several signposts so they are pointing in the same direction – the bullseye of God’s will. Typically these signposts will include elements such as Scripture, an inner sense of guidance, the advice of others, and, perhaps, circumstances. Mind you circumstances can be tricky things. For every divinely orchestrated open (or closed) door, one needs to remember that the circumstances were pretty conducive for Jonah in his escape from God’s call!
A few decades ago Gary Friesen suggested that some of the traditional evangelical understanding rests on shaky foundations and that an overly subjective sense of calling is hardly enough when it comes to surviving the heavy seas of ministry.
However it remains true that many leaders do experience a subjective sense of call, and find this sense of call a source of stability and confidence when they experience the turbulence of leadership. For example, a high profile leader told me that ‘there’s a real sense in which when I ever go through difficult times, the Lord has nearly always provided me with such a dramatic call to a particular role that I think, you can’t gainsay that, that actually happened.’
McNeal again: ‘Christian leaders certain of their call allow it to become the center of gravity for their life experiences.’
Perhaps the subjective sense of calling, for example as it’s expressed in Frederick Buechner’s famous comment about vocation being at the point where the world’s deep hunger and your deep gladness meet, needs to be balanced by a proactive involvement on the part of the Church and its recognised leaders. Have we grasped the implications of the Holy Spirit’s voice in community in Acts 13?
What is your view of calling? Have you a clear sense of conviction that you are doing what God has called you to do?