Vocation Rhetoric – Part 3: Career Satisfaction vs. Satisfying Your Vocational Call

I came across a really helpful visual on Michael Hyatt’s blog today. His post this morning addressed the issue of job satisfaction, and he laid out an argument for why job satisfaction (for Christians and non-Christians) occurs at the intersection of three vital components: passion, competence and marketplace value. Here’s the visual he used in his post:

Hyatt (former Thomas Nelson Chairman and CEO, bestselling author, and leadership consultant) focusses his mission and his writing on helping individuals become successful leaders in their chosen occupations. From what I know and have observed from his writing, he seems to have a keen understanding of effective leadership within the marketplace.

I share his diagram here, not because I disagree with it or his principles, but because it helps to illustrate the distinction I have been arguing for between “occupation” and “vocation.” As Hyatt illustrates, “career satisfaction” (occupational fulfillment) requires one component that fulfilling a vocational call does not — marketplace value.  Sometimes our vocational callings as Christians may benefit the marketplace, but they certainly exist irrespective of the marketplace. Hopefully this visual helps clarify the distinction I have been getting at in earlier posts on vocation rhetoric (parts 1 & 2).

I have one more post planned for this series on vocation, and then we will move on. Here’s a teaser…the last part on vocation rhetoric has to do with gender diversity in the workplace and how the growing number of women in the marketplace have the opportunity to help shift our cultural focus from a occupation-centric paradigm to a vocation-centric one.

Vocation Rhetoric – Part 2: What is Vocation?

In the last post I argued that Christians within our American culture seem to view the work we do as individuals through an occupation-centric paradigm. To re-cap, I think that we tend to put emphasis on the work that people get paid for — the occupations/careers that make up the socio-economic system of the country and culture in which we live. As a bi-product, I think we have lost sight of the significance of vocation-minded work, especially if it is unpaid or does not fit into our economic framework for how individuals contribute to society. We do not talk about “vocation” or distinguish it from one’s occupation. In fact, I would argue that most American Christians use the words synonymously, if the word “vocation” is even part of their vocabularies.

We need to reignite an understanding of what vocation is and why it is so much more fundamental to our purpose as followers of Christ than our chosen occupations. To do this we need to first examine definitions and basic etymology.

I have to acknowledge that cultural use of these terms over the centuries has contributed significantly to a vague etymology, but examining dictionary origins of vocation and occupation highlight stark distinctions. The root meaning of the word “vocation” is “a call or summons.” In many cases it has been used to describe a divine call to a specific course of action or religious lifestyle. The term “occupation” carries more of a utilitarian function in describing the “means of earning a living.” In short, occupation describes and categorizes an individual according to that person’s function within society; vocation goes much deeper to philosophically orient an individual’s meaning and purpose according to an overarching worldview. For Christians, an understanding of vocation comes from viewing our meaning and purpose in the world as citizens of the Kingdom of God first and foremost.

But here’s where things have gotten off track. Contemporary Christians, particularly younger protestants, have rarely (perhaps never) been discipled to have a vocational understanding of their place in the world. They have, however, been counseled extensively on bringing their Christian values into the marketplace. There is plenty of emphasis on bringing your Christian values into your chosen occupations, into the economic societal framework. While Christian values and ethics may positively impact marketplace occupations, it is imbalanced to emphasize occupational work as the most significant work a Christian does within the framework of living out the gospel.

One of the main reasons I see emphasizing occupation as problematic is that we tend to compartmentalize personally “living out the gospel” in the context of our chosen career or occupation. In other words, we fit “Christian work” in the already set framework of our career. The outcome, in may occupations, results in basic workplace ethics — the golden rule, honesty and ethical business dealings in general.

But what about the work of the gospel that doesn’t fit into an occupational framework? I fear we lose sight of it quickly. For example, in what occupations is a framework already in place for “caring for widows and orphans” (James 1:27)? In what career setting would the Good Samaritan’s actions on the road to Jericho be part of a normal workday at the office? When we emphasize occupational work (which can be good in and of itself) above our vocational calling as Christians, I believe we mostly lose sight of the kind of work Christ cares most about. I believe we can easily compartmentalize the gospel and make living it out adaptable to our already comfortable lives. We need to recapture — as American Christians — our vocational call. But what is it?

I was recently with Catholic friends of mine at one of their family gatherings in celebration of their son’s First Communion. I overheard a conversation between my friend and his younger brother, and judging from the conversation I would say that this family had a strong sense of a vocational narrative that they grew up with in their Christian culture. My friend said to his brother (who was in college and trying to determine the direction of his life), “You just need to hear from God on your vocational call.” What he meant by that was that his brother (within the Catholic culture) had two vocational trajectories from which to choose: (1) the celibate life of a priest, devoted to living out the gospel in that form of service, or (2) the life of a husband and father, devoted to advancing the Kingdom of God through a faithful marriage and raising children to serve the Lord as well. His brother’s occupation, whatever he may choose (and whatever work comes with it), was second in importance to the work that is part of fulfilling that vocational call.

Obviously, the distinction between those two trajectories would be different in Protestant cultures. However, having a vocational narrative that young people grow up familiar with is vital to every Christian culture. I believe that Christians currently have a view of work and an emphasis on occupation that is not much different than that of most non-Christians. There is little emphasis on a vocational call to live out the gospel. We have to reignite that narrative so that Christian youth preparing for college and life as adults have no confusion about what their vocational call is as believers.

Vocation Rhetoric – Part 1: “What do you DO?”

Over the past couple of months I have been thinking a great deal about how our American view of vocation has been rhetorically symbolized, particularly within Christian communities. I believe that the topic is multi-faceted, and I see our rhetoric (or lack thereof) concerning vocation to be largely socially constructed. Therefore, one blog post isn’t going to scratch the surface, and I think it would be helpful to take a step-by-step look at the various factors that have contributed to the rhetorical symbolization of vocation. So the next few blog posts will be dedicated to the subject.

To start, I  think we need to consider two questions: (1) What is the difference between occupation and vocation? (2) How has a cultural emphasis on occupation impacted our view of vocation?

We have all been at the party, cook-out, wedding, or any other social event where we had occasion to be introduced to someone new. Just about the first question out of the gate — from either person — is: “What do you do?” The question is targeted at uncovering an occupation, for the harmless purpose of getting to know someone or perhaps just making small talk. But doesn’t it always seem more significant than that? “What do you DO?” The question carries a great amount of rhetorical weight, because hopefully the answer will reveal something significant, meaningful, and maybe even impressive.

However, that is not the only (or most important) reason for the question’s rhetorical significance in our American society. The question is significant because the “doing” refers to one’s occupation, one’s paid work or career, not one’s vocation. In our culture today, vocation is not a term we often hear discussed or described. Occupation, however, has been symbolized (in our everyday language) as the main descriptive of who we are as individuals and what gives our lives meaning in society. I believe that this rhetorical symbolism that has elevated “occupation”  and de-emphasized “vocation” has been detrimental to American society and the Christian community for a couple of reasons. First, it gives primary meaning and worth to work that is compensated monetarily. Second, and by extension, the worth of someone’s work is determined by the specific time and place in which an individual was born. If one’s occupation determines the primary meaning of one’s live, then one’s life is only  significantly meaningful within the specific time and place in history in which that occupation is relevant.

One’s primary life meaning (“calling” — as Christians commonly say) must involve much more than one’s occupation; it is a vocational perspective that determines life’s larger meaning and purpose. However, I do not perceive many Americans (Christians included) approaching daily life from a vocational perspective. I think that Christians have actually adopted an occupation-centric cultural narrative, and I think that the Church has, in some significant ways, been co-opted by that narrative. We need to shift our perspective.

A shift in paradigms from an occupation-centric narrative to a vocation-centric narrative requires the understanding that one’s vocational orientation is primarily philosophical. It is rooted in, and constructed by, one’s presuppositions about the world and one’s place in the world. In a pluralistic society, then, we will see a variety of different interpretations of vocation. Some even lead to an occupation-centric narrative, if one views an individual’s ultimate significance in the world to be based on that person’s contribution within the marketplace or economy.

I think the next step for us should be to take a look at what the term “vocation” actually means and how one’s vocational perspective is formed. I will attempt to tackle these elements in Part 2. In the mean time…your comments, please!