After six years of serving as the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at a parish I had come to love and with people I had come to know and cherish, I knew that God was calling me to leave. It was a difficult period of discernment, because each choice had its fair share of heartbreak- both paths leading to my inevitable separation with those I've been blessed to care for. What was I to do?
P.R.A.Y. That's what! Who knows better which path is best if not for the One who sets us on it to begin with? It was God who called me six years ago to face and conquer my fears of failure and inadequacy to become the Youth Minister He needed me to be, and so, it had to be God to tell me when I had fulfilled this primordial mission.
Currently, the question I am most often asked is, “How did you know God was calling you to leave?” Really, the question beyond the question is, “How can you know or discern what God is asking of you when you can’t hear His voice? When you pray and you pray and you pray, and it doesn't seem like anyone is listening? When you can’t see His face or be comforted by His embrace?” My answer to that is simple- you Can hear His voice. He Is listening. You Can see His face, and His comfort is all you need…It just may not be in the way we are accustomed to experiencing these types of assurances.
In February of this year, my husband and I were graced with the most amazing and at the same time, alarming news- we had become parents! Amazing because a precious life has grown out of the love we share, and alarming because oh. my. gOoDnEsS! - we’ve never been parents before!!! God, HeLp!!!
After the news finally sunk in, I realized that I had to buckle down and put on my prayer boots to see whether God was calling me to stay in Youth Ministry or go. Every year, I made it a point to discern this same question, and every year until now, I received the same answer- “Stay, Carrell, this is where I need you.” What was different about this final year is that this time the answer didn't come immediately. I was first met with silence.
Silence from God can often be mistaken for “not listening,” but with God, this is never the case. He loves us! He calls us by name. He knows every hair on our heads. He cannot help but to listen, love, and draw near to us. Sometimes silence from God means the exact opposite of “not listening”- He is silent to give us the freedom to speak, vent, ponder, or express whatever we are feeling and thinking.
During this time of silence, I was being drawn to reflect on the years I’ve served as a Youth Minister- the ups and the downs, the ebbs and flow of ministry, the joys and frustrations, my favorite moments and my not so favorite moments all replaying itself in a mental three hour movie. Then, I was propelled to reflect on the words parent, mother, baby, and “domestic church” (CCC 1655-58). These words were imbued with meaning, purpose, and another mission of its own- to physically, emotionally, and spiritually nourish the life already growing within me. After seeing the potential fruit in both, my next question to God was, “Well, can’t I do both?”
This time, He spoke. Not through a booming voice coming from the clouds, a burning bush, an angel, or ethereal vision. I’m pretty sure any of the four would have knocked me unconscious that I wouldn't have heard His message anyways! Instead, He spoke ever so gently urging me to see what was in front of me. As I carried this prayer in my heart, I began seeing. First, it was my Youth Ministry calendar. I sensed God telling me to count out the months to determine when I would be due- October, AKA the worst time ever to have a baby as a Youth Minister (well, at least in my parish). During this month, I coordinate our largest fundraiser involving over 50 volunteers and hundreds of patrons. The next month, our youth leadership team and I diligently plan and prepare for our Confirmandi’s retreat, and in December, when the baby is just over six weeks old, is when my most physically grueling and spiritually demanding time occurs- the retreat itself. Fortunately for me, it is also my favorite time of the year and what I love doing most. However, caring for a newborn at the same time would be well…not such a great idea.
Next, it was my Youth Ministry daily schedule. Lets see, I work at least three nights a week, almost every weekend (More specifically, every Sunday), and more hours than what my job description tells me is sufficient. The latter out of my own choice when I feel it is necessary. This is pretty typical for most Youth Ministers I know, and although I hadn't really minded it and signed up for this in the beginning, I sensed that God was asking me, “Will you mind it when you’ve only gotten two hours of sleep the night before and then, have to go to work to bring a group of youth to another event?”
Then, He spoke through several people I encountered. As people enthusiastically inquired how I was feeling and what I was planning on doing, many responded with inspired words. His face and His words were revealed in theirs. A mother of two shared with me, “If I had to do it all over again. I would have stayed at home and learned to live with less. I felt like I couldn't adequately do both.” A married young adult said, “So many parents work instead of choosing to stay home, because they have to. They wouldn't be able to afford staying home with their child. If we could afford it, I would stay at home, because there are so many children who would benefit from a parent who is continually present for them.” Quite a few mothers and fathers told me, “When you have that baby, you begin realizing that they are the priority. Everything else comes second.” As I pondered these words, once again the Holy Spirit urged me to see what I’ve already been seeing- a new mission on the horizon.
Lastly, God reminded me of the ministry I am most passionate about- Spiritual Direction. The daily grind of Youth Ministry often prevented me from giving this Spiritual Direction Ministry the adequate time it needs to develop and grow. Staying at home for at least a year would allow me to accept more speaking, Spiritual Direction, writing, worship leading and retreat directing opportunities, all of which would build up this ministry.
Two months and 1,180 typed words later, I had discerned that God was calling me to step down from my position as the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry. He listened. He spoke. He showed me His face, and yes, He even embraced me through the three farewell surprise parties I was blessed to be honored in!
Now, it is your time. What is God calling you to discern at this moment? Here are a few tips to help you along:
Tips for Discernment
1) Sacred Silence
If we truly wish to discern God’s call, we must first take the time to be with Him- openly sharing our thoughts, fears, and hopes with God in prayer. During these ambiguous and confusing moments in our lives, Jesus asks us what He had asked the first disciples, “What are you looking for” (John 1:38)? In other words, what are you seeking? What question is weighing on your heart that you feel God is calling you to discern? Break away from all the noise that clutters your life and have a heart to heart conversation with God who desires to walk beside you through it all.
2) Seek Wisdom: Scripture, Tradition, Nature, Inspired Encounters, Religious Leaders and Insightful Friends
-Scripture: If you are having difficulty understanding or differentiating God’s voice among your own and that of others, read and reflect on the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Christ in the Gospels. Becoming familiar with His voice will bring you clarity during this time of discernment.
-Tradition: Our Catholic Tradition can also offer us great insight. Many of the Saints have wrestled with the same questions and so, I find it helpful to read and ponder how they approached similar situations. Participating in the Holy Mass fills us with the grace we need to have courage and perseverance to follow His call, and often times, the homily, readings or prayers can be ways God speaks directly to us in response to our question.
-Nature: In the book Discernment, Henri Nouwen writes that, “God’s first language is nature…” (58), because it “points to God and offers signs and wonders indicating God’s presence and will” (53). By observing and contemplating God’s glorious creation, we become more aware and appreciative of the natural beginning and end of all things. We see that growth requires continual nourishment and pruning. We come to realize that the death of plants and animals give way to the creation of new life, and so it is with us. We are continually being called to die to certain aspects of ourselves to bring about the growth and healing God desires for us.
-People: God places people in our lives for a reason. Pay attention to inspired encounters with friends, family members, religious leaders and even strangers, because if asked, they will share their own experiences or offer words that may resonate with your particular area of discernment. The advice and experiences shared to me by those wise mothers, fathers, and young adults were truly inspired, because it had brought me even more clarity to where I felt God was leading me.
3) Listen to your Heart
There are times when the wisdom we have just gathered conflicts with each other. What would I have done if one mother shared with me that she hated staying at home and another shared the exact opposite? With everything that you learn about your specific situation, listen closely to your heart. What is it saying to you? What are your passions, hopes, and dreams? Which decision would best align with these desires and values? What doors have been opened to you? What doors have closed? What brings you joy? What choice would embitter you? Reflect on the various aspects of the decisions you have to choose between, and pray about which choice is in keeping with where your heart is right now.
4) Test the Call
Henri Nouwen writes, “Sometimes the way to know where you are called to be is to go where you feel you need to go and be present in that place. Soon you will know if that place is where God wants you” (102). After spending time in fervent prayer, seeking wisdom and listening closely to your heart, we must take a leap of faith and test the call. Is it what you expected? Is it not? As much as it pains us to find out, this test brings us closer to understanding where God is truly leading us.
Whenever I am still struggling understanding what God wants from me, I pray about which choice would allow me to love God and others more fully. Ask yourself the following questions: Which decision brings out the best in you and in others? Which choice allows you to draw closer to God? What path would allow you to love God and others more completely? More often than not, the choice that brings you closer to God and allows you to give of yourself to others with selfless love is exactly where you need to be.
May God be with you during this time of discernment and may you feel His love, attentive presence and comfort throughout it all!