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This academic year I was invited to join a professional development group exploring vocation at the university where I work. Our goal for the year is to come up with our own definition of vocation for the university and for our students with the aim of helping students think more deeply about their vocations and what it means for their time at the university and beyond.

The group kicked things off this summer and has been thinking broadly about possible definitions of vocation, breaking down our ideas and assumptions about the word vocation, and starting to explore the rich literature on the topic.

So far we’ve agreed to expand our own definitions beyond simple ideas about a career or job that’s your passion or calling, but we aren’t quite sure where we’ve landed yet.

  • We’ve started thinking about how difficult it is to have these conversations if you don’t have the means, resources, or free time to think about your own vocation.
  • We’ve talked about how your personal or familial context shapes the way you think about vocation.
  • We’ve discussed how society, peers, parents, the economy, and so many other factors put pressure on our students and narrow their ideas about possible vocations, leading them to focus more on prestige and making money rather than on connecting with the things that will be most meaningful in their lives.
  • We’ve begun to compile resources – books, articles, podcasts, interviews, art – that will inform our work over the course of the year.
  • And we’ve also asked about a million questions about the nature of vocation.

Is vocation for everyone? Does everyone even have a vocation?

How do you know what your vocation is?

What if you never figure it out?

How can we talk about vocation within the constraints of our own capitalist system, where things feel precarious and there is so much pressure to gain financial stability?

Does vocation have to be tied to religion and spirituality in some way?

To what extent is vocation only about the individual or does it need to be more broadly tied into community?

It’s hard not to explore the topic and start thinking about your own vocation. A few weeks into joining the groups, a colleague and I got into the discussion ourselves — was this our vocation? Did we feel like we had a clear picture of our own calling? The answer for both of us was a resounding no.

As a millennial, I feel like I was fed a constant stream of implicit messages about vocation, though we didn’t use that exact word — “You can be whatever you want to be!” and “Just work hard and go to a good college and everything will be fine!” and “Follow your passion!”

The implication of course always being that work must be your passion and end goal and that your passion must make you money. It’s hard to shake these deeply ingrained messages. But thankfully I’ve also encountered authors and speakers who have pushed back on these ideas and reshaped and expanded my own notions of vocation. (Shout out to Tricia Hersey’s Rest is Resistance, my latest read that pushed me to rethink the place of rest in vocation.) And I’m thankful for the opportunity this year to dive even deeper into vocation with my colleagues.

As we’ve begun this exploration of vocation, I find myself even more intrigued by how others think about their vocation or calling or passion or whatever you want to call it (if you even think about it at all). And I’m curious about what has formed your own ideas about vocation. Is vocation something you think about? If so, what books, podcasts, interviews, quotes, songs, movies, TV shows, people, places, or experiences have shaped how you think about and understand vocation – your own as well as others?

Photo by Pixabay

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.


  • Ben Dykstra says:

    About halfway through my career I found myself unemployed with the means to explore another avenue of work and a professional counselor to assist in my employment search. After reviewing my work history (Management career in the Waste Industry) the counselor advised me to continue my career path. He said he believed the industry was my calling and I would best succeed where my heart is. I took his advice and finished my career in waste management. This discussion reinforced my belief that my career was an opportunity to please God by following God’s Will in a profession that suited my gifts and talents.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    The Nourishing Vocation project of St Olaf College is a good resource. I especially appreciate their spiritual practice of VOCARE (as an acronym) for discerning one’s call for the present moment.

  • Terry Woodnorth says:

    Check out Steven Garber’s book “Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good.”

  • Jack says:

    When I was in my first position after college, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Colgate University, I asked the Dean what he said as a child when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. He replied that he said, “I want to be kind.”

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