Vocation and occupation: How to respond to God’s call on your life

Nov 23, 2016 by

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If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read an article about how to find your vocation, I’d be rich. And yet I wonder if they are missing a key point, which makes me want to contribute my two cents to the conversation.

I promise to make this short.

Almost every article includes the quote from Frederick Buechner, which goes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I’ve seen many expansions on this theme with a Venn diagram that shows a small dot at the intersection of your gifts, your passion, the world’s need and a way to pay your bills. And I’ve witnessed many young adults immobilized by the multitude of occupational choices that will get them most perfectly to that tiny place at the center that is supposed to represent your truest calling from God — your vocation.

Actually, the “many immobilized young adults” I’ve witnessed are mostly highly privileged. They’ve received a quality education, have many occupational options laid out for them from which to choose, and they have the luxury of choice. I don’t remember ever reading an article by a young adult who wasn’t privileged, who had the luxury of enduring the painful anxiety of trying to find the perfect center of the Venn diagram of what he thinks his vocation is. Many people are just glad to find a job that pays the bills, and they find other ways of realizing their calling from God.

I’m often reminded of a friend of mine who talked about his father working in a foundry all of his adult life. It was hard work that he hated. But every day, he shared God’s love with his co-workers and was a pastoral presence in that place. He was stuck in a horrible occupation, but that was where he lived out his vocation. And when he retired, dozens of people showed up to tell their story about how he encouraged them, mentored them, loved them and helped them to find their God-calling.

I think where we often get this whole conversation wrong is that we mistake our occupation for our vocation. I hope everyone finds an occupation he or she is good at, enjoy, is needed and pays the bills. And it would be super-cool if that occupation matches up perfectly with God’s call on his or her life. But I hope people will stop obsessing about how to make their living from their vocation.

Keith Graber Miller, a Goshen (Ind.) College professor, tells the story of a 16th-century Anabaptist who clarifies the difference between occupation and vocation when he says, “I am a follower of Jesus Christ. That is my vocation. I make my living as a cobbler.” Our vocation is how we live out our faith in whatever place we find ourselves — in whatever occupation that might be.

I was challenged by a co-worker to describe in an inspiring way how to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a boring job, where you’d rather not be. I’m not sure I can inspire anyone with that speech, but I think a lot of young adults can be more content with an average occupation if we stop telling them that the only place God intends for you to find joy is in the impossible center of the Venn diagram. And I think more people will find their true fulfillment in separating their occupational fantasy from their day-by-day faithful Jesus walk.

If you’d like some concrete ways to test what God might be showing you what your vocation is, you might start with these five tips for discerning vocation by Chris Morton from the Missio Alliance.

1. What is one thing that you have consistently been complimented for over the years? These compliments, both direct and occasionally backhanded, are a major clue to our vocation. They reveal how others see us, and the abilities and skills we may not know we possess.

2. What makes you angry? Not a silly frustration, but a righteous anger? It might be interpersonal, the way you see people treating each other. It might be systemic, the unnecessary problem a community, workplace or family struggles to solve.

3. What work is so engrossing that you lose track of effort or time? What puts you “in the zone” is unique, but the experience of it is not. It’s a powerful sense of meaningful work, concentration and mastery that most people only experience occasionally.

4. There are things you’re just good at. These may be skills you’ve always had a knack for. You might have learned how to do something as a kid, and pull it out every once in awhile. Consider the things that you can do naturally, without even thinking about it, and how you might be able to use that to serve bigger purposes!

5. As we tell our stories, the high points and low points help to identify who we are. High points show you what you are at your best. Low points can help you realize what you should stay away from.

Del Hershberger lives in Hesston, Kan., with his wife, Michele, and works at Mennonite Mission Network as the director of the Christian Service department. This post originally appeared on Mennonite Mission Network’s blog.


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