Contemporary Understandings of Vocation

Academic Paper / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
Contemporary understandings of vocation

1997 By Alistair Mackenzie. Faith At Work: Vocation, the Theology of Work and the Pastoral Implications. A Thesis in Pastoral Theology, submitted for the degree of Master of Theology at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

In addition to recent theologies of work, there have also been a number of other attempts to develop contemporary understandings of vocation. These have arisen in different contexts and for a variety of different reasons. We now examine a few examples.


Lee Hardy wrote The Fabric of this World as ‘an attempt to revitalise the concept of work as vocation - or calling - at least within the professing Christian community, where it should have some force (Hardy 1990: xv)’. Hardy begins by examining the history of Western attitudes towards work. He concludes that attitudes towards work in the Western tradition are polarised. They have been shaped directly and decisively by our self-understandings as they follow from our understanding of God. Work has sometimes been seen as a form of self-denial, sometimes as a form of self-fulfillment; sometimes as activity which demotes us to the level of animal existence, sometimes as activity which exalts us to the status of divine beings. Attitudes towards work have been accordingly either negative or positive (Hardy 1990: xvi). We are the inheritors of both of these conceptions of work and they war together within us with little hope of reconciliation. Against the background of these polarised attitudes towards work Hardy sets forth the concept of work as vocation as inaugurated by the Protestant Reformers. According to Hardy: ‘the concept of work as vocation ... steers a middle path between the vilification and the glorification of work. The concept of vocation ... claims it is in our work that we bear within us God’s image as Creator ... through the work we are called to do, God himself carries on his creative activity in the world (Hardy 1990: xvi)’. In this way ‘work makes us into God’s representatives on earth, his stewards, entrusted with the task of developing the rich resources of the earth for the benefit of the human community. Although work does not make us into gods, it does not reduce us to the level of animals either. It relates to what is specifically human about us (Hardy 1990: xvii)’. Hardy maintains that this perspective is also very compatible with modern Catholic social teaching and that a remarkable ecumenical convergence has developed.

In the second half of his book Hardy applies the Christian concept of vocation to two practical concerns - the personal issue of career choice and the social issue of job design. In his discussion of career choice Hardy draws on the Puritan distinction between the ‘general’ and ‘particular’ callings of God. The general calling is the call to be a Christian, that is to take on the virtues appropriate to followers of Christ, and is the same for all people whatever one’s status in life. The particular calling, on the other hand, is the call to a specific occupation - an occupation to which not all Christians are called. Having made this distinction between the general and particular callings of God Hardy asserts, on this basis, that it is both biblically appropriate and religiously important to talk about ‘vocational’ choice - in the sense of choosing a particular occupation in which we will exercise our gifts. Moreover, at certain junctures in our lives we are confronted with the need to identify our God-given gifts and choose an occupation; and an occupation can provide us with the concrete opportunity to employ our gifts in the service of our neighbour, as God commanded us to do.

Worldly wisdom, according to Hardy, tends to emphasize the importance of salary, security, status and satisfaction in shaping our career choices. Hardy does not dismiss these as significant considerations. But more important for those who seek to make a responsible choice of vocation is the matter of ascertaining precisely which gifts God has bestowed upon us and locating the place where our native abilities and acquired skills can best be put at the disposal of those who need them. This involves a personal inventory of talents and interests together with a moral self-examination of motives and attitudes and also a serious evaluation of various types of work according to their social value. It is the investment of our whole lives that must be considered and not just our employment. A condensed version of this approach is found in The Christian and Career Choice (Hardy 1985).

Hardy does still technically distinguish between vocation and occupation: ‘a vocation, as such, is not something a person can choose. Strictly speaking what we choose are occupations, where our vocations can be pursued and fulfilled (Hardy 1990: 81)’. Hence according to Hardy vocation is a broader concept than occupation and certainly not to be reduced to paid occupation, although it may include our paid occupation. Furthermore, Hardy develops Luther’s thinking in maintaining that it follows from the broad concept of vocation that we will always have a number of vocations, because we occupy a number of stations: parent, child, citizen, parishioner and so on. Some of these vocations are chosen, others are the result of circumstances inherited rather than chosen by us.

The value of Hardy’s work for the purposes of this study, lies in the way it seeks to relate historical developments in the concept of vocation to the personal issue of career choice in the modern world and to a critical examination of contemporary American management theories regarding the social and structural dimensions of work.

The latter concern leads Hardy to applaud new concepts in job design such as calls for an increase in the level of freedom and responsibility for employees, expansion of the range of skills and abilities utilized in employment and attempts to make employment more amenable to employees lives outside the workplace.

According to Hardy:

work is a social place where we can employ our gifts in service to others. God calls us to work because he wants us to love our neighbours in a concrete way.... jobs ought to be designed so that we can in fact apply ourselves - our whole selves - to our calling. Not that our work on the job ought to take up all our time; for we have other callings to attend to as well. Only that our jobs ought to engage us as whole persons, as creatures with high-level capacities for thought, imagination, and responsibile choice as well as motor abilities. Our jobs ought to be places where the whole person can respond to the call of God ... In short, the job ought to be a place of responsibility. (Hardy 1990: 174-175)

According to Hardy, ‘in all situations the aim of the appropriate design of human work remains the same: making a job the kind of place where a vocation can be pursued (Hardy 1990: 185)’.


Gordon Preece (1994; condensed in Preece 1993) believes that the Reformed concept of vocation still contains elements that can speak prophetically to the dilemmas of contemporary life. However Preece also recognises that the concept of vocation, as the Reformers understood it, needs itself to be reformed in the light of changes since the 16th century and the secularisation which it has suffered, and the alienation from work which many see as a central problem of industrialised societies.

Preece attempts to do this by firstly tracing historical developments in the process of alienation and secularisation of work. He then goes on to examine three twentieth century attempts to reform the Reformed view of vocation by placing them within a Trinitarian context. Preece uses the paradigm of Gustav Wingren regarding First, Second and Third Article (of the Creed) theologies. Preece looks at Wingren himself as a ‘First Article’ or Creation-centred theologian and advocate of Luther’s view of vocation. He then examines Karl Barth as primarily a ‘Second Article’ or Christo-centric theologian and advocate of a Kingdom oriented view of vocation, in the light of his divergent views about the place of creation and Gospel and Law. He includes Jacques Ellul as an internal critic of Barth’s view of vocation.

Jurgen Moltmann is the ‘Third Article’ theologian Preece chooses to examine in detail in the light of his theology of hope and his Spirit-centred view of the Trinity and the Kingdom, Creation, Christ and the Church. Preece shows how Moltmann begins to apply this perspective to the theology of work and then shows how Douglas Meeks and Miroslav Volf have also taken up and applied this perspective in their views of work. Finally, Preece seeks to draw these threads together by pleading for recognition of the importance of the three-fold call: the Trinitarian character of our everyday vocations. Preece resurrects Irenaeus’ image of God as worker who created the world using two hands - the Word and the Spirit. He maintains that different Christian traditions, though they are all Trinitarian in theory, tend to emphasise the role of one member of the Trinity more than others. A truly Trinitarian view of vocation would include the strengths of each of these perspectives while at the same time compensating for the weaknesses of each and it would explain more helpfully the relationship between creation, Trinity and vocation.

Although Preece’s dissertation primarily traces developments in Protestant theology, he is not unaware of John Paul II’s view of work and also categorises him as a ‘First Article’ theologian (Preece 1994: Chapter 1 and Preece 1995: 199-231).

Preece explores God’s nature as ‘a divine dialogue or trialogue in which each person - Father, Son and Spirit - calls the others to fulfill their varied vocations in the story of Creation and the economy of salvation ... God’s three-fold calling overflows into our lives, calling us to bring the paraphernalia of our everyday, economic lives into the life of the Trinity just as God enters eagerly into our everyday existence and working life, “pitching a tent” among us ... and making a home in our world (Preece 1993: 160)’. Among those who have anchored vocation by an unbreakable chain to God as creator, Preece includes Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholic co-creationists. He maintains that it is a distortion of Luther that leads to the unchangeable view of vocation that endorses the status quo with little room for the spontaneity of creation: ‘Luther emphasised God’s continual creativity, sustaining life against the forces that would wilt and destroy it. From our birth to our death God is constantly creating, bringing new life and fertility out of barrenness (Preece 1993: 164)’. And the major area where God is constantly innovating is in our vocations: ‘They are vehicles for God’s vitality. Through our everyday domestic, work place, and political roles God is at work creating, nurturing and maintaining life (Preece 1993: 164)’. Through our vocations we are called to meet and serve our neighbours’ needs in ever new and creative ways.

However as part of the Reformed reaction to the rather static and conservative German Christian overemphasis on ‘law’ and ‘order’ in the 1920s and 30s Karl Barth shied away from this emphasis on God the Creator and instead stressed the role of the second person of the Trinity. This resulted in a more dynamic understanding of vocation that responded to one’s freedom in Christ through the Gospel. This development emphasises the work of Christ in salvation rather than creation. It also means our primary vocation is to be involved in Christ’s reconciling work bearing witness to Christ by proclamation and service. According to this view, although work is necessary to meet our own and others’ needs, it is peripheral to God’s central work of reconciliation. Work is only part of ‘the active life’ Christians are called to lead, and a part that is subordinate to prayer, witness and service. This emphasis insists that a new work ethic must be developed which speaks especially to the needs of those who are most severely affected by the current employment ethic: the unemployed (often including the sick and disabled), the bored worker and the workaholic.

This Christ-centred perspective gives vocation a dynamic sense of freedom and transformation, rather than anchoring it to a static social order. It provides an opportunity for each person regardless of limits imposed by age, circumstances, history or aptitude, to take up their special responsibility or calling:

This allows for greater flexibility in work, more fluidity between home and work place, more provision for self and others, rather than professionalism. Vocation is not restricted just to our job, and so does not exclude children, the sick, the elderly, unemployed and homemakers. Even those who have a profession do not exhaust their vocation in their job but imitate God’s action in a wide array of different spheres. Rather than imprisoning us in a particular position or social order for life, it is a moment-by-moment process of being open to God’s providential companionship. What abides is the call, not the sphere of service. (Preece 1993: 166)

This is a liberating view for those who experience frustration or boredom and struggle in conventional employment and hence find it hard to identify this with a fulfilling notion of calling. And liberating too for those whose lives do not fit conventional patterns of employment. But the weakness of this view is also clear. Creation is pushed to the margins. If Christ the Reconciler is divorced from God the Creator, the nature and range of God’s creativity is reduced.

Recently a third perspective has been proposed, emphasising the role of the Holy Spirit, in order to correct an overly creation-centred view of vocation. Jurgen Moltmann is the primary representative of this perspective, though his student Miroslav Volf has followed it through more thoroughly in relation to work (Volf 1991). Preece sees ways in which this emphasis can be linked with the other perspectives: ‘The Spirit is the dynamic link between original creation, providence (or continuing creation), and new creation (1993: 167)’. The Spirit is God at work not just sustaining a static creation (as traditionally assumed) but breathing new life into a creation that waits in suspense to reach its goal and destiny of the ‘new heavens and new earth’ (Romans 8:22ff). This same Spirit gives inspiration and guidance to working people who ‘co-operate with it, mindful of its longing to participate in the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:21) (Preece 1993: 167 quoting Volf 1991: 146)’.

Traditionally one’s vocation was seen to be played out in the fairly static three-fold orders of labour, family and state. But Preece maintains human conditions are much more mobile, changeable and moveable now. Flexibility is necessary to fit with the more dynamic and mobile character of modern work and social roles. This also provides a warning for those who live in contexts where many people struggle for a sense of identity and worth, and hope to find it in their work, for as Preece says:

in the midst of the modern separation between the real-self (found in romance, leisure, therapy, and spirituality) and the role-self (found in work, politics, family commitments), our identity and integration does not come from some isolated sense of self, but through God’s call to mission and hope. Social callings are then judged not by their capacity for self-realisation, but by the possibilities they offer for incarnating or fleshing out our faith. The criteria for choice and change of calling then becomes: Does it point in the direction of the Kingdom? (Preece 1993: 167)

Preece is concerned to see vocation rooted in the creative structures of this world, but also ready to be uprooted at a moment’s notice to move towards the new creation. As he sees it, we are always on call for the Kingdom, living in the creative tension between the varied vocations of the members of the Trinity in terms of creation and recreation:

We are called to be Abrahamic, Exodus people, constantly on the move towards the Kingdom and Promised Land. But we are also called to rest with David ... and put down deep roots in land, family, work, city even exile. Jesus not only called His disciples away from their jobs to answer His call, but He also regularly called those He healed to take their healings back home with them, to stay where they were called ... Both dimensions of Christian vocation are important. Which one should be emphasised at any particular time is a matter for spiritual and corporate discernment. The mark of true wisdom and prophecy is its timeliness. But in a time dominated by change for change’s sake, when loyalty and family, company and community seems to be forgotten and rootlessness has reached epidemic proportions, there is a place for a renewed emphasis on the orders of creation, for staying in one’s calling. Thus if it involves a rightful place for the reconciling work of Christ and remains open to the call of the Spirit, it may not be a conservative stance but a rare form of radicalism. In the end, the issue is not whether we start with Father, Son, or Spirit, but where we end. Do we encompass the whole narrative of Scripture - the story of creation, salvation and recreation - and so provide a full and dynamic context for our view of vocation? (Preece 1993: 169)

Thus Preece invites us to catch a glimpse of how our work fits into the past, present and future work of God - the work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Preece’s Trinitarian approach looks for a comprehensive view of vocation which will take seriously the whole work of God and whole span of Scripture. In this regard Preece’s concept is not unlike Higginson’s desire to seriously engage with all the major theological categories (see Chapter 2.19). The usefulness of both approaches resides in the fact that they use categories already familiar to most Christians. Preece’s Trinitarian exploration of the nature of our everyday vocations does offer a useful framework for further reflection at both academic and popular levels.


The developmental psychologist James Fowler sees vocation as central to an integrated view of life stages and the church’s role in public life. Fowler uses the concept of vocation, or calling, to talk about people and communities living faith in conscious and committed relation to God. He defines vocation as ‘the response a person makes with his or her total life to the call of God to partnership (Fowler 1991: xv)’. Fowler maintains that humans have evolved for ‘ontological vocations of partnership with God - in cocreation, co-sustaining, and co-healing and rectification of the "world" (Fowler 1991: xv)’. According to Fowler this ontological calling is not limited to Christians, instead he sees his formulation as a Christian formulation of a universal vocation. Fowler develops his concept of vocation at some length in three recent books (1984, 1987, 1991).

Fowler describes the work of God using H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories of God as Creator, God as Governor and God as Liberator-Redeemer. The human calling - the human vocation - is to partnership with God in God’s work in the world including all of the above dimensions. Hence co-operation with the liberative and redemptive action of God, for example, will decisively shape the way people seek position, use resources, and make themselves available in the domains represented in the creative and governing action of God.

For Fowler, vocation is ‘finding a purpose for our lives that is part of the purposes of God (Fowler 1987: 37)’. Vocation is not our job, occupation, profession or career, nor is it a trajectory of these, although it may include these. Vocation is, ‘the response we make with our total selves to the call of God (acknowledged or unacknowledged) and to God’s call to partnership. In this more comprehensive sense vocation refers to the orchestration of our leisure, our relationships, our work, our private lives, our public lives, and the resources we steward. It is the focussing of our lives in the service of God and the love of the neighbour (Fowler 1987: 32). Vocation is linked to and grounded in that place in our heart where we recognise we are intended for some purpose beyond mere survival. It grows out of the intuition that we are called for some purpose beyond self-aggrandizement or the self-interested pursuit of pleasure. Vocation derives, ‘from that profound sense that we are called into existence in this time and this place and among these people for the sake of investing our gifts and potential and furthering some cause that is of transcending importance (Fowler 1987: 32)’. For Christians, vocation involves conversion to the work of God as disclosed in Jesus Christ (Fowler 1991: 126).

Fowler contrasts this view of vocation with the notion of self-actualization, which he labels ‘our most serious modern heresy, the individualistic assumption that we are or can be self-grounded persons (Fowler 1984: 101)’. For Fowler, vocation is essentially a communal notion. In fact, he argues ‘there is no vocation apart from community (Fowler 1984: 113)’. We discover our personhood in relationships with others. We find ourselves by giving ourselves. However Fowler is concerned that few prominent people today model really worthwhile vocational ideals. According to Fowler modern Western societies are in, or moving toward, a crisis point with respect to vocational ideals:

Where previously persons were admired as vocational models because of their virtues and usefulness to society, now admiration is drawn to the appearances of success and wealth, to fascination with exciting and fast-moving lives, and to the name-face recognition that comes with public notoriety. Hence in our society we now claim the vocational models of the rock-star, the movie celebrity, the sports idol, the eccentric millionaire-adventurer and the television preachermogul. (Fowler 1984: 2)

Fowler warns that we face a crisis because the above developments have also been accompanied by the erosion of traditional professions as examples of vocational ideals. Increasingly doctors, lawyers, educators, politicians, public servants, even ministers are being regarded predominantly as self-interested and opportunistic entrepreneurs. He notes the shift that David Yankelovich has documented from an ‘ethic of self-denial’, which characterised American society through World War 2, to an ‘ethic of selffulfillment’, which has become dominant since the 1950s.

The vocational question is, ‘What are human beings here for? In what consists the virtue or the excellence of human beings? In what pursuits, attainments or investments will human beings find deepest fulfillment? In what modes of living, of spending, and being spent, will humans realise their full potential and contributions? (Fowler 1984: 1)’. A vital key to understanding any society consists in examining the vocational ideals that it recognises and to which it nurtures its members. If Fowler is correct in his analysis and we are experiencing a societal crisis of vocational ideals, then the meaning of adulthood and the identification of worthy models for envisioning it, have become problematic for us.

Fowler emphasizes the important role communities of faith play in forming people and groups for vocational existence. He discusses five levels of meaning and orientation by which Christian communities awaken, shape and sustain the vocations of their members (Fowler 1984: 114-115).

  1. The provision of a shared core story. A community of faith shapes its identity in relation to a corporately held narrative structure. This encourages ‘the creative and transformative interplay between one’s personal narrative and the core story of a religious tradition’.
  2. A participation in, and life prioritizing identification with, the central passion of the shared core narrative.
  3. A formation of the affections in accordance with the community’s identification with its central passion.
  4. The generation of virtues - moral perception, judgement and action, that serve the central passion of the community of faith and ‘give tensile character to the affections’.
  5. The practical and particular shape of worldly vocation in each life as members of the community seek to encourage one another to participate in the purposes of God in the world.

Fowler goes on to relate vocation to his theories of adult development by suggesting that vocation is something dynamic with a focus which changes over time, while continuing as a calling which becomes more intense. He maintains that

vocation involves a process of commitment, an ongoing discerning of one’s gifts and giftedness in community, and of finding the means and settings in which those gifts - in all the dimensions of our living - can be placed at the disposal of the One who calls us into being and partnership. In this perspective, partnership with God constitutes the core of our evolving identity - the construction of our lives. We are called to an availability and to shaping a way of being that responds and is responsible to some part of God’s purposes in the world. (Fowler 1991: 121)

Vocation is characterised by a movement away from self-groundedness.

While there is no doubt that Fowler moves well beyond the strict New Testament notion of calling, he nevertheless attempts to revitalise the concept with a combination of Reformation and modern insights. Fowler looks at the ways the configurations of our lives are in constant flux today with changing patterns of relationships to people, to institutions and to causes and the changing patterns of our leisure, our faith, our families, our employment and our public and private lives. The nature of the modern world means rapid changes are inevitable. But healthy maturation also involves such changes. Our life structures are constantly altering in shape and complexity. This is not something to be resisted, but it does demand new integrating factors. When family and employment no longer hold the promise of providing a unifying focus for life’s journey, Fowler maintains this revived notion of vocation is what is needed: ‘a Christian view of the human vocation suggests that partnership with the action of God may be the single most fruitful way of finding a principle to orchestrate our changing adult life structures (Fowler 1984: 105)’.

Fowler quotes Daniel Bell’s three-fold division which he says characterises advanced post-industrial societies - a division into techno-economic order, the polity (or government), and culture. Bell argues that a major disjunction has opened up between culture - the domain in which meanings and normative images of personhood are addressed - and the techno-economic order, where efficiency, profitability and productivity tend to dominate and control the defining of virtues. The central passion that underlies Fowler’s work is the concern, conceptually and ethically, to reunify the worlds of work, governments and meaning. According to Fowler, new models of identity and vocation are required for this.

In Weaving the New Creation (1991) Fowler urges churches to recapture a vision of the ‘public church’. This will involve balancing nurture and group solidarity with forming an accountability in vocation in work and public life beyond the walls of the church. To achieve this ‘we must reclaim the term vocation from guidance counsellors and occupational therapists and from a too-narrow association with the world of work. Nor may we allow it to refer only to the callings of priests, nuns, ministers and those pursuing "full-time Christian (meaning professional) service" (Fowler 1991: 159)’.

Vocation is a larger concept than career, occupation or profession. If it were not, children would not have vocations; people whose lives are spent primarily in voluntary service would not have vocations; and that most rapidly growing group of people in U.S. society, those who are in or near retirement, would not have vocations. According to Fowler’s scheme public churches encourage and support their members in the development of vocations in which partnership with God is carried into the large-scale economic, technical, political, commercial and religious structures that shape our lives:

Public churches try to free their members from many of the tasks of institutional maintenance and internal ministry for the sake of strenthening their vocations as Christians in the market place, the school, the law office, the legislative halls, the hospital, and the corridors and committees of peace making and ecological healing. Public churches call forth and empower the ministry of lay persons, not by telling them what they must do in the context of the complex systems in which they work and live, but by giving them access to and grounding in Scriptures and tradition so that they can become informed practical theologians and ethicists in their roles as leaders and followers in their public lives ... They work to maintain a balance between spiritual deepening and renewal and the sustainment and accountability of members in vocation and public life. (Fowler 1991: 159)

Fowler’s contribution is particularly valuable for the recognition it gives to the role of personal development in the maturation of a sense of vocation and the role of the faith community in awakening, shaping and sustaining that vocation.


We make mention of Brueggemann not because he has written extensively about vocation as such, but because he is a prominent Old Testament scholar whose brief references to vocation have influenced others such as James Fowler, who have gone on to develop these thoughts at greater length (e.g. see James Fowler 1984: 93). In 1979 Walter Brueggemann wrote an article entitled ‘Covenanting as Human Vocation’. Brueggemann asserts that to view humans as shaped for covenantal living ‘transposes all identity questions into vocational questions (Brueggemann 1979: 125)’. We move from the question ‘Who am I?’ to the question ‘Whose am I?’ We move from the question ‘Who am I in relation to all the other significant people in my life?’ to the question ‘Who am I in relation to God?’ According to Brueggemann, ‘all questions of identity become questions of vocation. And vocation means finding a purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God (Brueggemann 1979: 126)’.

Brueggemann points out that exploring the meaning of this vocation inevitably raises issues of ecclesiology, ethics and interpersonal relationship. Pastoral care involves the formation of a community that is holding to and practicing its vocation. Brueggemann asserts that

over a period of time the practice of pastoral care has in some circles been coopted by various psychologies. But there are hopeful signs among us, signs that the time is now ripe for facing the promissory offer of biblical faith ... The claims of the Bible provide important alternatives to psychologies that, on the one hand, champion personal autonomy and, on the other hand, urge nonconventional religion. (Brueggemann 1995: 166)

Like many other scholars we have discussed, Brueggemann finds the term vocation useful and wants to define it in terms of human participation in the purposes of God. Unlike most other scholars we have discussed, Brueggemann comes to this conclusion through pondering the story of the work of God and God’s people in the Jewish scriptures. For Brueggemann the concepts of covenant and call are inseparable - calling and vocation are inextricably linked to the foundations of our faith.


Marilyn Ferguson in The Aquarian Conspiracy (1982) heralds the transformation of our consciousness. What Ferguson calls the ‘Whole Earth Conspiracy’ is the product of a world wide movement of people whose ways of thinking about the universe and their place in it is changing. According to Ferguson, a new paradigm is emerging that could produce more radical changes than even the Renaissance (Ferguson 1982: 446). This leaderless, but nevertheless powerful, underground movement is working towards the creation of a very different kind of society based on a vastly enlarged concept of human potential, a new spirituality and a new sense of the interdependence of people and their inter-connectedness with the earth and the whole cosmos. For Ferguson a very important development in this movement is a rediscovery of the importance of intuition: ‘that "natural knowledge" which becomes a trusted partner in every day life, available to guide even minor decisions, generating an even more pervasive sense of flow and rightness (Ferguson 1982: 115)’. It is at this point Ferguson introduces her view of vocation: ‘closely tied to intuition is vocation - literally a "calling"... vocation is the process of making one’s way towards something. It is a direction more than a goal (Ferguson 1982: 115)’.

Ferguson quotes a housewife who became a film-maker who said: ‘I felt as if I’d been called to serve on somebody’s plan for mankind (Ferguson 1982: 115)’. Vocation is when people feel they are cooperating with events rather than controlling them: ‘A curious blend of the voluntary and involuntary - choice and surrender ... people remark that they feel strongly drawn in a particular direction or to certain tasks, and simultaneously convinced that they were somehow "supposed" to take just those steps (Ferguson 1982: 115-116)’.

The mid-life crisis may be the result of a vocation surfacing. After decades of denial suddenly pain is thrust into consciousness that can no longer be sedated: ‘it manifests in either a cry or a call - a cry of disappointment or the stirring call to a new purpose - to vocation - experienced by one who has been engaged in introspective, transformative processes for some time (Ferguson 1982: 376)’. The workaholic attempts to find meaning by working. The person with a vocation may also pursue their purpose very intently, but by finding meaningful work: ‘a vocation is not a job. It is an on-going transformative relationship (Ferguson 1982: 376)’. Aquarian Conspirators are also often involved in gently prodding others towards transforming work and wealth or working towards institutional rehabilitation.

Ferguson notes that participants often go through a process of conflict and struggle that is particularly related to their experience of work. During the entry-point stage of the transformative process, the new ideas do not seem to threaten work in relationships. During the second stage, exploration, there is an uneasy hope that this new interest will be no more than an intensive avocation. But by the third stage, integration, the struggle to reconcile the old work with the new perspective has intensified and it becomes apparent that the transformative process cannnot be compartmentalised:

the wholeness experienced through the transformative process says that there doesn’t have to be a break between work and pleasure, between convictions and career, between personal ethics and "business is business". Fragmentation becomes increasingly intolerable to the person moving toward greater awareness....New attitudes change the very experience of daily work. Work becomes a ritual, a game, a discipline, an adventure, learning, even an art, as our perceptions change ... we see that meaning can be discovered and expressed in any human service: cleaning, teaching, gardening, carpentry, selling, caring for children, driving a taxi. (Ferguson 1982: 378-379)

Ferguson sees the emerging spiritual tradition as a move from religion to spirituality. She emphasises the importance of the ‘transmission’ of knowledge by direct experience. Doctrine on the other hand, is second-hand knowledge and a danger. Mystical glimpses of the true nature of reality through experiences of ‘flow’ and ‘wholeness’ hold the key. The emphasis is on ‘knowing without doctrine (Ferguson 1982: 414)’. Traditional religion, apart from the mystical tradition, tends to express our futile efforts to define and control and impedes the flow we might otherwise have in our lives. ‘Once we get out of our own way we can become ourselves (Ferguson 1982: 417-418)’.

Ferguson’s analysis identifies some significant challenges the church is still struggling to come to terms with. Her mystical view of vocation is certainly not firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. But the hunger and search that causes her and others to reach out and grope after this concept should cause us to ponder more deeply why such people have not found the answer in Christianity. For Ferguson it is clear that people need a sense of vocation. That the church has failed to communicate a view of vocation that speaks to this need seems equally clear. Matthew Fox is one theologian who tries to respond to this challenge by drawing on sources from the mystical tradition (see Chapter 2.20). But this approach, while attractive to some, is alarming to many other Christians. A hunger is being expressed for a combination of theology, ethics and spirituality which forms a more coherent whole, while at the same time offering spiritual and emotional nourishment as well as intellectual stimulus. If this search could be summarised in a word it would probably be ‘connection’. People seem to be in search of a new sense of connection with the Source of our being in a way that can provide a new sense of connection with one another and the world we live in. Surely this is something a Christian understanding of vocation ought to provide.


In Seasons of Strength (1984) Evelyn and James Whitehead look at the adult journey with God in terms of two ideas they see as central to Christian spirituality: vocation and virtue. In developing the idea of vocation the Whiteheads are concerned firstly to make plain that it is not an elitist calling they are talking about, but that confluence of gifts and wounds and hopes that each of us is shaped by. Every Christian is called. Secondly, they emphasise that we are not called to a static ‘state’ in life but to a journey. We are called over a lifetime. We are called again and again. A vocation grows and changes as we come into a fuller realisation of our adult journey of faith. In their vocations people are invited in a certain direction or coaxed along a particular path or career. Christian vocation, rooted in our best and deepest hopes for our lives, leads us along certain careers supported by particular life-styles, focussed on the promise of the Kingdom of God. One’s vocation is a path to be followed in pursuit of the Lord. A vocation is not a onceand- for-all call in young adulthood to follow this career or enter this religious congregation. It is a life-long conversation with God:

like any rich conversation, it is patterned by periods of spirited exhange, times of strain and argument, and intervals of silence. In such a developmental vision of vocation, fidelity is more than a memory. To be faithful entails more than recalling an early invitation; it requires that we remain in conversation. Our fidelity must be mobile because the conversation continues ... a Christian vocation is a gradual revelation - of me to myself, by God. I gradually learn the shape of my life. And it takes a life time. (Whitehead and Whitehead 1984: 10)

Discerning vocation involves the exercise of imagination. ‘First, I envision my life moving in a particular direction. From scattered hints and uncertain inclinations I begin to envision the shape of my life ... this vision comes as a gift and sometimes as a command (Whitehead and Whitehead 1984: 10).’ But discerning vocation is more than just envisioning a purpose for living. Subsequently, ‘I must create it as well. My life unfolds demanding choices of love and work. It is in the face of these choices that I both receive my vocation and invent it (Whitehead and Whitehead 1984: 10)’.

With the passing of time people come to see that the details of their lives are not as haphazard or random as they seemed. They catch a glimpse of a design: ‘there is a plot here! This recognition of a plot - a sequence in my life, a connection between my past and my future - becomes the core of an adult identity. This is who I am and what I am for. To come to this conviction is ... the beginning of a vocation (Whitehead and Whitehead 1984: 10)’.

At the outset of adult life the challenge is to imagine what one’s life is to be about. In mid-life a person is often required - by experience of profound change or loss or stagnation - to re-imagine the pattern and purpose of life. New visions of hope are needed to rescue us when we find ourselves losing the plot or unable to discern the purpose - sometimes both identity and vocation seem gone. It is necessary for earlier visions to undergo change at such a point or we may find ourselves no longer able to imagine that God is about something in our lives because the old categories no longer work for us. And nearing the end of life people are invited to affirm, in retrospect, the shape and goodness of the peculiar plot that has defined vocation for them. Yet even in senior years there are still often new aspects of vocation to be discovered and lived out.

The Whiteheads introduce three images of creation which they say shape our view of vocation. The first is creation as God’s production, now fully accomplished, that we inhabit. In such a stable environment our lives are guided by ‘natural laws’, rules built in at the beginning. A vocation is seen as a clear role, stable and unchanging. We are called to inhabit a vocational state and live faithful to its rules and guidelines. Inventiveness or improvising on our part are not encouraged because God had a clear plan from the beginning.

A second vision sees creation as something that is worked. Whether finished or still in process God’s creation enterprise has been handed over for us to cultivate ‘in the sweat of our brow’. The chief feature of this image, as the Whiteheads present it, is seriousness. We participate in God’s creation purposefully, ernest and sober. Once again there is little encouragement for experimentation or delight.

A third way to image creation is as something that is being played. In play (and so, in the play of a vocation) we do not simply repeat a prepared script, we also invent and improvise. We do not just imitate, we also create. Creation is still being played. We are participants in this drama. We can replay classic roles or script new scenes in the continuing story. It is an unfinished drama. The Whiteheads maintain that Western culture has dismissed the importance of play because it is seen as childish, frivolous and unreal. They say the figure of Wisdom in Scripture encourages us to rediscover this element (eg Proverbs 8:30-31). To rediscover this third view of vocation is to be ‘better able to risk and test and fall ... we witness that vocation is a lively, fragile, flexible gift to be played with energy (Whitehead and Whitehead 1984: 21)’. As we tame failing and falling, we become mature players in our vocations.

The maturing of a vocation is described as a passage from the child of God, to the disciple in young adulthood and into the stewardship of mature middle years. This is not to suggest that all aspects of the former states are left behind in the process of maturing. Spiritual maturing involves us in the inter-play of child, disciple and steward. The process is one of expanding on what has been learned. Often the child is lost along the way, abandoned in the seriousness of gaining adulthood. But several decades of surviving struggle and disappointment through grace and good fortune often allows the child to return. With the growth of the steward the seriousness of the disciple is lifted and we are free to take more risks as we learn to value our failures and to laugh at our mistakes. And having struggled for independence in our twenties and thirties we often learn to depend on others again and become reliable and strong enough for others to depend on us. While all the time of course we still continue to be disciples. As followers of Jesus Christ, we remain apprenticed for a lifetime - always learners. So we are reminded that maturing takes time; that many seasons are required for that seasoning of instincts which marks us as Christian adults.

What the Whiteheads remind us is that vocation is not something that is ultimately defined in doctrinal terms, but a person’s growing sense of place and usefulness in the purposes of God. Like James Fowler, the Whiteheads introduce us to an understanding of vocation as a dynamic experience that involves changes in the process of Christian maturing. It is as much about spiritual formation as it is about growing intellectual appreciation.

In Community of Faith (1992) the Whiteheads explore further the role that Christian communities play in shaping the vocations of their members. We expand on this in Chapter 5.43 ‘A Sponsoring Community’.


Habits of the Heart (Bellah et al. 1985) explores the traditions Americans use to make sense of themselves and their society. The authors conclude that as Americans have grown a vocabulary of individualism, they have lost the language needed to make moral sense of their lives. This is based on a five year sociological study of various American communities, during which it was found that people of all descriptions expressed in different ways how hard it can be to commit yourself to others if you believe that ‘in the end you are really alone (Bellah et al. 1985: 84)’. According to Bellah., ‘clearly the meaning of one’s life for most Americans is to become one’s own person, almost to give birth to oneself (Bellah et al. 1985: 82)’. Bellah quotes Gail Sheehy: ‘It is for each of us to find a course that is valid by our own reckoning (Bellah et al. 1985: 79)’.

Bellah et al. present the conflict between fierce individualism and our urgent need for community and commitment to each other. They characterise modernity as the ‘culture of separation’ and quote John Donne, ‘tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone (Bellah et al. 1985: 276)’.

The world of work is described as one sphere that has been seriously impacted in this way. According to Bellah the demand to ‘make something of yourself’ through work is very common in America. It encompasses several different notions of work: work as a ‘job’, a way of making money and a living; work as a ‘career’, progress through achievement and advancement in an occupation; work as a ‘calling’, a practical ideal of activity and character that makes a person’s work morally inseparable from his or her life (Bellah et al. 1958: 65-68). Work in the sense of calling is never private. A calling links a person to the larger community. The calling of each is a contribution to the common good. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer says in the collect for Labour Day, ‘so guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for the self alone, but for the common good’ (Quoted in Bellah et al. 1985: 66).

However with the coming of large scale industrial society, it became more difficult to see work as a contribution to the whole and easier to view it as a segmental, self-interested activity. Thus the predominantly private ‘job’ and ‘career’ views of work have largely overtaken the idea of work as ‘calling’. However Bellah et al. conclude that

few have found the life devoted to "personal ambition and consumerism" satisfactory, and most are seeking in one way or another to transcend the limitations of a self-centred life ... and many of those with whom we talked were locked into a split between a public world of competitive striving and a private world supposed to provide the meaning and love that make competitive striving bearable. Some however, were engaged in an effort to overcome this split, to make our public and private worlds mutually coherent - in a word to recover our social ecology. (Bellah et al. 1985: 290, 292)

These people according to Bellah et al. are ‘reappropriating tradition’ finding sustenance in biblical and republican traditions such as that of ‘calling’ and trying to apply these actively and creatively to present realities. These are attempts to ‘make what have become second languages into our first language again (Bellah et al. 1985: 292)’.

For Bellah et al. finding oneself means, among other things, finding the story or narrative in terms of which one’s life makes sense. Yet they note that while much has been written in recent times about life cycles and their major stages, with adolescence, mid-life and retirement being described as particularly important choice points, this has mostly been done with no reference to any social, historical or religious context. Historically, in most societies, the meaning of one’s life has been derived to a large degree from a sense of connectedness to the lives and values of one’s parents and one’s children. Yet in contemporary America the aim is to break free and find meaning by becoming one’s own person. Bellah et al. conclude:

the small town and the doctrinaire church, which did offer more coherent narratives, were often narrow and oppressive ... yet in our desperate effort to free ourselves from the constrictions of the past we have jettisoned too much, forgotten a history that we cannot abandon ... we are parts of a larger whole that we can neither forget nor imagine in our own image without paying a high price. If we are not to have a self that hangs in the void, slowly twisting in the wind, these are issues we cannot ignore. (Bellah et al. 1958: 83-84)

According to Bellah et al., now is the time to re-examine the story of our life upon the earth. To look again at where we have come from and where we are going. And to gain a new sense of what it is we are committed to that will add sense and shape to our lives. Bellah et al. conclude their book with these words:

we still have the capacity to re-consider the course upon which we are embarked. The morally concerned social movement, informed by republican and biblical sentiments, has stood us in good stead in the past and may still do again. But we have never before faced a situation that called our deepest assumptions so radically into question. Our problems today are not just political. They are moral and have to do with the meaning of life. We have assumed that as long as economic growth continues, we could leave all else to the private sphere. Now that economic growth is faltering and the moral ecology on which we have tacitly depended is in disarray, we are beginning to understand that our common life requires more than an exclusive concern for material accumulation. Perhaps life is not a race whose only goal is being foremost ... perhaps the truth lies in what most of the world outside the Modern West has always believed, namely that there are practises of life, good in themselves, that are inherently fulfilling. Perhaps work that is intrinsically rewarding is better for human beings than work that is only extrinsically rewarding. Perhaps enduring commitment to those we love and civic friendship towards our fellow citizens are preferable to restless competition and anxious self-defence. Perhaps common worship, in which we express our gratitude and wonder in the face of the mystery of being itself, is the most important thing of all. If so, we will have to change our lives and begin to remember what we have been happier to forget. (Bellah et al. 1958: 295)

The work of Bellah et al. underlines the importance of nurturing communal narratives that give expression to shared values and dreams, if people are to regain a sense of vocation. Some clear challenges and opportunities for Christian churches are apparent: particularly the challenge to help individuals explore the connections between their stories and God’s story; and the connections between their work and God’s work. Also the challenge to grow a sense of community and collective ownership of a shared story in a context where individualism has been promoted so aggressively.


Colson and Eckerd have examined Why America Doesn’t Work (1991). They believe that current problems with productivity, international competitiveness, standard of living, the irresponsibility of young people and the mess in inner cities and prisons is due largely to an erosion of the work ethic. Their answer is to restore a high and morally rooted view of work that will once again inculcate into people those historic virtues of the work ethic - industry, thrift, respect for property, pride in craft and concern for community. They also believe, ‘loss of the work ethic does not begin in the work place; it begins in the hearts of people - in the values that motivate them or fail to motivate them (Colson and Eckerd 1991: Introduction)’. They maintain that:

since our view of work flows out of our view of life, we must change the underlying values by which people choose to live. In other words we must reawaken the conscience of our culture ... we must penetrate "the moral imagination". This consists of the whole array of social and moral assumptions widely shared by a people - what earlier cultures called tribal myths or the folklore of society. Attitudes towards diligence, work and excellence are part of this cultural consensus or moral imagination. (Colson and Eckerd 1991: 82)

Colson and Eckerd then suggest a comprehensive programme for transforming the culture.

The first task is moral education at every level - in the home, in the church, in the schools, in the universities, in the corporate world, in media, in Government and among the cultural elite who are influential in setting national priorities.

Then, because education is so vital in providing motivation and training and skills for young people, the educational establishment must be radically overhauled to bring back competition and accountability to America’s schools.

And a complete overhaul of paternalistic Government welfare programmes is required to free the subsidised, permanently dependent under-class. This must be accompanied by more effort to take meaningful work into prisons.

Finally, American labour and business must re-evaluate the rules of the marketplace to change the way work is treated and workers are cared for. According to Colson and Eckerd, the church has an important role to play in this process. They suggest a four point programme for the church:

First, the church must reclaim its own heritage. That means preaching and teaching the work ethic. Teach diligence, excellence, thrift, respect for property and that through work that we participate in Christ’s work of redeeming the earth... Second, the church must teach vocation. Every Christian needs to rediscover and understand that the individual’s calling is at the very heart of faith and that it is imperative that each Christian glorify God with his or her work. Third, the church must teach ethics ... Biblical truths about honest scales, helping the poor, not cheating others, and paying fair wages are unchanging and profoundly life-changing ... Fourth, whenever and wherever it has preached a false health-and-wealth gospel, the church needs to repent. The church must proclaim a message that convicts individuals of their own responsibility. "If a man will not work, let him not eat" were not compassionless words; they were a call to individual responsibility. (Colson and Eckerd 1991: 96)

Colson and Eckerd trace the origins of the Protestant doctrine of vocation and particularly the Puritan version which was transplanted in America and merged with the immigrant work ethic - the commitment to hard work that enabled immigrants to leave the shores and factories of Europe behind for the promise of prosperity in America. They also trace the secularisation of the doctrine of vocation in America that resulted in a work ethic divorced from God. Yet so deeply was this work ethic engrained in the American psyche that it wasn’t until the great cultural revolution of the 1960’s that it was undermined:

This "good old all-American" version continued to preserve the essential virtues of honest work, thrift, investment, savings, respect of property and charity toward others. Even if they didn’t believe it their godly duty, people still taught their children these values because they realised that at heart they were what cherished and sanctified the great American dream. Thus the work ethic survived. Until the revolution ... (Colson and Eckerd 1991: 40)

Although the rot had set in a long time before, the authors maintain that it was only during the 1960’s that the attack on tradition became so fierce that the work ethic was finally undermined. This is what now needs turning around through the proclamation of the true meaning of vocation once again.

Should we dismiss this as just simplistic right wing economic and political polemics, or is it another part of the more complete view of vocation we are groping after? In some respects Colson and Eckerd’s anaylsis is quite penetrating, in others it seems very simplistic. Many will interpret it as just another call for workers to accept the status quo and produce more discipline and effort. Yet at the same time Colson and Eckerd do call for more compassionate responses and meaningful expressions of work for those who are brutalised by the current system. They are both actively involved in working with prisoners and unemployed young people. We have here a more populist expression of widely felt concerns. A twin call for more competition and more compassion. It worries this writer that the former will dominate the latter and a distorted view of vocation and the Protestant work ethic be used to promote it. It challenges us to be discerning.


Wuthnow is an American sociologist. Part of his book God and Mammon in America (1994) is devoted to examining the relationship between religious commitment and work in American society. He argues that religious commitment plays a more important role in guiding work than has generally been acknowledged in scholarly literature on the subject. But he also acknowledges that prevailing cultural assumptions have weakened the influence of religious commitment in the workplace. According to Wuthnow the reason for this is because:

we have come to think of religion - at least implicitly - as a way of making ourselves feel better and have largely abandoned the idea that religion can guide our behaviour, except to discourage activities considered blatantly immoral. We believe economists and advertisers when they tell us that careers and work habits are matters merely of personal preference. We look to religion, therefore, to make us happy about our preferences, not to channel them in specific directions. In giving up its ability to shape our behaviour in the workplace, contemporary religion has lost a great deal of its power. (Wuthnow 1994: 39)

Yet, at the same time, a recent study conducted among church and synagogue members in Chicago concluded, ‘many Christians and Jews hunger for more support from their religious communities in relating their faith to their work lives (Hart and Krueger [1992] quoted in Wuthnow 1994: 40)’.

Drawing on a national survey of two thousand members of the U.S. labour force, plus a hundred and seventy five indepth interviews, as well as the research of others, Wuthnow explores a variety of faith and work issues. In particular he examines the meaning of calling. Wuthnow found that a relatively small percentage of people believe religious values influence them in deciding what kind of work to pursue - 10 percent overall, (although another 12 percent say maybe), and 22 percent of those who attend church weekly. This finding suggests that few people experience a calling that literally tells them to go into a vocation because God wants them to do so (Wuthnow 1994: 40). The interviews revealed that not many people, even ones with strong religious convictions, think very much or very clearly about the doctrine of calling, at least in the abstract (Wuthnow 1994: 40).

Yet, at the same time, 30 percent of people agreed with the statement, ‘I feel God has called me to the particular line of work I am in’. This figure increased to 40 percent among church members and 46 percent for weekly attenders. Thus for half of the most actively religious segment of the population, the idea of calling is meaningful. There was not much difference between Protestants and Catholics (35 percent and 31 percent respectively), but significant differences did show up between religious conservatives (45 percent), moderates (32 percent) and liberals (19 percent) (Wuthnow 1994: 69-70).

People who believe they are called to their line of work are more likely than others to list reasons like ‘the opportunity to use my talents’ and ‘wanting to grow as a person’. They are less likely to select reasons like ‘the money’ or ‘circumstances just lead me to it’ (Wuthnow 1994: 70).

The most common understanding of this calling is that God wants people to do something useful with their lives. The closely related idea of making the best use of one’s individual talents was the second choice. Both of these responses are more likely among people who have experienced a calling. A substantial minority of the called and uncalled feel God simply wants them to be happy. Among church members who expressed a calling 90 percent agree ‘God wants me to have the kind of job that will make me happy’.

Wuthnow maintains that the utilitarian understanding of calling is still the dominant view, although the introspective or emotional calling is quite prominent in contemporary culture as well. In fact, 61 percent of those who have experienced a calling say ‘getting in touch with your feelings is more important than doing well in your job’ and half say, ‘working on my emotional life takes priority over other things (Wuthnow 1994: 72)’.

Wuthnow concludes that the introspective connotations arise from the use of religion in American society for therapeutic purposes: it emphasises counselling, personal adjustment, self-esteem and simply feeling good about one’s self: ‘given the demands of the contemporary workplace, it may be especially therapeutic for people to have some sense that their religious faith helps them in this context. One of the strongest differences between the called and uncalled is that the former say praying in the morning helps them have a better day (Wuthnow 1994: 72).

When it comes to establishing the difference a sense of calling makes in people’s work lives, Wuthnow maintains there is no difference between the two groups in terms of hours a week worked nor the inclination to work harder. This is in spite of standard arguments about the calling’s relation to the work ethic. The biggest differences are that those who feel called to their work score higher on job satisfaction, are more likely to say that their work is meaningful and are more likely to say it is important to them to do well in their jobs. Apart from their work, they also feel closer to God (Wuthnow 1994: 73).

Wuthnow also explores the extent to which people bring their religious commitments into the workplace in a public way. Approximately one-third claim to have discussed their faith with someone at work during the past year. This rises to 58 percent of weekly attenders. Protestants are more inclined to have done so (42 percent) than Catholics (33 percent). And religious conservatives (50 percent) are more likely to have done so than moderates (38 percent) or liberals (31 percent). Women are more likely than men to engage in such discussions and people living in the South are nearly twice as likely to do than those who live in the North East (Wuthnow 1994: 74-75).

The data suggests discussions of faith in the workplace are stimulated by people who are consciously thinking about the connections between their own work and faith, that some people who are interested in their faith and relationship to God in general simply bring this interest with them to the workplace, and some other socio-religious factors are also influential.

Religious commitment is also associated with opting for a theistic or absolutist orientation toward ethics. When religious commitment includes active participation in a small primary group it can make a considerable difference to ways people think about moral standards and their willingness to engage in questionable workplace behaviour. The religiously commited, however, have also been influenced by emotivism and by the norm of minding their own business in matters of ethics (Wuthnow 1994: 114). Explicit training in ethics still occurs in religious settings but increasingly appears to be associated with secular programmes. Wuthnow concludes:

the forces of secularisation are very much in evidence. Religious understandings of ethics are often highly subjective, oriented largely toward personal honesty and influenced by the economistic thinking that governs the workplace ... religious considerations still matter ... but organisational and cultural forces have become much more important than religious convictions in shaping how people think about ethics and how they make ethical decisions that work. (Wuthnow 1994: 115)

Overall it would seem that the workplace has become an autonomous sphere subject to few religious influences. Wuthnow says that individuals themselves exercise enough discretion over their choices in the workplace that religious commitment could have more of an effect than it does, but unfortunately religious teachings concerning work at the popular level have focussed almost entirely on subjective or psychological issues:

people are counselled to recognise that their work matters to God. They are told that if they pray about their work they will experience peace of mind. When chosing a career, they will feel more confident if they have asked themselves what God would like them to do. They believe that God is interested, above all, in their own personal happiness. As long as they pursue their happiness, therefore, they are following God’s desires. (Wuthnow 1994: 77)

For Wuthnow this modest vision is flawed. It sells out too easily, risks nothing and is an administrative convenience, rather than a moral vision that calls us to significant commitments. He also warns about the dangers of moving to the opposite extreme in trying to promote a radically heroic vision that stands in fundamental opposition to the world. Instead Wuthnow suggests that what is needed is critical and collective resistance to save ourselves from the moral decay that goes with obsessive materialism and excessive secular work. We need a new vision of how religious faith can influence the disposition of our work and our money for the better. What is required is for concerned people to band together with other seekers to share their experiences and read and discuss the sacred texts, to discover principles, values and stories that call for reflection and application; people who are willing to re-think their priorities and reinforce alternative values and hold each other accountable; people who are gaining a new perspective on their work, who will think harder about ethical decisions than many of their co-workers and be less occupied with their own concerns so they can be of greater service to others (Wuthnow 1994: 266-268).

What Wuthnow seeks, although he does not express it in exactly these terms, is to see Christians working together in community to recover a true sense of their vocation in the world in order that they might be free to live more faithfully their Christian values and less captive to the prevailing culture.

Wuthnow challenges us not to overlook or give away the opportunities we have to influence attitudes toward work, greed, materialism, stewardship and economic structures. He is realistic about the limits we operate under, but nevertheless presses us to rediscover the language of simplicity, social justice and sacrifice in order that we might be able to resist the tendency to put the economic and religious aspects of our lives in different compartments between which there is no meaningful dialogue.

The nearest thing this writer is aware of in New Zealand to compare with Wuthnow’s (1994) survey is the ‘New Zealand Study of Values’ (Gold and Webster 1990). Two helpful analyses of this data from a religious perspective have also been produced by Webster and Perry (1989: 1992). Some relevant conclusions noted by Webster and Perry are listed below:

  1. Religiosity is linked with a somewhat greater sense of meaning in life, but has little apparent effect on people’s conformity to the priority given by a clear majority of New Zealanders to a materially prosperous life, although some differences between denominations is noted (Gold and Webster 1990: 121).
  2. Religiosity makes little difference to people’s work-related attitudes (Webster and Perry 1989: 23; 1992: 28-30).
  3. Religiosity makes little difference to people’s views on the conservation of natural resources.
  4. Religiosity is strongly positively related to traditional moral beliefs (Webster and Perry 1989: 23).
  5. Traditional believers favour competition and free enterprise more strongly than others (Webster and Perry 1992: 33).
  6. Traditional believers are more fervent in opposition to dishonesty (Webster and Perry 1992: 33).
  7. The church has lost its opportunity to side with the labour movement and instead sided with private piety, property and profit making (Webster and Perry 1989: 19; 1992: 28).
  8. Believers are more likely than unbelievers or those of No Religion to support the work ethic (honesty and hard work are the basic rules), but it is still a clear majority across all groups. Church attendance level does not affect this view. Some denominational affiliations (Methodist, Baptist) are still stronger in work ethic than the average (Webster and Perry 1992: 30).
  9. Workers are more likely to say laziness, rather than bad luck or injustice, is the reason for people being in poverty. The well-educated are more likely to identify social circumstances. Self-help and a growing economy are the preferred solutions respectively (Webster and Perry 1992: 29).
  10. Denominational differences are evident in responses to inequality. Anglicans see little wrong with it. Baptists are most critical of it and believe that injustice is the root problem. Methodists and Baptists favour equalisation.
  11. The most frequent reason for working is that work is interesting, which is more true of younger adults, females and Asians. Pacific Islanders are much more likely to say money is their reason for working.

Webster and Perry conclude:

overall, there seems to be good ground for saying that the work ethic is part of the New Zealand culture, that for a great many it focusses on security and the qualitative aspects of a job are more emphasised by those in a position to aspire to them. Church affiliation is traditonally linked to the work ethic but it cannot be argued that a distinct work ethic is linked to church attendance. In short, attitudes to work are highly traditional and church people are a bit more traditional about them. (Webster and Perry 1992: 29)

It is interesting to compare these results with those of Wuthnow and note some very similar concerns. This is in spite of the fact that regular church-going in New Zealand is much more of a minority activity. The idea of calling is not explored in the New Zealand surveys. This reflects in large part the different approaches to preparing the surveys, but perhaps also the different theological traditions that have shaped each context. And perhaps, the lack of significant religious roots in formulating the New Zealand dream. If so, this presents an even more profound challenge to provide a compelling Christian reinterpretation of vocation in a context where, for most people, sacred and secular activities have never been integrated within a coherent world view. This is true at least for pakeha New Zealanders. The traditional Maori view would not recognise the same sacred-secular divide.


Another recent attempt to reinterpret the concept of vocation comes from popular American writer M. Scott Peck (1993a; 1997). Peck argues that God calls each and every human being to civility. This means we are all under the obligation to become more intentionally conscious, to grow in spiritual competence and to strive to be ethical in our behaviour. Building on the concept of community promoted in an earlier work (Peck 1987) Peck shares his dream of a world in community with a planetary culture of civility. It involves encouraging people to let God into their organisations because ‘we can do it only in co-operation with the grace of God. Any attempt at radical "social engineering" that does not incorporate God, that does not welcome grace and leave vast room for divine intervention, will utterly fail (Peck 1993a: 149)’. Peck’s aim is to help people learn the skills that will enable them to respond to God’s calling to daily civility.

Peck maintains that business is more interested in building community than is the church. This is because the workplace is more the centre of most people’s lives. Next comes the family. Church comes a poor third or fourth. Moreover most church goers do not have the time, inclination or energy to ‘do’ community at church. They want it to be a psuedocommunity - to feel like a happy community without confronting the conflict and chaos involved in real community building. Many of the minority who do invest voluntary time in the church do so out of their own leadership needs and seek to be influential in ways that promote conflict rather than community. This leads Peck to conclude that it is in business and families that the skills to forge a culture of civility will be learned and tested. And businesses are open to investing in community as a standard mode of operation because it is cost-effective (Peck 1993a: 353).

Peck refers to the concept of vocation many times. He speaks of God’s unique vocation for each of us. He also refers to ‘sequential vocations’ as a way of including the changes we go through at different points in our lives. He writes about ‘little’ momentary vocations, when we sense God is prompting us to small acts of civility. For Peck the matter of vocation is multi-dimensional (Peck 1993a: 77). Most vocations are unconscious. We need to become more conscious of the different ways God communicates with us. Finding our vocation usually results in a sense of fit. When people’s work and lifestyles do not fit their vocations there is always a sense of dis-ease. While the fulfillment of a vocation does not guarantee happiness - as in the case of the tortured artist Van Gogh - it does often set the stage for the peace of mind that may result from fulfillment. There is pleasure in witnessing a person doing what she or he was meant to do. Discovering one’s vocation stems from an openness and willingness to venture through a process of uncertainty and doubt as a new sense of self emerges (Peck 1997: 157). It demands the development of a more contemplative lifestyle. It means rediscovering God at work in the world, particularly in the process of restoring civility to ourselves and our institutions.

Peck’s view of vocation is vague and not firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. It is built on anecdotal evidence rather than careful theological or ethical reflection. Although this criticism can also be made of some of the other popular American treatments e.g. Ferguson (1982). However Peck is another part of the attempt to see religion applied with more direct relevance to some of the most pressing needs in society. He expresses a desire to rediscover God at work in a supposedly secular world; to rediscover community in the midst of aggressive individualism; to rediscover civility where social conscience is withering; to rediscover a nourishing spirituality in the midst of tired and formal religiosity. Once again we sense the urgent need for a simple, yet still credible, communication of the Christian vision that will connect theology, ethics and spirituality with everyday concerns. People are searching for reminders of what we have been placed on this earth to be and to do. Peck senses that a rediscovery of vocation is the solution, although his own explanation is inadequate. Relevance alone is not enough. A clearer, compelling and more Christian interpretation of vocation is required.


It is fascinating to see a variety of writers from quite different contexts advocating the resurrection of the concept of vocation. This would seem to signal both some encouragement and some warnings for our endeavour in this study. Encouragement, for clearly there is a hunger abroad for lives to be rooted in some purpose greater than just self-gratification. As the sense of separation between sacred and secular pursuits has grown, and with it the sense of separation between our private and public lives, so has the lack of connection between our faith and our work. This has set up a yearning for a sense of connectedness once more and the reintegration of lives that feel like they are falling apart.

Without a sense of vocation, and being caught up in God’s purposes, we are people adrift on a sea of uncertainty. Many people are expressing a yearning to rediscover the spiritual roots of our existence. But we must also be warned, that this concept of vocation is somewhat slippery. All sorts of meanings can be read into it. We have seen in earlier chapters how it has been both spiritualised and secularised in Christian history. Those two tendencies still remain. This would seem to be particularly true in America where, as a result of the Puritan influence (see Chapter 1.6), the concept of vocation has been more closely wedded to the idea of the American dream and thus can be referred to by writers with the assumption that there is some common understanding. Not that the American writers cited here all agree. But there is a warning here that certain cultural assumptions may be made which do not transplant easily from one context to another. Thus any contemporary reinterpretations of vocation will need to take care to define terms carefully and to root these firmly in the Bible and Christian tradition. The ideas of calling and vocation would seem to be very open to misinterpretation particularly by free marketeers on the one hand and new age gurus on the other.

The work of Bellah, Colson and Wuthnow highlights the difficulty of consistently maintaining a broad view of work. Their discussions tend to major on vocation as employment or occupation. These contributions have helped to clarify some popular American conceptions of the link between vocation, faith and work. Yet at the same time we run the risk of undermining the wider view of work we wish to promote. We seek a re-interpretation of vocation that incorporates this broader conception of work. We have already noted in earlier chapters the struggle that is involved in sustaining such a broad definition of work with consistency.

Another concern, highlighted particularly by the contributions of Fowler and the Whiteheads, is the reminder that we need a view of vocation that will see a person through a variety of different stages of life and faith. Not only because external circumstances change for a person, but also because human development and maturation means different stages of growth involve changes in balancing the different tasks that everyday life involves and changes in the way a person views and understands the meaning of their life and faith. We must recognise the maturing of a vocation. And more work needs to be done on the relationship between vocation, spiritual formation and developmental and life stages. We are also being challenged to develop patterns of church life to prepare people for, and support them in, their public life. We cannot begin talking seriously about the reinterpretation of vocation without also being open to reevaluate the shape of church life in response to the challenges we have become aware of. These more practical and less theological explorations of vocation also remind us that the academic quest for an understanding of vocation must be accompanied by attempts to spell out practical implications. Lee Hardy attempts to do this. He lays some theological foundations, then looks at the process of clarifying the nature of the work we are best equipped to do by discerning our gifts and talents, our passions and concerns. This is combined with a challenge for us to view the world from God’s perspective and discern where the social needs are that call for our involvement. And to investigate how these insights apply to the shaping of human work, to management theory and job design.

Overall, the variety of different perspectives proposed by writers examined in this chapter warn us that clarity in defining vocation, both theoretically and practically, is not easy to attain. And those who attempt to do so need to proceed with care. Nevertheless, the fact that so many have sought to explore this theme from such a variety of different angles does encourage us to think that the doctrine of vocation does represent an integrated understanding of faith and work that is worth pursuing.

Having examined the concept of vocation from historical, theological and practical perspectives, we can now identify some of the important components that are required for people to grow a clear sense of vocation for themselves.

Five particular needs are evident:

  1. A theological framework that connects faith and everyday life. To understand what God is doing and gain a sense that we are participating in something of ultimate significance. An understanding of vocation which imparts purpose to our lives.
  2. Self knowledge. To understand the gifts, abilities, passion and personality that make us unique and help to define the work we are best fitted to do.
  3. Service. To be of service to others, so that our search for significance also makes a worthwhile investment in God’s wider purposes and the lives of other people.
  4. Balance. To establish a balance in our lives that enables us to express our vocation through a mixture of domestic and voluntary work and leisure, as well as employment. To find meaning in the whole of life by understanding the functions that different parts play and how they are harmonised.
  5. Encouragement. To gain support and encouragement from a community of committed companions. This may include family, friends, mentors and faith community.

For a healthy sense of vocation to grow and be sustained a combination of these elements needs to be present.

Many problems related to finding meaning and purpose in our work are the result of the lack of, or confusion about, one or more of the elements above. These often correspond with times of transition and change either forced on people by circumstances or as a natural result of maturing. People in transition often need help to understand what is happening to them and to reformulate their understanding and to readjust their lives. At such times, something like the list above may be useful to help us discern the areas in which a person is most needing assistance.

It is with these needs in mind that we will approach discussion of pastoral implications and resources in Chapter Five.

But before that we include a brief discussion in Chapter Four of some theological connections that we have suggested at a number of points without clarifying. If a theological framework that connects faith and life is to be established then we must be clear about how the daily work of the laity is related to the ministry and mission of the church. Chapter Four seeks to define contemporary Protestant and Catholic understandings of ministry and mission to demonstrate that definitions have been expanding to include the whole church and to embrace the whole of life, including the world of everyday work.