The Covid-19 pandemic has raised all sorts of questions about work and brought new terms into our collective vocabulary: essential workers, remote work, and quiet quitting to name a few. The pandemic likewise gave rise to existential questions about how we spend our lives, forcing many of us to ask whether we are living out the values we claim to hold dearest. More bluntly, many of us have asked ourselves whether the demands of our paid work are keeping us from living more meaningful and more faithful lives.
On the other hand, our society values paid labor as an ultimate marker of worth. “What do you do?” is often the first question asked in a social setting, a question, of course, about what we do for paid work. Recent retirees can struggle with establishing a sense of identity outside the professional sphere. Persons with disabilities that prevent them from working full-time too often are not respected as contributing members of society. The cultural message is clear: Work makes us worthy.
The Christian tradition teaches otherwise: that human worth is rooted in God’s love and grace. But even this conviction quickly got twisted within Protestant Christianity, with hard work coming to be seen as evidence of one’s blessedness.
This is an ideal time to reclaim worth beyond work. Core Christian claims about God and God’s love for humanity can help us navigate these tricky waters, where the demands of late-stage capitalism, an exhausting global pandemic, and moralistic understandings of work and worth converge.
The concept of vocation or calling provides a theological intervention that serves to reorient us to God’s grace as the foundation of our human dignity and worth and to more life-giving understandings of how to navigate our lives, possibly including paid work but moving well beyond that narrow sphere.
Basics of vocation
Martin Luther’s basics of vocation remain relevant and liberating today for many kinds of Christians:
- Everyone has a calling, not just those who are called to ordained ministry. Christians receive our callings in our baptism. Our callings are how the baptized respond to the gift of God’s grace, growing our unique gifts for the sake of the world and more specifically our neighbors.
- Our callings are not tied to specific jobs. In fact, Luther would say it is not so much what we do as how we do it. A Christian cobbler, he noted, is not a shoemaker who puts little crosses on all the shoes he makes but one who makes the best shoes possible for the people who wear them.
- Our callings are multifaceted. What we do to earn a paycheck may coincide with a sense of call, but we also live out our callings as neighbors, friends, parents, spouses, children, and more. It gets especially tricky when these callings compete for our time and energy, but we can also find comfort that our calling is not reduced to our paid work.
- Our callings shift with time and circumstances. That is, they are responsive to both what is going on in the world around us and what our own gifts and capacities are in the various stages of our lives. Our callings grow and develop across our lives.
- Our callings are relational. I like to tell my students that “vocation is at once all about you and not about you at all.” That is, our callings spring from our most authentic gifts and longings, but their aim is not our own success. Our callings are toward the world and the collective flourishing of all creatures.
Seeing through a vocational lens
How do these understandings of calling help us navigate the challenges of work and life in this not-quite-post-pandemic world?
First, they shift our perspective. They remind us that we are more than our jobs, and they give us permission to root our worth elsewhere. In contrast to the economy of paid labor, callings flow out of holy grace, out of God’s proclamation of our belovedness before and beyond anything we do.
Second, they invite our creativity and liveliness. Questions of calling and vocation can feel quite weighty at times—for example, when we are at a crossroads or when a door has closed. But they can also serve as an invitation to playfulness, innovation, improvisation, and imagination. Are we being called to explore a new path, brave a deeper dive, or even take flight?
Third, they connect us to others. God desires our flourishing and calls us to such flourishing alongside the flourishing of others. Calls happen close to home, within families and communities, and calls can invite us well beyond ourselves to the wider work of justice, healing, and the common good.
Fourth, they call us to rest. Those whose jobs and sense of calling significantly overlap are now some of the most exhausted of the labor force: health care workers, educators, clergy, and non-profit workers. The reality is, nearly everyone is bone tired. But even callings that require substantial self-sacrifice do not have to rob us of opportunities for rest and renewal. If God rested on the seventh day, if Jesus took time to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, surely we can grant ourselves a pause, some rest, a nap.
- Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation Throughout Life’s Seasons (Kathleen A. Calahan & Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, editors)
- Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life (Charles R. Pinches & Paul J. Wadell)
How can you turn a vocational lens on your life and work? Whether you write in a journal, have coffee with a holy friend, or propose a “callings circle” in your community of worship, here are some questions to reflect upon:
- Where in your life do you experience a sense of purpose and meaning? How does work nurture this sense? How does it possibly detract from it?
- God calls each of us by different means—through scripture, prayer, community, nature… Where do you hear the divine call most clearly and consistently?
- How would you describe the various dimensions of your life’s calling right now? How has that shifted over time? What, if any, shifts do you anticipate in the future?
- What relationships are central to your sense of calling? Are there any relationships you might cultivate in order to step more fully into your current sense of calling?
- When, where, and how do you experience rest? Do your understandings of work and of calling account for rest and renewal? Why or why not?