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,