Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Calling, Vocation, and Youth Ministry: Moving Beyond the Collar and the Stole

I remember a few years ago, as I prepared to begin the daunting quest towards ordination within the PCUSA, being asked to share about my sense of call. The session and presbytery wanted to hear, as they should, about how I felt convicted and led by God to pursue a life of ordained and pastoral ministry within the church. I admit, this was a fairly easy question for someone like me who is "called" into pastoral ministry, committed to theology and the church, and well versed in church speak. I have been asked this question more times than I can count. However, I wonder what would have happened if the tables would have turned and I would have asked any one of them about their "call story?" I wonder what they would have said if pressed to share how they discerned God's leading to be who they are where they are for the glory of God and the hope of the whole world?

The concept of one's calling has far too long been limited to individuals who pursue professional careers within a particular congregation or Christian institution. Furthermore, a person's vocation has also been reduced to one's means to receive a paycheck and pass time between the hours of nine and five. Yet, both calling and vocation are deeply integrated with one another; they are limited neither to the stole nor the pay stub. Instead, each of us has a calling that stems from God's good gift of a Christ-centered vocation. Frederick Buechner says it this way:

"Like 'duty,' 'law,' and 'religion,' the word 'vocation' has a dull ring to it, but in terms of what it means, it is really not dull at all. Vocare, 'to call,' of course, and our vocation is our calling. It is the work that we are called to in this world, the thing that we are summoned to spend our lives doing. We can speak of ourselves as choosing our vocations, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of our vocations choosing us, of a call's being given and lives our hearing it, or not hearing it...And in the end that is the vocation of all of us, the calling to be Christs. To be Christs in whatever way we are able to be. To be Christs with whatever gladness we have and in whatever place, among whatever brother we are called to. That is the vocation, the destiny to which we were all of us called even before the foundations of the world."

---"The Calling of Voices," Secrets in the Dark, pp. 37, 40

In other words, each of us has a call to live into our vocation, i.e. a disciple of Jesus, both through our particular professions and everyday living. We are called as doctors and lawyers, preachers and teachers, social workers and peacemakers, engineers and scientists, athletes and theologians, stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home dads, carpenters and conservationists. Yet our vocation as a disciple frames what sort of X we are in whatever context or cubicle we are called to live, love, and serve. Even more, our calling invites us to practice our profession not only for a paycheck, but also and especially for the sake of the world's most vulnerable citizens. [1]

The church and related members are called to teach in the city, practice medicine in the developing world, build homes in rural America, defend the rights of the poor and oppressed, provide therapy and life skills to the homeless, and develop innovative expressions of faith communities alongside other leaders, preachers, and entrepreneurs in a given locale so to work towards holistic change in the neighborhood. The possibilities are endless.

One of the lost arts of youth ministry, at least in my own, is the ability to uncover the gifts of youth and facilitate vocational discernment. Said differently, youth ministry must navigate the callings of young people so they can live into creative expressions of the kingdom of God beyond high school and middle school church programs. I have often said that youth are not the future of the church, but active members in the present. True. But has this posture been to the detriment of their futures. It is imperative to foster dialogue with students in regards to their future callings as they explore Christian life beyond weekend retreats and Sunday night worship. Youth are incredibly intuitive, creative, risky, outside-the-box thinkers, who tragically are roped into get-a-good-job and make-good-money narratives that determine their next 40 years. They are capable of so much more. They thirst for so much more. God has called them to so much more. The world longs for so much more. The church is called for this purpose of vocational discovery:

"A primary purpose of the Church is to help us discover and develop our gifts and, in the face of our fears, to hold us accountable for them so that we can enter into the joy of creating. The major obligation of the Church to children is to enjoy them and to listen to them so that each can grow according to the design which is written into the being of each and emerges only under the care and warmth of another."

---Elizabeth O'Connor, Eighth Day of Creation, p.16

One can only imagine what it would look like to challenge youth within our congregations not to do whatever they can to get paid, but to explore radically new possibilities to utilize their gifts in cahoots with God's work of redemption and liberation. Actually, many of them are already having these vocational conversations with one another. Maybe, then, the calling of the church is to begin to listen and encourage.

It can be said that our calling is greater than or equal to our career; our vocation underscores our profession. It is true, some of us us may incarnate our vocations as pastors and preachers, but we are not the only ones with a calling. In fact, most are not called to wear the collar or dawn the stole. And that's a good thing! Can you imagine a world, or a church, made up solely of pastors and preachers. Actually, don't do that. Instead, dream bigger. Take risks. Live life for more than the 15th and end-of-month.

Listen for your call.


[1] Another great Buechner statement on vocation, "The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet" (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. p. 95)

[2] See recent post for great video on vocation and other related reflections: 10 Living Hopes for Class of 2012.

A related post with video interviews: Missional Vocation: Youth Workers and Their 9 to 5