What do Presbyterians believe about vocation?
What is God calling me to do?
By Marcia Clark Myers
Reprinted from the September 2007 issue of Presbyterians Today
Jimmy Anderson was driving home one morning after working the “hoot owl shift” at the Harris coal mine near Bald Knob, W.Va. As he headed up the mountain, a runaway fuel truck careened down toward him, the driver trying desperately to brake. The 18-wheeler slid into the miner’s Subaru, then swerved over the steep embankment dragging the car with it.
Anderson thought he was dead. Then his car stopped abruptly. Another truck had hooked the bumper of the small car and knocked it loose. The driver of the fuel truck was killed in a fiery crash.
In his hospital bed later Anderson wondered, “What am I here for? What does God want me to do?”
Most of us don’t experience a dramatic close brush with death before asking the question, “What is God calling me to do with my life?” The question comes from deep within. It is one of the most important questions Presbyterians ask.
Some Christians emphasize the question “Am I saved?” Presbyterians emphasize the question “What am I saved for?” We believe that in Christ God has saved us and our lives are lived in grateful response. Baptism is a sign that we belong to God and we are called for service.
The first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism is: “What is the chief end of man?” [sic]. The answer: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This concept of a call to a life of joyful service to glorify God is what we mean by the term Christian vocation.
Not just church work
Prior to the Reformation, vocation or calling was thought to be only for those who worked for the church as priests, monks or nuns. An important belief of the reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther was that God calls every person. Vocation is not just for pastors or those who work for the church.
God calls us to our life work and to a life of service in everything we do. John Calvin had high expectations that baptized Christians would actively seek the welfare of others in the community of Geneva, Switzerland, through education, health care and governance. For example, he dispatched elders to inspect fireplaces for safety. Imagine if pastors today asked for reports from elders at each session meeting on their activities for the community’s welfare! Presbyterians are involved in many such activities — the PTA, city council, literacy campaigns, ethics committees, clean air task forces, etc. — so there would be much to report.
One of the wonderful things about our Reformed understanding of vocation is that we are called to serve God in a shared ministry. Ministers and elders serve together. In fact, every baptized Christian is called to participate. The Greek word for church, ecclesia, means “the called-out ones.” Recognizing this, Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., has adopted the slogan “Ordinary People Answering God’s Call.”
Our understanding of Christian vocation is very powerful. By unleashing all of the people of God to do ministry on Main Street and everywhere we find ourselves, God has multiplied the impact of the gospel exponentially. As with the miracle of the loaves and fishes, we are able to take what God has given and serve the many.
Ministers and other ordained leaders of the church are charged with equipping and encouraging all the baptized to respond to their calls. They are talent scouts, always on the lookout for gifts in others that can be nurtured and put to use. A retiree is connected with Habitat for Humanity. A beautician is encouraged to offer her skills to the women’s shelter. A gifted young musician performs for nursing home residents.
Preach Christ or plant corn
Discernment of call often begins within ourselves, with a stirring, a yearning to follow an inner voice. We may ask, “What gifts has God given me? What is God calling me to do with them?”
Sometimes we need a nudge to explore the vocation questions. Looking back on their own faith journey, many ordained Presbyterian ministers remember a Sunday school teacher or youth leader who said, “You should think about being a minister. I see the gifts in you.”
We are not always the best judges of our own talents. Sometimes we are drawn to a particular path in ignorance of other paths or out of personal aspirations rather than in response to God’s call. There is an old joke about the man who saw “PC” in a cloud formation and thought surely he was called to “Preach Christ.” After listening to many of his sermons, some church folks suggested that perhaps he was called to “Plant Corn.”
We need help sorting out the inner stirrings of God’s call. Presbyterians understand that discernment of call is not something we do alone, but within the community of God’s people. The best decisions come out of group discernment. Congregations elect leaders whom they discern to be called to serve. In presbyteries elders and ministers together discern the call of God for mission in a particular region. When persons feel a call to serve in a church vocation of Christian educator, minister or commissioned lay pastor, groups of people are involved with them in discerning that call.
Resistance to God’s call
The great call stories of the Bible demonstrate that a true call from God is often resisted rather than welcomed. Our scriptural role models did not volunteer. They did not want to be called and they did not think they had the required qualities. Out minding the sheep, Moses got drafted. He gave many excuses, but God did not accept them. Some of the most effective leaders tell stories of being drafted for service and trying to tell God and committees that they were not the right candidates.
Discerning one’s vocation is not a quest for self-fulfillment, though many do experience deep satisfaction in their vocation. A response to God’s call often requires self-sacrifice and discomfort. Living out our vocation may involve going places we don’t want to go. Abraham “got up and went,” dragging Sarah with him. Mary took on a role that brought great joy, but also much suffering and sorrow.
In today’s world, where individuals have many options for the use of their time, many voices speaking, and many career choices, the Christian understanding of calling as self-sacrificing service to God and neighbor is not popular. When the call comes, “Whom will I send, and who will go for us?”(Isaiah 6:8), we don’t want to hear. So the result is that poor schools have high teacher-turnover rates. City hospitals are understaffed. Small churches in rural areas have trouble finding pastors.
The community of faith must support those who are discerning their vocation. The 30-something woman who has been called to teach a middle-school class full of high hormones and energy would welcome encouragement and maybe some occasional childcare. We can offer prayerful support and a listening ear for a young man who must choose between a research fellowship or an invitation to work with AIDs patients in Africa. A supportive home church can make a big difference for the seminary senior who has been offered a call to serve as pastor in a town miles away on the Great Plains with a growing population of new immigrants working in the meatpacking plant.
Morning coffee and more
The answer to the question “What I am supposed to do with what God has given me?” includes how we earn our paycheck and how we spend it. It includes how we spend our time outside of work. No one retires from God’s call. Retirement is a gift that allows us to serve in new ways.
Jimmy Anderson has been retired for 10 years. In response to God’s call he became active in the Clear Creek Presbyterian Church and helped them put on a much-needed roof. Later he became an elder. Recognizing the isolation that many feel in this remote community, Anderson initiated a morning coffee time at the church, which is located at a key intersection. Five days a week Anderson is at the church from 5:30 to 10 a.m. He and others fix coffee, biscuits and sausage. Folks on their way to work and those coming home stop in for a few minutes of fellowship and news sharing. Seniors who might stay alone all day gather with friends. Occasionally community action ideas such as a new local water system perk along with the coffee.
Jimmy Anderson responded to God’s call. What does God want you to do?
Vocation is a lifelong response to God in all aspects of one’s life. Work, paid and unpaid, is an integral part of the believer’s response to God’s call. One’s vocation may include multiple careers, volunteer opportunities, and should involve continual spiritual growth in every step of the life-journey to which God calls us.
—Principles of Vocation and Work, a statement approved by the 1995 General Assembly of the PC(USA)
Helping others find their call
Here are examples of how some Presbyterians are helping others discern God’s will for their lives:
The Presbyterian Leadership Search Effort invites sessions, pastors, youth leaders and campus ministers to nominate young persons with leadership potential to be nurtured in their vocational discernment.
A number of Presbyterian colleges have developed Christian vocation programs that explore issues of ethics, leadership, work and faith.
Church leaders in Wilmington, Del., are working with staff from the Career and Personal Counseling Service in Charlotte, N.C., to provide an opportunity for high school students in their area to explore their vocation.
Grace Presbytery has established an “Eli Committee” (named for the Old Testament prophet Samuel’s mentor Eli) to work with persons on vocational discernment.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Young Adult Volunteer Program gives young adults service experience in the United States and overseas, as well as vocational guidance.
For further study
- “Christian vocation: living into our baptismal identity”
- What Am I Supposed to Do with My Life? Asking the Right Questions, by Douglas J. Brouwer (Eerdmans, 2006)
- Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life, by Douglas J. Schuurman (Eerdmans, 2004)
- Career and Calling: A Guide for Counselors, Youth, and Young Adults, by Ginny Ward Holderness (Geneva Press, 2001)
- Discerning God’s Call (curriculum for young adults)
- "This Call’s for You: A Christian Vocation Workbook for Congregations", item # 23293001. Order from Presbyterian Marketplace or call (800) 524-2612.
- “Renewing a culture of vocation,” by Marcia Clark Myers, Perspectives, March 2007