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Discerning a Vocation: Five Books

Discerning a Vocation: Five Books

A good book is good; five is even better. In the first of our Five Books series, Jennifer Strawbridge recommends her favourite books on discernment and vocation. Mthr Jenn is a Vocations Advisor in the Diocese of Oxford and Director of the St Mary Magdalen School of Theology.

Vocation is a tricky word. Firstly, we tend to think that when discernment and vocation are placed together, the only thing being discerned is a call to ordained ministry. Second, such a view not only suggests that discernment which leads to different path is “failure” in some sense, but it also sets the vocation to ordained ministry above all other places and professions to which we might be called. Thirdly, such a narrow focus is accompanied by an equally narrow understanding of the gifts we have been given by God and the work of the Holy Spirit.

However, vocation is also a simple word. It comes from the Latin vocare, “to call”, and in the context of this post is “the work of a person called to by God” (Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, p. 117). The great preacher, pastor, and novelist Frederick Buechner describes vocation in this oft quoted phrase: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” For Parker Palmer, vocation is that which you can’t not do.


And Parker Palmer’s book, Let your life speak, is the first of the five books as it includes an honest grappling with God’s call: “Vocation at its deepest level is ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I am unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling” (p. 25). Palmer is a clear writer who addresses vocation through the lens of his own questions and struggles, beginning with the challenging first line of a poem by Bill Stafford: “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” And yet this book is not an autobiography. Rather, the journey Palmer shares is profound, intimate, and speaks to all those struggling to articulate questions about what God is calling them to do and to be. His examples include the call to ordination, the call to writing, and the call to teaching. Palmer’s focus is on questions of identity, God-given gifts, and taking care that the call we answer doesn’t lose sight of the God who calls us.


The second book is not one that most would see as a positive choice for encouraging vocation within the Church as it is Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church (and the book which followed: An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith). Taylor is consistently, at least in North America, recognised as one of this generation’s greatest preachers. In a recent (2018) list of top preachers chosen by a large denominational university, she was (controversially) the only non-male on the list. Her prose is beautiful and her homiletic voice is clear in this book. The book details Brown’s call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church in the USA and her leaving of parish ministry to teach at a small college. Her personal faith journey drives the narrative and takes the reader through questions of discernment and inclusion. The story of “leaving” church is not one of atheism but asks questions of those who dare to think of the church as more than a building with four walls. While I don’t identify with all of her theology, her language of faith and call and the journey through her questions is one that speaks to vocation and doesn’t discourage.


This leads to the third book, very different from the first two, by another incredible writer, Roman Catholic theologian Henri J. M. Nouwen, With Open Hands. I have chosen this book as the practice of prayer and discernment cannot be separated and thus a book on prayer and openness is essential when thinking about vocation. Prayer connects to vocation as it connects us both with God and with our community. Thus, in prayer, according to Nouwen “we know that God will become known to us in the nature around us, in the people we meet, and into situations we run into. We trust that the world holds God’s secret within and we expect that secret to be shown to us. Prayer creates that openness in which God is given to us. Indeed, God wants to be admitted into the human heart, received with open hands, and loved with the same love with which we have been created.” Prayer, therefore, is how we are able to discern the presence of God within us and around us. And the language of openness, that is found in the title, is a necessity for prayer because openness is how we let go of expectations, our intense self-focus, and our demands as we enter into the timeless space and grace of God. What makes this book on prayer especially unique is that Nouwen’s writing is informed by conversations with 2 dozen theology students on prayer and thus it is grounded not only in his wisdom and experience, but in the questions and discernment of his community.


The fourth book is a great classic by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey. The Christian Priest Today is criticised by some as being dated and too male-centric. It is a collection of addresses given to those about to be ordained and, because of its time, is addressed only to male candidates. But if one can overlook the gendered language, the book contains wisdom that can be mined both throughout a process of discernment and well into a call to ordained ministry. Each address has a specific focus, grounded in Scripture, tradition, and Ramsey’s own challenging, and at times very personal, wisdom. With sections on theology and intellect, the necessity of prayer, the dangers of self-sufficiency, the importance of reconciliation, and the centrality of the Eucharist, this book offers much fodder for prayer both for those discerning a vocation to ordained ministry and for those already living out the life of a priest in a parish. But it also offers a challenge for any Christian in their life of prayer with the reminder that: “In your daily encounters with people, God is there: you can recollect him, you can be with him, you can share your doings with him, you can shoot arrows of desire from your heart to his…. You can be on the Godward side of every human situation; for the Godward side is a part of every human situation. But you are unlikely to have the power to be on the Godward side of human situations if you think that it can be done by a kind of shallow secularized activism….The truth is that you will have the awareness of God and the power to be on the Godward side of human situations only if you carry with you into the day’s ups and downs an “interior castle” of recollection drawn from your times of quietness and eucharist and scripture.”


The final book is another one that should not be judged by its title. It is Eugene Peterson and Marva Dawn’s The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call. Grounded in biblical texts, the book focuses on why one needs to be “unnecessary” in terms of: what culture deems to be important; what we feel is important (e.g. our egos); and what parishes expect us to do and be. For Dawn and Peterson, we base far too much of our calling and our idea of what we are called to do and to be on our culture and our own expectations rather than Scripture and prayer. The book thus looks at pastoral ministry through the lens of Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles (and a bit of Romans and Acts). While scripturally I don’t always agree with their exegesis or assumptions about Paul and his writings, the call to move away from self-focus and towards discernment focused on God and God’s people is a breath of fresh air and a serious challenge for those discerning a vocation where the focus is so often on “my call” and “my vocation” and “my ministry”. The call to be Christ-centred in all elements of discernment and ministry is essential, with the result that one becomes “unnecessary” concerning the success of the local church, or wherever one is called to use the one’s God-given gifts. The book is a call to renew and refocus our understanding of vocation from our selves and our needs to Christ and the truth of his Gospel, which we are all called to live and to teach.

While not a book on call, one of the greatest influences in my own continued discernment has been the poetry of Mary Oliver. Her poem, The Summer Day captures not only my yearning for good British weather, but also one of the key questions of vocation:

I don’t know exactly what prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down I the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?


Other suggestions for reading:

  • Sabina Alkire and Edmund Newell, What can one person do?: Faith to heal a broken world
  • Susan Cain, Quiet
  • Susan Farnham, et al. Listening Hearts: discerning call in community
  • Howard Friend, Gifts of an uncommon life: the practice of contemplative activism
  • Stephen Platten, Vocation: Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land
  • Lilian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver, This Odd and Wondrous Calling
  • Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
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