Editor’s note: The Rev. Shannon Preston is discerning a call to international mission and kept a journal during a recent Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) discernment weekend.
Today we began our discernment groups. We talked about intimacy and loneliness. For YASC, you vow to be celibate for the year, assuming your significant other is away. There are bound to be times in mission that are very lonely and this is considered in discernment.
Is this something you can deal with at the time, how will you fulfill your own need for intimacy when it is not sexual are questions that need to be considered. I believe there are times when we are more or less suited for this kind of ministry, one that requires a different kind of focusing and gives up the comforts and gifts of some kinds of intimacy.
We also talked about differences in culture that will be encountered. I have found that, unlike discerning for priest positions, there is a major recognition that many comforts are sacrificed in thinking about doing mission. Cultural comforts, parts of a regular schedule or routine will be put aside in order to serve in a community that is not your own.
When we talk about discerning for vocation broadly often we talk about what fits us, how a calling is something that we can flourish in. What environment would we fit in and would nourish us rather than looking for an environment that will be unfamiliar and finding new ways to be nourished and flourish.
It seems that discerning mission requires a more rounded vision. The perspective needed must take into account being gone for a year and then coming back. Other kinds of discernment may be more open ended. This kind of mission, though, has an arch that must be considered (not that renewing is not an option). People I talked to this weekend thought mission was a piece of a puzzle; it was not necessarily the puzzle itself (if that makes sense—mission is piece but not necessarily the whole).
The conversations I had this weekend were rich and came from a sincere desire to be with others, to be a part of God’s work. YASC’ers are required to say “yes” to the program without knowing where their placement is. There is a leap of faith by not only giving a year of one’s life to the service, but doing so without knowing important specifics, like where and in what capacity you will be serving.
In discerning for other positions, like parish work or other kinds of employment, one does not usually commit to something without knowing the location of or the nature of the work. As I have been learning more about the process of discernment for a first call position in the parish, there is lots of conversation about what the assistant-to-be needs and wants. I hear a lot about the ways this position fits, this supervisor fits, the housing stipend.
This is different for mission.
Not only do you not know the nature of your housing, but neither do you know much else. It seems there is more of a leap in trusting you are doing God’s work and the people in charge of the YASC program have the best intentions in mind of everyone involved. Rarely, in learning about the parish discernment process have I heard a conversation about following Christ or God’s will so blindly and with trust. It seems to be entered with more questions and conversations.
In other words, my experience and conversations I have thus far of parish discernment made it more like figuring out the next job rather than entering with an open heart to hear God’s call. I do not say this merely as judgment either, there are different choices to be made and factored in. There are practical logistics the individual must figure out in discerning employment. Health insurance, benefits, housing, and salary are pieces that must be considered in order to live and serve.
Some of these practical things were figured out already by mission relationships and placements. In this, there is more room to focus on hearing God’s call or listening to the heart. However, there is a fine line between losing sight of the calling and figuring out the practical forms of vocational discernment outside of missions.
This weekend’s discernment has been at Holy Cross Monastery. The first night we observed a Great Silence. The second and third nights were opportunities to talk with others, get to know others. Regardless of the evening’s level of silence, there was silence worked into the weekend.
There was time to stop, look, let things sink in and begin to sort out whether or not this call to mission is in line with God’s will for the individual or not. Very often, this is not a part of vocational discernment, unless it is created by the individual in discernment.
We had a conversation last night with former YASC’ers. We talked about the loneliness, the isolation, the challenges, and the graces. Their responses were certainly not rose-colored. It was made clear mission is not a vacation.
There are deeply profound and beautiful moments but day-to-day mission can be very challenging. How do you discern something you know will be difficult?
How do you enter with excitement and a sense of confirmation (to use Ignatian discernment words) when you know it is going to be hard? In vocational discernment rarely are we looking for ways to get through the negative, but rather looking at how to maximize the positive, how to flourish the most. It almost seems the difficult parts are swept under the rug until they have to be confronted, at least in my experience.
As I am thinking about possible parish locations, I am considering the location. Maybe I’d like something warm so I can be outside, exercise, enjoy some sunshine. I think about somewhere I would like the food. I think about a position where I am working, but not too much so I can also enjoy my own time and hobbies.
I think about this for mission, too, but differently. In ways, these factors provide the foundation of my parish discernment, the Church work fits in on top (oops, any Church may have just ruled me out) but in mission the work comes first. The work is the full-time, all-the-time reason for being there. The Church work? That will be relatively similar across the United States.
All this is specific to international mission. Some of these things pertain to domestic mission, also. But I think there is a big difference regardless in discerning mission and other vocational experiences, particular more traditional parish work.
Mission work is first and foremost about serving the people, making sacrifices for those you will be in a relationship with.
This is not emphasized in vocational discernment. Certainly, making a decision implies giving up something for something else, there is a sacrifice made in that way, but I do not think it is the same. The sacrifice for mission includes family, relationships, the comfort of home and other comforts. The sacrifice for vocation is the sacrifice of another direction, which mission also includes.
Both require something of the person and I think both can be reminded that the sacrifice is in the nature of the vocational calling. Discernment is about God’s call and not just what fits us best, would be more comfortable. Missional discernment lives this and I think vocational calling could do well to be reminded of this.
The Rev. Shannon Preston is an MDiv senior at Virginia Theological Seminary, and is actively discerning her next call.