Examining Vocation and the Dignity of Work- 1

Frederick Buechner remarks that vocation is “the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I love this line. I resonate deeply with it and am inspired by it—wanting to experience that reality in my own life. Indeed, I think that if I were to track my life over the last 15 years, I’d see a pattern of seeking after the experience of my deep gladness intersecting with the deep need of the world. I believe many of us in the work of justice feel this deep sense of vocation and would identify with the way Buechner defines it.

Lately, I’ve been asking some follow up questions that I hadn’t before about this notion of vocation. Since, over the last few years, I’ve been increasingly engaging the work of justice through the lens of enterprise and economic development, I’ve had a growing and overwhelming sense that, while I affirm and celebrate this question of vocation being a God given sense of how my gifts and skills and passions align for meaningful work, not everyone gets the opportunity to ask it. I wonder if this question might sound hollow in the hollers of Appalachia or maybe naive among those living in neighborhoods experiencing generational poverty in American mega cities.

What’s more, I wonder if we create divides of relationship between those privileged to ask the question of vocation and those we might think are privileged to receive benefits from those living out a deep sense of vocation. In the community development world, we often speak of ways we unintentionally create inequitable relationships; service provider and service recipient etc. I’ve begun to suspect that unless we wrestle with the question of vocation and wonder together about how we might create a more life honoring way of engaging the process of discernment we will exacerbate this problem all the more. 

I also fear that without a deep wrestling with this question we will undermine the dignity of work by creating a kind of vocational caste system which blindly suggests that we are all free to pursue vocation while, in reality, vocation is an option for those with options. The answer, in my mind, is not to eliminate vocation from our vocabulary. Rather, I think we need to begin to find ways to see that vocation is something we all get to experience together. That might mean a reshaping our own understanding of vocation. It certainly will mean that we must deeply engage the way we think about enterprise and workforce development. This is something we will tease out over the coming weeks here. Stay tuned for more. 

For now though, a few questions. What is your experience of vocational discernment? Do you know people who weren’t able to ask that question? What factors led to that outcome? Is vocation a marker of privilege exclusively? How might we work to see the dignity of work flow from all the work we do, particularly in ways that might call us to create more life honoring pathways of work, rather than merely think about the same old jobs in a new way. 

About Adam Gustine

Adam Gustine leads CovEnterprises for Love Mercy Do Justice and the Evangelical Covenant Church. He is also the founder of Jubilee Ventures; an economic incubator in South Bend, IN. He and his wife, Ann, live in South Bend with their three kids.

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