What would a lifelong perspective do to our understanding of vocation?

This is the animating question in the recently released “Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation throughout Life’s Seasons,” edited by Kathleen A. Cahalan and Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore.

In the introduction, Cahalan writes that she began exploring a theology of vocation in 2010 through the Collegeville Institute Seminars. Cahalan, a professor of practical theology at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary, realized that focusing on the young adult years in vocational research and nurture was too narrow a frame for a process that unfolds and evolves over the course of a life.

The following is an excerpt.

A Theology of Calling: Lost but Found

At the outset of the Seminars’ work on vocation, we decided that rather than reframing the idea of vocation and teaching it to people we would first attempt to understand how people, primarily those in churches, understand their life as a calling. What operative notions of vocation exist in the Christian community? Is vocation a meaningful way that people interpret their lives, or is it trapped in outmoded notions from the past? What would be most helpful to people if we invited them to reframe their understanding of vocation, drawing insights from the tradition as well as engaging new frameworks? Or is the idea or very term “vocation” beyond repair and too corrupted by historical interpretations to be of much use to us today?

Over the past five years, under the direction of the Seminars’ research associate Laura Kelly Fanucci, we have gathered hundreds of people -- Protestants and Catholics -- in small groups, primarily in congregations, and asked them to reflect on a series of questions: What is my sense of God’s callings in my life? How can I learn to listen to God’s call? How do I live out multiple callings in service to others? How have challenges and struggles shaped my callings? How is my vocation changing over my lifetime?

What we heard from these participants shaped our work in profound ways. First, most people in our small groups had limited, mostly nonexistent, experiences and conceptions of God as Caller. Remember, these were people from various churches who volunteered to participate in a six-week program to think about their life as vocation. For example, Jay described his life in terms of multiple commitments and joys: marriage, children, and extended family. He described his skills as a financial analyst and his ability to help others make difficult decisions. He spoke of how he found God in others, especially as a father, husband, leader, and little league coach. Jay felt gratitude for his life, and he wanted to give back to the community. But at the end of our first discussion he concluded: “But I don’t know that I’ve ever been given a calling.”

Second, when asked about vocation most people tend to refer to the major commitments clustered in the young adult years pertaining to work and partnering, as I initially did. When we engaged college students they expressed anxiety and fear that they might miss God’s one call. They assumed that there is a single answer to the question of vocation and once they find it, discerning callings is mostly over. But framing vocation as decisions made in young adulthood left most other adults, especially as they get older, feeling that figuring out callings did not have much to do with them.

Third, those people who could recount stories of having a sense of calling as a child or a teen tended to discount their religious experiences or lacked a way to talk about or interpret the experience. Operatively, their notion of a calling that comes from God remains rather calculating, too easily imaging God as having a definite plan or will for them. Discernment constituted figuring out this deeply held secret or having direct access to God’s wishes. Experiences of hearing or seeing, having a dream, being grasped or drawn to an activity or a place, giving extensively to community or religious organizations, identifying and utilizing particular gifts, or being invited by another to share those gifts -- these common experiences were not framed as calling experiences.

If people examine their lives through the lens of calling, they do it primarily through what psychologist and contributor to this volume Matt Bloom calls “retrospective sense-making,” looking back and creating a narrative to make sense of their lives and discovering God’s hand at work in the past. Few people we talked to either looked inward or forward to consider how God might be calling them now and in the future.

Fourth, most communities are not places of calling -- that is, communities whose vocation it is to draw forth each person’s callings as well as the vocation of the whole community. We found that congregations, schools, and campus ministries generally do not engage people in the practices of vocation. For instance, many people reported that their small group was the first time they had been asked such questions. In relationship to work, for example, a majority said their pastors and congregations had rarely asked them about their job or profession, what they did, why they did it, what they loved, and what they were good at. Those who were retiring had little opportunity to explore the new horizon of callings in the next part of life. Generally, the key practices of vocation -- discernment, prayer, and storytelling -- are not fostered in congregations, the most obvious places where one might expect such activities to occur. Religious education, sermons, and sacraments or other celebrations seldom address vocation or foster vocational conversation, especially across the lifespan. We also found that most people did not pray about their callings or seek guidance and direction from the Spirit or from others, especially when they were younger and deciding what to do, where to do it, and for whom. The majority of people did not have a listening practice to hear God’s guidance, such as regular prayer with scripture or a silent meditation practice. Most significantly, they had not learned to foster a relationship with God who is understood as the “Caller.”

Finally, the language of vocation was not compelling for most people. When we began we suspected that we would find outmoded Protestant and Catholic theologies -- that vocation is equated with work (Protestants) or has to do with states of life (Catholics) or with a call to ministry (both) -- and we did to some extent. But what we mostly found is that people had no idea what the word “vocation” means. The term almost always fell flat: people did not know what it referred to in greater depth. As a central doctrine and vocabulary of the Christian faith, vocation is nearly gone.

However, when we heard people’s stories we began to see that what traditionally would be referred to as the “language of callings” was everywhere: meaningful relationships; powerful experiences of being given something to do; purposeful work, skills, and abilities experienced as gifts; confirmation about who one is; a sense of gratitude; struggles through transitions and painful loss; aspirations to serve others; and a desire to give themselves to God’s people for God’s purposes. In fact, people have a deep sense of calling in their lives but they often lack ways to make sense of it.

Recovering the Language of Vocation

What, then, happened to the language of vocation, a language that was once rich in the Christian vocabulary? In modernity, many Christians held narrow views of divine power and purpose that portrayed a provident all-powerful deity who makes blueprints for human lives. Such an image proved untenable, and by the twentieth century many had tossed it into the dustbin of useless religious concepts. Furthermore, vocation became a doctrine to be believed in rather than a lived practice. It functioned primarily as a noun -- what is my vocation? -- rather than as a relationship, a process, or a creative endeavor. The language of calling became static and fixed rather than dynamic and fluid, something church and academic theologians might talk about but not something everyday people needed to consider.

And yet the language of calling is everywhere. What Christians have largely lost, others have discovered. The titles of several books about “calling” demonstrate the way in which it has become the language of the secular age: Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life; Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling; The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life; Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. The New York Times featured a series entitled “Vocations” in the business section for a short time; it is now called “What I Love.” And the evangelical pastor Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life has sold millions of copies, prefers the language of “purpose” over that of “vocation” or “calling,” but he is essentially talking about the same reality.

The search engine Google Ngram Viewer tabulates the frequency of words, now covering about five million books. Terms such as “purpose” and “meaning” have grown in usage since the 1900s, rising steadily up to today; “calling” also has had steady usage. But the term “vocation,” the least used of the four terms, gained some steam around the 1920s, but dropped considerably by 2000. While not a scientific study, word usage reveals that the language of “purpose” and “meaning” has gained ground as the culture has become more secular. The term “calling” certainly leans more in a nonreligious direction despite the fact that “calling” and “vocation” are nearly synonymous terms.

What secular writers on calling have discovered is that vocation is a deeply human quest. What is the purpose of my life? To what shall I give myself? Whom shall I serve? Such questions are at the same time both frightening and exhilarating. They press for an answer. Terms like “purpose” and “meaning” also seem like they offer a greater avenue than the term “vocation” for considering change and development across the lifespan. However, these secular understandings of calling have deep roots in the Christian tradition’s claim, whether these authors recognize this heritage or not, that each person is made in the image of God, has inherent dignity and worth, and lives with a purpose shaped by divine initiative. Moreover, our culture’s “expressive individualism” prizes the notion that each person has an inner nature, truth, or self that drives toward expression. Such common or popular notions of calling in the broader culture are influenced by an unnecessarily singular focus on human well-being at the expense of community, the animal world, and the environment as well as divine life and its purposes. In large part, theological sources for vocation have been severed from its broader cultural meaning today. But as we reframe vocation in this book, we see that the Christian tradition gives us a much broader framework that honors the deeply personal and individual character of calling but claims this human quest as fundamentally communal and divine.

Excerpted from “Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation throughout Life’s Seasons,” edited by Kathleen A. Cahalan and Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, published by Eerdmans. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.