Bookstores are filled with books designed to help people find a sense of purpose or direction in their lives. It seems everybody is trying to figure out what they are supposed to do with the time they’ve been given. Christians in particular have suggested several ways to discern the call of God, some of which are good (like this), some… not so much.
As someone who is pretty confident that I’m doing exactly what God has called me to do (and who loves doing it!), I thought I’d take a moment to share my journey. I don’t have a magic formula that will work for everybody; no four-step method to the perfect vocation. But I had a really good discussion about this last week with a group of college guys from our church, and if my experience is helpful to you as well, then may God receive the glory!
The topic came up as the small group of guys I’m discipling was discussing the final chapters of the book we’ve been reading together: The Masculine Mandate: God’s Calling to Men, by Richard Phillips (my review). While the entire book speaks generally of God’s calling to all men, the penultimate chapter looks more specifically at discerning spiritual gifts for the purpose of serving the church. I really liked this quote:
Most often, spiritual gifts are revealed not through a diagnostic test but through the experience of serving the Lord. The sooner we begin serving where there is a need, the sooner we will begin to learn where the Lord is leading us in our service to Him.
This resonates with me because it is backed up by my own experience. While I am sure there is some merit to diagnostic “spiritual gifts tests” (such as this one that our church sometimes uses), I have never found them particularly useful. In my life, it has been through service to the Lord and close relationships with other Christians that God has progressively revealed to me the ways that He has gifted and called me. Let me explain…
When I arrived in Cookeville, TN, an 18-year-old college freshman with no friends in a town far from home, I didn’t know a whole lot. I was not a student of God’s Word, and rarely contemplated matters of faith. I had no more than a vague idea about what I would do with my life. All I knew was that I loved music, and church seemed like a good place to meet friends.
Along with a few other music majors, I began attending Stevens Street Baptist Church. At the time, the church had just introduced the drumset during corporate worship (shocking!), and the 20-member choir clapped on 1 & 3. But even then, despite my lack of spiritual sensitivity, I could tell that this was a place where good things were happening, so I stuck around.
After a few months, I introduced myself to the music minister, told him I played the trumpet, and offered to play if he ever decided he’d like to use me. Then he did something totally unexpected: he told me he’d love to have me play — and incorporate others as well — on the condition that I take ownership of the instrumental group. Thus the Stevens Street Baptist Church Worship Orchestra was born, and I learned my first valuable lesson about God’s calling: A Godly man in a position of leadership delegated authority and responsibility to me. I never sought leadership; it was thrust upon me! But without Robert Ward’s trust followed by years of continued guidance, I may never have known that I could be a leader.
Fast forward a couple years. After church one day, I sat at lunch with my friend Doug Clark, who at that time also played trumpet at Stevens Street. By God’s providence, Doug (the far better trumpeter!) received a phone call during our lunch together recruiting him to go and serve on the music staff at a place in New York called CAMP-of-the-WOODS. Pretty much on a whim, I decided to audition, too, and we both spent the summer using our God-given musical gifts to serve the Lord at this Christian resort.
COTW benefited me in innumerable ways, but here are a few of the most pertinent:
- I heard God’s Word preached almost daily.
- I was surrounded by people who loved music as much as I did, and loved Jesus much more than I did.
- I was discipled by a man who convinced me of the importance of daily Bible reading, and held me accountable to do it. Interestingly enough, he also taught me that my love of reading was a gift from God, and fed me a consistent diet of good books on theology and the Christian life.
So, this was my second lesson: God worked providentially through my circumstances to put me in a place where the gospel would penetrate my heart for the first time. I thought I was going to New York because I needed a summer job and had found an opportunity to be paid to play the trumpet. God had so much more in store for me!
Skip ahead three more years. Having now spent several summers at COTW, yet another Godly man delegated yet more responsibility to me. See, in addition to playing concerts, the music staff also served as waiters in the dining hall. Like most of the music staff, I really hadn’t wanted to do that, but I had taken to heart the summer staff’s “theme verse” from my first year there: Colossians 3:23. And so, I had decided to wait tables with all my heart as unto the Lord… whatever that meant.
By God’s grace, I realized not only that I could wait tables, but that I really enjoyed serving people! So in 2004, when the COTW personnel director needed to hire a department head for the dining hall, he called me. I told him there was absolutely no way I could handle that kind of responsibility, but he insisted that he had identified in me the characteristics of a leader, and one with the potential to be a good administrator. My third lesson: God used an older man to point out gifts and abilities I would never have seen in myself.
As a result, I was given responsibility to oversee a dining room that served three meals a day for up to a thousand people, with dozens of employees under my authority. There I learned how to do everything from scheduling to filling out payrolls to dealing with angry customers to disciplining staff members with grace… all things that were invaluable in preparing me for the job I have now!
Back in Tennessee and still trying to figure out what to do with my life (besides waiting tables at Outback), I was taken aback when my pastor and music minister shared their vision for a church-based music school, and asked me to develop and administrate it. Though the vision was not mine initially, I caught it immediately. It was the answer to so many prayers! Another lesson: God’s calling on my life was just a small part of a much larger work of the Holy Spirit. My calling is not really “my calling”; it is inseparable from God’s calling on the lives of many other people who are part of the Body of Christ.
In the seven years since the School of Performing Arts launched, God has continued to reveal gifts I never knew I had. Through the use of these gifts, and through relationships developed along the way, He has continued to enlarge my sphere of influence and increase my responsibilities. In addition to administrating a rapidly growing music school, these responsibilities now include teaching and discipling others in our church, numerous community service opportunities, and presiding over the Board of Directors at Highland Rim Academy.
If you had told me as a college freshman that within a decade I’d be starting a music school from scratch and then working as an administrator, while also serving as a school board president (and being a husband and father, to boot), I’d never have believed you! A “spiritual gifts inventory” would not likely have labeled me as having “the gift of administration”, and even if it had, I would have been totally unprepared for my current vocation without the experiences that taught me how to rely on God to equip me to walk the path He’d prepared for me.
I don’t say any of this to toot my own horn. At best, all I’ve brought to the equation is insecurity in my own abilities and a proclivity to fly by the seat of my pants, which at least means that I didn’t have plans of my own to get in God’s way. And, of course, I brought years of musical preparation, which was the result growing up with parents who helped me discover and develop those talents in the first place.
The only advice I have is to point back to what Richard Phillips said: If you want to know God’s plan for your life, start looking for needs in your church that you can fill. Build relationships with those who can help you identify gifts — and sin — you didn’t know you had. Get involved in the Lord’s work, and be prepared to follow where He leads. Understand that he may lead you just one step at a time, but understand as well that you can trust that He also knows the steps that come next.