Just like the word “stewardship,” “vocation” is one of those words we often throw around the church without stopping to consider its implications. Sure, our work can be holy, but what does that mean for those in positions the church mostly ignores? Plus, what if my work doesn’t seem Christian at all?
This week, as part of our Beyond the Offering Plate: A Holistic Approach to Stewardship series, professor Kathleen Cahalan shares her wisdom -- and challenge -- about how the church might steward vocation.
Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders
Can the Church Steward Work?
Kathleen A. Cahalan
Work can either be a perfect fit, a misfit, or no fit at all.
Denise says that being a judge is “an expression of who God made me to be.” It is “deeply satisfying” work because it allows her “to express some of the gifts God gave me” such as “communication, listening, and empathy.”
On the reverse, Casey has had many jobs -- all good jobs -- but none are her calling. “I feel like I am a man without an island…My calling is to create. That is my calling, at the end of the day.”
But for Janice, who works as a communications specialist for a large retail store, the job is a misfit: “I'm told I'm good at it…I don’t know if it motivates me…I don’t know what my passion is…I don’t know what my calling is.”
Barbara loves her work but she’s unsure if marketing counts as a Christian calling. “I've come to a point several times throughout my career where I've had the urge to quit my industry and do something drastically different (go to seminary, work for a non-profit, etc.)… I even feel guilty for liking what I do since it's so commercial.”
Denise has the perfect fit, Casey’s work is a misfit, Janice has no fit, and Barbara could have the perfect fit if only her faith community valued the work that she does.
What makes work a calling? What are some of the signs of a perfect fit?
Three things stand out:
Is what you are doing a source of joy?
Is it something that calls forth your gifts, engaging your abilities and talents, using them fully?
Is this role or work of genuine service to others and to the wider society?
Joy, charisms, and service are saint Paul’s criteria for a Christian calling. And when we find those three we can be good stewards of our callings, as the author of 1 Peter notes, "As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace" (1 Pt 4:10).
Many people, in fact, do work jobs that are not a perfect fit -- they do not use their gifts or do not conform to what they think a calling is. A job may provide subsistence but it may or may not align with a sense of calling. It may support other callings such as raising children, providing money for education, caregiving for older parents. For several young adults, their hope was set on someday aligning employment, work, and calling, but it can take more than one job to get there.
In our research at the Collegeville Institute Seminars, we found that churches were not communities of calling that helped people identify their vocations, support them in work that did not always fit, and nurture the perfect fits.
What can churches do to be communities of calling? At least three things.
First, find out what work people do and why, whether it brings joy and is real service.
Second, we can value work. We may not always realize the ways we demean certain kinds of work. I met a young woman who was working at a make-up counter at a major department store. She had great joy but felt ashamed about what she was doing. “I love this. I know I’m not supposed to and that I should go to college but I love color and design and helping people find what works for them.” Does her work matter in our communities?
I let people tell me if they their work matters to them, if it is a calling.
Third, we can become communities of discernment by helping people reflect on how to live out God’s calling no matter their work situation:
- Is this a job that provides the necessary means by which I can live? Can I be a grateful steward of this work?
- Is this a job in which I can do the work to which I am called?
- If not, are there any ways that I can find to use my gifts in service of others in this job?
- Are there other places in my life -- at home, at church, or in the community -- where I can more fully do the work that is my calling?
We do not have to have the perfect fit in every place of employment for work to be meaningful and good. As people move through many jobs now, the church can be a community where they can tell their story, reflect on its meaning, and draw it into the story of faith. They can come to realize the many ways God calls them, the importance of their work in relationship to God’s purposes, and find support during times of transition, loss, and change at work.
*Want to read more? A fuller version of this post appears in the new book, Beyond the Offering Plate: A Holistic Approach to Stewardship, edited by Adam Copeland. To order visit: Amazon, Westminster John Knox Press, or Barnes & Noble.
Kathleen A. Cahalan is professor of practical theology at Saint John’s University School of Theology and Seminary and director of the Collegeville Institute Seminars.
We invite you to attend, “Beyond Abundance: Faithful Stewardship Language to Fit Our Realities” a daylong stewardship conference at Luther Seminary, Aug. 23, 2017 (10 a.m. – 3 p.m.). For more information, and to register, visit this website.