the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956
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The end is the beginning: Our vocation is reconciliation

By President Shirley H. Showalter

Can an institution have a vocation? The first response most of us have to this question is “no.” Institutions are neutral power brokers at their best and harmful power abusers at their worst. They will inevitably fall short in efforts to unify around noble causes because failures of individuals within them will create gaps between the ideal and the real that will lead to cynicism instead of commitment. Better aim low and achieve the goal than to aim high and fail – such is the rational advice of many managers of organizations.

Five years ago I was part of a group of educators who met at the Fetzer Institute to discuss the question of vocation and institutions. Those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear that I argued for institutions to commit to a vocation and to call all the members to that vocation. Five years, and many triumphs and tragedies later, I am even more hopeful that Goshen College as an institution can and will claim a vocation with clarity. I have proposed to our faculty and staff this August that we claim reconciliation as our vocation.

The inspiration for this challenge arose as a group of faculty and administrators met to plan our annual faculty retreat. We started with two texts we proposed for all to read: Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak and Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. The biblical text we used was 2 Corinthians 5:18, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

During the brainstorming for the meeting we tried to find a way to unite the idea of calling and vocation in Palmer’s book with the theme of reconciliation in Volf’s. As soon as someone said the words “vocation” and “reconciliation” together, light bulbs went on – “Our vocation is reconciliation!” was a natural response. It was an exciting moment.

It is one thing to assert a vocation, it is another thing altogether to clarify its meaning. The faculty has discussed this theme now and there are many good questions to explore: What are we reconciling? How do we link our most important programs of the past and present to a vision of a future focused on reconciliation? How do we share our commitment and rededication to our collective and individual vocations with the world?

I write these words now so that you, our alumni and friends, can again enter into conversation with us. If you have responses, send them to

I have a dream that Goshen College will become known as an excellent liberal arts college that creates peacemakers, reconcilers – no matter what the student majors in. This dream did not originate with me. It is bred in the bone and woven into the fabric of this place. Even our failures have not erased our desire.

At the conference on institutions and vocation five years ago one of the speakers was theologian Walter Wink, whose essay advocating institutional vocation was based on his reading of the book of Revelation. Wink noticed that when the angel who visited John on the island of Patmos instructed him to write to the seven churches, he instructed him to write, not to the church itself, but to the angel of the church (2:1, 3:1, etc.). If each church has its own angel, Wink surmised, perhaps each has its own vocation. By extension, each church college might have its own vocation and its own angel. If each church had its own distinctive mission to perform of eschatological significance, perhaps we today should examine what the collecting calling might be of our institutions.

I thought of Wink’s essay again during our August retreat when we were blessed with a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:15-20 by Keith Graber Miller (professor of Bible, religion and philosophy) and two papers by Ruth Krall (professor of religion, nursing and psychology and director of peace, justice and conflict studies) and John D. Roth (professor of history). Krall called us to bear witness to suffering and underlined the difficulty of the work of reconciliation, especially as our students and graduates encounter suffering in war zones. Roth used Miroslav Volf’s book as a basis of his challenge to us to live the “values that begin with ‘h’” – hospitality, honesty, humility and humor.