Leaders—whether in church ministry or the workplace—often speak of their "calling" as a time of realization, an ah-ha moment. We knew: this is what I was made to do. This is what God has called me to. I am called to lead.
Sometimes calling creeps in like a fog—and we realize that what we've been doing for the last five years actually is our calling. Or worse, that it's not. Maybe we haven't figured out our "calling" yet and we're trying to get clarity: what's the big job God has for me? What is my life supposed to be about? What am I supposed to be doing?
Frederick Buechner wrote many wise things on vocation and calling, including the oft-quoted wisdom that calling is found at the place "where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
That's beautiful, but we can make a dangerous mistake if we assume that those two clues are all we get and it's up to us to figure it out; if we think calling is a memo we get once and are left to implement on our own. Calling becomes a rigid riddle we must solve. We try to discover the right way to live out this calling, the tasks we must accomplish, the work to be done.
What if calling is not just about doing, but about listening? I believe that listening must occur daily and has the potential to be transformative. That's the whole point of hearing and obeying a call: our spiritual transformation, which will change us and then change the world.
Certainly, there are moments when leaders "receive a call." Two biblical examples: Simon the fisherman dropping his nets in response to a compelling rabbi's "follow me." Saul on the road to Damascus hearing the voice of the same rabbi, with a much less winsome opening line: "Why are you persecuting me?"
Both of them responded to the holy calling and went on to change history. But the key to living out their calling was not the initial encounter, but the daily listening that followed. What we listen to on a daily basis shapes us.
Good leaders seek to hear clearly the voice that calls us into whatever assignment we might have. Both Saul and Simon listened to the voice that both renamed and redirected them: they became Paul and Peter. But both of them continued to listen to Jesus on a daily basis. They were called not just once, but daily, to not just follow but keep following.
Jesus spoke of calling his followers in the way that a shepherd calls his sheep, not once but continually: "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice" (John 10:3-4, emphasis added).
Paul, Peter, you, and I (and all of the Shepherd's sheep) are not left alone to figure out how to implement a one-time calling. Rather, we are called to daily intimacy where we listen to the voice that guides our every step.
Practically speaking, how do we engage in daily listening? By intentionally engaging in listening prayer. Carve out times of quiet, where you can ask God, "How do you want me to live out my calling today?" and then just listen, journaling any thoughts that come your way. Beyond time earmarked for prayer, as you go through your day, keep bringing that image of the Shepherd to mind. Pay attention to quiet whispers he murmurs in your heart, and try obeying them.
As we follow, listening, we are changed and transformed—and perhaps that is the point of calling: transformation.
In Buechner's wonderful essay "The Calling of Voices" (from his book The Hungering Dark), he wrote that the key to discerning calling is listening. A call is not something you do, it's something you hear. He wrote that voices all around us vie for our attention, attempting to direct us. "The more alive and alert we are, the more clamorous our lives are. Which do we listen to? What kind of voice do we listen for?" he asks. Because what we listen to shapes us. It transforms us, for better or worse.
He recommends that we listen to "the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness." In other words, our calling often aligns with our spiritual gifts. God's gifting is part of how he speaks to us, if we have ears to hear.
As we listen to the voice of our own gladness (which ultimately comes from God and how he made us), I believe it is possible that God will shape us (and our gladness) into what he wants us to be. Calling has a certain fluidity to it, an elasticity. As we respond to God's calling, we are changed, stretched—and we find joy in tasks we might never have thought we could do before. Why? Because listening transforms our hearts. Calling is less about implementing a strategy on God's behalf, and more about how God is shaping our souls.
Have you ever listened to the voice of your own gladness? What do you love? What has God gifted you to do? As a busy leader, you may think you don't have time to think about that. But invest an hour in intentional solitude with God. Write down peak experiences, moments where you felt "deep gladness." What's the common denominator in these experiences? How do they align with what you are doing in your work or ministry? Ask God to speak to you through this exercise.
Jesus said that his sheep hear, know, and respond to his voice. Daily, he calls us. When we wander, he calls us back. And as the story of our lives unfolds, the Shepherd leads us to new places or gives us new assignments. He may call us to places we might never have gone, were we not paying attention.
Our greatest gladness, the gladness that deserves the most attention, is the gladness that comes from being in the transforming presence of the one who loves us.
Keri Wyatt Kent is an author and speaker who helps people slow down, simplify, and listen to God. She's the author of 10 books, including Listen: Finding God in the Story of Your Life, and a frequent contributor to Gifted for Leadership. Learn more about her ministry at www.keriwyattkent.com.