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Is Vocation only for the Privileged? (Part 1)

By January 11, 2012 4 Comments
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Theresa Latini’s recent blog post on vocation has sparked a lot of energy in me. (I think she has sparked a lot of energy for others, as there is quite a dynamic conversation in the comments section.) I want to interact with some of Latini’s thoughts, add a couple reflections of my own, and pose a question.

By the time I graduated seminary (May 2011) I was sick of hearing the word “call”.  Call became a word that was synonymous with the religiously privileged. I don’t think that was the intention of my professors and colleagues but I could feel it implied in conversations. I’m already circumspect of religious language that separates me from my people that are wary of my religious vocation. So the word “call” was something I cautiously tested on different kinds of friends. I would talk to people I knew who were continuing their education in engineering, medicine, and business and I rarely heard them use the word call to describe their work in life. Like Latini suggests in her first point, I heard them use the words meaning and purpose to describe their work.

I also heard the word fulfillment, as in “I find that designing websites is really fulfilling for me” or “It is fulfilling to know that if I continue my work in this firm by the end of my third year I will be making six figures.” I use the latter example as an experience to affirm Latini’s second point that “people find purpose and meaning in their relationships rather than in their work.” For this one friend, work is the avenue in which she can make enough money to provide meaningful memories for her spouse and friends.

Once upon a time, some twenty years ago, I used to play with stuffed animals. Not an uncommon experience for children. What might be a bit uncommon is how I played with my stuffed animals. I would line them up into rows to play church. As their pastor, I would gather grape juice and bread from the kitchen to then serve this “congregation” the Lord’s Supper. I also preached the Word to my play church and frequently received their offering (I remember writing out fake checks for these little stuffed creatures to give to church!). Pastoring is what I am supposed to do in this life. It gives me meaning, it gives the community meaning, and it is what I’m called to do (Oh, there’s that word call again!).  

So as I reflect on my work and my friends work and the different vocabulary that swims around our circles I keep wondering if we are missing something in this conversation. Latini suggests that “our theology of vocation needs an overhaul, the kind that digs deeply and widely into the Christian tradition and holds (honors really) the realities of our contemporary context on the other.” So with that in mind I would like us to consider how privilege plays into our understanding of vocation.

I often wonder if the conversation of vocation is a privileged conversation. I have the privilege of getting paid to do the work that I love to do because I have many different resources to tap into. But this is not the case for many people. When I think about this globally, I think of the men and women who are impoverished and are forced into a career of sex work to provide for their families. Those who are forced into sex labor are not allowed to honor their vocation/calling due poverty. Or how about the individuals who are flipping burgers, not because they find fulfillment in grilling processed squares of meat, but because that was the only opportunity for employment. Why don’t those individuals have the same opportunity to live out their vocation?

The reality of privilege needs to be part of this when we talk about vocation. In my next post I will tease out what I mean when I say privilege and suggest that our conversation shouldn’t be focused so much on what we are going to do in this life but instead who we are going to be.  I will also suggest those of us who are privileged carry a hefty responsibility when it comes to global vocation. And until then I welcome your thoughts and reflections on privilege and vocation.

How do you see vocation and privilege playing out in your context?

 

Jes Kast

The Reverend Jes Kast is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament and serves West End Collegiate Church as their Associate Pastor.

4 Comments

  • Theresa Latini says:

    Thanks for entering into this conversation with energy, passion, and insight, Jess!

    A few comments . . .

    (1) I resonate with your reaction to the word "call." As a seminary professor, I find myself sometimes cringing at how glibly we toss about this word. We too quickly assume that our "calling" is something that can be discerned with a certain amount of precision, packaged up neatly, and articulated in a three-page paper for "candidacy committees" and "call committees." Our quest for security and approval, I think, squeezes the mystery and dynamism out of our experience of vocation. This seems more about our late-modern (predominantly western and white) quest to plan the life we want than it seems to be about the surprising, unexpected work of the Spirit in our midst.

    (2) Yes. Vocation has been a conversation of the privileged. And to the extent that it has become that, it has been co-opted by . . . well, the privileged. And that includes me, which means that any reconstruction of vocation has to be done, at the very least, with acute self-reflexivity, communal input, and intentional inclusion of marginalized voices. I think, too, there are voices outside the church who address vocation that we can learn from. Perhaps some of them understand the inner dynamism of vocation better than we do.

    (3) At the same time, I think vocation, if we understand it in light of scripture and our rich theological tradition (which includes Reformed but also other theological traditions!), can be released from the crypt of bourgeois privilege and freed to live in the people of God, including the privileged. Of course, this, too, is the work of the Spirit, and for which today, I pray.

  • Nathan W says:

    In the first post on vocation I pushed back some, trying to direct the conversation towards the language self-denial and sacrifice.

    I do think vocation is a conversation of the privileged. Indeed, even for us to have this conversation we have to have access to the internet and technology (laptop, smart phone, desk top, tablet, tricorder, etc.) I highly doubt that Christians in Malawi, when they actually can see their pastor one on one (not that often, I understand) ask the pastor about the fact that they are struggling with their current work.

    Vocation and profession have, in the West, become synonymous. Profession is only possible because of privilege or a lot of debt. Because vocation and profession seem to have become synonymous, so too, vocation and job satisfaction are becoming more and more intertwined.

    Before I entered ministry I spent 11 years working in the insurance industry. I had many conversations with people who never go to church, believe in nothing (or something incredibly vague) and yet wonder about their "calling." And the reason for such wondering has always been job satisfaction. The same goes for Christians. I'm not saying God doesn't use dissatisfaction with one's job as a means of making a vocation more clear but I am unsure if happiness and vocation should be synonymous.

    Even in seminary, which I graduated from recently, stresses finding a "happy place" in ministry so that you don't get "burned out." So much so, that last week when I polled local pastors, I was unanimously told not to attend a funeral for a parishioner's father in another state simply because it was my day off!

    When we speak of call, why not speak of the call to "deny ourselves daily"? Why don't we talk about the need to consider others before ourselves? Why don't we look at the one who disregarded the pomp and splendor of heaven to become like a servant?

    Vocation needs to be freed from the shackles of happiness, and since the pursuit of happiness is definitely a fabric of a privileged society, it is an uphill battle.

  • Nathan W says:

    In the first post on vocation I pushed back some, trying to direct the conversation towards the language self-denial and sacrifice.

    I do think vocation is a conversation of the privileged. Indeed, even for us to have this conversation we have to have access to the internet and technology (laptop, smart phone, desk top, tablet, tricorder, etc.) I highly doubt that Christians in Malawi, when they actually can see their pastor one on one (not that often, I understand) ask the pastor about the fact that they are struggling with their current work.

    Vocation and profession have, in the West, become synonymous. Profession is only possible because of privilege or a lot of debt. Because vocation and profession seem to have become synonymous, so too, vocation and job satisfaction are becoming more and more intertwined.

    Before I entered ministry I spent 11 years working in the insurance industry. I had many conversations with people who never go to church, believe in nothing (or something incredibly vague) and yet wonder about their "calling." And the reason for such wondering has always been job satisfaction. The same goes for Christians. I'm not saying God doesn't use dissatisfaction with one's job as a means of making a vocation more clear but I am unsure if happiness and vocation should be synonymous.

    Even in seminary, which I graduated from recently, stresses finding a "happy place" in ministry so that you don't get "burned out." So much so, that last week when I polled local pastors, I was unanimously told not to attend a funeral for a parishioner's father in another state simply because it was my day off!

    When we speak of call, why not speak of the call to "deny ourselves daily"? Why don't we talk about the need to consider others before ourselves? Why don't we look at the one who disregarded the pomp and splendor of heaven to become like a servant?

    Vocation needs to be freed from the shackles of happiness, and since the pursuit of happiness is definitely a fabric of a privileged society, it is an uphill battle.

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