“Fair warning: I’m not a preacher; I’m a writer.”
That’s what I used tell crowds and congregations as I stood up with microphone in one hand and my Bible in the other. For most of my life, I self-selected my calling as exclusively in the realm of the written word. I wasn’t prepared for how once you become a published writer, people assume you speak and teach, too.
I eschewed preaching for a range of reasons: shaky nerves, insecurity about my lack of seminary training, distrust of the Christian celebrity dynamic. Deep down, I believed I wasn’t called to it. But communities of believers kept asking me to come and share my thoughts on God and church, Scripture and theology, and my own church regularly asked me to preach.
Years into reluctant preaching, I started a sermon at a church in Raleigh with that self-deprecating remark. Afterwards, the pastor looked me dead in the eye and said, “You have got to stop saying that. The gift of God is clear. We all see it.”
In my faith tradition—the charismatic, happy-clappy variety—we can play a bit fast and loose with the word “calling.” We say things like, “I feel called to this church” and “I feel called out of this relationship” and “I feel called to be a pastor/doctor/teacher/mother” and so on. We can feel called to all sorts of places and events and people and things. Usually we mean that we sense God’s blessing on our forward movement, and we feel like God is with us in that very thing we’re about to choose.
My thing was always writing. I am pretty typical of both my tradition (charismatic non-denominational) and my generation (Gen X); I self-selected my calling and simply got on with it. There are benefits to this approach, a very for-the-people-by-the-people model of priesthood that affirms God as active and leading in our lives.
On the shadow side, this model of vocation can become twisted by our own misguided expectations—dreams of grandeur or a false demarcation between sacred and secular work. Our sense of calling becomes a way to shut down questions or feedback, even well-meaning and wise: Well, but thus saith the Lord unto me….
I loved to write from the time I was a small child—at just the age of my own tinies, which now seems remarkably young. I dedicated myself to words, and God met me in the written word over and over. Even though there were the usual bumps—a detour into other career fields and the typical rejections and resignations over the years—I did become a published writer. As writing opened up opportunities for me to speak, my husband, my parents, my sister, my friends, my church, my mentors, my colleagues, other churches all agreed: self-selected or not, preaching and teaching were part of my calling. The people of God saw a gift in me, and they were the ones to call it out, encourage it, give me room to practice it, coach me in it, and then release me with joy.
The idea of communal affirmation for gifts or vocations dates back to the early church. After all, ordination began as a designation by the people of God for an individual as set apart to lead from amongst and within them. Other church leaders often helped to identify or affirm the gifts in others.
In Acts 13, the congregation in Antioch discerned during a time of worship and fasting that God was calling Barnabas and Saul to be sent on a new assignment. They commissioned the pair by laying their hands on their heads. Afterwards, Saul and Barnabas headed off to Cyprus to preach the gospel, and a new chapter of evangelism began.
In communal affirmation, there is what theologian and scholar Dr. Phil Collins called a “check and balance” of the mutual submission for our callings. The people of God recognize and discern the gift; the individual then discerns, responds, and submits; then after the commissioning, the community receives the practice within the church and in the world.
When I tell the story of how I came into preaching as a calling, I have to acknowledge that my experience in the church is unusual. Not too many women have a story of how their church community called them out as a leader long before they saw that gift in themselves. And yet, communal affirmation may be especially crucial for women, who can be slow to self-select for leadership positions.
Read the rest of this article over at Her.meneutics, Christianity Today’s Blog for Women.