The following is an essay I wrote for a course in the Master of Arts in Leadership, Theology and Society (MALTS) at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. I have edited it for an online audience.
It is an elusive struggle to capture and retain a biblical concept of vocation, particularly as it relates to identity. Both vocation and identity are intrinsically linked to productivity in my context, namely central Alberta conservative evangelicalism, and in broader modern North American/Western civilization. It is intuitive, and in many cases, helpful to use productivity as evidence of vocation and identity, and so we easily shift our thinking about vocation as not only evidenced in productivity but defined by what we do.
As humanity perpetually considers the question of our reason for existence, finding meaning in what we do is low-hanging fruit. “What do you do?” is a standard and acceptable question in an attempt to know someone. Yet, I am challenged to reach deeper to capture the elusive truth: vocation is much more than what we do. Vocation stems from calling, which is essentially a summons by God to himself.1 As Gorden Fee states, “Biblically speaking, the vocation doesn’t precede the calling. It’s the calling that shapes the vocation.”2
In this essay, I seek to describe how my understanding of vocation has shifted recently due to the content of the MALTS program at Regent. Previously, I understood vocation to be synonymous with career. Now, I see that vocation has more to do with character and calling than how we earn an income. Vocation is the expression of who we are, where we are, and why we are. I will first provide some background of my own life and context, then I will demonstrate the shift in my understanding of vocation within my current occupation, and finally, I will provide an overview of how vocation is a life-long pursuit of expressing one’s identity, both individually and within community.
Why Be A Pastor?
Not unlike many in our society, at a young age, I often pondered the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My response, however, was likely atypical: I wanted to be a pastor. In my predominately Mennonite hometown of Winkler, Manitoba, skepticism around higher education and the institution, in general, was strong. Many adults of influence in my life discouraged me from being concerned with educational pursuits.
I got married, started a family and focused on working toward building a marketing business. My sense of calling to pastoral ministry seemed to be on hold, or even at times non-existent. I wondered about and began to doubt this call of which I was once convinced. Yet, I could not get away from it. I was soon asked to preach and teach in our church. My wife, Lynn, and I ran youth ministry as volunteers and I volunteered at a local youth drop-in centre. While I had a sense of satisfaction in these activities, my work and my calling to be a pastor were completely separate in my mind. I could not reconcile marketing as a career and pastoring as a calling. Either I was to have a position as a pastor or abandon the notion of pastoral ministry as a calling.
My wife, who felt called to be in ministry together with me, also struggled with the entrepreneurial pursuits and how different it was from the life we envisioned together. For us, calling to pastoral ministry could not be fulfilled unless it was expressed through a title and a role as a pastor. Eventually, we made the decision for me to pursue formal education and four years later I entered my first pastorate, convinced I was on the right track toward living out my calling.
It seemed as though God had granted me my heart’s desire, and yet to my surprise, I continued throughout my role as a pastor to wonder about my calling. I was afraid that I may have misinterpreted God’s purpose for my life. The passion for the work of a pastor almost never ignited beyond a small spark while I was in the role. Even though I struggled with this pastoral role, we went all-in by purchasing a home in the neighbourhood and becoming highly involved in the community. I thought that if we would just push through the struggle, it would grow on us. But, only four years after accepting the pastoral position, I resigned. I went back to the marketing industry and eventually ended up as a Communications Director. And still, I struggled with my calling. I felt convincingly called to pastoral ministry and yet when I arrived, it felt empty and lifeless. If not pastoring, then what?
Am I Not A Pastor?
While I still hold credentials as a licensed minister in Alberta, I do not have a title or responsibilities that would demonstrate a pastoral calling in the conventional sense. My role and daily responsibilities are that of an executive, focused on results and strategies, not prayer and discipleship. As was the case in my brief stint as a pastor, my sense of fulfillment as a Communications Director continued to be weak over the course of the last several years. All these years I have been struggling to find the fulfillment of my calling through what I do, namely, how I earn an income.
At a recent semi-annual review, my supervisor, who is the Executive Pastor, asked how I feel about not having a pastoral role or title. I told him that it doesn’t matter to me, as my calling as a pastor doesn’t require a title or role in order to be fulfilled. I wanted to believe that was true, but I didn’t yet have an understanding of how this can actually happen. I was determined at that point to learn how I can live out my calling, thus bringing me to the MALTS Program at Regent College.
My perspective of calling and vocation certainly has shifted and is continuing to shift. Most significantly, I have begun to view vocation as the response to God’s calling of me to himself. Mark Labberton succinctly and powerfully described vocation in a way that was timely for me: “The vocation of every Christian is to live as a follower of Jesus today. In every aspect of life, in small and large acts, with family, neighbors and enemies, we are to seek to live out the grace and truth of Jesus. This is our vocation, our calling. Today.”3
In practice, this has meant that I spend more time meditating on God’s character and how he has engaged with his people throughout history. This daily morning activity has begun to shape how I see each day. Rather than my relationship with God being attached to my life in the form of prayers and Bible readings, I am beginning to see that God’s calling is to have a completely different metric for success and satisfaction than whether or not I feel fulfilled by my daily activities.
For years I was convinced that I will be fulfilled when I can find expression in my work as a pastor, utilizing my unique set of gifts and talents to influence people toward change, empowering them to thrive in their own uniqueness. But, as I have found, in one way or another, every job will at times be unfulfilling in and of itself. Pursuit of God’s transformative presence, seeking to live out of his grace, bears the sort of fruit that not only will bring satisfaction, but also effective leadership. As Labberton states, “Although God clearly provides gifts for ministry, greater influence comes through character, the fruit of God’s Spirit. Charisma, winsomeness, popularity, charm, cleverness can matter. The greater testimony, however, comes from a character shaped by the love of Jesus, consistently demonstrated in ordinary action.”4
Through the process of discovering a new understanding of vocation, my attention has shifted away from finding the perfect fit to asking God how he wants me to behave each day. This involves a constant reflection on my identity, purpose, and context: who I am, why I exist, and where I am. It is an act of curiosity and discovery rather than judgment, reflection rather than determination. Pursuing a greater understanding of my identity, purpose and context brings clarity and slows down the process of seeking change when life and work get difficult.
This brings me to reflect on my current role and organization as it relates to identity, purpose, and context. This is a particularly helpful process at this point in my career and family situation as we face some time of decision-making and possible transition in the coming years.
If Not A Pastor, Then What?
The organization I work for is a very large church. As the Director of Communications, I am constantly seeking to understand our people and determine how to draw their attention to that which will highlight what is important to us as a congregation in Central Alberta. Our mission as a church is, “We want to give everyone in Central Alberta an opportunity to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and by following Him together, impact the world with compassion and hope.” I agree with Pope Francis when he states the importance of communication in a time when we are being told by very skilled marketing professionals what is good for us, whether or not their advice is sound.5 This context contributes to my identity as it relates to being a person of prayer, seeking God’s wisdom as we weigh the benefits and challenges of social media as a way to communicate.
The church is located in a relatively conservative community that values independence and is somewhat resistant to change. It is the sort of context I am familiar with, having grown up in a similar, but smaller, community. This has its benefits and drawbacks, as it is just familiar enough that I can relate to the people rather easily, but there is the risk of assuming familiarity while being ignorant of the differences. This speaks to my identity as a humble listener, being careful not to judge prematurely or come to conclusions too quickly.
My context also includes the teams with which I work. I supervise a team, work side-by-side with others on various teams, and report to the Executive Pastor. I consider my role to be second-chair leadership, or leading from the middle. This is where identity plays another important role, as I see myself as a servant in all of these contexts. Gordon Fee describes the role of a servant in the church: “No one in Christ’s church has patria potestas [power of a father]—that belongs to Christ alone. What we do have is the privilege of offering our lives for others as Christ did, so that they might know that the head is not the ‘master,’ ‘lord,’ or even ‘boss,’ but the one who exists to support the whole community so that it can live, thrive, and grow.”6
Finally, my context includes my home. I am a husband, a father, and a neighbour. These relationships are not outside of my vocation. What this means is that I draw near to Christ in prayerful intercession on behalf of these people, with the hope that they will experience the grace of God through my presence in their lives. It requires me to exercise my identity as a child of God and a citizen of his kingdom as I seek the well-being of these people.
Finding Purpose Not Being a “Pastor”
Purpose has been a struggle for me, as I have explained in the first half of this paper. Searching for meaning in my work is a high priority, one which has been especially elusive. A succinct response to the question of purpose, and even the greater concept of vocation, is offered by C. Kavin Rowe: “The most original and startling part of the early Christian view of the human is this: Jesus of Nazareth is the human. All other humans are his image.”7 In other words, our purpose is to reflect Jesus’ image. In any and every context, we exist as the image of Jesus, which means that we offer to others what Jesus offers to them. In particular, as a leader in the church, my purpose is to contribute to the constant pursuit of being Christ’s body in our community, offering charity to our neighbours, particularly to those with significant needs. As Pope Francis explains, “Today we have a great opportunity to express our innate sense of fraternity, to be Good Samaritans who bear the pain of other people’s troubles rather than fomenting greater hatred and resentment. Like the chance traveller in the parable, we need only have a pure and simple desire to be a people, a community, constant and tireless in the effort to include, integrate and lift up the fallen.”8
Purpose, however, is always more nuanced than simply stating, “my purpose is to reflect Christ.” Going back to my journey through discovering my calling as a pastor, I have some concluding remarks that address where I believe God is leading me. The risk in this exercise is to blur the lines between vocation and career. Willing to accept that risk, I will suggest that my particular purpose is related to navigating change. My identity is primarily my relationship with God and secondarily how I view myself as a prayerful servant-leader, compelled to work within the context of transition.
Currently, in my context, we are going through transition. I wasn’t aware that this would be the context when I began, but I am excited about being a part of navigating this season of change for our church as our senior leadership will be stepping down in the next two years. The concept of vocation is particularly helpful here. I do not see this responsibility as a job but as a way of being in this context. Regardless of my role or title, I sense the call of God to draw near to him, listen to his voice, and lead from the middle in the midst of a significant season of change. Much of my involvement in the leadership transition is not explicitly a part of my role as a Communications Director. Rather, my purpose is to exist in such a way that those involved and impacted by the transition have leaders amongst them (myself not being the only one) who are listening to God and reminding us to trust in his promises.
Still A Pastor
Within the next two years, my context will face possible disruption. Our children are finishing high school and becoming adults. The leadership transition at work may change my context due to the nature of having a different leader making decisions that affect my role and responsibilities. My wife and I are exploring options for where we might spend the next season of our lives once we are empty-nesters. In the midst of all these possible changes, knowing that my vocation and the sense of fulfillment that comes with living out God’s call, is not intrinsically tied to my career provides a sense of freedom and peace. We could stay or we could go. My workplace could change dramatically or it could remain the same. My vocation currently is to live out of my identity as I have described it above, within my context at CrossRoads Church, living in an apartment in Red Deer, Alberta, for the purpose of reflecting Christ as I seek to be an empowering servant leader in the midst of transition.
No longer am I anxious to discover whether I have heard God accurately in respect to my calling. Am I called to be a pastor? Yes, but only because being pastoral is a way to lead and a way to care for those around me. It is a matter of identity and purpose, expressed differently depending on the context in which I find myself. The idea that role or title does not matter is finally becoming an honest reflection of how I see myself.
1 Gordon D. Fee, Offer Yourselves to God (Eugene: Cascade Books, Kindle Edition), 14.
2 Fee, 7.
3 Mark Labberton, Called (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition), 45.
4 Labberton, 8.
5 Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (Maryknoll: Orbis Books), 51.
6 Fee, 39.
7 C. Kavin Rowe, Christianity’s Surprise (Nashville: Abingdon Press, Kindle Edition), location 585.
8 Francis, 36.