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Of Difficult Decisions and Healthy Harmonies: The Potential of Thinking About Vocation in Terms of ‘Ensemble’

By Kees van der Knijff

The needs in the world are immense, the needs in the Middle East are staggering, and the needs in Lebanon at the current moment are overwhelming. As churches and individual believers, this presents us with difficult decisions. For how do we discern where to contribute? And how do we decide where not to give our time, energy, talents, and gifts?

Almost all Christian traditions have developed rich streams of thought around such perplexing decisions. Some speak of finding the will of God, others of callings and vocations, of discernment, guidance, and practical wisdom. For all the beauty and richness of these traditions, in the end it always comes down to the ‘moment of dangerous opportunity’ (O’Donovan), to the venture of actually taking a decision.

In prosperous countries, people may struggle with deciding between several good options in a fear of missing out of the best one. But in most areas of the world those who even have the opportunity to make such decisions face a different problem: choosing one course of action in most cases means deciding not to address other pressing needs. How, for example, do we decide between giving time to our children during the weekend or contributing to another ministry in the church? How do we take enough time for ourselves when all around us people are in need? These questions highlight the importance of a theological understanding of vocation.

Some time ago, I encountered an approach to vocation that I find helpful, even liberating. Not because it resolves all difficulty and takes away all tension, but because it provides me with a tool to approach such decisions and understand why I find them so unsettling.

What I mean is theologian Oliver O’Donovan’s approach to vocation as ‘ensemble’. Vocation, in his approach, stands for “the ensemble of worldly relations and functions through which we are given […] to serve God and realize our agency” (Finding and Seeking, 224). Although O’Donovan does not do this himself, I like to unpack the notion of ‘ensemble’ in all its musical connotations.

Thinking of our personal life in terms of a group of musicians all contributing their own sounds to the music might sound unusual at first. Yet it brings to the fore a number of interesting thoughts and questions. First of all, it emphasizes that our lives are always a collaboration of different roles playing out at once. We are never just ‘the pastor’, ‘the missionary’, ‘the doctor’, ‘the relief worker’, or whatever else we tend to identify with. We always are much more.  The challenge is to bring our different roles together in a harmonious way. This is, of course, easier said than done.

That, in the second place, is why we need times to reflect on our lives as a whole. When we focus mainly on our individual roles we might forget that a collection of perfectly played parts can sound sterile, whereas an enthusiastic group of mediocre musicians can get an entire room swinging. Some healthy harmony in our life might be more important than being perfect in all our roles.

This bring us to a third aspect. Most ensembles do not have fixed soloists. At one moment the saxophone will get full attention, at another moment the violin or the piano. Naturally, some instruments will be in the spotlights more often than others, but all need their time to shine. From this perspective, I can ask myself which roles in my life tend to get (too much) attention at the expense of others. Furthermore, it helps me to accept that there will be seasons in life where the importance of some roles may reduce the time and energy I have for others.

The metaphor of the ensemble also helps when we are asked to commit to new responsibilities and tasks. Adding a new voice will have consequences for all existing ones. Is there enough space for this? If all existing voices are at their limits, would this be wise? Or do I have to let go of one of the others? Being able to say no to new responsibilities or to dispose of existing ones is no weakness, but a necessary skill that shows a deep realism about our human limitations. As Christians, this might be an area in which many of us have to grow.

The metaphor of vocation as ‘ensemble’ also offers insights beyond our personal lives. We lack space to unfold the implications for churches, but in my opinion three lessons stand out. First, as explored in a recent IMES Blog post, it emphasizes the equal importance of all contributions within the church. The temptation is to focus on the soloists, those in visible ministries. But just as a violin flourishes against the background of the double bass, the pastor and worship leader depend on a multitude of people with overlooked ministries. Thinking in terms of the ‘ensemble’ reminds us to thank those with undervalued responsibilities next Sunday.

The second lesson is to value diversity within our congregations. One risk of our ability to choose between various church communities is the existence of homogeneous congregations. If diversity in age, personality types, educational level etc. are minimal in church communities, it might prove difficult to respond to the various tasks we are called to as a church.

Finally, applying the ensemble-metaphor to the vocation of the church might help us to be thankful for differences in church traditions. I do not intend to downplay the importance of theological debates and of standing for a certain tradition, but the danger of denominational tribalism looms large again and again. Yet our differences might also be something to thank God for. Because of theological convictions, one church might be inclined to invest a lot in relief work, whereas another church devotes a lot of energy to evangelism. The church of Christ is called to both, but no one congregation can do all. As the body of Christ, playing in ensemble, we might be fulfilling our shared vocation nonetheless.

As shown, I believe in the potential of this rich metaphor of the musical ensemble. In a way, it is a fresh perspective on the Pauline metaphor of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12) and on the idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers.’  It helps me to think through the issues of vocation and approach complex life decisions. It does not remove their difficulty. It should not. Life is too complex for simplistic solutions. Yet it does one crucial additional thing: it brings a sense of playfulness and joy to the often vexed questions of vocation. We are called to play before God’s face, hoping to please Him, but always dependent upon His grace. At the end of the day, that is where we bring our decisions. The ones we regret, the ones we doubt, and the ones we are certain about.

I am reminded of a beautiful hymn by John Newton. At the end of the day, the music of our lives is not decisive. The music of Jesus’ life and death is. Even when “weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought”, by grace I am given to rejoice in “the music of Thy name.”

Kees is a systematic theologian from the Netherlands and recently moved to Lebanon with his family to join the faculty of ABTS.


  1. I love this idea and see that it fits perfectly with Paul’s vision of the church as a body.

    • Kees van der Knijff says:

      Dear Frances, thanks a lot for the feedback. Glad that the idea helps along Paul’s own metaphor.

  2. Karen says:

    Beautiful! I’m reminded of watching a symphony performance at the Royal Albert hall and even though everyone’s eyes were on the brilliant pianist, I only watched the cymbal player. I was fascinated by how he sits quietly for long intervals, his eyes fixed on the conductor, and at the perfect moment he plays his part. As I watched him, God was teaching me 2 very important lessons that prepared me for the season I’m in. One: understand your role in the ensemble. Two: Keep your eyes only on the conductor.

    • Kees van der Knijff says:

      Thank you Karen, for expanding my argument. I have a similar experience of being mesmerized by a bassoon player. No instrument as unnoted as the bassoon, but as soon as it stops playing you immediately notice…

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