Navigating the complexity of vocational discernment has always been a tricky dance to learn, not to mention master. Too many times, we find ourselves stumbling through the process trying to learn the steps or the choreography as we go while trying to convince those around us that we know what we’re doing. The reality is vocational discernment is risky and requires more of us than most of us are willing to admit. It is daunting work that often seems to take more than it gives when the path we’ve chosen disappoints or leaves us wanting more. I would argue that the disappointment comes not from a lack of effort but a lack of honesty. In “Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work As a Pilgrimage of Identity” David Whyte writes, “The workplace carries so much of our desperate need for acknowledgement, for hierarchy, for reward, to be seen, and to be seen as we want to be seen, that we often overreach ourselves, and our passionate and often violent inner needs suddenly break through the placid professional exterior.”
We tell ourselves that we want a job with great benefits, salary, and perks or that we desire meaningful work that “makes a difference” in the lives of others, but how many times do we also admit that we seek acknowledgment, hierarchy, reward, to be seen, or to be seen as we want to be seen? Yes, even us humble clergy and church leaders desire these things in our hearts as affirmation of who we are called by God to be in this world. However, these admissions would require a depth of authenticity, introspection, and brutal honesty that most of us are unaccustomed to because these admissions require a holistic knowledge of ourselves and the work we are called to do in the world. The reality is vocational discernment entails so much more soul work and seeking than we give it credit because it forces us to ask not just how we want to spend our days but as whom do we want to spend our days? Being able to show up fully, freely, and authentically means that we must discern vocational space that supports our identity and our greater life’s work rather than simply being a space that we can manipulate and fit ourselves into. Too many times our theological vocational frameworks require us to shrink and even show up sacrificially when I believe God is calling us to an incarnational model of vocation. Instead of demanding that we sacrifice ourselves to fulfill cookie-cutter categories of ministry and leadership, I believe God has tailored made us with capacity to assume diverse vocational possibilities. Embracing a more entrepreneurial model of ministry instead of a corporate one allows us to fully inhabit this incarnational vocational model while still fulfilling the vocational needs of the institutions wherein we serve.
Many, many years ago I was working as a customer service representative for a large insurance company, and I was miserable. I had applied for several positions in other departments, but none provided the boost in salary and “meaningful work” that I desired. I eventually applied for a job outside of the company and was excited when I got it, except the salary boost wasn’t a boost at all. My boss at the time, “regretfully accepted” my resignation then told me he wasn’t going to counter the offer because he was “afraid” I’d stay. I was confused, if he regretted my leaving then why wouldn’t he try to entice me to stay? He then told me, “anyone can see, this isn’t you”. At 23 I had no idea what he meant because I couldn’t see it, but in retrospect I’m glad he did. Had he countered I might’ve stayed for the money. At the time I was young and didn’t have the self-knowledge, the confidence, or a sense of my greater life’s work to discern that staying for the money would have left me unfulfilled and probably looking for another job in a few months. I believed then that the money and the security it offered would’ve been enough. I also believed the lie of culture that my fulfillment was inconsequential to my wellbeing and that of my family. The new job in higher education put me on the path to what I’m doing now and proved to be a crucial step in my vocational journey.
If I had taken the time to discern deeply my desires, true motivations and had the capacity to be brutally honest with myself, I would have admitted that the idea of middle management seemed like a death sentence to me, and that the possible lucrative future of the corporate world left me cold and unmotivated. My former boss was right, it just wasn’t me. Further, had I admitted that I wanted to actually use my philosophy degree and be admired as an intellectual and seen as someone who was valuable and integral to the healthy growth of my community then perhaps, I would’ve discerned my way sooner.
I now understand our greater life’s work as the contribution that God has created us to make in the world. It isn’t a job or work at all, but rather a set of passions, principles and priorities that drive our decisions and undergirds all we do. It’s who we are that gives depth, character, nuance, personality, and flavor to what we do. When vocation is unhinged from our greater life’s work, we find ourselves frustrated, confused, and often taken for granted with that sinking feeling in our stomachs that we have settled for work when we are called to abundant life. We allow ourselves to stay in spaces that don’t support, nourish our nurture us in ways that lead to thriving and flourishing. We allow ourselves to remain in inhospitable communities where we find ourselves languishing. I have found that our greater life’s work operates as the music animating our vocational journey. While the steps may still be difficult hearing the music energizes us and accompanies us along. It gives us something to follow and maybe even freestyle to as it orients us in the right direction.