Careers, Vocations and Calling
Recently I spent some time with a group of students in the process of discussing various careers. Part of what was at stake was helping them think about this before they graduate. Too often a college student thinks that a particular major leads to a special job. Sometimes this is true. But more often than not, there is no direct corollary between our major in college and the careers we wind up pursuing.
I am certainly not against a student choosing a major in college. As a matter of fact, most colleges require that major to graduate. What I do want to question is the assumption that certain majors lead to certain careers. It is more involved than that. And perhaps there are times when luck has a role to play. What did happen in the discussion provoked me to start thinking about the whole phenomenon.
I thought about my own life. It is obvious to anyone who looks at me that I am at the end of my career! My next career move likely is called retirement! When I look at my working life, it is obvious that much of my career has been teaching. That fits who I am and it uses the interests and skills that I possess. It has been a satisfying career. I have found it to be refreshing to get up in the morning and go to work. In that I know that I have been quite fortunate. I have had some jobs through college and earlier in life that I did not like. Some jobs make you want to pull up the covers and duck!
And maybe that is already a difference. There are jobs and, then, there are careers. I have been fortunate to have a career. It has not been a straight line. There have been some curves and some jig jags along the way. I have had different jobs, but almost every one had a major teaching component. So teaching was my career.
But I understand that not everyone is lucky enough to have a career. And certainly not everyone can have a job or career that he or she likes and is eager every day to go to work. That made me think about another perspective, namely, to ponder vocation.
I don’t know how the experts would differentiate career and vocation. For some folks, they probably are the same thing. I can make a difference between vocation and career. Career has a long-term effect in my understanding. My career as a teacher has stretched over decades now. In fact, I think people today tend less to have a career and more to have multiple jobs. The rapid change of our world today makes longer-term employment less likely.
One way to define a vocation is a more specific kind of career. For example, my career might be teaching, but vocationally it would be teaching college students. A vocation is more restrictive. A second way to define vocation is to see it in a religious sense. It is very typical to talk about someone who becomes a priest or a monk as having a “vocation.” They have been specially selected and trained for that particular job or way of living. In fact, in Catholic traditions a monk is often referred to simply as “religious.” That’s his or her vocation.
This leads to the third term, calling. Again, the idea of calling and of vocation is close. Certainly some people may see them as the same thing. While close, they are different in my mind. I understand the idea of calling in a spiritual sense. In fact, I think every human being needs to have a sense of his or her unique calling in order to live life to the fullest. In my mind calling does not have much or anything to do with jobs and employment.
Calling has to do with how we find meaning and purpose in our lives. It can be related to career and vocation, but there is not a necessary connection. I could hate my job, have little sense of a vocation and be quite clear about my calling in life and be happy to live out that calling.
In the classical Christian sense of calling, it is linked to the idea of discipleship. In the New Testament Jesus routinely approached someone, like Peter, and said simply, “Follow me.” “Follow me” becomes a call on their lives. They are called into relationship---a relationship with Jesus and with God and, ultimately, with all the others who are called into this same kind of relationship.
This is a much wider calling than the vocation of the priest or monk. This calling happens for all people in all walks of life---all careers and vocations. It is a calling into a way of life and a way of acting. It is a call to participate in bringing the kingdom of peace and joy into a troubled world. It is a life-long calling.
I may retire from my career. I may no longer have a vocation. But I have my calling until I am dead---and maybe, even after that. My career has been good. My vocation has been satisfying. But my call is life giving and deeply meaningful. It has given me a deep and transcendent purpose to life. May we all know our call and live it out to its fullest.