Calling and Connection
Some colleagues and I have been doing research on vocation over the last three years with scholars at four other seminaries, each from a different Christian tradition. Vocation, most simply, is the belief that God calls all Christians to share in God’s work to care for, love, and bless the world. (The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare – “to call” – which is also related to the noun vox (voc-), from which we get our word “voice.”)
The research was prompted by two contradictory sets of data: 1) Across the board, the pastors we interview from all these different Christian traditions identified vocation as an important theological category and said it was a priority of their teaching and preaching. 2) Most parishioners we surveyed, however, do not feel called; that is, they don’t believe that what they spend most of their time doing is worthy of God’s or the church’s attention.
Our job has been to figure out – and if possible diminish – this noticeable gap between ministers who stress calling and parishioners who nevertheless don’t feel called. We’ve learned a lot so far, but two early discoveries that surprised us still remain among the most important insights.
1) The word “vocation” carries very little meaning with today’s Christians. Having surveyed more than a thousand people about words that help them meaningfully connect their faith and their everyday live, “vocation” finished dead last. Perhaps that’s not too surprising, as it can seem like a technical word and often gets used to describe only our jobs rather than all the other elements of our daily lives where God is at work. What was more surprising was that “calling” itself didn’t fare much better, coming in second-to-last.
The words that people resonated with? Meaning, purpose, fulfillment. People – I suspect all of us – are looking for our faith to help us perceive, understand, and deepen the sense that what we do matters. (One of my colleagues, Theresa Latini, has written more about this on a blog she contributes to – I’d recommend both her posts and the comments that follow.)
2) Fewer and fewer people are finding this kind of meaning and fulfillment through their work. Rather, they seek it through relationships – family, friends, various volunteer or other associations. And those who do find it at work also name the relationships there as primarily. Even measuring “making a difference” seems to have significant relational overtones, as people don’t want to make a difference in general but want what they do to benefit others.
If this is true, then I wonder if we sometimes overcomplicate matters of vocation. Maybe we should spend less time persuading people that what they do is a calling from God and instead point and invite them to see the people with whom and for whom they do it as gifts of God. Perhaps, that is, we should understand vocation in terms of connection – we are called by God to nurture each other, care for each other, help each other, receive care and help from each other, and in all these ways and more discover our meaning and fulfillment in and through each other.
Along these lines, I still find both helpful and inspiring Frederick Buechner’s succinct summary of Christian vocation: “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Except “world” isn’t understood abstractly or in terms of causes or concerns but rather in terms of people, all God’s children. How, that is, do our passions, abilities, and joy connect with the concrete needs of others?
Numerous folks pointed me toward the following video, Seth Godin and Dan Pink not surprisingly among the first. While I saw it almost two months ago, I think it came back to me today because it offers a picture of a more simple portrait of vocation – one person, in this case a 9 year-old boy, wanting to share his passion with others simply because he believes they will love it too and, in turn, the eagerness of all kinds of folks to enter into his deep gladness out of a sense of gratitude. If you can make the time, it will be 11 minutes very well spent.
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PS: The Buechner quotation on vocation comes from his timeless book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.