Glimpses of Calls to Ministry — My Story

I’m a little hesitant to share any of my story of calling and ministry. Just as trends can only give us a glimpse of reality, my story seems highly incomplete–as I’m sure there are more conversions and twists ahead. Plus, I really like charts 😉

In some sense, sharing seems like a distraction from the issue of how organizational assumptions about levels of leadership and age seem to be present and/or perceived when it comes to younger generations of ministry leaders, and what improvements in human resource management can help create conditions for change. And, the idea that people need to hear about calls to ministry specifically from younger Catholics makes me feel a bit like an exotic species to be studied.

But, personal testimony is part of discipleship. Through his letters, we know that Paul and his co-workers were often sharing snippets of personal testimony as it related to ministry. And, Joyce Donahue so graciously shared her own call to ministry here (which was encouraging to me personally–as many of the same things she faced in the 1980s are still present today), that I feel moved to respond out of sincere respect for and appreciation of her request.

My Story

The evening I first experienced a call to ministry was while I was on summer break during college. It was mid-July and I was doing door-to-door “soul-winning” [yes, it’s a theologically impoverished term–but that’s what it was called] with my independent fundamental Baptist church, where I’d been attending for a few years at this point. The church generally did soul-winning on Saturday mornings, but for one week in the summer we took a drop-everything approach and went out each evening after partaking in food and prayer.

This particular night were set up in a neighborhood of garden-style apartments. It was an exciting success, as we gave away free Italian ice tickets to all the kids playing outdoors, and they would run home and bring their parents out to talk to us. Near the end of the evening, I was walking around the apartments looking to meet adults who did not have children. Approaching a door, I met an elderly woman out hanging laundry on her porch. I went up to her–Bible in hand and ready to start a conversation–but she did not speak English, and I was completely out of Spanish tracts this late in the evening. She did however want to show me her rosary beads and pray.

Now, this probably would have been a conversation ending moment for many members of independent fundamental Baptist congregations. Except for the fact that I was Catholic. Yes, I was an active member of a Baptist congregation–but I also worshiped at Mass every Sunday, and attended daily Mass and faith formation groups couple days of the week while at college.

I joined her praying the Sign of the Cross, Hail Mary, and the Lord’s Prayer. In retrospect, I can’t remember how we did this–did she know them in English? (Very possible.) Or, because I’d taken French and Portuguese–maybe she just prayed in Spanish and I followed along? Regardless of the cross-cultural mechanics, we prayed for a few minutes, smiled at each other, and I left to go meet back up with everyone at the Italian ice tables.

That evening as I sat in my car getting ready to leave the apartment complex, I felt as if my eyes were suddenly opened, it just hit me that there was nothing more important in the world than God’s love. The Holy Spirit spoke a word of elation into my heart and (I’m grasping for words to describe this) an anxiety-free chuckle that there was nothing more important I could do with my life than what I’d just experienced.

I suppose many people would have been moved to action right then and there, i.e. transfer from a secular college to a religious one and prepare to hit the mission field. But, I did not have a clear theological direction, as I was not fully comfortable with either the Catholic or fundamentalist Baptist faiths. Plus, I was attending college on an Army ROTC scholarship, so I had four-year military commitment once I graduated.

Okay, so that was the taste God granted me that lit a little fire inside of me. Something that stayed with me, even though it led to no immediate action.

Fast forward five or six years later. I’d had a conversion experience while reading the Catechism (yes, it was a page-turning Holy Spirit driven read for me–don’t laugh). I could finally joyfully enter (to use C.S. Lewis’ metaphor from Mere Christianity) the “room” of Catholicism and end a long camp-out in the “hallway” of Christianity. I’d more than fulfilled my initial four-year commitment to the Army. I wondered how should I respond to the Holy Spirit’s missionary prompting in my life now?

Over the next few years, I thought and prayed very seriously about a number of ways to live out my call:

  • as a Glenmary lay co-worker
  • as a religious sister
  • by staying with the career I loved in the Army, and using my excess income and time as a single person to enable and serve in ministry as I was currently doing
  • working full-time in parish ministry
  • discerning marriage/motherhood in the context of courtship/dating

I did a lot of the things on this list during these years.

I started taking graduate pastoral theology classes online while on active duty. I sought out some opportunities in my parish, becoming a volunteer 3-5th grade catechist and watching the example of our DRE and liturgy director. I prayed with communities of religious men and women around the country whenever I traveled for work. As the years went on, through God’s providence, I ended up being at the right place at the right time to serve as a music/liturgy coordinator for a small chapel and a deanery young adult ministry coordinator–all as a volunteer.

After some time, I thought that God must want me to take a bold first step–since I was experiencing so much silence from Him in prayer on this matter. So, I started applying for all sorts of youth ministry, young adult ministry, campus ministry, and high school theology teaching jobs. I rarely got interviews. Apparently this was not how the Holy Spirit desired my cooperation at this time :-). [Note to self: pay attention to signs of yes, not silence, when discerning!]

So, I waited. And surrendered more to Jesus’ slow shepherding. I continued to love my secular career, which always left me feeling in doubt about a call to ministry.

Then one day–not with a huge sense a purpose and maybe just out of boredom–I typed “become a lay minister” or something vague like that into an internet search engine (probably Google, but I don’t really remember). The first hit that came up was a unique fully-funded Master of Divinity program that touted “100% placement rates” for graduates. It was in a part of the country I’d never been to. I did not meet the ministry/service experience requirements. I did not meet the theology/philosophy academic prerequisites. If there had been an application fee, I probably wouldn’t have even applied.

But, I did apply and got asked to come for an interview. While praying on campus, I felt a tremendous sense of peace and communion with the Holy Spirit, as well as a sense of God lovingly chuckling at how He was finally ready to send me an obvious sign (as I seemed to need one!). The next business day I received an e-mail notification of acceptance during a layover en route to another interview. I called this other interview to cancel and flew right back home…ready to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead in a way I’d never imagined.

In Motion

I’m going to stop here on my story, as I’m still sorting through and actively discerning (sometimes gracefully, sometimes with stumbles) where the Holy Spirit has been leading me these past five years.

I don’t think there’s anything new here as a member of the Millennial generation that shows us to be markedly “different” than other recent generations. Specifics of situations change, but the Holy Spirit has been moving followers of Jesus Christ to change plans and take up a specific service and/or mission since the 1st century. The Holy Spirit is Creator and is Creative. God  speaks to us–through visible creation (CCC §1147), in Sacred Scripture where “God speaks to man in a human way” (CCC §109), through his Word (CCC §2700), by condescending to us and speaking in human words (CCC §101), and through the sending of the Holy Spirit to speak to our hearts (CCC §715)–just to name a few possibilities.

I once heard a deacon say that “if we knew God’s plans in advance, we’d be terrified.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that, regardless of one’s generation 🙂




4 thoughts on “Glimpses of Calls to Ministry — My Story

  1. Hi, Colleen – thanks so much for sharing this. I am posting a response here and also on my blog.

    Thanks, Colleen! I do think it’s important to share the stories (useful as it is to mine the stats and trends.) In the interest of fairness, parts of my own story have been posted all along on my blog… Short form:

    I grew up as a semi-churched protestant with heavy Methodist and Unitarian influence, married an inactive Catholic. I was an English major in college, got the MA, but ended up ABD because my husband switched majors and finished a year before I would have completed my thesis and PhD. When we moved to an area with few professional jobs, I worked as a customer service rep in a factory until I had my first child, then stayed home with my kids.

    I joined the Church through the RCIA when it came time for my children to learn about their faith. I sang in the choir and helped on the liturgy committee – but ended up, through a volunteer opportunity that became a doorway, coordinating a diocesan liturgy office part time for a couple of years.

    I went back into the workforce after my divorce, my full-time job became executive secretary to the Vicar for Clergy – with that liturgy office oversight on the side. I went back to school to get a degree through a LIMEX cohort. A couple years later, I was tagged to become the part-time liturgy coordinator at my parish, and after several more years and a long search, was hired as a parish DRE and director of liturgy. After 4 years at that parish, I ended up, because of incompatibility with a new pastor (that’s putting it nicely!) leaving to work for the Diocese of Joliet Religious Education Office.

    The spiritual autobiography behind this can be read here;

    I do feel that sharing stories is an important part of getting to know one another.. They help us learn from each other who we are and how God calls each person. I think many of us older people don;t have a clue how much we do have in common with young leaders. When we realize how much we share, it becomes easier not to feel like we have to circle warily around one another.

    So far, as a result of my invitation, we have one young person who admits maybe he needs more discernment, one person who came organically to the ministry through the examples of others and a steady inner prompting, and one whose story is as complicated as any of us second-career types. But what we really have is the beginning of a shared story – and, I believe the groundwork for trust.

    I am grateful all for your responses.


  2. I think your virtual-listening-circle (for lack of a better term) is going to reveal wonderful qualitative insights and encouragement to all about how the Holy Spirit is active today (that I’m sure will percolate up in your writings over time 🙂 ). I’m especially excited about your contact w/ the Echo program–I’ve always been so impressed by their unique combination of academic formation and on-the-ground experience.


    • Thanks, Colleen, for taking this with good grace. I think the future of leadership in the Church is very dependent on dialogues like this, which further encourage younger leaders and help older ones understand.

      I think the Echo program has lots of potential, especially right now when good, qualified applicants for parish leadership positions are not easy to find. (In my area, a number of pastors have given up finding someone from the outside and simply elevated experienced catechists – or worse, assigned the administration of catechesis to parish secretaries!) We have 4 Echo interns coming over to our diocese this year – I believe most are serving in youth ministry, which seems to be an entry-level preference. I would hope in the future that more would be willing to consider general family catechesis at all levels, where the need is growing.

      Again, thankyou.


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