Moving from Occupation to Vocation

Regardless of the industry – for-profit or non-profit, corporate or ministry, sacred or secular, etc., one of the greatest needs every leader inevitably wrestles with is a shortage of workers. You can watch the news and see how monthly job reports influence current politics. You can speak with corporate leaders and they’ll undoubtedly offer their thoughts on job vacancies and the absence of certain skilled workers. So on and so forth… And while we can debate the cause of such shortages – i.e. certain groups having limited access to quality education, poor high-educational models that need updating in order to stop equipping students with skills that don’t meet today’s job markets, etc., our religious institutions are not exempt from struggling with the same issues.

Having served in various aspects of Christian leadership for nearly a decade, I can’t even count the amount of times that the different ministries I’ve served in/with have required individuals to wear one too many hats in order to pull off a project or event. I’ve listened to so many leaders protest the fact that only 20% of their congregation seems to be engaged and doing all the work needed while the other 80% “sits by.” I’ve sat and wondered why ministries hired unqualified people to do professional tasks like legal and accounting when they have lawyers and accountants sitting in their very pews. And I find myself struck with the question… Are we successfully equipping our followers to truly understand and value what it means to do “Kingdom work”?

In his book titled Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, Prof. Ben Witherington III offers, “We are all called to be workers and that is an essential part of our purpose and mission on earth, … Work is what weaves together the very fabric of a called person’s identity, and fulfills it.” In other words, our concept of “work” as Christians should be more than just the occupations we pursue. Our perspective must move from doing a job, to pursuing a purpose. As leaders, it is our responsibility to aid our congregations in effectively making this transition. Here is a suggestion:

"Our perspective must move from doing a job, to pursuing a purpose." 

We must help our followers transition their understanding of “work” from that of occupation to vocation. As Jeff Goins explains, the word “occupation” comes from the same root as the English word “occupy” – meaning to take up space. And often, this is how we tend to think about jobs that are occupations. Namely, they take up time and their purpose is simply to pay the bills. But what if we were called not simply to “occupy” spaces, but to see and pursue our purpose to be missional in the spaces we’re called to?

To this end, Witherington offers, “Work, from a Biblical point of view, involves calling, vocation, and, if done right, ministry.” In other words, work is not simply that which we do. On the contrary, from a Kingdom perspective, work is the vocation(s) which we are called to do. Witherspoon goes on to support this, defining a vocation as “what one is equipped and trained or gifted and experienced to do.” This may be a job that should actually be seen as a mission field. This is using the gifts and talents we’ve both nurtured and acquired to serve outside of our jobs in our Christian communities (i.e. as a Church trustee, elder, administrator, accountant, counsel, usher, etc. in our church). This is volunteering to serve outside of our churches, helping to meet the needs of those around us in our larger communities. Whatever it is, the point here is to be intentional about seeking and discerning God’s will for one’s “work.”

To help your congregants see the difference, begin by helping them wrestle with the underlying questions here – What could you do? vs. What should you do? Yes, seeking and discerning God’s will is sometimes easier said than done. However, this is where discipleship is critical. Helping our followers develop a healthy theology of work/vocation will help them develop a Kingdom perspective of what it means to do God’s work. If we are successful, we may just find that yes, as Jesus said, the harvest is plenty (Matt. 9:37). However, the workers who understand their role as vocation-minded, mission-driven, Christ followers will be plentiful as well.