Lilly's "Theological Exploration of Vocation"
by Richard W. Rouse (March / April 2004 — Volume 20, Number 2)
Martin Luther believed that the vocation of a Christian was to serve God and the neighbor through the use of one's unique gifts.1 The tradition of Lutheran higher education embraces this belief. For example, the shorthand mission statement at Pacific Lutheran University, where I work, is "educating for lives of service."
Recently, the Lilly Endowment has enabled several of our Lutheran colleges and universities to explore the theme of vocation in greater depth. They are providing generous grants, averaging about $2 million per institution, through a funding program called "Theological Exploration of Vocation."2 Ten percent of the 88 institutions of higher learning in this nation selected for funding were Lutheran, including Augsburg College, Augustana College (Rock Island), Concordia College (Moorhead), Gustavus Adolphus, Luther College, Pacific Lutheran University, St. Olaf College, Wartburg College, and Valparaiso University.
What motivated the Lilly Endowment to support such a program was its observation that contemporary Americans tend to focus too narrowly on their careers and matters of individual concerns and too little on needs of church and community. The Endowment proposed to help colleges try to design programs that would encourage students to reflect more deeply on their "vocations" in a more holistic way.
Vocation is seen as encompassing the whole of a person's life, including but not limited to parenting, political involvement, and community service, as well as a job or career. A primary goal of this grant program is to encourage the development of a new generation of talented, creative, and committed lay and church leaders.3
The Lilly-sponsored vocation program has taken many different forms at our Lutheran schools. For example, Augsburg College's "Exploring Our Gifts" program offers opportunities for all Augsburg students, alumni, and faculty and staff to discover their own callings and to assist others in their vocational exploration.4 Concordia's "Call to Serve" project includes 28 programs: half of them have an on-campus focus that are curricular or deal with faculty/staff development; the remaining half are off-campus programs with local congregations.5
Pacific Lutheran University's approach to this vocation program focuses on the Wild Hope Project led by Professors Paul Menzel and Patricia Killen. Wild Hope invites students to ask, "What will you do with your one wild and precious life?"6 — "wild" because so much is possible and unpredictable and the complexities of the world are so great; and "precious" because the life of each individual student vitally matters and is full of promise.
The Wild Hope Project is a $2 million wager that improving the quality of reflection on vocation — including its meaning and purpose — will contribute to PLU's being a more intellectually rigorous, developmentally astute, theologically rich, and world-informed environment for its students. It's a hope that the school will be a place that helps students become the creative leaders the world needs.
Wild Hope will accomplish its goals through an array of initiatives from 2003 through 2007 that: (1) challenge all in the university to grapple with vocation in an intellectually rich and world-engaging way; (2) nurture students to appropriately claim meaning and purpose for their lives; and (3) cultivate faculty and staff to become more reflective, to acquire greater competence in facilitating reflection as appropriate in their areas, and to discover the resources of the university's Lutheran heritage for this task.
There are indeed high hopes that this emphasis on vocation on our Lutheran campuses will significantly influence the way students, faculty, and staff understand their calling and their place in the world. It has the potential of transforming our churches and our culture by unleashing individuals into our communities who live and work with deep passion and a greater sense of purpose.
- Hans Schwarz, True Faith in the True God: An Introduction to Luther's Life and Thought (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1996), pp. 134-141.
- For more information, go to: www.thefund.org/programs/programs
- Adapted from Gustavus Adolphus College Lilly Endowment Grant News Release (October 30, 2000).
- See http://www.augsburg.edu/lilly/programs.html for more information.
- Check out www4.cord.edu/lillygrant for further information.
- Sharon Daloz Parks, paraphrasing the last line of Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day," a poem in the collection House of Light (Beacon Press, 1990), p. 60.
What's God Up To, an online course on vocation for college-age and post-college-age adults, is now available through Luther Seminary and Fishers Net. It was developed by the ELCA's Western Mission Network which is composed of the ELCA colleges, seminaries, continuing education centers, and Lutheran campus ministry sites located in Regions 1, 2, and 3. For more information, visit http: store.yahoo.com/fishersnet/whgoduptosiu.html
Richard W. Rouse is executive director for Church Relations and Continuing Theological Education at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, and advisory member to the Lilly Vocation Planning Team for the Wild Hope Project.