What is my vocation?

Magnificat – Vocation’s song

Visitation window at Taize ChurchIt was the feast of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth yesterday. This recalls the beautiful story from Luke’s gospel of Mary’s trip to see her cousin and on seeing Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby jumps in the womb, she has a burst of praise that ‘the mother of her Lord’ is visiting and Mary responds with a song of praise, known to us as the Magnificat (which is the first word of the song when sung in Latin).

Last year I went on a vocations retreat organised by the Northern Diocesan Directors of Ordinands (DDOs). Bishop John Packer led the retreat and we focused on a number of different ‘calls’ in the Bible. The one that stood out for me was Mary’s. Bishop John pointed out that among many other things, the Magnificat, is Mary’s song of praise in response to the call God has given her to be the mother of the Christ. It’s a vocation song. For various reasons, this song has also become my own vocation song. I didn’t anticipate the sheer joy of discovering and responding to God’s call on my life. Often, when we think of vocation we think of sacrifice (giving up everything to follow), hard work and perhaps even isolation. Being on my own vocation journey (which won’t end until I die!) I have started to discover that it is also a thing of joy to know that you’re in the place God has called you to be and that it’s a gift from God.

Everyone is called by God

I met with someone recently who didn’t know me very well, she asked me what I was planning to do career-wise in the next couple of years and I told her that I was going to train to be a vicar. She said “oh! You have a proper vocation then!” This was really encouraging but belied the assumption that vocation is only either about the ministry or ‘caring professions’.

Everyone has a calling. I think, perhaps that one can have multiple callings as well – for instance, I have a calling to be a wife to my husband, an aunt to my nephew, a God-mother to my God-daughters, as well as everything else. All Christians are called when they are baptised, we all share a vocation to follow Christ. I read one book which suggested that perhaps Confirmation is a kind of proto-ordination – it is the point at which you are ‘ordained’ to serve Christ in your adult life and follow God’s calling.

So how do you find out what God is calling you to?

It’s all very well being told that we all have a vocation. We know our first calling is to follow Jesus. But we want specifics! This is often a modern Western hang-up I think  – we say, ‘does God want me to live in this town and do this job?’ We get hung up on stuff like this because we have so much choice in the West. Most of the world’s population don’t have a choice of where they live and work – they’ve probably been born into the job that they’re doing.

Vocation - photo taken by Bryony Taylor, Rockcliffe, Scotland

So at the start I think vocation is less about the specifics of what we do and more about who we are: it’s about being rather than doing.

There are two things in particular that have helped me to discern my own vocation, one from within the church and one from without:

Ignatian Spirituality

The first is Ignatian Spirituality – in particular the practice of the examen. That’s a lot of long words – simply put, St Ignatius developed some ways to help people develop their spiritual life, one of them was something he called the examen which is where you ask yourself two simple questions:

– What has brought me life today?

– What has drained me of life, and taken energy from me?

The idea is that you ask yourself these questions at the end of each day. You can also use the practice to look back over a year or a month or any period of time. Read more about this here. If you meditate on these questions it helps you to work out what kinds of activities and experiences really make you sing, and which leave you cold. This can help you to discern what God might naturally be drawing you to. To get started with this discipline I would recommend listening to this free mp3 ‘review of the day’ – it is 8 minutes long  and involves music, some questions and gives you space to meditate:

Review of the day

Strengths finder

The second is a book and questionnaire called Strengths Finder by Tom Rath. This is a model for discovering your strengths or talents. The premise of the book is that many development programmes at work focus on your weaknesses – ‘you’re not very good at negotiating so let’s send you on a course’. This, the book suggests, is not an efficient way to increase productivity and make people better at their jobs – the way to do that is to get people to focus on what they’re naturally good at: to focus on their strengths. There is a questionnaire that you take online alongside reading the book that tells you your top 5 strengths (out of 34). One of the things I like about Strengths Finder is that the likelihood that you’ll meet someone else with exactly the same 5 strengths as you are really slim (unlike Myers-Briggs in which you are one of just 16 personality types). The book contains examples of each strength operating in all sorts of people from nuns to marketing directors. I took the strengths questionnaire a few years ago and the results really helped me to understand myself better and what makes me tick.

The Strengths Finder is a secular business development programme but has resonances, I think, with Christian spirituality. Some of your strengths will directly correspond to your God given gifts – those talents that you were born with and also those spiritual gifts that have grown in you. We Brits are incredibly self-deprecating and we often focus on what we’re not good at. The Strengths Finder enables you to acknowledge ‘actually – I’m quite good at that!’
So these two things have helped, I think, in my discernment journey into realising that God was calling me to ordained ministry. My full vocation story is a lot messier than I’ve made out here. Discerning God’s will is really quite a murky business but I wanted to share a couple of practical things to do that might help – they’re not magic bullets – but if you work through them prayerfully God will speak to you.

I would encourage you, if you are unsure of your calling, to try out one or both of these things I’ve suggested and pray for God to reveal more to you about who he made you to be.


  1. Thanks James. For me the Strengths Finder was scarily accurate! Ways it impacted me are that it’s helped me choose jobs, it’s helped me talk about myself in interviews well and also it’s kind of confirmed what I already knew about myself but helped me to see that these are gifts and not everyone is like this!

    My top 5 strengths came out as these:

    You are inquisitive. You collect things. You might collect information-words, facts, books, and quotations-or you might collect tangible objects such as butterflies, baseball cards, porcelain dolls, or sepia photographs. Whatever you collect, you collect it because it interests you. And yours is the kind of mind that finds so many things interesting. The world is exciting precisely because of its infinite variety and complexity. If you read a great deal, it is not necessarily to refine your theories but, rather, to add more information to your archives. If you like to travel, it is because each new location offers novel artifacts and facts. These can be acquired and then stored away. Why are they worth storing? At the time of storing it is often hard to say exactly when or why you might need them, but who knows when they might become useful? With all those possible uses in mind, you really don’t feel comfortable throwing anything away. So you keep acquiring and
    compiling and filing stuff away. It’s interesting. It keeps your mind fresh. And perhaps one day some of it will prove valuable.

    You are generous with praise, quick to smile, and always on the lookout for the positive in the situation. Some call you lighthearted. Others just wish that their glass were as full as yours seems to be. But either way, people want to be around you. Their world looks better around you because your enthusiasm is contagious. Lacking your energy and optimism, some find their world drab with repetition or, worse, heavy with pressure. You seem to find a way to lighten their spirit. You inject drama into every project. You celebrate every achievement. You find ways to make everything more exciting and more vital. Some cynics may reject your energy, but you are rarely dragged down. Your Positivity won’t allow it. Somehow you can’t quite escape your conviction that it is good to be alive, that work can be fun, and that no matter what the setbacks, one must never lose one’s sense of humor.

    You are fascinated by ideas. What is an idea? An idea is a concept, the best explanation of the most events. You are delighted when you discover beneath the complex surface an elegantly simple concept to explain why things are the way they are. An idea is a connection. Yours is the kind of mind that is always looking for connections, and so you are intrigued when seemingly disparate phenomena can be linked by an obscure connection. An idea is a new perspective on familiar challenges. You revel in taking the world we all know and turning it around so we can view it from a strange but strangely enlightening angle. You love all these ideas because they are profound, because they are novel, because they are clarifying, because they are contrary, because they are bizarre. For all these reasons you derive a jolt of energy whenever a new idea occurs to you. Others may label you creative or original or conceptual or even smart.
    Perhaps you are all of these. Who can be sure? What you are sure of is that ideas are thrilling. And on most days this is enough.

    Woo stands for winning others over. You enjoy the challenge of meeting new people and getting them to like you. Strangers are rarely intimidating to you. On the contrary, strangers can be energizing. You are drawn to them. You want to learn their names, ask them questions, and find some area of common interest so that you can strike up a conversation and build rapport. Some people shy away from starting up conversations because they worry about running out of things to say. You don’t. Not only are you rarely at a loss for words; you actually enjoy initiating with strangers because you derive satisfaction from breaking the ice and making a connection. Once that connection is made, you are quite happy to wrap it up and move on. There are new people to meet, new rooms to work, new crowds to mingle in. In your world there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet -lots of them.

    “When can we start?” This is a recurring question in your life. You are impatient for action. You may concede that analysis has its uses or that debate and discussion can occasionally yield some valuable insights, but deep down you know that only action is real. Only action can make things happen. Only action leads to performance. Once a decision is made, you cannot not act. Others may worry that “there are still some things we don’t know,” but this doesn’t seem to slow you. If the decision has been made to go across town, you know that the fastest way to get there is to go stoplight to stoplight. You are not going to sit around waiting until all the lights have turned green. Besides, in your view, action and thinking are not opposites. In fact, guided by your Activator theme, you believe that action is the best device for learning. You make a decision, you take action, you look at the result, and you learn. This learning informs your next action and your next. How can you grow if you have nothing to react to? Well, you believe you can’t. You
    must put yourself out there. You must take the next step. It is the only way to keep your thinking fresh and informed. The bottom line is this: You know you will be judged not by what you say, not by what you think, but by what you get done. This does not frighten you. It pleases you.


  2. The Strengths Finder is particularly good to do with a team – helps you to understand each other better and if you’re a manager, how to bring out the best in your staff. The book is worth buying. I’m going to bankrupt you James aren’t I!


  3. Good piece Bryony – I so much agree with you. I also meet many people who say they don’t have a calling or don’t know what theirs it. I think first and foremost we are all called to follow Jesus, and that’s a whole life thing, and of course a hard thing. No qualifications needed, no need to be super-spiritual (actually it may help not to be). I do believe though that God also calls individuals (all of us, I think) to certain tasks – good works prepared in advance for us to do, as it says in Ephesians 2:10 – which he equips and prepares us for. This is where it gets harder to discern. I too have found the Strengthsfinder concept helpful (for anyone interested, my Strengths are Futuristic, Analytical, Responsibility, Input, Belief). Another thing that’s been useful to me is Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, in particular the section about ‘SHAPE’. That’s an acronym for
    i) Spiritual Gifts: God-empowered talents and abilities given to you for the purpose of serving Him in the church community
    ii) Heart: the bundle of desires, hopes, interests, ambitions, dreams, affections that you have – the source of your motivations.
    iii) Abilities: Natural talents and skills you have, things you are good at
    iv) Personality: Who you are and how you are and why you are; how you approach life, people, things…
    v) Experiences: What you have learned, and how your character has developed, through: family, education, work and vocation, spiritual life, ministry and service, hope and pain.
    And yes, to pray in all of this for God to show how and where he wants us to be.
    Thank you Bryony!


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