6. Discerning one’s vocation in the world

Mention the word “vocation” to a group of people, and you’re likely to get a wide variety of definitions. Some will think that “vocation” refers to particular occupations involving skilled work (e.g., as a carpenter, electrician, or mechanic). Others may assume a broader definition and define vocation as the job one does. Yet a third group will define vocation as following one’s passion in choosing a major or an occupation, or even a hobby. While all of these definitions contain some aspects of vocation, they do not completely encompass the understanding that pervades Lutheran institutions of higher education.

In Luther’s time, “vocation” was understood to apply only to those called to religious service. That is, only priests, monks, nuns and others called “away from the world” to serve God had a “true” vocation. Part of Luther’s reformation offered a radical redefinition of the popular term “vocation.” A human being is not called away from this world – with all its beauty as well as with all its untold suffering. Rather, argued Luther and his colleagues, one is called to enter and engage the world, especially those who are in need, powerless, or suffering. This means that every person is called to live her or his life in relationship to others within daily life. While the young Luther was raised with the notion that only the work of religious professionals really “mattered” in the world, his emerging reform insisted that all persons – virtually all persons – form part of an interdependent web in which life and health are sustained and supported: “A cobbler, a smith, a peasant — each has the work and office of his (sic) trade, and yet they are all alike” (“To the Christian Nobility,” 1520). As one contemporary philosopher writes, “The test for vocation was not ‘Are you doing something religious?’ but ‘Are you serving … the real needs of your neighbor?’ ” (Tom Christenson, Who Needs a Lutheran College?).

Lutheran higher education takes this claim seriously – that a significant dimension of faculty, staff, and student development is hearing and responding to the call of being with and caring for others rather than living in splendid isolation or imagining one’s “vocation” as service to the self alone. To that end, our educational mission emphasizes an essential relationship between rigorous learning and engagement with this world, not one without the other. Thus, a degree from a Lutheran college equips students to consider how their careers will enhance – rather than diminish – the “life, health, and wholeness” of those they encounter throughout their lives.

It is possible, then, to see that Lutheran colleges and universities have a corporate vocation – not only to provide an excellent education in a particular discipline or field, but also to nurture within their students, staff, and faculty a genuine and profound commitment to the common good. Thus, PLU’s mission statement gives one succinct version of the vocation of Lutheran colleges and universities – “Educating for lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership, and care: for others, their communities, and the earth.” Not only do we encourage our students to discern where and how best they can serve the world (their vocations), we ourselves serve the world through the provision of this education. At their best, then, Lutheran schools are organized around this calling, a calling committed to the promotion of human well-being in a world marked by much ignorance, discrimination, injustice, and suffering. The administrators, staff, faculty, students, benefactors, and alumni of Lutheran colleges and universities rightly work together, then, as agents of thoughtful reflection and effective action in their neighborhoods, regions, and throughout the world.