On an early spring Sunday afternoon when I was eight years old, I walked the short distance from my family’s home to the home of our pastor, Ken Haag. I was often there, usually to see my friend, Tony; but, that day, I wanted to talk with Brother Ken. To use the common language of my Baptist boyhood: I wanted to make a profession of faith—to be saved.

Ken took me into their living room and, using John 3:16 and a few verses from Romans, helped me put into words the commitment I wanted to make. That night, in a ritual that was nearly sacramental for us, I walked the aisle of the First Baptist Church of Conley, GA to make public the decision I’d made in Ken’s living room. A few weeks later, I was baptized.

 Though I didn’t have this language for it then, it was nearly, though certainly not cynically or cheaply, transactional: I gave God my faith; Jesus gave me salvation. I said: “Come into my heart”; Jesus promised: “I’ll never leave you or forsake you.” I had been saved.

When I was eleven, on another Sunday night, I walked the same aisle, shook Ken’s hand, and said to him: “God is calling me to preach.” Ken knew that there were a lot of years and experiences in front of a boy on the threshold of adolescence; he suggested to me:  “Let’s tell the people that you’ve come to say you’ll do with your life whatever God asks you to do.” I didn’t have to wear the label of “preacher boy” as a teenager; and, when I lost faith in both church and God when I was fifteen, I didn’t have to publicly renege on a commitment I had made.

Late in my first year of college, with the help of some professors, especially George Shriver, and the Baptist Campus Minister, Nathan Byrd, faith—God— reclaimed me. As faith came back, so did that call I heard when I was eleven. I had been called.

Around that time, I heard a phrase that, though a commonplace to many, I don’t remember having heard before: “Salvation has three tenses: I have been saved. I am being saved. I will be saved.” Salvation is a process, though it may begin with an event.

It would help us if we viewed vocation in similar ways: “I have been called. I am being called. I will continue be called.” Salvation and vocation flow from the same font. We rise from the river of grace with both: drawn by the love of God to follow Jesus, we confess or confirm faith, the Spirit descends on us with gifts to share with the world, and we receive the assurance of our identity as God’s beloved children. Baptism is immersion in salvation; it is also original ordination to vocation. We are made a part of the priesthood of all believers. We are saved; we are called.      

Some people experience, as I did, an intensification and specification of that calling. We say “yes” to a summons we hear to “the ministry.” Ordination often follows, signifying and sealing our discernment and the discernment of a community of Jesus-followers, that we have been called. Ordination confers a role, or roles, and responsibilities which mark us as “clergy.”

I think vocation, like salvation, is a process, more than an event. It’s certainly not a transaction; it’s a conversation. Not only have we been called; we are being called, and we will continue to be called. Over the years of a clergy vocation, there are moments, perhaps long seasons, when the roles and responsibilities given to us by the laying on of hands, or our ways of carrying them, or both, can leave us uncertain about the core identities and gifts of salvation: Jesus-follower and beloved child of God. When our perception of vocation threatens our experience of salvation, calling is likely changing.

Almost everyone has heard Frederick Buechner’s wise aphorism about calling: “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” If, over the long haul, there is no longer pervasive joy, only our own craving emptiness, it might be that we are no longer in “the place” of our calling.

Jesus promised that, as we wear his yoke, doing the work he has invited to do, we will find “rest for our souls.” If there is never rest, only unremitting busyness and exhaustion, we are almost certainly no longer be wearing a yoke Jesus calls us to wear.

We are being called and will continue to be called, and it is baptism which gives us our permanent identity, not ordination. Salvation is the heart of vocation. We are freer than we know, or, at least, than we claim: to listen for changes in our calling, even dramatic ones, because we have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved.   

This post was written for the Center for Healthy Churches newsletter