I was leading a visioning retreat for a church, and I asked everyone to share their name, their vocation, and one thing they would love to see happen at their church over the next three years. The very first person gave her name, and for vocation she said, “I’m retired.” I told everyone that I had not asked for their career or job, but their vocation. I asked what they were passionate about, and felt called to do for God in this world. Despite my clarification, at least five more of the thirty something in attendance announced themselves “retired.” Moses received his calling at age 80, and these people were retired. That speaks volumes about how diluted the idea of Christian vocation represented in Luther’s priesthood of all believers has become.
Some time ago, I was at Luther Seminary visiting with Jack Fortin at the Center for Lifelong Learning. He was describing how their Centered Life Initiative tries to address this misunderstanding of vocation, what he called “the unfinished business of the Reformation.” He went on to describe what he meant by vocation in this context, and I found it fascinating. I also found it foreign to everything I had learned and experienced in my 25 years in the Lutheran church.
After being baptized in my late 20’s and going to Cursillon, now Via de Cristo, I felt the touch of God calling me to something. I had two small children and was working in the family business. The way I understood it, the proper response to a calling was to leave my business and pursue ordination so I could work in the church. No one ever affirmed to me the possibility that my calling was my work in the business world. After a year or so praying and agonizing about whether to leave my business to go to seminary, I finally settled on the Via de Cristo mantra to “bloom where you’re planted.”
The main impression I got from church was that the business world was viewed as evil, and business people were primarily greedy and self-serving, only interested in enriching themselves and living a very consumptive lifestyle. So how could I possibly be serving Christ in business? To serve the church, I thought I had to leave work to come to church to committee or Council meetings, and support generously the work of the church with my offerings.
In fact, 25 years later I sold my business and left to pursue my “calling” in the church, still not understanding Luther’s notion of vocation. The idea that my company and my work could be a calling, a Christian vocation, was still not on my radar screen. I am only wondering about this now because I have gotten to know people like Jack Fortin and Dick Bruesehoff, Director for Lifelong Learning in the Lutheran Church (ELCA). My initial impression was that these people primarily focused on candidacy and educating rostered leaders. I now realize that there is a significant and growing emphasis on educating lay people to understand the aspect of vocation relating to our Christian calling in the world. Their mission is broader than creating a channel to draw people into and educate them for rostered ministry.
What do Christians mean by vocation? Vocation means “calling.” From a Lutheran viewpoint, pastors or others who work for the church have a vocation, but Christians who work outside the church do, too. Any job or career becomes a “Christian vocation” if a Christian remembers to do that job as part of her or his call from God to serve others. Leaders often speak about pastors having a “calling” to the ministry of the gospel. This is true, but the Church also teaches that every Christian is called by God to serve others. Christians in every walk of life are called to demonstrate love and do good. Everything we do is to be done for the glory of God, including our work.
This means that all honest work can be a Christian vocation or calling. We do our jobs as Christians when we do our jobs as effectively and honestly as possible. For example, a Christian factory worker may want to lead a Bible study during lunch break, but doing so does not make that person a Christian factory worker. Doing quality instead of shoddy work while on the assembly line makes the job a Christian vocation. Why? Because doing so contributes to the wellbeing of society and thereby serves others.
Maybe my best grounding in this notion of vocation came from Brother Lawrence, in his book, Practice of the Presence of God. Lawrence lived in the 1600's and was an uneducated layman who entered the Monastery. He spent the rest of his life working as a cobbler and in the kitchen. He never got ordained or made Father, and never intended to write a book. The book is a compilation of his letters to his spiritual director, gathered and published upon his death. Yet, from his humble post, Lawrence learned how to experience God in the most mundane. He dedicated his washing of dishes to the glory of God, and that made it holy work. His book still sells today.
The idea of Christian vocation also extends to unemployed people and people whose lives do not include work for pay. For example, teenagers who are Christians share in a calling to do their work as students as honestly and effectively as possible.
Part of my problem in getting a clear understanding of Christian vocation is the use of the term leader in church circles. Often, when church officials use the word leader, it is synonymous with ordained clergy. I attended numerous Leadership Conferences in the church. I finally figured out that many were not conferences on leadership, but conferences of leaders (read clergy). Now I understood why these conferences seem like more of a time away from laity when clergy could let their hair down and play golf and socialize rather than a time to hone leadership skills. I wonder if it makes sense to continue using these two terms, “leader” and “ordained clergy,” synonymously, since in a large survey, only 10 percent of pastors self-described as leaders capable of casting a vision.
A significant part of the problem seems to be that seminaries have only begun to emphasize this concept of Christian vocation in the recent past. Thousands of our pastors have not themselves reached a good understanding of how to affirm people (particularly business people) in understanding that their work is indeed Christian vocation. A number of books have come out in the last decade or so on this topic, but, as many have pointed out to me, we do not require continuing education for our pastors.
All other professions require continuing education to maintain your professional license. Health care workers, educators, college professors, and many trades and business professionals must demonstrate continuous learning and stay informed about the latest developments in the field as requirements of their work. While the church strongly recommends continuing education, it is only mandated during the first three years of their First Call.
So, creating an environment where Luther’s Priesthood of All Believers is actually understood and lived out presents quite a challenge to the church, learning to live out the unfinished business of the Reformation. I pray that you might learn to live out your Christian calling out in the world, in business, in government, in teaching, in health care, in professions far and wide. God needs people in all walks of life to bring light and life into the workplace. may it be so in your life.