My spiritual director Charles once told me, “Don’t confuse your career with your vocation.” I had been a priest for just a few years. Until that moment my assumption had been that serving as a priest was my vocation.
Charles did not mean to say that I shouldn’t be a priest or that God had not coaxed and nagged me into holy orders. Instead, his point was that the priesthood—and he would now say the episcopate—is the path by which I am working out God’s calling.
The priesthood—and the diaconate and the episcopate—are good and noble careers. And yet our vocation is something deeper, and those good and noble careers become holy missions when we engage them as the path on which we work out our deep calling.
Conversely, even work devoted to worship, charity, peace, and justice can be nothing more than self-serving career tracks when they serve our desire for status, security, and influence.
That was Jesus’ first lesson to his disciples. He called them away from being fishermen and told them that he would make them fishers of people as they followed him.
As I often do, I’ve gotten ahead myself. Let’s take a step back and get clear about how jobs, careers, and vocations differ and how they can overlap.
A job is doing something in exchange for pay. That’s it. Whether you serve french fries, repair cars, file legal briefs, or hear confessions, you have a job. Someone pays you for the work you do.
What you do might be just a job and that’s it. Everybody needs money to get by. College students get jobs while they study to pursue an entirely different line of work. Artists, teachers, musicians, and actors frequently take on extra jobs as waiters or retail clerks. Doing what they love does not pay the bills.
A career is a sequence of jobs in the same field. Most people seek career advancement. They don’t want to move laterally from one job to another one more or less like it. Remaining in medical administration or sales or software development, people often want to move from a job with less responsibility and lower prestige to one that requires greater skill, carries more authority, bestows higher status, and brings home more bacon.
In America we tend to confuse vocation with a career doing something we love. Writers, actors, athletes. Teachers, artists, and clergy. These people generally find immense satisfaction in what they do.
They are drawn to this kind of work and would feel a great sense of loss if they were no longer able to pursue this career. Their love for what they do drives them to accept low pay, sacrifice personal time and resources, and resign themselves to a lower standard of living than people with less education and fewer highly developed skills.
Even with all of this said, these lines of work are careers. And you did hear me correctly. Being a clergy person is a career. Sadly, even deeply fulfilling careers remain just that—careers—when they are not the path to working out a vocation.
This might be puzzling to religious people. We generally think of becoming a priest or deacon or bishop as answering a call. And that is what happens in most cases. But one’s vocation is not the same thing as one’s career, even an ecclesiastical career.
God sometimes offers the clergy collar as a way to live out a person’s calling. But the calling is something deeper and more abiding than the role a person plays in the Church. And we misconstrue God’s way of operating when we assume that there are some people in the Church who have a calling while everyone else is waiting around to be led by a person with a calling.
News flash. God creates each of us with a calling. Everyone has a vocation. And whatever career we pursue, in fact, whatever job we happen to take at any particular time, can be the path to working out our deep vocation.
Our vocation is what God has sent us into the world to do. Wherever we are. No matter what the circumstances.
Listen to the charge that God gave Adam—that God gives every human being—in the second creation story in Genesis: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)
God sends each of us into his creation to join him in the work of creative nurture. Since the Fall, the earth is a wounded, fractured place. So that holy nurture takes the form of restoration, reconciliation, and healing.
Sometimes, God actually points us in the direction of a specific career as especially suited to our gifts and temperament, our limitations and our woundedness. Teaching, sculpting, administering the sacraments, or playing the piano may be an especially fruitful path by which some people engage God’s restoring, reconciling, healing mission.
But remember, engaging the mission is the vocation. The career becomes a holy mission only when it serves the vocation. And there is no career—including careers in the Church—that cannot be turned to serve our own ego and our own drive to achieve status, security, and influence.
Mark’s account of the call of the first disciples might lead you to believe that you have to wait around for God’s call. You should just go about your business until God interrupts the normal flow of life and assigns you something extraordinary to do.
That is apparently what happened to Andrew and Peter, James and John. Like every day before, they’ve gone fishing. Jesus comes along and before you know it they’re out of the surf and off the boat and walking the dusty roads of Galilee.
Their calling involves career change. Instead of being fishermen, they will fish for people. Whatever that means. Peter and the rest probably thought something like this, “I guess we’ll figure that out as we go along.”
But our misconception of vocation begins as soon as we think that the call narrative in Mark reports the moment at which those first disciples received their vocation. That’s not the case at all. God brought them into this world already saturated with a sense of vocation. My guess is, they were already working that vocation out with nets and boats.
Peter, Andrew, James, and John were in the family business, a business in all likelihood shared by generations of their families. They had just sort of backed into being fishermen. That’s how they took their place in the family, supported the family, loved the family. And crucially, they started each day by devoting whatever they would do that day to God.
Sometimes God shakes us up with a spectacular call to a particular way to unfold our vocation. Mostly, that’s not the case. God did not put us in this world to wait around for him to give us a specific assignment.
Instead, God gives us the opportunity to spot the good that we can do on every particular day. That good may be seemingly small and routine. But it is what we will do. Make breakfast for the kids, clean the bathroom, punch the time clock, push the papers, answer the telephone. Before we do it, we can offer any simple activity to God. And that is how we work out our vocation.
Don’t wait around for God to call. God created us as already called. Our challenge is to make everything we do—no matter how ordinary or routine—a response to God.
This sermon was preached at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Louisiana.