My year of vocational discernment

By Mark Blaede, Bethel Seminary St. Paul

I have always puzzled at people who pick a “theme” for their entire year. Have you heard of this practice? It’s the deep-thinker’s version of a New Year’s resolution: The person will think and/or pray for a while, maybe even go on a weekend retreat. Then they come back to Twitter (and their families) to announce a theme for their entire life in the following year. They pick something like “Joy” or “Rest”—something fortune-cookie-vague enough to have meaning no matter what happens. My favorite example is when two authors I follow actually picked “Yes” and “No,” respectively, as theme words in the same year. I have always found this a little silly. And yet…this past year, I apparently picked a theme for myself—I just didn’t know it at first.

The theme of my year was “Vocational Discernment.” It’s been a season of both intentionally and accidentally figuring out what kind of career I should pursue. I found myself just going to God and praying: “What? Where? When? Why?” Narrowed to a single word, the best I can come up with is: “Work?” Inspirational, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ll be getting a lot of retweets of it. But I think it actually fits with my recent experience.

I was feeling what I’ve heard described as a “holy discontent.” On the surface, I was doing what I was supposed to do: I was working at a church while also working on a degree training me to become a lead pastor. It was a path I felt called to—yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. I was experiencing cognitive dissonance about my vocation, or “calling.”

Since middle school I felt I had a “call” to ministry, and people around me affirmed that all the way through my graduation from a ministry-focused Bible college. I then followed the call to unpaid ministry positions to get experience and eventually become a lead pastor. After all, I enjoyed leading and teaching, and I felt strongly that my life’s work should advance the Kingdom of God—so I must be called to be a lead pastor, right? Yet the dissonance grew the more I leaned into church ministry. I doubted if I belonged there. Those fears seemed to be confirmed when I was actually laid off from my first paying ministry job.

That planted the seeds for my year of “vocational discernment.” I prayed for a job at Bethel University, where I was studying, because it was a safe place to explore these questions. Ironically the job I got at Bethel was in Admissions—enrolling people in seminary so that they can pursue God’s calling on their lives! I’ve found that I like being on the “provider side” of education. This has led to the realization: I seem to be called and gifted for the disciplines of teaching and leadership—more so than any specific ministry context. The people I see leading and teaching at Bethel are advancing God’s Kingdom! (Yes, even in the non-seminary programs!) Why had I limited God’s call to such a narrow set of job titles? Why limit Kingdom work to church?

One of my favorite ways to debunk the notion of “vocational ministry” as the only “holy” work is to look at the story of creation. In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller points out that, in contrast to other ancient creation myths which portray the origin of the world as a violent clash, the Bible repeatedly describes God’s role in creation as constructive work.[1] Think about it: God’s first job description in the Bible is landscaper! When he delegates work to humans (before the Fall, mind you), their first job descriptions are as animal handlers and gardeners. So how could we limit “holy” work to just preaching and leading churches? God certainly doesn’t.

So, to finish my story: Due to what I learned in the year of “Work?, I decided to change degree programs to one more focused on broadly applicable leadership principles and less focused on training to become a lead pastor. It means I get to finish seminary by enrolling in all of the classes that I was eager to take. It also means I get to pursue doctoral work sooner, which will enable to to do more leading and teaching—wherever that may be. I don’t know what it will look like, but based on what I’ve learned through Work with Purpose and the 100,000 Hours Colloquy, I can rest assured that my future work is holy work. A “calling,” if you will. Maybe that will be my “word” next year.


[1] Keller, Timothy. Every Good Endeavor. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012, page 33.

Image © darkmoon1968|

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