Do You Feel Called, Pt. 2

Judging by your comments (16) and emails (about double that amount) to the short piece I wrote on vocation last week, I’d say that we all, at the very least, want to feel called. And so I wanted to continue sharing some thoughts on vocation as well as continue inviting your conversation (especially in the comments so all can hear what you’re thinking).

In this post, then, three observations I have about vocation in relation to the comments, emails, and dozens of conversations I’ve been privileged to have with folks over the years about their sense of calling.

1) No matter how hard we try, we still often tend to think of “calling” in religious terms. That is, we most often name what we do as professions or everyday Christians in and through the church as a “vocation.” There were plenty of comments – and some rather eloquent testimony – from folks about their “secular” (another not favorite word of mine) jobs, but the overwhelming majority of us seem to hear “calling” or “vocation” and think first of “church work,” whether paid or volunteer.

To be honest, I think that’s pretty understandable. For centuries, the Church taught that church work was a higher calling and, over time, talk about vocation was linked inextricably, primarily, and all too often exclusively with church work. A huge element of Luther’s Reformation was, in fact, driven by an attempt to rescue calling from the exclusive domain of the clergy. That project was somewhat successful in the sixteenth century and still has a long way to go in the twenty-first.

2) We also tend to connect vocation primarily to our work, and particularly paid work. That is again, I think, rather understandable. Work occupies a great deal of our lives. As William Faulkner once wrote, “the only thing that a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work. You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours—all you can do for eight hours is work.”

Moreover, in our culture our work is increasingly a major — if not the major — part of our identity. For centuries, when meeting someone new, you were likely to inquire about their family. Today the question is often, “So what do you do?” (This is partly why being out of work, or volunteering, or working in the home, or being retired, can sometimes be difficult for folks. We’re not always sure how to define ourselves apart from a “paid career”.)

For both of these reasons, I think it’s natural that we connect calling to work. Natural, but not always beneficial. Faulkner’s larger quotation reads thus: “One of the saddest things is that the only thing that a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work. You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours—all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.” Even fulfilling work, all by itself, is rarely enough to constitute a full and meaningful life.

3) Relationships often get missed when we talk about vocation. This may be due, in part, to our focus on work, but it may also be a legacy of the work of the Reformers, including Luther, to stress so heavily the importance of “office” – that is, an authorized position or societal station we might hold. While this was an incredibly important move to broaden our sense of calling from priests and monks to police officers, politicians, and teachers, for instance, we haven’t spent as much time thinking about the “office” of friend or colleague, just to name two examples.

Luther was adamant about familial roles/offices like spouse and parent, but we need to do more, I think, to recognize that even when we think about work and office, much of what we accomplish – or, from the point of view of faith – much of what God accomplishes through us, comes through our relationships. Interestingly, one of the polls a colleague of mine conducted revealed that even when many people talked about calling in terms of their work, people experienced there greatest sense of calling and satisfaction in terms of their relationships with people at work. This needs further exploration.

Once again, there’s a lot more to talk about, and I hope to write some more on this – and particularly on how congregations can help nurture a more vibrant sense of vocational identity – but for now I’d again value your thoughts.


Note: The Faulkner quotation is from an interview in Writers at Work, 1958.