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Continuous discernment

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A while ago, I described my calling to ordained ministry. I explained how, through prayer and conversation with close friends and a variety of Elis, I gained assurance in that calling – to the point that I have stopped questioning it.

I also explained that I did not have a clear picture of the particulars of my future ministry, and that, at one time, I did struggle with this lack of clarity. Whilst the shape my ministry is to take is not much clearer, though, I have found that I was okay with that.

And so, trusting in my calling to the ministry, I ploughed on. I set my sights on this end goal, and worked towards it. I preached a few sermons. I got involved in a variety of ministries. I picked the liturgy for a service. In short, I’ve been busy. And since I started down this path, I have thought that doing this work was obeying God, because it was pursuing the calling I felt.


Photo: Vladimir Kramer, public domain(Unsplash)

I still think this is true: I still think that it is extremely important to follow my calling, and to do everything that I can to fulfill it. But I fear that, in focusing on this, I have separated my calling from God. It has become “something to achieve”, for the glory of Christ, yes, but first and foremost an end in itself. So I was concentrating on my personal future, at the expense of both my present actions and the greater picture.

It is especially easy to fall into this trap when the vocation we follow is somehow religious. If the calling we pursue is secular (and let me stress here that secular callings are just as worthy as religious callings), then we don’t risk much to mistake it for its source. For better or for worse, the working out of a secular vocation will always be slightly distinct from religious activity, no matter how pervasive our faith is. But if the calling is a calling to a religious role, then it is easy to set the fulfillment of that call as the primary purpose of all our doings  – religious and secular. Therefore, focusing on what we are called to rather than on the one who is calling us has particularly far-reaching consequences in the case of religious vocations.

This is why we need discernment, continuously. Even when we think we got it all figured out – what ministry we are called to, and a five-year plan to get there. Not because we necessarily need to further fine-tune this five-year plan, but because of what discernment means: constantly looking to God, and constantly being reminded that He is greater than the vocation we feel called to. Not because we doubt our vocation, but because God is present throughout our calling, not just at its end; and because we cannot reach this end on our own.

Let us not believe that we can sort out our vocation entirely; but let us, instead, turn to and trust in God for everything, including our calling and its fulfillment.

Making youth ministry exciting

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Youth ministry has dramatically changed in its format over the past few decades, because ministry as a whole has changed.

It is no longer assumed that people are churched throughout their lives, and so introduction to Christianity courses have had to be made available to adults and students. The Alpha course and similar curricula aimed at seekers have taken an ever larger importance in modern churches. Their story is one of (at least perceived) success. I think the reason behind that is simply that the purpose for these courses is clear and acknowledged: introducing interested people to the core beliefs of Christianity. Both clarity of purpose and acknowledgement thereof are missing from Sunday youth ministry.


Original photo: Peter Mercator, reused under CC License

Are youth ministers meant to provide a broad Biblical education, telling the young ones about a variety of Bible stories (but carefully avoiding Song of Songs or Ezekiel 23)? Or are we meant to provide the spiritual milk that will then allow the young ones to feed themselves? As preachers have stopped assuming the congregation know the Old Testament backwards, the former aim loses relevance, but keeps on being followed because there has been little transition from the former model to a hypothetical new one.

In order to ease that transition, two facts are worth remembering.

1. Youth ministry is not a glorified children-minding service.

That means two things: firstly, that when we approach youth ministry, we shouldn’t ask ourselves how to fill the schedule with things to do for every week. Rather, we should look at this time as an opportunity to do something with the youths. It might be worth taking an Alpha-like approach to youth ministry and have medium-length series to go through. Say, 4 weeks to explain sin and forgiveness; with that cycle repeated as many times as necessary as new youngsters come along; and studies going deeper, still in short or medium-length cycles spanning more than one week.

Secondly, the provision of youth ministry for all, week on week should not be a given. The default should be for children brought to church to stay in church rather than be taken away as soon as the service proper starts. Because unless there is a true purpose to going away with groups, then the children might as well stay with the adults. That way, at least, we might all learn something from what they say. So, say we’re in the third week of that 4-week series with a group of youngsters, and a new family comes to church – or a regular absentee is here for once. There should be no stigma associated with suggesting that they stay in the service rather than go away with the groups.

Similarly, there should be no stigma associated with adults wishing to join in the module (as long as it is from the start); although things such as age-appropriateness and group dynamics need to be kept in mind.

2. What we’re talking about is, in and of itself, exciting. (aka: there is no call for gimmicks)

In educational research, there’s a lot of talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The aim is generally to teach students to do maths because it is enjoyable and interesting of itself, not because there is a good grade in it for them at the end of it. Now, it is difficult to be excited about the use of a protractor, or about surds or Bidmas (although it is, I’m told, possible).

But what we’re talking about in youth ministry is exciting. It is because it is exciting that we chose to talk about it and share it with the young ones. I love talking about Gideon because I find that I relate to his story a lot and that through it, I find out about my relationship with God. Because I do, I don’t need to start with a silly game when that story is the topic of the week, but I can share this passion.

When we are structuring our session on three tenuously linked pillars – game, chat, God stuff – of course, the latter will appear slightly less fun; and so it will look as though we are ashamed to talk about God (especially if we feel like child minders…). But if the core of the session is the subject matter, then that becomes visibly worth it in itself!

Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for games and chats. Definitely. And this blog has tons of great ideas. But these should only be used when they have a purpose that fits in with the rest of the session: making a specific point more memorable, or explaining a particularly difficult point. Not simply for the sake of making the session more exciting.

Let me put this a different way: if, while planning, I’m asking myself “How do I make this exciting?”, then I’m doing it wrong. What I should be asking myself is “Am I excited about this?”. If not, then I have no place teaching about it. If so, then the planning question is “Why am I excited about it?”

No gimmicks, but personal conviction: that is the way to make youth ministry exciting.

A calling to the obvious


Calling to “the ministry” seems fairly narrow from the outside. But think of a “vocation to teach”, for instance. Yes, it is already a specific calling, but from the inside, there is a very wide range of practices included in teaching.

For instance: what level are you called to teach? Will you teach Special Needs? What will you teach? Where? And far more importantly, why do you want to teach?

The job descriptions limit these questions in no small way. Depending on where you are employed, you will end up a maths teacher in charge of 11-12 year-old students, in a school where pastoral care is entirely the prerogative of someone else. I ended up teaching* measure theory to 3rd year undergrads. As part of this job, there is an amount of things I am required to do. It wouldn’t do to let anyone leave the room without a firm grasp on what is countable or not.

But the mistake, spelled out clearly in all books on ministry that I have read, would be to try and fit my calling into a job description. When I was teaching measure theory, I saw my mission as going further than simply getting the kids (yes, 3rd year undergrads are kids) to know how the axiom of choice leads to the existence of non-measurable sets (and, later, to Banach-Tarski paradox). Some see their mission as awakening the kids to the beauty of maths; I saw mine as allowing them to grow at their own pace, and feel at home with these beautiful concepts. And to get them through exams.

The Devil’s Staircase (I knew I could mix maths and theology somehow) – source: Wikipedia user Gargan, reused under CC license

Yet even as I write these words, I am restricting what my vocation was (in the context of undergrad teaching) to an outcome. To “doing” something. But it was far more than that, it was more than a job. It was, very much, creating ties with my students, allowing them to be themselves with me; and that was something that felt very natural (even though not every teacher is doing it).

That’s the issue I get when trying to articulate my calling to ordained ministry. I start by looking at the parts of ordained ministry that are in the job description (attending PCC meetings, giving sermons, leading and presiding worship, pastoral care, etc.). Yes, all that will be part of what I’ll be called to do; but it shouldn’t be my starting point in articulating my ministry. It should be what my calling later slots into.

Where it gets tricky, is that what I am called to is very deeply rooted in me. So much so that it feels natural, to the point that it seems wrong to spell it out. It feels wrong because, surely, everybody would agree with it, and it barely needs pointing out. So how do I identify the nature of my calling? Through conversation. Through discerning what is shared with everyone from what belongs to my calling.

Last Thursday, I engaged in conversation on whether helping the poor should include teaching them how to use the help – whether, to cut a long conversation short, financial support could be given to people without at the same time teaching them that grocery shopping should come before large screen TVs. I was passionately on the side that support should be unconditional (but that the offer to help should also include, as an option, that teaching). Because of many reasons, but mostly because I am passionate about letting people “come as they are”, and about allowing them to grow at their own pace, in an environment that welcomes them.

See, I thought that everybody would see the value in this approach. Because I thought it was self-evident, because I ended up hanging out with people who share this value.  And I thought failures to allow people  to come as they are, especially in the Christian context, were down to practical contingencies, to our fallen nature, and to limits to our own efforts. I was, clearly, wrong in that.

But talking with others about these things, on a side issue, has allowed me to identify this as a key aspect of my calling. Now I can start to reverse the discernment process from trying to see what aspects of the job fit with who I am, to seeing how these aspects of my calling (these things that feel self-evident to me) can be grown in the job descriptions; and why ordained ministry resonates with that and why I then have that calling.

Do you want to learn about measure theory? Let me know! :)

What are you called to? (we all have a calling, whether in the ministry or not!)

How do you discern your calling?

*I’m using teaching in a loose sense. I  was leading example classes/seminars.

The nature of (my) calling


A calling is a hard thing to articulate. It’s extremely personal, hard to describe, hard to explain – but harder still to dismiss.

Photo: floeschie, reused under CC license

And yet it is crucial to be able to do so; because if your calling is to the ministry, you will find people coming to you with a drive to test their own calling. Because you will want to explain to friends what you’re living. Because it will puzzle others. Because, ultimately, it is an awesome thing to share.

But the truth of it is, there appears to be no formula for callings; there is no constant in there. Which makes it incredibly hard to know in our minds as well as in our hearts that we are called; because there is no pattern to test our calling against.

Some callings are of an extraordinary, precise and unmistakable nature. S/Paul, on the road to Damascus, had a great and life-changing experience. Gideon was called out of a quiet life by an angel.
Some are more subtle. Samuel got called three times before recognising the Lord and his calling. Some, but not all, are made through people – Saul, Elisha are examples; and to an extent Gideon’s calling.
A lot of callings lead to massive changes in the lives of the called (both Sauls, Gideon, Elisha, etc.) but some happen to people who are already in the temple (Samuel).

The only constant is that once the nature of the calling was established and accepted, there was no doubting it. There was a strong resolve to do whatever needed doing to serve.

This is encouraging and daunting at the same time. Encouraging, because it means that if I commit to the ministry for life, it will be a deeply satisfying decision. Daunting, because it feels like there’s no getting out. A relief too, because there’s nothing I can do about it.

My calling wasn’t spectacular. It started out as a feeling last September – a series of tiny nudges in the direction of ministry; combined with a series of advertised opportunities to grow in that direction. When I reached the stage where I took it seriously, and prayed about it, that feeling was fed and grew. When I started going for the opportunities given to me, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. My prayer turned from “Is this real?” to something akin to Samuel’s “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”. And I’ve taken things one at a time since. I’ve shared this with close friends, and with my own Elis. At this stage, I’m serene and trusting that, if this is God’s calling for me, it will lead to the ministry. Like many, however, I still sometimes momentarily doubt whether I’ve not just made a massive mistake; but quickly realise that these are just insecurities about my own abilities, and am quickly brought back to the confidence in my calling.

If you’re in ministry or planning to go into the ministry, what was your calling like?

What would your advice for people who are feeling called (including me) be?