“Called by God” – What Does That Really Mean?

As a lifelong Evangelical (who turned — gasp — progressive in college), I often bristle at certain words or phrases that tend to be overused in Christian circles. Do you ever notice how “blessed” can feel like cliche we mostly use in Instagram captions about our iced coffee? Or how a person’s assertion that “God called me to this” can sometimes seem like a tactic to get something they want?

But for as often as I feel skeptical about “Christian speak,” I still strongly affirm the deep truth hiding behind all the cliches. And while I haven’t often experienced a time where I could say, with full confidence, that “God called me” to something, it has happened.

My experience of God’s “call” 

I felt called at age 25. At the time, I’d just left my job in the obsessively profit-driven tech industry to work for a nonprofit, and I was seeking to be intentionally and seriously open to what I thought God might be prompting me to do, in all areas of my life.

Then I was asked to commit to leadership in a yearlong intensive Bible study I’d been participating in. My immediate reaction — NO. I loved this study. I loved diving into Scripture regularly and analytically. I loved the concrete, practical ways I saw evidence of God in my life when I did this study. More than any other program, this study was somehow able to unclog my ears and open my eyes to be able to sense God’s presence and direction in my life. I wanted more of that.

But the community was particularly conservative and traditional, which sometimes clashes with my more liberal beliefs on gender roles, women in ministry, and a variety of social issues. I didn’t feel like I fully fit in, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be in leadership in a community whose beliefs and opinions didn’t align with mine in areas of faith I felt strongly about.

So I asked God for a clear “yes” or “no” answer. To clarify, I’m well aware that God is not a vending machine. I’ve experienced many times how God doesn’t always indulge our requests for a simple “yes” or “no.” But I figured I’d ask anyway.

This time, God actually did have a response — and a pretty quick one at that. I was praying and reading my Bible on my phone while on the elliptical at the gym. I needed to either accept or decline the offer to lead a women’s small group for the next year, and I felt incredibly torn. Preparing myself for God’s familiar …why don’t I let you make up your mind and I’ll teach you more about me either way?” silence, I made my way through 1 Peter, and my eyes ran across the text of chapter 5 verse 2.

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve.”

Suddenly there I was, at the gym, on an elliptical, and tears started flooding my eyes. I hope everyone else was too absorbed in their own fitness to notice, because it felt pretty awkward to me.

I rarely cry — it’s something I’ve tried to focus on connecting to and allowing myself to feel lately, but for me, spontaneous tears were pretty firmly out of the norm.

What I love about this particular verse is, though the imagery of shepherd clearly fits with being a small group leader, it’s not a harsh command of duty there might be hell to pay if I ignore.

Not because you must, but because you are willing.”

“Not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve.”

It’s as if God was saying, You said you want to be intentional about putting me at the center of your life. This is a way to do that. It’s not the only way. I won’t smite you if you decide not to. But if you’re in — definitely, go for it!

The year that followed was full of ups and downs, but it was absolutely worth it, and it has 100% been the foundation for everything I’ve done in my church community in the 3 years since.

Parts of it really sucked. I didn’t like the rigidity of the rules. It bothered me to hear political views occasionally preached from the pulpit. One Sunday night (right after getting home from a group social event) I received a phone call from my Bible study leader. She calmly but firmly reprimanded me for wearing an old (too small) t-shirt that I hadn’t realized was “showing off my tiny tummy” when I moved or bent over during our leaders meeting — carelessly and selfishly “causing my brothers in Christ to stumble.”

Plus, because I’d never led a small group before, and the role required much time, preparation, and interpersonal connecting, I wrestled with feeling inadequate and unskilled for months when I first started.

Every Monday, as I drove from work to the church, I prayed out loud in my car that God would help me make it through the evening, without messing up or doing something silly.

It was an exaggerated experience with something I’ve found true in every type of ministry I’ve been involved in since. You won’t be perfect at it when you first start. You will mess up. Some people won’t like you. You’ll have to put in a lot of work, and you might not get any thanks. You might accidentally hurt someone’s feelings without meaning to. You probably will have to apologize at some point.

Ministry won’t make you feel like a superhero. It will probably just remind you how much you can sometimes think you suck.

But at the end of the day, it’s not really about you. And remembering that is actually a really great way to keep you focused not on you, and how well you’re doing or not doing, but how to be able to cut through all the noise and hear the still small voice of God — so that God is able to do God’s healing, encouraging, forming, redeeming work through you.

The cooler you think you are, the harder it will be to stay in tune with where God is and what God is doing, with or without you.

As many Bible study leaders’ coffee or froyo runs as I went on, as many parties or laser tag outings as I attended, I never managed to get to the point where I felt like I fit in with the other leaders. Everyone was incredibly nice to me on the surface, but we never were able to make it past that.

People joked that a benefit of leadership was the free dating service. I watched the male small group leaders follow a strict bro code — not pursuing any of the female small group leaders their friends wanted to date. A couple of them always got engaged by the end of the year.

But where I never managed to make it in the in crowd with the other leaders, the women in my group quickly became some of my favorite people. Because Christian spaces can so quickly become a contest where everyone’s trying to look good and no one feels safe to be honest about their flaws, I’ve always approached discussion groups with an intentional authenticity. If the group is sharing, I’m going to talk about a time when I messed up. I will let you know if I’m wrestling with a certain passage of the text. To me, intentional honesty is a necessary precursor to break down the walls of perfection and inauthenticity that silently seem to be built up in Christian spaces.

I loved getting dinner with the women in my group. Or pancakes. Or froyo. I loved taking about everything from faith to Disney.

  • Cooking meals together.
  • Praying for each other out loud, in the car, as we sat in the parking lot after carpooling home.
  • Having to use stain remover on the carpet because I spilled paint while we were making the photo booth props for our friend’s wedding. 😓

I learned so much from them. By the end of the year, when many groups dwindled and attendance was more sparse, my group still had pretty great attendance. I was during a final lecture of the year, as I was sitting with women I’d grown so close with the past year, that I realized:

Maybe I didn’t suck at leadership as much as I thought. Did I have a lot to learn in the beginning? Absolutely. But I was pretty freaking stoked about the ways God had worked in my life, and in the lives of the women in my group, over the past year. I didn’t actually suck as a leader.

That said, I still chose not to come back to leadership the next year. The strict rules, and the teaching and reinforcing of traditional gender roles and political ideology I didn’t share, made it ultimately a ministry that — while I am very glad for its commitment to Scripture study and discipleship — is not a ministry I want to align myself with or choose to represent.

And that’s okay. My year in small group leadership gave me skills I’ve used in my church in a variety of ways: running a college dinner/study space for a year, leading monthly small group discussions, or volunteering on the planning team for events series.

The places I feel God prompting towards engaging in these days are much different than the place God send me for my initial training when I first felt, to use the familiar phrase, “called.” But I use the skills I learned there regularly — and everything I learned from being challenged, confused, hurt, happy, included, excluded, you name it… have helped me better live out service and growth in the places I feel God working now.

Does God call us to specific places and roles? I think so — but it’s definitely not the only way God works — and not feeling a crystal clear “call” shouldn’t discourage anyone from seeking to live a life of service and faith in action like Jesus did when he was on earth.

Also, a specific “call” might not end up teaching us what we assume it will. God’s end goal is rarely exactly what we had in mind. And that’s probably a good thing. God’s plans always seem to work out a hundred times better than the carefully-researched and thoughtfully-prepared plans I come up with. After 15+ years of trying to direct and control everything about my life, this annoying (but ultimately exciting and very freeing) truth is finally starting to sink in.

The more I look to have my eyes and ears open to where God is moving, the more God brings experiences of joy, growth, healing, and purpose my way. It’s rarely what I expected, but at the end of the day, I really like it that way.

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