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Reflections on Vocation (Part 1): Is it a Meaningless Theological Construct?

By January 5, 2012 7 Comments

Shortly after I got married, I made a “stunning” discovery (one of many to follow!): my spouse did not find the content of his work to be a primary source of meaning or purpose in life. In fact, it was more of a means to fulfillment in other venues than a source of fulfillment in and of itself. This got me thinking: perhaps I had wrongly assumed, based on my own experience, that work is gratifying, life-giving, and life-defining for most people living in the U.S. today. 

Now I’m far from the only one who has been thinking about vocation in recent years. Over the past decade, seminaries, divinity schools, and individual theologians have explored important questions about vocation and vocational formation. The Lilly Endowment has given grants to approximately eighty-eight church-related, liberal arts colleges and universities in order to support the theological exploration of vocation and to encourage college and seminary students to discover their God-given callings.

As part of this concern to reinvigorate vocation as a lived theology, I have participated in three grants that examine various aspects of vocation: congregational practices that encourage parishioners to connect faith and daily life; how to change seminary education so that future ministers can more effectively empower the laity to connect faith with daily life; thet aspects of an MDiv curriculum that most effectively contribute to the vocational formation of students. In each of these grants, my suspicions have been confirmed again and again, and I’ve been forced to reconsider the actual meaningfulness (or lack thereof) of the whole notion of vocation.

Here’s a snippet of what I’ve heard about vocation:

  1. Lay people (by which I mean those who are not ordained pastors) do not resonate with or understand their lives in terms such as vocation or calling. Instead, they prefer the language of meaning and purpose. In fact, when given nine terms to describe faith and life, vocation and calling were the least resonant for 1000 survey respondents, while meaning, purpose, and joining God in caring for the world were the most resonant.
  2. People find purpose and meaning in their relationships rather than in their work. In fact, in one subset of interviews, only 4 percent of church members reported that they find meaning or purpose in the actual content of their work. For 96 percent, work is only meaningful to the extent that it provides opportunities for meaningful connection and authentic relationships, either in the workplace itself or outside of it. 
  3. There is significant disconnect between pastors and laity in their respective experiences of vocation. In fact, pastors overwhelmingly anticipate that their parishioners are like them—i.e., pastors believe that their parishioners experience meaning in their occupations and even experience these occupations as part of their God-given calling. Yet this is not the case (at least for the majority of those whom we have interviewed).
  4. There is a significant disconnect between traditional and contemporary understandings of vocation, particularly the seemingly inextricable link between occupation and vocation. Much popular theological reflection on vocation relates it closely to occupation. The reasoning goes something like this: God equips and calls each person to a particular work that benefits the good of society, the good of the church, and the good of family.

All of this calls for more reflection than could likely be tolerated in one blog (hence the Part 1 in my title). Suffice it to say for now that I think our theology of vocation needs an overhaul, the kind of overhaul that digs deeply and widely into the Christian tradition with one hand and holds (honors really) the realities of our contemporary context with the other hand. Without this kind of dialogue between the tradition and the questions of people in the pews, all our talk about vocation will be little more than that—the lifeless proclamation of preachers and theologians, tolerated by yawning (and probably texting) parishioners.

We might do well to get at the question of vocation by adopting the big question of my former teacher and revered practical theologian, Jim Loder: What is a lifetime and why do I live it? His answer was profound and simple: love, love lived in a multidimensional koinonia, a union and communion with God and one another, a set of relationships of profound intimacy and integrity. If this holds any promise, then we could start talking about vocation not as work but rather as the work of love, a work that has been accomplished already and in which we are invited to participate in the here-and-now.


  • Ryan Schreiber says:

    A few thoughts:

    1. When theologians consider vocation, they have to consider if it is a theological concept of the well-to-do. (Perhaps used by institutions of higher education to bolster the rolls.) Many jobs may seem menial and degrading to the people who work them. How do these folks hear discussions of vocation? ("Brother Lawrence" is a good counter-example, however.)

    2. Some disciplines are much more eager to use the language of vocation and calling. Nursing is one such example. As a matter of fact, Florence Nightingale believed that she heard God's voice, directing her to improve healthcare.

    3. Vocation needs to be separated from "where you get your paycheck." Paul wasn't called to tent-making, he was called to be an apostle. Many people might be in the same situation. It would be a gift if the church could encourage everyone in their "unpaid" vocations.

  • Nathan W says:

    It seems to me that vocation is a byproduct of our society. That is, are laborers in majority world countries struggling with job satisfaction? Perhaps the church would do better to return to the biblical themes of sacrifice and self-denial and apply that to the work place.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    "How clear is our vocation, Lord, when once we heed your call." I can't help but have Fred Pratt Green's wonderful hymn (set to the even more wonderful tune "Repton" by C H H Parry) running through my soul as I read these thoughts. I think you're on to something important, and I thank you for this. It's also helpful in terms of how many young Christians judge themselves as inadequate for being unsure about their "vocations".

  • Joel says:

    I just finished reading through Ecclesiastes. One wonders (truly) what the Teacher would make of all our "vocation" talk.

  • Theresa Latini says:

    Love these responses. I think it's clear that we have to unhinge vocation from work and then find new ways to connect the two. (I'm not yet persuaded to give that connection up entirely, but I reserve the right to change my mind!) In any case, Martin Luther would be quite disconcerted with any way in which vocation becomes a source of self-actualization for the privileged, since he used the concept to undo that very dynamic during the Reformation.

  • Barry Gray says:

    I think Ryan's third point needs much more attention in the discussion of vocation. I did tentmaking for many years before I became a vocational pastor. I called it "how I support my preaching habit." I have known many people over the years who know that God has called them to some kind of ministy, but have never been able to make a living doing it. So I guess the question is first of all, "How does vocation compare with and intermingle with employment/career?

    Theresa, I really appreciate you putting your brilliant mind and spirit into this as it is a very important area of concern for the church.

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