The second theological model for vocational journeys is the discernment model. Biblical stories that illustrate this model include Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and His Transfiguration. Paul also uses the discernment model in teaching about spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12 and 14.
In the Gospels, Jesus receives his call from God in baptism. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus departs to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. The temptations are a process of discernment. Satan suggests three ways for Jesus to exercise his call, turn stones into bread, fly from the Temple, and rule the world. Jesus ponders these job offers, but discerns that they are not from God. He returns from the wilderness with a clear sense of his vocation, to declare the good news of the presence of God’s kingdom.
The Transfiguration can be viewed as the story of Jesus discerning a new vocation. Jesus has just successfully launched a new program, sending his disciples out with His power to preach and heal. After they return, and after Peter proclaims Jesus as the Christ, Jesus decides to take His closest disciples up the mountain to discern what God may be calling them to do next. After a conversation with Moses and Elijah, Jesus discerns a radical new vocation, to journey to Jerusalem and to the cross. He will leave his old vocation of preaching and healing in the competent hands of his disciples. Peter misinterpreted the new call and wanted to build a shrine to the experience. God then reminded Peter of his vocation to listen to Jesus.
Paul acted like a shepherd to the Corinthians, helping them discern what skills should be raised up to leadership status. Paul recognized the importance of many spiritual gifts, but suggests that the Corinthians discern which are most helpful for building up the community.
Common features of these discernment stories are:
1. The association of call theology directly or by implication with baptism.
2. The consideration of multiple options.
3. Discerners engage in dialog: Jesus with Satan; Jesus with Moses and Elijah; and Paul with the Corinthians.
4. Temptation to make a poor choice is always present. Satan tempted Jesus with several bad job offers. Peter was misunderstood the Transfiguration and was tempted to launch a capital campaign instead of take a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The discernment model invites you to seek multiple options as you begin to seek an appropriate new call. You are encouraged to take more responsibility for your vocational journey and actively seek a new position when you feel moved by the Spirit to do so. The shepherd’s role is to encourage healthy and honest discernment by all parties and to provide sufficient training and information to search committees and to you so each can discern a healthy match.
The rise in job vacancy advertisements in publications like The Living Church is a sign that the discernment model is becoming more popular. Search committees seem more willing to consider applications form any source, including applications directly from you. The OTM Portfolio’s “Search Community Ministry Portfolios” section supports a discernment approach to deployment by allowing you to learn about most potential vacancies.
The main weakness in a discernment theology of deployment lies in temptation. You may be tempted to apply for positions for which you may not be well suited. Parish search committees may be tempted to portray themselves as they wish they were, rather than as they are. You may be tempted to portray yourself as you think parishes want you to be, rather than as what God has created you to be. The temptation is to oversell yourself and to neglect to discern whether you are really a good fit for a given position. Like Peter at the Transfiguration you may not be able to see clearly the options before. The big tabernacle may be more tempting than the journey to the cross.
Both call and discernment theologies have helped guide my vocational journey over the past thirty plus years. I lean toward a discernment theology, but have had positive experiences exploring calls that were generated by other shepherds in the church. Whether you lean more toward the call or discernment theology, remember that your vocational journey is not just about you. Like Jesus, you are a servant of God and a servant of the church. Your vocational journey is as much about the church as it is about you. God has given you a set of talents to be exercised and grown on behalf of the church.