I graduated from college with the conviction that I wanted my life to make a difference. So when I turned to my church to see if they might help, I was given a copy of this book:
My former classmates are probably rolling their eyes – yes, this is a book any ELCA seminary-bound person has skimmed or read. But here I found the basics of vocational discernment (something not just for to-be-pastors, but for everybody, weird I know) and the basics of what it means to do ministry, i.e. make a difference in the world because I feel so moved because of my faith. Vocation is not just about your job, but about your relationships, your gifts, how you serve, and what makes you feel like “this is what I feel called to do.” Discernment is thinking, wondering, and praying about it.
But the problem of this picture of vocational discernment is that it doesn’t honor different ways to vocationally discern. If you put me in a room with a Bible and say, “vocationally discern!” I would probably stare at the white walls with boredom, hoping that the door was unlocked and wondering when I would get lunch soon. But I fear this is the picture many people imagine when they approach “vocational discernment” that the church so fiercely endorses.
Here’s the problem. We have bodies. We have brains that allow us to question and identify when the wool is being pulled over our eyes. We have feelings and the capacity to thrive and fail. We feel good when we help people or animals or the environment. Vocational discernment is not just thinking: it’s getting lost, adventuring, experimenting (which is what the church is anyway, is it not?), protesting, learning, leading, sharing, trying, failing, trying again, capturing the high moments and trying again.
Not one person has the same equation that adds up to “this is what vocational discernment looks like.” No two people are carbon copies, therefore no two people vocationally discern the same way.
This means the church has the opportunity to welcome and embrace people who think about what makes them tick and serve joyfully in a million different kind of ways.
Vocational discernment is not for the weak. It’s for the courageous. It’s for the failures and the beautiful moments of learning. It’s for those who say to leaders, CEO’s, pastors, bishops, “This is not working, but I have an idea of how to make it work.” It’s for those who look around and see people blinded by insecurity and fear, and can’t do anything but want to rip off their shades and help them see the beauty around them. Not just “ooh, pretty!” beauty, but true, real beauty – when people make amends; when organizations say “Oops, we messed up, and we want to make it right;” when a friend invites the truth by insisting “But why is that the case?” or when a partner admits, “Maybe we’re asking the wrong question?” and identifies the advent of a new chapter.
This is the kind of beauty that’s all around us if we only open our eyes to see. Young people are starving to hear their church say “I see it, too.” We want to hear that the way we think about God’s presence in our lives is beautiful and needed; we want to hear that our vocations are weird and beautiful and strange and just right – especially in a market where contract work dominates and part-time or full-time work with benefits is difficult to find or keep.
This is vocational discernment:
- Noticing every time you have the thought, “I really should blog about that.”
- Reaching out to a church administrator about an HR question and being asked, “What’s new with you? Can we get some coffee to catch up?”
- Insisting on scheduling informational interviews around a certain class or community-based game.
- Not looking at your phone for 48 hours as you explore a new part of the state you live in.
- Realizing that you keep pinning the same kind of quote on Pinterest. It happens. I call it the Pinterest fog.
- Hanging out with friends, and through the laughter hearing “I know! We could start the…”
Do you see it? This what I see: Authenticity without strings attached. Experimenting with people you trust. Creativity for the sake of play. Being vulnerable and praying it’s met with a connection on the other side.
This is one picture of vocational discernment, but one that echos the qualities that young people are starving to feel when they ask their church, the community in which their faith was first sparked, “Is there anything out there for me?” We want coaches, mentors, colleagues. We want churches to find the same beauty we see in the world, the beauty you can only see if you get lost.
Do you see it?