What’s Your Vocation?

Ever wonder what the difference is between a job, a career, and a vocation? In this excerpt from Out of The Crowd, I try and help clarify the difference.
When Jesus calls the first disciples, he calls them from not just their families, but out of their jobs and careers and into a vocation. The distinction between these three is significant and can be seen in Mark 1,

Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee, where he saw Simon and his brother Andrew, who were fishermen, casting nets into the lake.
Jesus speaks to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” And immediately, they left their nets and followed him.
In a similar matter, after walking on a little farther, Jesus, now with Simon and Andrew tagging along, calls out to James and John who were in their family boat with their father, Zebedee. Like the two before, then immediately left their nets, their boat, and their father, and followed Jesus.

In this passage are three groups: the hired men, the fishermen, and the disciples or followers of Jesus. They illustrate the three different ways we work: jobs, careers, and vocations.


A job involves basic skill, basic labor, and basic pay to try and meet basic needs. In the passage, these are the workers, those on Zebedee’s boat who likely did a day’s work for a day’s pay. My first job was in a textile mill in South Carolina when I was sixteen. I worked second shift, from 4:00 to midnight. I learned to drink coffee dispensed nightly for a quarter out of a vending machine and was paid by the hour.


A career differs from a job in training and role. A career has background, education, experience, and investment. Jesus encountered some career fishermen in Zebedee and sons with their boat. They had training, skill, and investment in the family business.  After college, I went to seminary, twice. I earned masters degrees in youth ministry and divinity. I studied Greek and Hebrew and passed ordination exams. This is my career, accepted into the Presbyterian system, ordained, blessed, and allowed to pastor. I even have a pension. Do you think Andrew or Simon asked Jesus if he had a health plan or a pension program before dropping their nets at the shore? Likely not.
The word, “career,” comes from the Latin word for car, which comes from carrera, which means “racetrack.” Like a racetrack, careers have structure, direction, and competition. And, like a racetrack, a career can have you feeling like you are going very fast, around, and around, in circles, never ending. No matter who wins a particular race, another competition will start shortly, and another, and another. And if you cannot fill your lane, don’t worry, there will be another to take your place and the race will keep moving, and moving, and moving.
Students are set on college tracks and career tracks taught to compete with each other in race after race, score after score. Students are ranked, from first to last, high to low, with their cumulative score or grade point average. We score their schools as well. The hope is to prepare students to take their place in society and to keep racing as our economy depends on it. They are promised great rewards for their effort, and if they work hard enough and succeed, they can drink from the cup of glory, whatever that is.
Kierkegaard warned about the effects of our jobs and careers and the responsibility of communities to watch out for each other in this story,
A farm village’s crop was infested by a strange bug that contaminated all their food. Once they realized that eating the food made them crazy, they quit eating it. Then they started to starve. The village leaders met and agreed they must eat to survive, but they also decided to work together to remind each other that the very food they ate to survive made them crazy.
Taking our place in crowds, pursuing careers, doing all that we do for food, family, groups, culture, is dangerous when we forget the madness that they can produce, then around and around we go, faster and faster and call it life, saying, “We have no choice.”
When you live going only in circles, how can a sense of direction be possible? The church should be that village voice, the agreement upon leaders that the very food that we eat makes us mad, calling the crowds into question, challenging our consumer economy, our chasing the dollar. We should join the prophets, poets, and playwrights, like Charles Bukowski,

Some lose all mind
and become soul, insane
some lose all soul
and become mind, intellectual
some lose both
and become accepted.

In a critique of business life in America, Arthur Miller wrote The Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman, the tragic character who dominates the play, is laid to rest in a cemetery following his suicide. At the graveside on a bleak and rainy day, the immediate family is huddled together along with a couple of friends. His wife cries softly over the casket, “Why? Why? Why did you do it, Willy?” It is then that Willy’s son, Biff, speaks and says, “Aw, shucks, Mom. Aw, shucks. He had all the wrong dreams. He had all the wrong dreams.”


When I read or tell of the calling of the disciples, I am often asked, “How could they just leave everything – job, career, family, and follow Jesus with no more information, and no guarantees?”
My question is, “How could they not?” James, John, Simon, and Andrew weren’t very good fishermen, we have record of them fishing all night and not catching anything on more than one occasion, and they seldom seem to be fishing but are instead always fixing their boat or mending their nets. But there is more, besides giving them an out to a career they seem ill suited for, Jesus gave them their calling, their vocatio.  “Vocation” comes from the Latin word, vocare, which means, “to call.” Carl Jung describes people with vocation,

What is it, in the end, that induces someone to go his own way and to rise out of unconscious identity with the mass as out of a swathing mist? Not necessity, for necessity comes to many, and they all take refuge in convention. Not moral decision, for nine times out of ten we decide for convention likewise. What is it, then, that inexorably tips the scales in favor of the extra-ordinary?

It is what is commonly called vocation: an irrational factor that destines a person to emancipate himself from the herd and from its well-worn paths.
Vocation is not for God to hear you calling, but for you to hear God’s calling. Vocation is not for God to respond to the desires of your heart but for you to align your life with the passion and fire of God’s heart. Vocation is not for you to have a five-year plan that makes sense to you but for you to live in a way that makes sense to God. To align your life with the heart of God, to live Jesus’ way in the world, to discover your distinctive and particular place as an alive human in the image of God will give purpose and meaning to your life, Frederick Buechner said, 

The vocation for you is the one in which your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet – something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done.

Vocation is both self-fulfilling and world fulfilling. It is both living into your calling of becoming not just a beloved child of God, but a beloved adult of God and facilitating the world’s growth into The Kingdom of God, which Jesus illustrated in Matthew 5 with the following imagery,

Each of you is the salt of the earth. If salt has no flavor, can you make it salty again? No, unless it gives flavor to food, it’s thrown out and trampled on. Each of you is the light of the world. When people get together and build a city, they don’t hide it in a valley but put it on a hill so others can come to it. In the same way, why would anyone light a candle or a lamp and put it under a bucket? No, you put it on the table so that it gives light to all the house.

So let it be with you. Let your light shine so that others may see the wonder of what you do and give glory. Being flavor for the earth, letting our light shine, stepping out like a city on a hill, or a singer on stage, can take great courage, bravery that often takes years to develop.

One of my dearest friends is Etta Britt. She got her first ‘record deal’ a little older than the Nashville norm. Here is a selection of an article by Lori Weiss in The Huffington Post on Etta’s story, It Ain’t Over – Out of the Shadows, Mom Signs Record Deal at 55.

From the time Etta Britt was a young girl, she was singing back-up for Diana Ross. It’s just that Diana didn’t know it. Because Etta was in front of her bedroom mirror in Louisville, Kentucky — hair brush in hand, as a microphone, of course — pretending she was one of the Supremes.
“I’d stand there for hours,” Etta laughed, “and pretend I was on stage. And my brother would come in and tease me, and I’d throw the hairbrush at him.”
“When I walk out on stage, I often say ‘You’re probably wondering who I am. Well, I’m a 55-year-old woman who just got her first record deal.’ And I get a standing ovation.
“Just like the title of the CD, I feel like I’m coming out of the shadows,” Etta said with a tear in her eye. “And now I’m showing my daughters that it doesn’t matter what your age is — you can still make your dreams come true.”

Etta came out of her shadows, her cultural, familial, and her own mental crowd to let her light shine. She celebrated the voice she had to share and the songs she has to sing, and encourages others to do the same. When you step out like Etta, it gives other people encouragement to come out of their own shadows and let their light shine. If you get the chance to watch a singer like Etta, one who is a band leader as well as a performer, one who is an encourager sharing both her light and the spotlight, sharing her music and weaving together the music of others, then you can see how one soul taking her place encourages others to do the same.

Etta and I have found these words by Author Marianne Williamson encouraging in both coming out of the shadows and the crowd,

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be?
Who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest
the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some of us: it is in (all of us),
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.