Quaker Query: Have you found your vocation?

Once a week, I’d like to challenge you all with a Quaker-inspired query that should be applicable to any person leading an alternately introspective yet socially-engaged life. Here’s the query for this week. I’ll do my best to answer it for myself, and encourage you to share your response.

Have you found your vocation?

I love the Christian/Quaker/Catholic concept of vocation. I think the secular usage, denoting a career or profession, prevails, but here’s the first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary:

The action on the part of God of calling a person to exercise some special function, especially of a spiritual nature, or to fill a certain position; divine influence or guidance towards a definite (esp. religious) career; the fact of being so called or directed towards a special work in life; natural tendency to, or fitness for, such work.

In spite of my atheism, I find that calling and vocation still apply to me. Throughout my transition from agnosticism to Mormonism to atheistic Quakerism, I have always felt driven to a life of service (though I did spend one hateful year in an MBA program before I dropped out). I thrive when I’m empowering and enlightening others, and I sink into malaise and depression when I’m engaged in merely making ends meet as a cog in the great corporate machine.

It’s taken me years to realize to think of myself foremost as a teacher and writer. Looking back, I see the ebullience I felt when: training new missionaries in Japan or programmers in my IT department; lecturing undergrads on comparative politics at the University of Utah; leading discussion in Elder’s Quorum for years (LDS men’s Sunday school); teaching religion, ritual and feminism in class, at Sunstone or on this blog; sharing insights about space, the environment, or animal behavior with my children. I’ve placed in all three of the contests I’ve submitted essays and stories to, and every piece has been about religion. I feel compelled to learn, to talk, to teach and to write about religion.

So have I found my vocation in life? I believe that I have. I am called to teach and write about religion. I’m still not sure how this will ultimately manifest itself–as a professor in a religious studies department? As a religion journalist? As an author a la Chaim Potok or Karen Armstrong? All of the above? I can tell you this much for certain: My gifts are with words, and my obsession is religion. I am doing all that I can to prepare myself to best use these for the benefit of humanity. And I feel completely alive–on fire–when I am following my vocation.


  1. Hmmm….you are right, you have found your vocation! 🙂

    On Thursday our family was at a friend’s parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner. As everyone was eating dessert John brought up the subject of religion and there was a sort of stiffening or reluctance to disucssing up what might be a heated topic (our friend’s leaving the Catholic church is still raw for her mother). But John worked his magic and soon had everyone in the room talking deeply about their natal faith and how, in growing up, they left or stayed with it. Then a vigorous discussion of Quakerism and atheism ensued and the evening ended with an extanded chat with about how to incorporate one’s beliefs into one’s work (meaning one’s job). Wow, what a lovely experience to see the conversation move from superficial chitchat to something precious and memorable.

    What a gift you have, John!

  2. John! I just barely wrote a post on this subject this weekend and sent it off to John Dehlin to be posted on The Cultural Hall on Wednesday. I hadn’t read this post yet, but I was impressed by what you said earlier about feeling a vocation or calling to minister to those who don’t fit in. The universe must be conspiring to have people think more about their special gifts and how they can put them to use.

    My obsession also has to do with spirituality, though I haven’t yet integrated it into a vocation. I love interacting with youth–my favorite calling in the Church was Seminary teacher–so I feel somewhat called to a youth ministry of some sort. I don’t know if I’ll ever get my own mess straightened out enough to be of much help to others.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Bored: yey, the Universe doth conspire! My husband and I were discussing this just the other night: each of us wants to do “something” that we’re not currently but are unsure if we (a) have the ability to or (b) could end up making money doing it. As for your definition, John, of “vocation” I would argue that a natural tendency or fitness for a particular act in no way implies a vocation. One must also want and enjoy said act. (All my sisters are built for cross-country running but only three of them actually like it; my cousin is built for basketball but would rather play volleyball; I have a natural understanding of physics but hate partaking thereof.)

    I don’t think I’ve found my vocation. There are things I like doing (cooking, sewing) but I don’t necessarily want to start being paid for those things. Geese and pumpkin pies aside, I don’t really want to be a chef. Familiarity breeds and all that.

    In my most recent job, I found that I took to corporate life much the way that I took to skiing and shooting: like a duck to water. I enjoy it, I understand it, and I am good at it. The question becomes, what corporation should I end up in since in all other aspects of my life I am anti-corporation (I subscribe to Ad Busters, for example…). I’ll let y’all know when I find my vocation…if I find it 😉

  4. John

    Bored, I’m looking forward to your post! I know that things are tough for you right now, but I hope you hold on to your spiritual/vocation aspirations–you may be surprised at what opportunities may spring up in the future.

    Miko, I dwelt too much on the “what I’m good at” and not enough on the passion. I don’t want to discount the former–I think that there we do have to consider our “gifts,” but I agree that the wanting is important too.

    In my case, I’m beyond mere desire–I’m pathological in my compulsion. 😛

    Nee, maybe someone can make use one of those webular custom (de)motivational generators and create one for vocation…

  5. Actually, Friends (Quakers) rejected the Catholic concept of “vocatio” (Latin) = “vocation” or “calling” (English), because the term implied that such a calling was life-long. Friends were (and are) interested in moment-by-moment faithfulness to the Spirit, not in life-long appointments. So in place of the traditional ideal of “vocation”, they introduced the idea of a “leading” or “drawing”.

    The basic idea here was that the Spirit might “lead” or “draw” you to do something for a time, but then, after a time, the task you were led or drawn to would be completed — or you would feel that the leading or drawing had been withdrawn — and then you’d go back to ordinary life.

    Thus, no Friend had a “vocation” for the ministry the way Catholics and Protestants did. Instead, a Friend would simply feel “led” or “drawn” to rise and speak in the ministry on a particular occasion or for the duration of a particular journey.

    Indeed, some Friends would feel led to rise and speak on on one occasion after another, and on one journey after another, for years at a stretch, and if the content of her speaking showed to her listeners that her leadings were genuine, her meeting might record her as a minister in its minutes, and appoint her to its Committee of Ministers and Elders. But then one day the Friend would feel herself “released from the leading”, able to go back to just sitting quietly in meetings for worship, and would report her sense of being released to her meeting. And then the meeting would take her name off its list of recorded ministers.

    The effect of all this was to de-professionalize the Society of Friends. Some have said that was a good thing, others have said it was a bad one. But good or bad, it has remained, for three and a half centuries, one of the most significant “Quaker distinctives” (i.e., things distinguishing Friends from other Christians).

  6. John

    Marshall, thanks for the clarification. I guess I should’ve more clearly defined my idea of vocation. I’m thinking less of the traditional concept of a lifelong Church calling (say, to the ministry in Protestant Christianity, or to a Catholic order) and have a much more expansive notion. I want to keep the spiritual and divinely compelled elements, while shedding the religious/institutional aspects.

    The concept of vocation is still current with some Quakers. This query is inspired by the queries in the Stewardship and Vocation section of the Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice. It’s unclear how much vocation refers to a career/employment or to something more spiritually inclined. We certainly have radically redefined it from the original usage.

    Another source that greatly influenced my concept of vocation is Parker J. Palmer (a prominent Quaker author, for those who haven’t heard of him). He has a book out called Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation in which he goes hear to head with the concept of vocation.

  7. Hi, John!

    Your response gave me a chuckle. I guess I am not much surprised that Pacific Yearly Meeting would take up the secular world’s use of the term “vocation”. Pacific is a relatively young yearly meeting, without much rootedness in the way Quakerism was before the twentieth century.

    Parker Palmer’s public identity is as much that of a professional educator, as it is that of a Friend. And of course educators are always talking about “vocations”, as in the term “vocational education”. So his use of the term “vocation”, likewise, doesn’t much surprise me.

    I’m sure you have already figured out that when I wrote of Friends’ rejection of the term “vocation”, I was talking about a historic rejection — that is, of a rejection that happened back in the seventeenth century, and lingered on into the twentieth. Like a great deal else about early Quakerism, it is getting forgotten now.

  8. John

    Marshall, obviously we feel differently about the use of the word ‘vocation,’ but this all distracts from the underlying concept of the query posed above. I’d love to hear about your experiences of being led by the spirit into serving humanity.

    Here’s my story: Ten years ago I was inspired to work with the hearing-impaired, and I failed to follow that leading. In fact, I rejected it, and instead succumbed to societal pressures to make money. I regret making that choice. After years of trudging along, it is wonderful to feel the call to serve others. And I realize that this may not be lifelong, that I may be moved in another direction in the future. But for now, it feels exhilarating to be on the right path.

  9. nee: agreed, preview function would help me remember to close all my tags :-p

    Marshall: I like that idea of a vocation. I definately think that the years I spent in my old job, while I didn’t especially like the job itself, were valuable in many ways and I would certainly do it no differently if I had it to do over again. I don’t know if I was “called” to that work, but in the sense that I was lead down that road, walked it for a while, and then found an off-ramp, it was certainly a short-term-vocation.

  10. I feel that I was called to work the disabled and disadvantaged. I could not have been happier pushing a young kid named Marcus in a Halloween Parade. It was perhaps one of the most spiritual experiences that I have ever had.

  11. I honestly can’t say I’ve found my vocation. I have a job that teaches me a lot and pays the bills plus a little more, so although I come home from work frustrated most days and burnt out by the end of the week, I have to remember that the bigger picture is my husband and I wanting to spend some time living near his family. (Since that is Southern CA, the paycheck is very much needed….)

    My dad – in a combination of being blessed and working hard – was able to find a profession that was also his vocation/calling. He loves his work, which mostly involves working with and helping others. I hope I can do the same someday.

    John, I think teaching may be in my future, too. I spent high school teaching swimming lessons and college teaching violin lessons and loved it. I have a big heart for community colleges – kids who aren’t getting into USC but are talented and hard-working and passionate and following the path to a great life but at a smaller school. I graduated from a smaller community school and not only got a great education but met incredible people and made some good networking contacts.

    Alas, I digress again in my response. The point I was trying to get at is I hope to find discover my vocation/calling in life someday. Good thing I am still very very young. 🙂

  12. Hi, John!

    You write, “Id love to hear about your experiences of being led by the spirit into serving humanity.” You can actually read at length about one of the odder ones — my leading to walk across the country last summer, from my home in Nebraska to Baltimore Yearly Meeting in Virginia — in my Earthwitness Journal: I blogged the whole experience from mid-April on.

    You might want to start at the beginning, with this posting, but to read it the entire account would be a pretty big project. So if your time is short, you might prefer just to read the address to Baltimore Yearly Meeting that came out of it. Or you might even want to just look briefly at my final posting on the journey, “Lessons Learned”.

    For my struggles to practice faithfulness to the Guide in my current workplace (selling men’s clothing at a department store), you could read this journal entry.

    I know this is a rather overwhelming response, and I apologize for that. But I do a lot of writing, and my religious practice organizes my whole life.

  13. John, FYI – there is a great AJAX comment preview plugin for wordpress installs – you can find it here. I just got it installed and working perfectly on my wordpress site.

  14. John

    Marshall, your pilgrimage is an inspiration! I read several posts from the middle, and look forward to working my way through, front to back. I hope to learn a few things along the way. 🙂

    Thanks, nee and Jonathan for the feedback. I’m going to get this thing installed, as soon as I can find a bit of breathing room. *whew!*

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