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Vocation: Bah, Humbug

By January 14, 2012 9 Comments
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I apologize for passing over the many great posts since Theresa’s post on vocation, but I’d like to go back to that topic—which seems to have hit a nerve among our blog readers and writers—and try stirring up more conversation.    

I have been a grumpy dissenter on the vocation question for a long time.  In fact, in 2001 Perspectives printed an essay I wrote with my husband, Ron, in which we offered a critique of “vocation discourse,” as we might call it.  (If you’re interested, you can find a pdf of that article here.  Sorry about the goober photo.  We’re much better looking now that we’re older.) 

Since that article came out, I’ve had to speak on the subject of vocation in numerous settings, mostly to college students, sometimes in conjunction with programs funded by the Lilly Endowment.  Give the Lilly people credit, then, for allowing a range of views on vocation, including the grumpy-dissenter view.  (And BTW, Lilly Endowment, thank you for funding significant chunks of my life for the past fifteen years, mostly through the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.) 

At any rate, I am so grateful that Theresa and her colleagues are researching how vocation discourse is used—or not—by people in the pew and the workplace.  Real data will be enormously helpful, and her early findings are fascinating.  Theresa rightly calls for an overhaul of our thinking on the matter, and she’s got some intriguing tools for it.

But maybe Theresa won’t mind if some nosey neighbors mosey on over and get in on the demolition.  I’m not a licensed contractor, but I’m dressed up in my work boots and jeans and armed with a sledgehammer.  So let’s get started, shall we? 

I’ll offer a tentative view of some things that are wrong with vocation discourse, some reasons that it persists, and some possible alternatives.   

OK.  What’s wrong with vocation discourse?

1. The myth of the singular.  Vocation is too often spoken of in the singular and equated with career or profession.  Christian colleges and even grant funders are among the guiltiest on this score.  Young people are supposed to be searching for their God-given vocation, the singular life’s work that will use their gifts, support their families, and please their Lord.  And college is supposed to help them find the answer to this, their life’s great riddle. 

    The problem: it’s not realistic.  The singular, meaningful life’s profession is more the exception than the rule.  Ten years ago, our career guidance people at Calvin told me that our graduates could expect five to nine career changes in their lifetime.  That was ten years ago.  Now our graduates are wondering if they’ll have even one “career.”  It’s true that some people seem designed from birth for a particular profession—surgery, music, art, the ministry (as Jes Kast-Keat’s stuffed animals wisely predicted about her)—but most of us have different kinds of jobs in our lives, move in and out of the workforce, change directions.

    So “find your vocation”—in the common sense of the word—is a nasty thing to tell a college student.  Their life’s work will very likely not be just one thing.  And whatever they wind up doing may not always be the perfect expression of their gifts and kingdom service and income production all rolled up into one.  That’s a lot to ask, after all. 

    There’s a theological problem, too.  The myth of the singular vocation sets God up as the Mean Old Secret Keeper: “Solve the magic calculus of your vocation before you choose your major, or the equation of your life will be wrong wrong wrong from the start.”  I have attempted to counsel many a student agonizing over why God won’t just tell them what the answer is.

    Finally, even for someone like me, lucky enough to have a “meaningful profession,” I’m not sure what my vocation is.  Writing?  OK, maybe.  Teaching?  I never thought it would be, but it sure looks like that’s part of it now.  What about music?  That’s been a significant joy to me since grade school, but it’s not my profession, and I don’t know that I’d deem it a calling.  I’m also a spouse and a parent.  So what’s the One Magic Thing then??

    That leads to …

    2. The myth of multiple callings.  If the singular is problematic, the plural isn’t any better.  So you’re called to be a lawyer.  But also a husband and father.  And an elder in your church.  And a member of the school board.  And how do you prioritize if all these things are holy callings from the Most High?  And what about your spouse’s callings, should you happen to gather unto yourself a spouse?  Good luck getting all those callings to fit into 24-hour days.  And then if you have children, they may also have emerging callings, you know.  If your kid is called to play travel soccer, God help you.  Something is going to have to give, buddy.

      I’m being facetious, but you see the point.  We don’t generally talk about vocation in the plural, but we do talk about “callings.”  And then we’re faced with the problem of pleasing God when God calls us to do all these things, presumably with some level of competence.  Once again, we run into a dangerous view of God, this time as the Great Task-Master (sorry, Milton), asking more of us than we can possibly deliver.

      3. The problem of privilege.  Jes Kast-Keat has already alluded to this serious objection, as have some of the commenters on Theresa’s post.  I’ll let Jes and others take up this one in future posts.

        So with all these problems to discommend it, why does vocation discourse persist?  Any overhaul will have to address somehow these (at least) underlying reasons in order to be effective.

        1. “Vocation” does describe experience for some people.  Some.
        2. We do want integrity.  We want all the pieces of our lives to fit together into some kind of meaningful whole.  You can hear that in the keywords “meaning and purpose” from Theresa’s research.  (I love the “lifespan” question.  Very helpful.)
        3. We do want our work to be meaningful.  We can get by with “work is work”; most people do.  But we would rather have something that we spend so much time doing be worth the time and effort we give it.  (And work/faith integration has to be about more than evangelizing co-workers.) 
        4. We want to please and obey God.
        5. We want life to be simple and efficient.  Wouldn’t one meaningful, income-producing, kingdom-serving, tailored-to-your-talents life’s work be terrific?  Of course.  This is why college students agonize over choosing the right major and getting the right job after graduation.  They have an understandable fear of waste: wasting money, years, effort.  If you solve your vocation calculus early on, you minimize waste.  Maybe we need to stop wanting this one quite so much.  Life is unavoidably messy.  And there are other, equally beautiful narratives besides the singular vocation.
        6. We want a reason to press on when things get tough.  “Medical school is hard, but this is my vocation, so I’ll stick with it.”  “After that last congregational meeting, I wish I could quit the ministry, but it’s my calling.”  I’m pretty sure Lilly’s vocational grant program has something to do with the desire to recruit good people to a very tough profession…

        Solutions?  Well, I would go one step beyond Theresa’s judicious suggestion that vocation might be a “meaningless theological construct.”  I would call it at best confusing and at worst harmful.  Hence, my personal, uninformed, and nebulous proposal:

        1. Use the words vocation and calling in only one sense: discipleship.  We are called to be disciples of Jesus.  That is our vocation.  Period.
        2. For everything else, speak of guidance.  What is God guiding you to do right now, in the parts of your life where you have latitude? 

        This proposal, it seems to me, is not only for the privileged.  Anyone can be a disciple.  Anyone can seek guidance in their own context.  True, some people have more latitude for choice in their lives, and with that privilege comes responsibility.  But we can all seek guidance.  And guidance is not just about job or career.  It covers everything from how we serve at church to how we spend money to how we repent in prayer.

        Moreover, this way of thinking respects that life is full of surprises and setbacks, characterized by stages and seasons.  Do we need a sense of wholeness in life beyond discipleship?  I haven’t thought enough about that one yet.  Maybe.  If so, I don’t think vocation is the way to get it.  (“Love” is good, but might be too vague.  I think we still might need more specific ways to talk about accumulated experience, skill mastery, and long-term commitments to people, institutions, professions, etc.)

        All right.  Time to put down my sledgehammer and wipe my brow.  Anyone else want to pick up the sledgehammer and swing away?

        Debra Rienstra

        I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty for over twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over two hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. My husband and I have three grown children.

        9 Comments

        • Daniel Meeter says:

          This was just great. Smash away. Some random comments, while the dust is settling. How ironic that the word "career" should have been connected with "vocation". Check the "OED". How quickly the meaning evolved from the race-course to the short quick gallop to the nimble turning of the horse. And, then, as to your point about discipleship, let me recommend again that lovely hymn (made lovely by being set to the tune REPTON) by Fred Pratt Green, "How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord". He seems to have gotten it right.

        • Eric Johnson says:

          I respond to this post with a resounding Amen. As a hospital chaplain I see far more negative impact from the concept of call than helpful. Our hospital is home to a thriving Clinical Pastoral Education program, one which I took part in. CPE places significant emphasis on pastoral authority, which naturally ties into the vocational underpinnings we were endowed with in seminary. Unfortunately, as Jes pointed out in her post, the language seminaries use is privileged. True, we wrap it in gratifying concepts like self-sacrifice and the application of our significant gifts to the thankless and low-paying work of the Lord, but underneath it all we congratulate ourselves on being chosen to serve the church and be held to a different standard. But what happens when we want to do something else? I personally endured a difficult vocational crisis when I finally accepted that the church wasn't the place for me and I've seen the same thing happen in nearly every student that comes through our CPE program and arrives at the sense that they'd like to do something other than traditional church ministry. This is true when they are fresh out of seminary and it is even more true if they've been working in the church for years. Seasoned pastors making a career shift worry that they'll lose their connection and even their friends if they make a change. I agree, whatever good the concept of call does is outweighed by the burden and dysfunction it endows and we'd be better off without it.

        • Jason Lief says:

          Great post! Let me push back a bit. Does our ability to critique and deconstruct "vocation" also come from a position of privilege? Like so many others, I come from a blue collar family in which there was absolutely no discussion of work as vocation – work was a means to an end, and the ultimate end is a retirement that, sadly, never comes. Admittedly, my view of work was skewed and I found the "vocation" emphasis that takes work seriously to be both refreshing and life changing. As with so many other issues we move from point A (not even thinking about the nature of work) through point B (thoughtful reflection upon work as "vocation") to point C (a much needed critique of "vocation" and it's connection to work.) Point C is only possible from a position of privilege – having the time and resources to reflect and deconstruct. How do we provide a critique that at the same time takes the idea of "work" seriously? I understand it is problematic to over-associate work and vocation – but what are the consequences of disconnecting them? Especially in this time of economic downturn, college debt, and high unemployment, a robust conversation about the nature of "work" is badly needed. (I prefer to use Dorothy Sayers essay "Why Work?" as a conversation starter.) Hopefully my comment makes sense in the context of this conversation – if it doesn't please feel free to ignore.

        • Barb Ribbens says:

          I agree with a lot of what is posted here. As someone who has studied careers over a long period, this is clearly an area where Christians need to operate in the world but not be of the world. The world or our society pushes vocation as equal to career that satisfies, but a faithful person needs to look at it totally differently – how do I use the talents and gifts God has given me, where can I align with God and serve Him, and what to do I to live an obedient life. These questions can (and certainly should!! but don't always obviously and directly) lead us to career and job choices, but they must lead us to faithful life choices. My experience is that faithful life choices lead us to career choices and job choices which provide riches far more than we could plan on our own! And career/job choices are only one facet of a vocation. To me vocation is being in the spot God has designed for me and God has designed me for and that involves all aspects of my life, not just my work.

        • Ronda Renee says:

          Great posts…miss the vocation of thinking….. Wow…..

        • Ronda Renee says:

          Great posts…miss the vocation of thinking….. Wow…..

        • Debra Rienstra says:

          Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, everyone. In response to Jason, I agree we need to think theologically about work in a way that honors the value of work and suits our times. A lot of the vocation discourse is derived roughly from Luther, who wanted to value all forms of work. Good for him; that was a fresh new idea then and it's still needed now. But Luther's idea of "stations" was based on a totally different economic system! We do need something quite different for today. What do you suggest, Jason?

        • Jason Lief says:

          Agreed – Luther's perspective, though significant, was grounded in a different cultural context. Too conservative for my liking. In that way I agree that a critique of vocation is needed. I work at an institution that has historically claimed a Kuyperian orientation… believe me – a critique of vocation is badly needed! My point is to say let's not totally disconnect work from vocation. Yes… people change professions 5, 10, 15 times during a life time. But is that all good? Is there not something good and worth while about being committed to one's work – striving to do that work well? If there ever was a time when a good healthy discussion about "work" was needed it's now. Why should the neo Marxists have all the fun, pointing out the absurdities of the capitalist paradigm that allows people who electonically transfer… who knows what they transfer?… to make millions…no billions… of dollars? All the politicians can talk about right now is "jobs jobs jobs." What do they mean? It would seem the Christian community should have important things to say about work and cultural production. Isn't the notion of work a part of the call for justice? My point – let's critique vocation, let's broaden it, let's pry it out of the conservative, restrictive, traditional categories. But let's not totally disconnect it from work.

        • Eric says:

          Great post!!!
          Agree with so much of this and especially the discipleship being our only vocation
          By and large I think most 'vocational' talk falls into the trap of understanding fullness of life in terms largely set by the world around us and that 'I have a Vocation to Happiness' is the unconscious heartbeat of all such talk
          I think we have a vocation to love God with all we have and all we are and love our neighbours as ourselves – if we've got that bit figured then I guess we can afford the luxury of such Vocational tittle tattle as 'career' – 'family' etc.etc. Jesus seems to Call people away from that stuff
          Rant Rant!! 🙂

          Grace and Peace to you

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