Vocational Discernment’s Big Question: What is the next step God is calling me to take?

Vocational discernment is like any other discernment, but it has a particular importance and urgency. In the next couple of posts, I want to highlight special considerations that might prove helpful to take into account for those discerning their vocations.


Discerning the Next Best Step

Vocational discernment is not about foreseeing the future or committing to one’s vocation in one dramatic leap. Vocational discernment is about seeking to follow God’s will for us here and now. Is God calling me to consider religious life? marriage? priesthood? Discernment is about taking the next best step.

So, for example, if we are in our third year at college or university, and we start to seriously wonder whether God is calling us to priesthood, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we start planning to enter the seminary. Instead, it might mean that we take the first steps in discerning a call to priesthood, such as: talking about it with the diocesan vocation director, finding out more about the priesthood and the seminary, perhaps even visiting the seminary, and finding a spiritual director. Our constant prayer is twofold: To what vocation is God calling me? and How is Jesus calling me to follow him more closely here and now? If we struggle with the tension of this twofold prayer—for example, if we find ourselves worried about a particular future, then it is best to focus only on the second question: How is Jesus calling me to follow him more closely here and now? This question is enough to guide us in our vocational discernment.

If we continue to feel God’s invitation to consider priesthood, then we take further steps along our discernment: we make a discernment retreat; we follow the advice of the diocesan vocation director; eventually with the encouragement of the vocation director, we apply to enter the seminary, etc.

Entering a seminary or a convent is not the end of our vocational discernment, but a significant step along the way. Until a priest is ordained, a couple is married, or a religious professes perpetual vows, the vocational discernment continues.

After ordination, marriage, or profession, discernment continues but is no longer about discerning which vocation, but how to live our vocation. The fundamental question now becomes: How is God calling me to live as a…[priest, spouse, religious] today?

Discerning God’s Will…Our Mission in This World

We do not discern our vocation in a vacuum. We are born into our family, we grow up as part of any number of communities: our school, our neighborhood, our parish, our town, our country, and our world, in this time. When we discern how God is calling us to give our lives in love, it is important that we do so within our situation and our community, aware of the needs of our world today.

In our vocational discernment we specifically want to pray with the needs of the world, and take those into account as we discern, so that we can fulfill the mission God has entrusted to us. We need to bring our full selves to discerning the mission entrusted to us because God calls us—with our unique set of gifts, weaknesses, skills, experiences, and inclinations—to make a specific difference in the world.

At the same time, a big part of our vocational discernment is to “get out of the way,” putting Christ at the center of our lives and of our discernment. The more Christ becomes the center, the more we can take on an attitude of service, of attending to the needs of others. With a Christlike desire to serve, we are more easily able to discern how God wants us to respond to those needs with our lives.

Discerning Our Call To Serve

06L my crazy ideaA hugely important part of any good discernment is to listen to God’s invitations as expressed in the needs of the world—the needs of those around us: Where is God sending us to serve?

We live in a busy world, with so many needs. Any person of good will alive today can easily become overwhelmed by the number of requests for help, whether from family, friends, neighbors, parish, or work. Sometimes it may seem to be a call from God; at other times, we may become casually involved in helping out our family, our community, or a ministry simply as a favor, and the favor turns into a bigger commitment that we didn’t pray about or plan for. Especially when the invitation is casual, or we never envisioned ourselves serving in this particular way, we may not recognize God’s call.

When we feel pulled in many directions, or find ourselves juggling too much, this is the perfect time to enter into a spirit of discernment, to sort through the different demands on our time and discern which requests or needs are invitations from God. Sometimes, we can easily sort through them. At other times, it may take time to gradually clarify how God is inviting us. But as we go forward in our lives, we will develop more of a sense of our personal mission, of how God is calling us to be and to love in the world.

For example when I visit a hospital, I am drawn to help the people I encounter there—not just the person I am visiting, but also the people I meet casually. While I’m at the hospital, I seek to respond as best I can to the requests that I receive. I believe that God wants to work through me to touch the lives of the people that I encounter on that particular visit. (And often I am deeply touched by the people who are so courageously undergoing such suffering.)

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However in my vocation as a Daughter of Saint Paul, I am also aware that I am not called to be a nurse. Instead, my vocation as a Pauline communicator is to focus on the spiritual poverty and suffering of the people whom I encounter, whether they are wealthy or poor. This can be a less obvious call, because physical poverty and suffering are often more noticeable.

What criteria can we use to sort through the many demands that we experience? For me, the wonderfully profound Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner sums it up best when he wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Frederick Buechner, from his book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC). Looking for that resonance between the outward call we receive/perceive, and the inner movements of our heart may take time, prayer, and discernment, but the God who lovingly calls us will clarify his will for us in his time.