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Communities of Calling

Vocation as a guiding theological concept in congregations
by Faith+Lead | September 29, 2021

By Jessie Bazan, with Rev. Dr. Jane Patterson

What happens when churches become communities of calling?

My colleagues at the Collegeville Institute and I began exploring this question in 2018 with the launch of the Communities of Calling Initiative (CCI). We designed the CCI to help Christian congregations discover and deepen their sense of God’s calling in the lives of their communities. 

Calling and vocation can be loaded words in theological circles. We use these words interchangeably to refer to both the general calling to discipleship shared by Christians and the particular callings individuals experience to people, places, and work. 

During the last four years, we have partnered with 13 congregations from eight different Christian traditions to see what a difference vocational formation makes to the faith lives of their communities. Here are a few things we have learned so far. 

Using vocation as a guiding theological concept in congregations … 

Gives communities a common language from which to talk about faith 

Congregations spent the first year of their projects introducing the concept of calling and developing a common language around vocation. This teaching happened through formation opportunities, sermons that highlighted callings, prayers of the people that brought attention to workers, and opportunities to hear about the callings of fellow congregants. Congregants gradually began using terms like “calling,” “vocation,” and “discernment” in conversations after worship and beyond. This language invited deeper reflections on faith and the common good.  

The team from Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, NY remarked: “Some [congregants] have a newfound sense of what might be possible in our congregational work together.  We’ve become more fluent in conversations about the influence of faith in our lives and decisions. We have a growing expectation that church should be the place that calls us to engage the questions God wants us to keep asking. And we are learning what it might look like when a congregation takes on the ministry of calling its members to serve, grow, and awaken to the new gifts for ministry among us.”

Invites communities to name and claim the particular ways they live out their faith

Part of what has been so dynamic about the question of vocation as the guiding concern for this initiative is that it has come to life in many different ways across all of our congregations. Their geographical locations and denominational affiliations are varied, from coast to coast, urban to rural, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox. They consistently show forth their creativity in sensing how to work with their particular people in particular communities with particular theologies. 

The hard issues of this past few years like the COVID-19 pandemic, reckoning with racism, and the presidential election affected our congregations at different times and in different ways, but they all responded with the tools of vocational practice: slowing down, discernment, willingness to change, listening for God’s lead, prayer and reflection, experimentation.

Integrates practices of discernment into congregational life 

Discernment is the spiritual practice of vocation—and a practice that can greatly enhance congregational life. Dr. Kathleen A. Cahalan says, “Practiced as a way of life, discernment draws people into deeper relationship with God and helps us to stay focused on God’s callings in our lives.” Common discernment practices used by CCI congregations include lectio divina, storytelling, reflective writing, and small group conversations. 

Our congregations used these discernment practices to consider their response to current issues. For instance, almost all of our congregations are engaged to some degree in helping their parishioners respond to a calling to engage in issues of racial injustice, whether they are addressing concerns in their wider local context or creating spaces for congregants to increase their self-awareness of racial bias. The framework of discernment of callings has helped clarify all of these nudges and given congregational leaders ways to think about sustaining and deepening their efforts over time.

Evokes exciting, challenging questions of faith 

Over the past year our congregations asked key vocational questions like  

  • How does a socially and geographically distanced congregation live out its call to be the body of Christ in this time?  
  • As the world continues to shift, what is God calling our community to be and how will we respond in ways that are both faithful to our identity and open to change?  
  • How can we become a vocational resource for our wider community, including people of other faiths or no faith?
  • How might our callings be deepened through partnerships with our neighbors?  
  • How is our congregational community called to respond to current social issues?
  • How do we help members of our congregation engage vocational grief (job loss, job transformation, loss of a workplace community)? 

These questions build the foundation for profound conversations, reflective preaching, and communal discernment. 

Offers a framework for exploring difficult issues of faith

The COVID-19 pandemic upended all types of congregational planning, but it also provided the need and opportunity to dive deeper into issues that intersect with calling, such as the call to lament and the call to seek justice. Congregations began asking difficult questions about calling. For example, how do we cultivate a communal calling when we cannot be together physically? How can our experience of powerlessness actually deepen our callings?

We anticipated that questions of calling would naturally grow more complex over time, so we left space in our education and design process to address particular and timely areas of interest. We also noticed that, as congregations discover new dimensions to calling, they are interested in appropriate resources that can be tailored to their own context, e.g. small group guides focused on vocation, intergenerational resources, discernment practices, and practices of prayer that strengthen discernment. 

You can find these resources and more on the Communities of Calling Initiative website

About the Authors

Jessie Bazan lives in St. Joseph, Minnesota, and serves as the Program Associate for the Collegeville Institute Seminars. She is also a columnist for U.S. Catholic magazine and contributing author at The Liturgical Press

Rev. Dr. Jane Patterson lives in Los Angeles, California, and serves as the Program Director for the Communities of Calling Initiative. She is a priest in the Episcopal Church.

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