Called by Name in Tumultuous Times
I remember painfully the time when my father lost his job. Dad was instrumental in the computerization of machines. After years of success and achievement, his position was eliminated in a downsizing. He was unemployed at age sixty. Dad understood himself as “the provider” and never wanted my stepmother to work. When he lost his paycheck, he lost himself. He felt no longer valued. I remember him sitting with me in our porch swing, lamenting feelings of despair, failure, worthlessness. I had never seen my father like that. It went on a long time.
After more than a year of searching and rejection, Dad was asked to teach at a well-known university. He soon thrived working with young students. He took them on field trips to factories and shared his learning from a lifetime of work. He said, “I am making one-third as much money and having three times as much fun. I wish I had done this years ago!” He had found his vocation.
“What Is There For Me Now?”
The current harsh economy has caused many people to struggle with vocation in painful new ways. Fewer positions and higher levels of student debt are obstacles to employment in one’s chosen field. Some worry that such economic conditions threaten even the possibility of pursuing one’s calling.
However, today’s tumultuous times may inspire more people to do serious reflection about their core life commitments, and live into them. People are asking, “What is really important?” and “Why am I here?” I think of new graduates eager to enter the work force, but who are in economic limbo; or first-generation college students who made the sacrifice to get an education, but who are still cooking at a fast-food restaurant; many who feel deeply committed to live out their calling in a particular field but are hindered by educational debt; fifty-five-year-olds who have lost high-paying jobs, pensions, and homes; mature adults wondering about purpose at mid-life or in retirement; thousands of young people coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with injured bodies and spirits, their lives blown apart in a moment. From a hospital bed they wonder, “What is there for me now? Why did I survive?” These are vocational questions.
We are in a time ripe for rediscovering the meaning of vocation. Human beings yearn deeply to find that place. But what is vocation? Church people tend to equate vocation with church service as a priest, minister, educator, mission worker, or member of a religious order. For Reformed Christians, vocation has a broader scope: it is something each baptized person has and discerns continually throughout life. In baptism we are called by name and commissioned for God’s special purpose. The rest of our lives is the unfolding of that vocation.
The church has a unique responsibility to walk with Christians of all ages as they explore their life commitments and purpose. It is especially important to do so with youth and young adults as they choose values, career, and life partners. Over the last decade church institutions have given a good deal of energy to helping young people explore vocation, especially focusing on church-related work and the goal of strengthening the pool of seminary candidates. (A notable one is the Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation, funded by the Lilly Endowment in partnerships with denominations and church-related educational institutions.) We must also not overlook the benefits of vocational exploration to those who do not go to seminary and whose ministries will be lived out in social work, teaching, health care, and more.
Walking Side by Side
I believe that the convergence of such programs with today’s economic uncertainty invites the church to strengthen its ministry to help individuals claim their Christian vocation. Church members and leaders need to walk alongside persons in vocational discernment. That may occur in congregations, on campuses, or other settings, and draw upon assistance and expertise from many sources. The Office of Vocation is one, but we also serve to connect individuals with vocational resources available on our college and seminary campuses, our camps and conference centers, church organizations, and in our presbyteries. These are God’s people in our pews and at our doorstep, called and gifted for God’s work, who need support as they adapt to their real-life conditions and seek a way to serve. If we don’t help people understand their identity as children of God with a life of purpose and resilience, who will shape their life direction and what will the message be?
In its 2005 strategic planning, the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (USA) identified Christian vocation as a priority. We have sponsored “Pathways” vocation events involving hundreds of high school youth and youth workers; a series of events for college students will be held this spring. Some seventy people now participate in the Young Adult Volunteer Program, doing a year of service in the U.S. and abroad – for instance, border ministry in Arizona, urban ministry in Chicago, justice ministry in Nashville, educational ministries in Guatemala, Northern Ireland, or Kenya while living in intentional community and committing to the work of discernment.
For Such a Time as This
For those called to pastoral ministry, we established For Such a Time as This, a small-church residency program that matches underserved rural or inner-city churches with new graduates gifted and waiting to serve. Somewhat akin to Teach for America, this initiative aims to nurture new pastoral leaders and deepen the community impact of small congregations. Residents are supported by mentors in learning groups that meet monthly during their two-year pastoral term. They are also offered debt assistance to remove some of the barriers they face as they respond to the call to missional service.
Both residents and their parishioners are experiencing God’s call powerfully. Michaele Wood, resident pastor in Pontotoc, MS, has said: “This is kind of the Conestoga wagon thing. If you really think you’ve got guts and you’ve been called by God, let’s find out.” Sara Bramlett, an elder in the church, said: “Yes, we are alive. Yes, we do have a future. Yes, God is still at work in our church. There is more we can do.”
In the PC(USA) Office of Vocation, our work is based on the assumption that each of us has a calling to serve God faithfully in gratitude and hope. Vocation is not necessarily about church work but embraces a variety of paths to transform the world in the name of Christ. The crisis of our times reminds us that we live in a broken and fearful world, and it provokes us to examine our commitments and discern what God would have us do with what we have been given.
Marcia Clark Myers is director of the Office of Vocation for the Presbyterian Church (USA). She came to ministry after working as a New Jersey family service caseworker. She has a B.A. from Drew University, an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a D.Min. from McCormick Theological Seminary, and has served as pastor, co-pastor, and presbytery staff in West Virginia and Kentucky.