the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956
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Job, career, vocation: The difference is in the calling

How many times, whether chatting with a fellow plane passenger or meeting a church visitor, have you asked, “So what do you do?” The implication of the question is, “What is your career?” – as we associate career with identity.

Each of us is called to be someone and to do things – it is part of human existence – and discovering these things is a life-long process of growth and change. For Christians, the word “calling” has biblical implications. We reflect on God specifically calling individuals in the Old and New Testaments to do specific things or to become something (or someone) new, and wonder how we will know what God calls us to do.

College is often a time when this synthesis of discerning faith and a life’s work begins in earnest. In this Christian academic community, faith and action are considered together. In seeking calling, students discover more about themselves as they study, practice what they learn and talk with professors, mentors and friends – and all of this shapes identity.

Job, career, vocation
We are all familiar with the concepts of “job” and “career,” but “vocation” is a much misunderstood term. The word comes from the Latin vocare, or voice – meaning to follow the voice of God, or to do what we are called to do. Religious cultures have attached differing implications to the word “vocation” – Catholics using it to refer to religious service in the priesthood or monastic life, and Protestants equating it with “work that you do to make a living.” Popular usage links vocation with technical education programs, as in “vo-tech” schools.

There is a movement underway to redeem the original meaning of “vocation” as work that calls us to connect our God-given gifts and passions with God’s activity in the world. A vocation is a calling that merges our mission in life with God’s mission on earth. As Frederick Buechner puts it in a well-known passage from Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That intersecting point is your calling, your vocation.

Vocation could be work that is outside your wage-earning sphere of activity. For example, a businessperson might have a vocation as a youth sponsor or Sunday school teacher. A teacher might have a vocation as a mentor or worship leader. But vocation may also coincide with career or grow out of a specific career path. The vocation of a doctor or nurse might be “healer.” The vocation of a dietician might be “nourisher.” GC Associate Professor of Music Debra Brubaker ’79, in a Jan. 23, 2002, chapel service about her faith journey, spoke of her battle with cancer that helped her to see her life and faith and music in new ways. She now sees her vocation as connecting music, God and healing in students’ lives.

Many doors, evolving options
When we encourage young people to think about their future, we too often limit their vision to a specific career. There is nothing wrong with planning a career, but God usually has deeper and larger plans than we can imagine.

The best thing we can offer young people is encouragement to trust in God to lead us one step at a time. Anne Lamott, in her autobiographical book Traveling Mercies, recalls a sermon about God’s leading:

Pastor Veronica said that when she prays for direction, one spot of illumination always appears just beyond her feet, a circle of light into which she can step. She moved away from the pulpit to demonstrate, stepping forward shyly... and then, after standing there looking puzzled, she moved another step forward to where the light had gone, two feet ahead of where she had been standing, and then again, “We in our faith work,” she said, “stumble along toward where we think we’re supposed to go, bumbling along, and here is what’s so amazing – we end up getting exactly where we’re supposed to be.

There is no paved highway to take us where we’re supposed to be – no path set in stone carved with our name. Our future is not a maze, in which we must guess at the only right path to lead us to the only right destination. Instead, we are on a journey in which God gives us constantly evolving options, depending upon our choices and the choices of others.

Gerald Sittser, in his book The Will of God as a Way of Life, presents the image of life as a room in which we have several doors to choose from. When we choose one door, it opens into another room with another set of doors. We choose again and enter yet another room with another set of doors. And so on.

In a Jan. 18, 2002, convocation, Dr. Dennis Mishler ’82 illustrated this image with the story of his life choices. He had not intended to go to college at all, but enrolled at Hesston College and then at GC. He took a job as a hospital orderly, switched from psychology to a nursing major, then returned for a second bachelor’s degree in biology and went to medical school and on to residencies, practiced as a kidney specialist and is now a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine. Each choice opened new possibilities for him, but he could not have imagined his current position when he was 18.

The right question to ask is not necessarily, “What is my vocation going to be?” but “How do I choose the best door that is in front of me right now?” The best decision-making tools we can offer young adults who are worried about their future are not career inventories, but the classic tools of Christian discernment: prayer, Scripture, obedience, reflection and the counsel of fellow believers. When we give time and attention to knowing God and knowing ourselves, light will shine on our next step. These timeless Christian practices can turn both our successes and our failures into learning experiences that draw us closer toward God’s purpose for our lives.

Virgil Miller, CEO of Sauder Manufacturing and chair of GC’s Board of Directors, affirmed the power of these Christian principles in his own life when visiting campus Feb. 1, 2002. When he felt he had hit a wall in his working life, it was prayer, Scripture, reflection and the counsel of fellow believers that led him in a new direction. He discovered the concept of servant leadership and it has transformed his life.

If young adults want a vocation and not just a job or career, what kind of college education will help them on this journey? What is required are opportunities to learn about God and about the practices that draw us closer to God. Opportunities to make good lifelong friends among students and faculty, to stretch out of our comfort zone in order to learn about the world from different perspectives, and chances to develop and use our gifts. What is really needed is encouragement to live a life of wholeness as well as excellence.

To aim beyond a career toward vocation, the place where God calls us, a college like Goshen College is the best place to be. Our mission is to develop servant leaders for the church and the world. Goshen graduates work at jobs; they have careers; but they also pursue a vocation. They listen for the voice of God calling them to the intersection of their deep joy and the world’s deep hunger.
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