Book review: How do you know it’s God?

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Lynn McChlery, How do you know it’s God? (London: SCM Press, 2021)

by Susann Haehnel, formerly Vocational Recruitment Manager, CMS

This has not been an easy book to review. I am a vocational assessor and discern people’s call to mission in cross-cultural contexts. As such, I came to this book with certain biases and expectations. I was hoping for clear recommendations: how we discern calling, and an ability to evaluate my processes against the research. The book has not offered that. But maybe it never set out to do that.

McChlery clearly roots her research in personal experience as a vocational assessor. Her research is based on case studies, having chosen three denominations in which to watch assessment conferences and conduct interviews: Scottish Baptist, Church of England and Methodist Churches.

She guides the reader through her research carefully and in more detail than I felt necessary, but her format of example, analysis and conclusion was overall a helpful structure.

McChlery then layers her research by drawing on other discernment traditions, such as Ignatian spirituality, communal discernment, and practices both in Ignatian and in Quaker traditions. She also puts her research in conversation with McGilchrist’s brain lateralisation work. In chapters six and seven she takes the reader through a lengthy introduction of Newman and Barth’s discernment theologies.

While I did not enjoy the book and cannot see many pick it up to read, I do want to give credit to McChlery for researching and writing about an area about which very little is known, unless one has experienced it either as an assessor or as a candidate. By doing so she has highlighted the importance of the role of the vocational assessor and actively calls for a recognition of that role by discerning the call to vocational work in the assessors. For that alone she deserves credit and recognition.

McChlery does note some helpful things. She gives language, or borrows language, to explain the notion of “just knowing”, which I think will be beneficial to candidates and assessors alike. She also talks about the importance of creating space for the knowing and sensing in assessment processes and warns against the danger of simply making it a recruitment process, based on tangible facts. She rightfully notes that discerning with candidates is much more than that.

And so, maybe she achieved exactly what this book needed to achieve: a confidence to lean into the knowing and sensing aspects of discerning calling and suggesting a few practical tools to facilitate that better.

With that in mind, the last two chapters and conclusion might be helpful for experienced vocational assessors to dip into and hone their reflective practice. What I can see being useful to assessors, both voluntary and employed, new and experienced, is a user-friendly resource based on her research and recommendations. Let’s hope that gets written soon.

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