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What is vocation? (and why it's more than picking a college major)

As often as I am asked to account for what I studied and what work I do, I never fail to get double-takes when I share that I was a physics major but now I'm a priest, lol, a fact that in hindsight makes sense but would've made my head spin if you'd told me a decade ago. Now, it cracks me up thinking that we have 19 year old's ostensibly thinking they're picking what they're going to be doing for the rest of their lives. For some, their college major will lead them down a path that makes the rest of their careers. For others, they'll work in that field for a few years and then do something else, others still will take a hard right turn immediately after graduation without any regrets. For everyone though, the work of figuring out who one is and what one is mean to do is part of the work of being a Christian.

All Christians are called to discern and embody their unique vocations in the world. Frederick Buechner, an author and Presbyterian pastor, offers a succinct framing for vocation: "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." With college students and young adults alike, asking What's your major? or What do you (want to) do for work? can be important promptings for reflection on vocation but only if they do not become artificially limiting. While academia neatly delineates the world into disciplines like Math or English Literature or International Relations, the gladnesses we find within ourselves and the hungers we find in the world are almost always much more nuanced, messy, and vague than just a 'job'.

Try though we might to make it so, vocation is not necessarily tied to academic knowledge or to professional career. Phrases like "do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life" have pervaded our collective consciousness and in a way that makes occupation synonymous with vocation. Some people are lucky to have overlap between their 9-5 and their Christian calling; for others their vocation is reflected only marginally in their job (perhaps seen in a mirror, dimly). Many people happily live their vocations in ways that have nothing to do with the ways they sell their labor-- through familial relationships or community involvement.

Our gladnesses go so much deeper than job descriptions and hungers so much broader than job postings. Imagine I say that my calling is to serve as a youth minister and it touches on my deep gladness to lead youth group, plan mission trips, organize acolytes. But what skills, affinities, desires lie beneath the surface? Perhaps I notice that I am more patient with sullen teenagers than other people, or I am skilled in helping teenagers communicate with their parents. Maybe I find more delight in the quirks of weird middle schoolers than other people or have realized I am effective in helping young people see the worth in things they don't understand, like God or volunteer work. If I were to think that my calling was simply as a youth minister, it might be lost on me all the other ways I could live into it--perhaps as a teacher or a counselor, or even as a parent or an uncle. Vocation can feel so high stakes to young people insofar as it is seen as a singular narrow career path. But we can rest assured that if we do not make it as a U.S. Senator or as an orthopedic surgeon or a tenured sociology professor, our vocations are not lost.

It can be difficult albeit fulfilling to figure out what our vocations are, work that the Church calls discernment. Discernment is a lifelong project that does not end when we graduate college or settle into a career and it's a project that is one part self-reflection (on our gifts and desires and our biographies), one part reflection supported by community, and one part attention paid to the world around us. There are no wrong ways to engage in discernment, so long as you are digging deeply into the gladness within you and the hunger all around you and so long as you don't fall into the trap of thinking it will ever be complete. Vocation and calling and discernment are timely endeavors for college students and young adults who are in a Big Bang of self-discovery, coming into their own as humans and as people of faith. And it remains an endeavor for us all, should we continue to journey with it.


Again, there are no wrong ways to discern and plenty of right ways. Below are some questions for reflection that you might sit with as you wonder about your vocation.

- what do I enjoy that perhaps other people don't?

- what are things that I can endure in that tire other people out easily?

- what am I good at that other people find difficult?

- how have my life experiences shaped who I am?

- what life experiences or hurts or emotions might I be particularly tender to?

- where do other people see me thriving?

- what can I learn about other people's perceptions of me?

- what gifts do other people see in me that I might not see?

- what hurts and longings and hungers do I see in my community that need addressing?

Additionally, thinking beyond academic disciplines and professional arenas, we might ask some more nuanced questions about our gladnesses. Instead of picking between math or english or political science or medicine or marketing or human relations you might consider: how gifted (inclined to, skilled at, enjoying of) would you say that you are at each of the following?

- doing mental math

- working with little kids

- working with teenagers

- working with the elderly

- explaining difficult concepts

- imagining other possibilities

- making peace between disagreeing parties

- learning foreign languages

- meeting new people

- encouraging other people

- being vulnerable/making space for vulnerability

- listening patiently

- getting people together

- resting/helping other people rest

- asking good questions

- noticing emotions

- making people laugh

- keeping things organized

- being good with animals

You also can read 1 Corinthians 12:4-31 and see what is stirred up for you.

- what stands out to you from this passage?

- how do you react to the idea of "many members, one body"?

- what challenges you about this passage?

- what part of the body do you think you are?

- what part of the body would other people say that you are?

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