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A Grace Peculiar: Toward a Theology of Vocation

This post continues a series on Vocation in the Episcopal Church. The other essays in the series can be found here.

By Justin E. Crisp

Implicit in much of our everyday talk about vocation are two misleading assumptions. The first is that vocations are things clergy and vowed religious have, but not really anyone else. The second is that vocations coincide frequently and easily with our careers and day jobs. The second is generally an attempted corrective to the first: a stereotypically Protestant attempt to democratize vocation by saying, “We all have vocations. Some are pastors, some are evangelists, some are second-grade teachers, some are janitors, some are CEOs.” Despite the intent, however, these two assumptions coexist easily enough in practice.

In the Episcopal Church, our prevailing practice is to open discernment processes for those who, for lack of a strongly felt “vocation” to secular career options, find themselves attracted to the careers of professional church leaders. Along the way, aspirants learn the right things to say about professional ordained identity depending on the culture of the dioceses in which their processes take place: a felt calling to celebrate the sacraments, for example, or a desire to serve Christ’s mission in the world, or a longing to care for and pastor others.

I am caricaturing here, of course. I would never want to suggest that our vocational discernment processes are wholly without integrity. To the contrary, I want to say that the Holy Spirit may very well be at work both within and beyond our institutional processes, but in ways we are often ill-equipped to recognize. This is because we are often theologically mistaken about what vocation really is.

Part of the trouble, admittedly, is our lack of a shared sense of the priestly and diaconal vocations (hence the need for aspirants to learn the particular lingo of their dioceses). But the root problem rests in the concept of vocation itself. The democratizing spirit of the Protestant intervention has been a valuable one for the church, but its execution trips over the same rock as would those who say vocation is the province solely of the ordained. Our operative theology neglects the role vocation plays in the salvation of each human creature.

Vocation is the particular form of participation in the mission of the Son of God to which God calls one, and for which God makes one fit by grace. I mean “mission” here in the broadest sense: the sending (missio) of the Son and the Spirit by the Father for our sakes. “Participation in the mission of the Son of God” in the broadest sense as well: the particular form of life that comes about by virtue of one’s incorporation into Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Being incorporated into Christ involves our lives being worked over by the Spirit into a Christlike form. Our lives begin, by grace, to take on something of a Christlike shape as befits the particular place, time, and context in which we live and the particular forms of service to which God calls us. The peculiar Christlike shape that one’s life thus takes on is one’s vocation. And vocation is the outworking of grace in the life of a human being. As St. Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans, “Those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (8:29-30).

Of course, by equating the outworking of grace in a human life with “participation in the mission of the Son of God,” I am assuming that God grants human beings a share by grace in the renewal and redemption of the world undertaken in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-19), and this is already some ways towards a definition of the church. But I am also assuming that participation of this sort fulfills human beings as such: that is, that we human beings are most ourselves in union with God in Christ, and that this union does not have an abstract universal shape but rather has a unique effect in each and every human being (Ephesians 4:1-13). God designs us for vocation, as it were, fashioning and purposing us to play a distinct role in Christ in his redemption of the world — in refusal of which we fail fully to be human. As Hans Urs von Balthasar (to whom I’m quite indebted here) puts it: “In Christian terms, the [one] who is called becomes [themselves] by serving and sharing in God’s work in Jesus Christ” (Theo-Drama 3: Persons in Christ [San Francisco, Ignatius, 1992], 266).

I want to hazard some of the ways this departs from how many of us have been brought up to think about vocation by the church. Even if there is ideally some overlap between our careers and our vocations — for example, seeking in and through our careers to fulfill the vows of our Baptismal Covenant — we ought not to expect our careers to exhaust our vocations, nor always and in every case even to be central to them. Christians live complicated lives of competing allegiances in a sinful and broken world. To the extent that our careers participate in the missions of the Son and Spirit to reconcile the world to God, they can be said to be part of our vocations. If that implies that even the earthly careers of the ordained and vowed religious may not entirely coincide with their God-given vocations, then that is a perfectly serious suggestion. What it does mean constructively is that we ought always to scrutinize our lives by the light of the gospel of our Lord, and for those of us who are in parish ministry, it means that vocational discernment is not merely being on the look-out for talented future clergy but an integral part of our pastoral care of each and every person. Vocational discernment is about spurring one another fully to be human, given that the only way we ever are so is when we show forth God’s praise not only with our lips, but in our lives.

To say a word, in conclusion, specifically about vocations to orders: this does mean that when we are discerning whether someone is called to be a priest or deacon, or a bishop for that matter, we are not so much discerning someone’s aptitude for a particular kind of job. Instead, we are discerning whether someone is potentially a particular and peculiar sort of human being, called by God to play this particular and peculiar role in the life of God’s world. If we find ourselves inarticulate in describing exactly what sort of human being we’re talking about, then that tells us what we ought to do next.

The Reverend Justin E. Crisp is Associate Rector and Theologian-in-Residence at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan, Connecticut and a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Yale University.


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