Demystifying Christian vocation

It is time to demystify our language about what it means to be “called” and how we exercise our giftedness.

By Molly T. Marshall

“I am working in the field of adoption. I wasn’t able to find a church position after I finished seminary.”

“I oversee the freshmen dorms at a state university. You would not believe what comes through my door, but I am not sure this qualifies as Christian vocation.”

These comments came from two 30-somethings, concerned about their fidelity to a call from God. I visited a sister seminary this past week to offer lectures and listened to these graduates describe their work, both feeling as if they were not really in ministry.

I think it is time to demystify our language about what it means to be “called” and how we exercise our giftedness. This will grow increasingly important as we realize that guaranteed lifetime employment in a congregational setting will most likely become less of an option for seminary graduates. Rather than relegating persons who serve in other contexts to a differing status, it is important that we rethink our theology of vocation.

Rather than the old language of “full-time Christian vocation,” which meant paid pastoral staff work or long-term missionary appointment, our day requires a more comprehensive and imaginative description.  

I believe that some of the most important ministry will occur beyond the walls of the church. Those not considered religious “professionals” will offer much of it.

Educators, engineers, endocrinologists, essayists, entrepreneurs and entertainers -- to just name a few “e” professions -- have distinctive contributions to make, and they can be expressions of gifted Christian vocation.

Are the gifts we use in the service of the church different from the gifts we use in our other work? What makes a gift “spiritual?”

Jürgen Moltmann helps correct some misconceptions about the nature of spiritual gifts by linking call and endowment. Instead of opposing natural gifts to spiritual gifts, he sees that when people are called (1 Corinthians 7:17), God “puts their whole life at the service of the coming kingdom, which renews the world.”

When offered to Christ, all gifts become charges, and nothing can be called unclean. Powers and energies that a person might regard as mundane can become instruments of the Spirit.

New thinking about vocation can assist in bridging the secular-sacred divide that has long plagued Christian thinking. Emergent Christianity finds these categories a false dichotomy and strives for a porous interface.

Anything that gets labeled as “secular” seems to be of negligent concern to God -- or Christians, for that matter. Cultural and civic life matter, and Christian witness in them must be strengthened. Indeed, there are many channels for God’s work in the world, and divine power enlists human agency wherever possible.

As a person engaged in theological education, I care deeply about preparing persons for certain leadership roles for congregations, but I do not see our school’s mission as confined to that. We are preparing people to serve the common good in myriad ways.

There is a mission to humanity that is more encompassing than churches often envision. Our graduates exercise their callings through social services, public policy, collegiate ministries, health care, teaching in public schools, journalism, sustainable farming, hospice and counseling. All are contexts for transformative investment.

And all are worthy of being considered Christian vocation. Even as we encourage churches to “cultivate a culture of calling” so that new generations of pastors will emerge, we must not neglect a wider vision of vocation for the whole people of God.

I had an opportunity to speak again with these capable Christian ministers after the lectureship, and I inquired whether I had affirmed that what they are doing is truly Christian vocation.

They said that they sensed a new dignity in their professions and that they had not “left ministry.” I commended them for their remarkable work. They have opportunity to be the hands and feet, indeed the very presence of Christ, with those whose lives they intersect.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.