Vocation: Using A Useful Doctrine
by Stanley N. Olson (March / April 2004 — Volume 20, Number 2)
I talked recently with an ELCA college president and commented that our colleges and universities are seeking to strengthen ties with the church. He responded, “Of course, but it’s not just about connections. The colleges see that Lutheran doctrine has great value for their own work.” He named the concept of Christian vocation as a prime example of this usefulness. It opens windows on meaning and purpose for students and educators.
In many settings, Lutherans are showing renewed enthusiasm for the pragmatic value of Martin Luther’s insights into the callings of every Christian. These are useful truths. People recognize opportunities, make plans, and even face hardships more effectively and faithfully when they realize that God is calling them to service in that situation.
|Congregations can use the concept of vocation to affirm and support people as they explore Christ's purpose in their own lives and make practical plans, week after week, for serving the world.|
The ministry in daily life movement is strong and growing in the ELCA. When the gracious call of God to witness and to service is proclaimed, people get it. Christian life makes more sense with this insight — for rostered leaders and for all God’s people.
The doctrine of Christian vocation explicates our primary daily roles. If you are a pastor, deaconess, associate in ministry, or diaconal minister, you routinely acknowledge that you are called. An assembled part of the church took action to assert its confidence that God called you to a particular place of service. Our grammar points to the Christian meaning of a called identity: Keisha is a deaconess. Louise is a pastor. Craig is a diaconal minister. Jim is an associate in ministry.
A recognition of vocation is similarly useful for every Christian. Most have a primary role accepted from God for the good of the whole. Again, note the grammar: Jeff is a farmer. Jose is a professor. Andy is a regular hospice volunteer. Tu is a full time parent. Martha is a police officer. Seth is retired. An understanding of vocation allows these people to know that God calls them to these roles. These callings are their prime places for giving public definition to what it means to be Christian. There is affirmation and satisfaction in knowing one is called by God to the work that fills one’s days.
The concept of vocation is useful when we consider the church as steward and proclaimer of truth. At ordination, consecration or commissioning, and at each installation to a ministerial office, pastors and rostered lay leaders commit themselves to fulfill their public ministries in accordance with Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. These are our standards of truth, but this commitment is not about getting the words right for the words’ sake. Rather, the commitment acknowledges that one is called to know and speak the truth for the sake of God’s people.
Scripture and Confessions have a precisely parallel function for all Christians, rostered and not rostered. Every Christian is called to know the truth, not for the sake of knowledge but because true understanding and true speech serve God’s purposes. Each Christian is called to reflect on life through faith’s normative historical expressions so that his or her words and work will be toward the heart of (“in accordance with”) God’s work.
Witness in the World
It is useful for all the baptized to recognize that God’s call is always for the sake of the world. Each Christian holds many offices in the realms of faith, nature, and society–member of a family, friend, citizen, member of a congregation, physical and emotional being, sexual being, witness, earth dweller, neighbor. The multiplicity of roles is bewildering, but centering on call can bring clarity. In each of our many roles we act at the call of God and for the world. Even when life feels most fractured, God renews our focus by pointing us toward the world.
The ELCA’s vision and expectations for its rostered leaders are that each aspect of their lives will enhance the clarity of the gospel — for the world’s sake. This church has the same vision and expectations for every member — that they will live to enhance the clarity of the gospel — for the world’s sake. That goal focuses, unifies, and clarifies one’s many callings.
The colleges and universities featured in this issue illustrate the utility of the doctrine of vocation. The schools are laboratories where students and teachers explore the world and myriad ways to serve the world. Similarly, congregations can use the concept of vocation to affirm and support people as they explore Christ’s purposes in their own lives and make practical plans, week after week, for serving the world.
The Lutheran understanding of vocation is a useful tool, an essential one in the church’s workshop.
|Resources for Faith and Life|
Congregations can help members of all ages use Luther’s insights on vocation to experience the unity of faith and life. One of the best approaches is the four-unit, small-group resource Connections: Faith and Life, ELCA, 1997, available from Augsburg Fortress.
Three new resources are great for individual reading or group discussion:
- D. Michael Bennethum, Listen! God is Calling! Luther Speaks of Vocation, Faith and Work, Augsburg Fortress (Lutheran Voices), 2003;
- Marc Kolden, The Christian’s Calling in the World, Centered Life (Luther Seminary), 2002; and
- Mark Greene, Supporting Christians at Work: a Practical Guide for Busy Clergy, ELCA, 2003.
Stanley N. Olson is the executive director of the Division for Ministry, ELCA, Chicago, Illinois