Job and Vocation: Discerning the Difference

Nora Tubbs Tisdale

Some time ago, I had an experience that startled me into a new awareness of the increasing divide that many in the church are experiencing between their jobs on the one hand and any sense of Christian calling on the other. While serving on the staff of a large New York City church, I attended a weekly gathering of young adults where the topic was the meaning of Christian vocation. What followed was revelatory.

The facilitator asked the fifty adults to get up out of their chairs and position themselves across the room in response to particular statements about work and our relationship to it.

The first statement was: “I feel completely fulfilled and satisfied in my job.” In response, a few people went to one side of the room, indicating great satisfaction with their jobs. A few people went to the opposite side of the room – some amidst audible groans – signaling their complete dissatisfaction with their work. The majority positioned themselves somewhere on a continuum across the room, suggesting relative happiness or unhappiness with their employment.

The second statement was: “The job I have now is close to what I feel is my ultimate vocation – my dream job.” Again, responses varied. Some indicated “yes,” they were in their dream jobs. Some declared “no,” they absolutely were not. Quite a few remained in the middle.

Then came the third statement: “I feel close to God in my job; my daily work fulfills me spiritually.” When all the movement finally ceased, I realized there was only one person in the entire room who was standing on the side that indicated complete agreement with that statement. And that one person was me!

Sadly, the vast majority of those young adults located themselves somewhere on the opposite side of the room. Some commented that the question itself had caught them off guard: work and spirituality were not something they ordinarily thought of putting together. 

Historic Shift

Most troubling about that experience is how it illustrates the enormous shift I have witnessed in my own lifetime between how people in the church think about work and vocation, and the relationship between the two.

When I was in high school and college in the late 1960s and early 70s, there was a strong sense – in the Presbyterian Church at least – that “job” and “vocation” were almost synonymous terms, and part of the church’s mission was helping young people discern their life’s calling under God. Indeed, the Presbyterian Church had a number of vocational testing centers, often located at Presbyterian colleges, where young adults could meet with a counselor to discern what vocations would be most fitting with the gifts and interests God had given them. The vital assumption was that a person’s job should have some connection with serving God, and a part of Christian discipleship was finding a job that engaged one’s God-given talents. There was an underlying assumption that once you discerned your vocation you pretty much stayed with it the rest of your life.

Three Trends

But a lot about the workplace has changed since then. These changes have caused people of all ages – and not just young adults – to question whether their jobs have much, if anything, to do with God anymore. The struggles triggered by this historic recession have only intensified that sense of alienation or divide. Three trends, well underway before the 2008 financial crisis, come to mind that by now define the workplace horizon:

The work place has become a far more competitive and less kind place than it used to be, and old-fashioned values such as honesty, hard work, and dependability are no longer widely rewarded as they once were. Pursuit of the highest possible profit, in many instances, is the sole criteria for success. This ethic is celebrated on a TV show such as The Apprentice, where winners and losers are judged each week solely on the basis of which team produces more profit for the company, and where traditional loyalty, compassion, and a generous spirit are often Trumped (literally) by aggressiveness, backstabbing, and the press toward the bottom line.

Not only do such work environments usually bring out the worst in human nature; they also fuel the pressure on those in management positions to do anything and everything they can to make it look like the bottom line is better even if it’s not. Such work climates take their toll on individual workers: too many hours spent away from home and family, illnesses caused by work-related stress, and for some older workers, job loss – not because they failed to work hard and do well, but because it is cheaper to replace them with younger, less experienced people.

The traditional notion that a person will work in the same job all her or his life sounds almost ludicrous today. Partly this is due to the pattern of corporate takeovers that has become routine in our economic culture, causing job layoffs and uncertainty even in prosperous times. A relative of mine, who works in the insurance industry, found himself working for four different companies in four different jobs in the space of two years – with none of the changes initiated by him. “So far,” he told me at one point, “I’m one of the lucky ones, and have managed to land on my feet each time a turnover happens. But I figure my days are numbered. I’m trying to save up now for the tough times that are sure to come.”

Finally,we need to acknowledge that for a large number of people in our land, holding out for a job that gives them great personal meaning and fulfillment is not a luxury they can afford. Necessity forces many people to take whatever work they can and be grateful for the paycheck. I spent several years volunteering at an outreach program of the church my husband pastored in New Jersey, doing in-take interviews with minimum-wage workers who came to us for scholarships and child-care assistance. When I asked them about their jobs, it quickly became apparent that for them the goal at work was not fulfillment; it was survival, a way of putting bread on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. These days their name is legion.

Callings from Scripture

In the face of these relentless pressures and patterns, I find two Biblical stories about calling helpful – the call of Samuel and the call of Jesus’ disciples. They don’t address all the messy issues raised about the workplace in our time, but they do speak to some basic Gospel truths we dare not forget as we ponder the relationship between work and vocation.

For starters, these two Biblical narratives remind us that while some of us may have jobs, all of us have a vocation: namely, to love, serve, and follow God. One reason I have always loved the story of the call of Samuel is because God’s call, God’s “vocation,” comes not to some older and wiser adult, but to a young boy who isn’t expecting God to talk to him at all.

The setting is the temple in Jerusalem, where the boy Samuel is sleeping before the Holy of Holies – that place behind the temple curtain where the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments rests. Samuel is in the temple because his parents, Hannah and Elkanah, decided to dedicate him to God at an early age. They have sent him there to live and train for the priesthood under Eli, who is old and almost blind.

A lamp is burning low in the temple as Samuel sleeps, and suddenly he is awakened when he hears a voice calling, “Samuel, Samuel.” Thinking it must be old Eli calling him, Samuel rushes to where Eli is sleeping and says, “Here I am for you called me.” But Eli says, “Son, I didn’t call you. Go back and lie down again.”

Three times during the night this voice awakens Samuel, three times he mistakenly thinks it is Eli calling and rushes to his bedside, until finally – after the third call – Eli wisely discerns that perhaps it is God who is calling the young man. He tells Samuel, “The next time you hear the voice, you are to respond: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” When Samuel hears the voice calling a fourth time, he replies as Eli had told him to do. It is then that God tells Samuel of the plans God has for his life, of the words God wants him to speak, of the things God wants him to do.

This story is a powerful reminder that no matter how young or old we are, or how important or unimportant we may feel, God has a vocation for us. Our real worth lies in the fact that God knows us, loves us, calls us by name.

A similar dynamic is at work in the way Jesus begins calling his disciples. Who does Jesus call first to follow him? The wealthy and well-employed? Those most talented at turning a financial profit? No. He calls ordinary day laborers. A couple of brothers – Peter and Andrew – guys who fish with their dad for a living. To these he entrusts a vocation, a calling, saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Follow me, and I will teach you to use those same God-given gifts and abilities you have been using in your daily work for even greater purposes – God’s purposes.

Vocation After Hours

There are a lot of people today who, like those fishermen of old, live out the heart of their Christian vocations not primarily through their jobs, but by following Jesus in spheres of service outside the workplace:

A man I know, a Wall Street trader, finds deep meaning and joy as a junior high youth advisor on the weekends.

A retiree I know, who spent many years in the business world, now uses his considerable gifts in finance and organizational management to help churches provide low-income housing.

A young woman I know – a singer by profession – says her true passion comes through her volunteer work on behalf of environmental concerns. 

A relative who lost his own job in the recession and who currently delivers newspapers and pizzas to pay his bills recently told me that the past year has been one of the most meaningful of his life because of the joy he finds in his volunteer work for a nonprofit that provides transitional housing for recovering alcoholics.

Nevertheless, this primary vocation – the calling to love and serve and follow Christ – can also transform how we see our everyday jobs. Sometimes even the most boring and repetitive jobs can become an arena for Christian service if we are open to hearing the voice of God guiding and showing us how to use our gifts right where we are.

I think, for instance, of that young woman I know who turned her bartending job – a job she got in order to pay the bills when she moved to New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina – into a ministry for Christ as she simply listened, in an empathetic and compassionate way, to the painful stories people poured out to her.

I think of that business manager I know in New Jersey, who, despite the many thorny issues she must handle on a daily basis, has told me that her heart’s greatest desire is to be the “Lydia” of her workplace – extending the grace of hospitality to all who enter there much like the remarkable woman in Acts 16.

A Clarifying Voice

To me one of the great gifts of the Christian life can be summed up this way: no matter where we find ourselves, we have a vocation that has been given to us by God, and confirmed for us in our baptisms. We are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ. And because that vocation is God-given, there is nothing this world – with all of its injustice, unfairness, and inequality – can do to take it away.

The stories of Samuel and the disciples offer another lesson: since God is the initiator of vocation, our primary responsibility is often simply to listen intently for God’s call, and faithfully respond when it comes.

In his wonderful book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Wiley, 2000), Parker Palmer writes: “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about – or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions. That insight is hidden in the word vocation itself, which is rooted in the Latin for ‘voice.’ Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear.” (p. 4)

Palmer writes honestly about the fact that listening for and hearing God’s voice is not always easy. During a dark and jobless period in his own life when, as he puts it, “I was approaching middle age at warp speed and had yet to find a vocational path that felt right,” he spent a number of months praying and trying to listen to God – yet with no audible voice like that of Samuel coming in the night to guide him.

Finally in frustration he took his troubles to an older Quaker woman, well known for her thoughtfulness and candor. “Ruth,” he said, “People keep telling me that ‘way will open.’ Well, I sit in the silence, I pray, I listen for my calling, but way is not opening. I’ve been trying to find my vocation for a long time, and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of what I’m meant to do.”

Ruth’s reply, he writes, was a model of Quaker plain-speaking. “I’m a birthright Friend,” she said somberly, “and in sixty-plus years of living, way has never opened in front of me.” But then she spoke again – this time with a grin. “But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.”

Discerning God’s voice might not come with the clarity that it came to Samuel in the night. But it’s often possible to look back and see that God sometimes uses even those situations that are the most devastating in our lives – disappointing jobs, disillusioning jobs, lost jobs – to open new vistas of vocation we had not yet even imagined.

No Guarantees

Finally, these Scripture passages remind a Christian that the vocation to follow Christ is the first and primary calling, and demands our highest allegiance – even if it sometimes means putting a job in jeopardy.

I have always loved that quotation of Frederick Buechner’s: “Vocation is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Yet the story of Samuel’s call is a sobering reminder that vocation is not necessarily something that brings immediate joy and gladness to the heart or to the workplace. The call to Samuel was difficult and hard. God basically told this young boy to go to his mentor, his friend, his superior – the beloved priest Eli with whom he had lived since he was very small – and tell Eli that the days of his priesthood were coming to an end because of the evil of his sons. No wonder Samuel lay awake all night pondering this word he had received in the darkness from God. No wonder he was afraid to go and tell Eli about his vision the next morning.

Ultimately, Samuel was faithful. He spoke the truth he had received from God – the whole truth – to Eli. Because Eli himself was a man of prayer, a man of God, he received it as a word from God. But there were no guarantees for Samuel. Just as there are no guarantees for any of us who would speak God’s truth and risk allowing our vocations to subvert our jobs. 

Prophet Irene

One of my vocational heroes is a woman named Irene Jenkins, whom I first met when I was on the faculty of Union Seminary in Virginia (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) and she was one of the custodians who cleaned my office. A middle-aged African American woman, Irene had had her share of troubles in life. Her husband had left her early on, and she had been the sole financial support of her two children, one of whom – a mentally disabled adult son – still lived with her.

Irene’s job was, by the world’s standards, menial labor. But with Irene, there was nothing menial about it. She often came into my office to empty trash cans and dust bookcases with a headset on, humming hymns as she worked. She frequently paused to tell me about a Bible passage she’d been reading, about the latest instance of God’s goodness in her life, or about news at her Pentecostal church. Irene walked closely with God, and it showed.

When I got ready to leave Union for another teaching position, Irene arrived at my office door one day. “Sit down,” she said in a voice I’d never heard her use before, “I have a word from the Lord for you.” Irene proceeded to speak to me words she had received from God – difficult, challenging words, words I didn’t altogether want to hear – but which proved over time to be absolutely true, and which I firmly believe were given to her, a prophet, just as surely as the words that were given to Samuel in the dark of night.

Knowing in her heart that she was a beloved child of God, a disciple of Jesus Christ, Irene was able to take an ordinary, unglamorous job and infuse it with all the joy, purpose, and dedication of a vocation. But knowing also that her ultimate allegiance belonged to the God who had called her, Irene did not shy away from speaking truth, even tough truths, that God gave her to speak.

All of us have a vocation in Jesus Christ. And there’s absolutely no promise that following it will earn us a life free of pain or difficulty. Yet I love the words that conclude the story of Samuel: “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him, and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”

I’m guessing that for Samuel, the approbation of God, and the trust and respect of his people, were enough fulfillment to last a lifetime – and even beyond. 

Nora Tubbs Tisdale is Clement-Muehl Professor of Homiletics at YDS. Her books include Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach (Westminster John Knox, 2010) and Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art (Augsburg Fortress, 1997).