What is the goal of vocational discernment?
For many, it’s arriving at a clearer sense of what job they should pursue. Should I be a pastor, lawyer, accountant, teacher, electrician, coach, or counselor? Should I go for a solo pastor position at a small church or an associate position at a large church? Is it time to shift careers, looking for work outside of traditional congregational ministry?
These questions certainly have a part to play in vocational discernment. But when they consume our attention, vocational discernment becomes little more than a search for a career.
We need to be careful not to conflate vocation with occupation. When we do, our sense of calling is reduced to that which we can list on a résumé – job titles or positions held within particular institutions. Vocation is more than this. It is not synonymous with what we get paid to do. It is not the same thing as arriving at clearer sense of what our next job should be. Vocational discernment is about discovering the deep, orienting, and unshakable sense of who we are and how we are called to live.
Another way to put it is that vocational discernment is more about nouns than verbs. What I mean is that when we conflate our vocation with our occupation, our attention gets stuck on the activities associated with a certain job – things like preaching, teaching, caring, counseling, planning, supervising, and so forth. It is good to be aware of such things, but vocation goes beyond these verbs to the nouns beneath them. What we are seeking in vocational discernment is a clearer sense of the unique set of passions and commitments that bring us life and call us into God’s work in the world.
Back when I was in seminary, I would have told you that my calling was to be an Old Testament professor at a seminary, ideally within a university divinity school. Even though that’s the exact job that I have today, my vocational discernment back then was way off track. I hadn’t yet moved beyond the job I wanted to the more difficult questions surrounding why that particular job was appealing to me. Once I discerned my occupational goal, I stopped asking questions. I never got to my nouns.
My lack of vocational curiosity was costly. I finished grad school at a time with the academy was shrinking and jobs were few and far between (sound familiar?). When I didn’t initially land the sort of job I was looking for, it felt like a vocational crisis. I was reluctant to pursue jobs outside the academy – even really compelling ones – because doing so felt like an abandonment of my calling. The grief was real, and at times, intense.
What ultimately made the difference for me wasn’t getting the job I thought I wanted – that didn’t come until years later. It was getting to my nouns. For me, those nouns describe a deeper sense of identity and purpose: to be an entrepreneur in theological education and to be a bridge-builder between the church and the academy. An OT faculty position is one way, but certainly not the only way, I could live out those nouns.
Getting to this realization was liberating. It freed me to pursue non-academic jobs that I never would have considered but that actually were a better fit for me than most faculty positions. It also has released me (mostly) from the anxiety that comes from worrying about whether my current job, or institution, is stable and something that I can rely on for the rest of my career. Separating calling from career, my verbs from my nouns, has challenged me to remain vocationally curious, nimble, and imaginative. Realizing that God hasn’t called me to a particular job but rather to particular ways of being in the world pushes me to live into my current position with less complacency, more resilience, and a better sense of boundaries.
What are your nouns? What vocation lies beneath your current occupation? How might getting in touch with your nouns change how you carrying out your current job? Where might your nouns take you?