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?