Some Thoughts on Vocation and #2015NetVUE

Today, I am in St. Louis, within spitting distance from the Arch (although it’s so massive that everyone in this city probably feels like they’re within spitting distance), as I await the beginning of the 2015 conference for the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE).  This will be my third NetVUE conference, and I’m particularly excited to be attending this year because Ohio Northern University recently received a two-year $50,000 grant from NetVUE to fund a project called “Creating a Common Language of Vocation at ONU.”  This grant will allow us to have some meaningful conversations (the first of which is actually taking place back on campus today) about the concept of vocation, or “calling” in the context of our teaching and learning environment.  When I was writing our grant proposal, I spoke with many people on our campus about vocation, and I found that while many people were interested in helping students explore their calling or purpose in life, none of the people who were doing so were talking to each other.  Life on a university campus can get hectic, and we so often go into our own silos when we are working, particularly if we feel that we might be the only ones talking about a particular topic.  With vocation, I’ve discovered that people on our campus are all generally talking about the same thing, but we’re using different “dialects” particular to our areas of expertise, so it only seems like we’re speaking different languages.  In the same way that the U.S. and the U.K. are “two nations divided by a common language,” university campuses can become divided when we don’t recognize the common themes within our discourse, research interests, and pedagogy.

Vocation is a word that is inherently theological in nature.  It stems from the Latin word vocare, meaning to speak or to call.  For many Christians, vocation is often expressed in terms of a call from God.  Others might define the vocational call as a call from within–no less spiritual, and no less powerful, but differing in the sense of the source.  Still others might feel a call from the communities from which they originate–a call to become a doctor or a pharmacist, for example, that comes from a community struggling to access adequate health care.  Some  might reject the idea of a “call” altogether, and opt instead for the terms purpose, mission, or duty.  I believe that all of these express vocation in its broadest and deepest sense.  Vocation is about asking the big questions:  Why am I here?  What use am I to the world?  Where am I going?  If a student knows that she wants to be a pharmacist, and feels deep down within herself that this is true for her, that’s great.  A conversation about vocation might begin with someone asking her “Why do you feel that?  What’s the source of your assurance that you want to be a pharmacist?  What do you want to do to make a difference with your chosen career?”

Some of the readings for this conference have challenged me to think about the crucial role of university faculty in the process of vocational discernment.  While I as the Chaplain have the opportunity to speak with and counsel many students in the course of my work, members of the faculty reach many more students than I will ever be able to engage.  In his paper titled, “Purpose, Provender, and Promises: Church-Related Colleges in a Secular Age,” Richard Ray wrote, “Professors wouldn’t expect to be of much use to their students in helping them develop a lively imagination–much less a vocation–for their particular academic disciplines unless they themselves were deeply engaged in continuous learning in their respective fields.  So too with the spiritual formation of their students.”  I have encountered a few professors who take an active interest in their students’ spiritual development, and are adept at encouraging that development while not forcing their own religious or spiritual perspective on the students.  I have also met many faculty who are wary of delving into the spiritual development of their students, mostly because they feel wholly unqualified for the task.  “That’s your work,” is the response I often get when I ask professors if they ever provide spiritual guidance or counsel to their students.  My answer to that is that yes, spiritual development is my primary area of work with students, but that student in that particular moment has come to you–not for a referral to my office (which most of them ignore, by the way), but for real wisdom and guidance from a person whom they respect.  Faculty members embrace their vocation as professors when they are able to profess–or at least be attentive enough to their own inner development that they are able to provide some guidance when students approach them with spiritual questions.

So, this conference hasn’t even begun yet, and I’ve already had a profound change in my sense of direction for our project at the university.  I hope that our project will be able to help faculty members develop their own inner/spiritual lives enough that they might be able to help their students answer the big questions of life–or at least be able to help them ask the big questions.  That may be enough of a victory; and that’s a topic for another blog post on another day.

May you grow into the sense of your own call in life,


“You Do You” (Thoughts on Becoming and Believing In Ourselves)

It’s been a whirlwind of activity lately, both on and off campus.  Last week was spring break, so I got to spend the week with 29 of my best friends in Davidson, North Carolina, on a Habitat for Humanity work trip.  We were able to help Our Towns Habitat for Humanity do about a month and a half’s worth of work in just five days, and we made some great friendships and personal connections along the way.

On a trip like the one I went on last week, I often take a behind the scenes role. I see it as the students’ trip, so I try to let them step forward and have the experience of helping out.  I pitch in when an extra hand is needed, but I have the belief that I should never deny a student the opportunity to learn and grow by doing something that they could be doing.  As a result, I spent much of the week going around the job site reminding people to drink water and take breaks.  When we are in our 20s, we tend to forget that our bodies are not indestructible, so breaks and water are often neglected.  I’m proud to say that not one person passed out from dehydration last week!  I also had fun walking around with a big strong magnet on a stick, picking up nails that had fallen all over the ground.  My motto all week was “saving your toes, one nail at a time.”  While doing both of these tasks, I got to talk with each of the students, and often our joking and checking in with one another led to some serious discussions.

One of the most common discussions that I have with students is about what I call “Becoming and Believing in Ourselves.”

The first part, “Becoming,” is all about figuring out who we are.  The period of life called emerging adulthood (roughly the years between 18 and 25) is a time of tremendous personal, psychological, social, and spiritual growth.  Students come to college with a lot of questions, many of which are rooted in their growing sense of personal identity.

“Who am I?”

“What’s my purpose?”

“What does the future hold?”

These questions, and questions like them, offer students an opportunity to make choices, and those choices lead to a greater understanding of their truest selves.  In my conversations with students, I am often struck by how serious these questions are for them.  I sometimes forget how much such questions troubled me when I was their age, and I’m thankful for the reminder to never stop asking questions of myself.

Becoming is, in one sense, the easy part.  Becoming happens almost without us thinking about it.  Whether we are conscious of it or not, our bodies, minds, and spirits are developing (for good or bad), each day that we live on this earth.  Believing in ourselves is a different story.

So many of the young people I encounter every day are struggling with believing in themselves.  Because they may not be sure of the answers to all of the questions above, they may feel that they haven’t “arrived” yet, or that they are inadequate to the task of facing the world as an adult.  Or, they may have a false sense of belief in themselves, accepting a self image that is distorted, and doesn’t reflect their true self.  Athletes who put a disproportionate amount of faith in their ability to make it through the world based on their strength and endurance, or students who have chosen a major based on a belief that it will make them a lot of money in the future are just two examples of this overconfidence.  Confidence isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it can be destructive when it is inflated, and doesn’t reflect the person that God has called you to be.

Both of these tasks, Becoming and Believing in Ourselves, are of critical importance during this life stage.  It is the job of mentors, chaplains, parents, professors, and other caring adults to help emerging adults navigate these waters.  With a guide who has “been there and done that,” the pitfalls of this life stage can more easily be explored.  Not that it will be all sunshine and roses, but it will certainly be better than without a guiding friend.

Accomplishing a task like helping to build a house goes a long way in helping students Become and Believe in themselves.  I’m always amazed by the students who go on a work trip with little to no knowledge of construction–some of them have literally never even used a hammer before!–who suddenly become experts in using saws, hammers and nails, and many other tools.  To see a young woman who has always believed that she’s “too girly” to do manual labor transform into a confident hammering pro (complete with muddy jeans and sawdust-covered hair) is a wonderful thing.  To watch as a young man suddenly grasps the concept of being able to walk on a roof after being afraid of heights all his life is a joy to behold.  Building homes also builds lives, both for the homeowners of Habitat, and for the students who volunteer their hands and their hearts to the job.

So, every year before I go on a work trip, I say to myself (and my long-suffering wife), “I think that next year I may not go on a work trip.”  Then, at the end of every trip, I come home and say, “Forget what I said, I’ll be going again next year.”  It’s not because I enjoy bugging people about resting and drinking water, or that picking up nails is that vital a task to be completed on the job site.  What I really get out of these trips is the feeling that I have done something useful, helping my small group of emerging adults make it through this time of their lives, as they both Become and Believe in themselves–one nail at a time.