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,

David

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Breaking Up? (Some Thoughts on Schism)

Imagine with me, if you will, a scene from the Chaplain’s office:

A young couple walks into my office, and I can immediately tell that there is trouble—you can cut the tension in the air with the proverbial knife.  I ask them to sit down, and as they do so, I think I catch a glimpse of one of the two glaring at the other.  Perhaps I imagine it, or perhaps it is a reminder from one to another of some prior slight, or an argument that had taken place earlier in the morning. 

“What’s up?” I ask.  (This is my usual opening line in such situations—it allows the other a chance to define the topic of conversation, even when I know exactly why they are in my office.)

“You tell him,” one says.  “You’re the one who dragged me in here.”  (I can tell already that this is going to be a fun session!)

“We’re having some problems,” the other says.  “We’ve been fighting pretty much since we got together, and it just seems to get worse.  We pick up on the little, irritating things, but also on the bigger issues.  We don’t seem to agree on much, and even when we do agree, we fight over how to express it.  Sometimes, we realize that we’re saying the same thing, but using different language or worse yet, we’ll use the same language, but each of us has a different meaning for the words!  It’s hopeless, isn’t it?”

(Well, that’s a loaded question, if I’ve ever heard one!  They seem to both be sure that there is no saving this relationship, no matter what I have to say.  To be honest, I’ve been wondering for some time now why they’re still together, and I’m not really surprised that it’s come to this.)

“Well, is that an accurate portrayal of what’s going on?” I ask the one who has been quiet so far, who doesn’t seem to want to be here at all.”

“Yeah, I guess so.  We just don’t seem to understand each other, you know?  I try, but I don’t think I’m ever heard.  I have needs and issues that I want to discuss, but I’m never allowed to speak my mind…”

“That’s not true!” says the other.  “I always give you a chance to speak!  I just feel like I need to let you know when you’ve done or said something wrong!  I do it to make you a better person, you know.”

As I lean over to get my mug of tea, which I prepared beforehand, knowing this would be a long session, I realize that the issues being discussed by these two are not going to be solved in one session with the Chaplain.  Neither of these two will be able to reach a point where they can feel genuine love toward the other again unless we address some of the underlying issues that each brings to the relationship.  And of course, there is the issue of whether or not staying in this relationship is the best course for either of them, or for the potential children they may have down the road. 

If you are a pastor, a counselor, or a concerned friend or parent, you might recognize a situation like the one I’ve just described.  It is not uncommon for people who love one another very deeply to find themselves at a place where they just can’t communicate anymore, and the relationship just isn’t working out like they thought it would.  All of us probably have a few words of advice for this couple, and would be willing to offer it, especially if it was a couple whom we knew and loved personally.

What if I told you that this couple is really a representation of The United Methodist Church?

Those of us who know and love that venerable movement of “the people called Methodist” are increasingly frustrated and fearful as we hear more of our colleagues, friends, and family talk about the possibility of schism within the denomination.  Issues such as abortion and homosexuality (but mostly homosexuality) have long divided our dear church.  In many ways, the problems we have as a denomination are very much like those of the couple described above, and they go back to the very foundations of our young fellowship, which turned 46 this April.  Like the couple in my scenario above, we will not be able to move on or thrive as a covenantal community unless we begin to get at the underlying issues within our various factions and cliques.  Only by re-discovering our love for one another, which is based on the love of God through Jesus Christ, will we be able to truly mend our brokenness and repair the breach that exists across political and ecclesiastical lines. 

As a concerned member of The United Methodist Church, as an ordained elder, and as a person serving as an extension of the church into the world of academia, I offer a few thoughts about all the talk around schism.  I pray that they may be one small part of the greater movement to plot a bold new direction for our church in the future, as we make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As I see it, our problems are four-fold:  First, we need to deal with the issues that are unresolved from our founding as a denomination in 1968.  Second, we need to examine our spiritual health.  Third, we must grapple with what it means to be connectional in the global church of the 21st century.  Finally, we as a denomination and as a movement need to reinterpret our Wesleyan heritage and theology so that both are relevant for ministry in Methodism’s third century.  Over the next several blog posts, I plan to address each of these issues in turn, and I encourage those of you who read this blog to post your comments (respect all opinions, but be clear of where you stand), and interact as I propose a way forward. 

Consider it a group spiritual direction session for a troubled church.  Come on into the office, grab a mug, and let’s chat. What’s up?