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Reimagining, reversing and reinventing the concept of vocation

Written by Dr Nick Shepherd, Programme Director for Setting God’s People Free

Published on 10 May 2021

Written by Dr Nick Shepherd, Programme Director for Setting God’s People Free

Who was Dave Squires?

Close to London Waterloo Station, where thousands of commuters come and go to their city workplaces each weekday, is a simple mosaic picture the face of a smiling man and the words: 'Dave Squires, 1949 - 2009, much loved street sweeper'. Who was Dave Squires? Why was he loved? Who put the plaque there, and why?

I will leave it between you and Google to find those answers, but seeing this plaque recently got me thinking about the notion of vocation, and how we might need to reinvent this for the age we live in.

For many Christians identifying and living into a sense of vocation is difficult. There are two principal reasons for this:

Firstly, our church culture, especially in the Anglican church, has developed such that the idea of vocation is often reduced to fulfilling a limited set of roles as ministers or clergy. For many Christians, affirmation of a wider sense of calling is limited.

The second issue is that where once there might have been a broader cultural affirmation of vocation as being engaged with certain professions, this too is on the wane – certainly changing at least.

Yet, a sense of vocation, calling even destiny is however something that matters to people, it certainly matters to me.

How, then, might we reinvent vocation for a contemporary age?

An understanding that vocation is for all Christians has been at the heart of all major Christian denominations since the Reformation (and was present before this time as well).

Something has happened over the years that has limited this imagination, such that our 9-5s or portfolio lifestyles are rarely included. This is a common experience across Western denominations – even within the Lutheran or Reformed traditions that have espoused this notion more fulsomely.

The underlying cause of this, in my view, is the dominant secular culture of the west which ‘pushes’ the activity of God into a narrower private world, and makes discussion of God’s activity in our world harder to articulate.

In response, rather than seeking to find ways to reimagine and recount God’s activity, the Church retreats to explain this as ‘ministry’. The upshot being to privilege ministerial roles as the places in which we can truly engage with God’s transforming presence in the world.

We don’t mean to do this. Some reading this will protest that we don’t. Yet I ask you to notice what we talk about, pray about and celebrate in church as a gauge of this?

How do we reinvent vocation?

Reinventing vocation then firstly requires a reimagining of where we expect God to be ‘at work’. This is the premise of our Everyday Faith resources from the Church of England. They invite us to take time to notice how we each ‘find and follow’ God in everyday life.

As church communities these resources also offer seven practices to help put the reality that all Christians are called to serve God’s mission in God’s world at the heart of the life of the church.

This re-imagining is a vital step, but it is not enough in an environment where talk of vocation is declining more broadly.

One option is, of course, to sidestep the term. However, perhaps we can reinvent it in a way that helps people - Christians in particular – to serve us better in our sense of identity with regards to the role of work.

There is some good evidence that the concept of vocation retains a resonance for many people. It still relates to people placing an understanding of their work within a sense of higher purpose or calling, but it is not, unsurprisingly, less likely for this to be in a religious sense.

How to look at the idea of vocation

Vocation seems to serve a personal need to frame a bigger meaning in our work than our daily tasks and management objectives alone.

This is most likely to be seen in roles where such purpose is identifiable – where a clear benefit to society is seen, or an artistic element is involved. But what if you’re a street sweeper, shop assistant or a minute clerk?

Is it possible to transform this role-based notion of vocation and redefine vocation in the light of ‘the call’, or more precisely, the one who calls – God?

Vocation therefore does not relate to our role description, but for the fact that God has called you to serve him within the role you do.

Living out our vocation is an act of obedience to God’s call and not fulfilling any particular role be it priest, banker or street sweeper, per se.

Every job can be a vocation

Usually when I see plaques in London they relate to the good and the great; all fine individuals who have done much for society. It isn’t hard to look at these and find ourselves dreaming of the day we might have such a marker of our own contribution to society. This, however, is not vocation.

There is a strange, almost eschatological realisation in the nature of vocation, in that through the act of worldly service, we participate in the kingdom-building activity of God and not merely the fulfilment of our potential or career goals.

God calls people to all fields of society because God's kingdom pervades all. In this process of obedience, some of us may be known as great and successful, others might by priests or teachers.

However, whatever we do, our vocation is found in the unbridled pursuit of and obedience to the one who calls. So, whichever street he leads us on, we are to pick up our broom and may never know what response obedience to that call will leave, but we will know we are living in the centre of our vocation.

About Dr Nick Shepherd

Dr Nick Shepherd is the Programme Director for Setting God’s People Free.

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