July 6, 2010
Is Ministry a Job or Vocation?
And what difference does it make?
Eugene Peterson laments in For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books, 2010) that he has been “trying for fifty years now to be a pastor in a culture that doesn’t know the difference between a vocation and a job.” It was a bunch of artists that clued him in on the difference.
Definitions are in order. According to Peterson, a job is “an assignment to do work that can be quantified and evaluated.” Most jobs come with job descriptions, so it “is pretty easy to decide whether a job has been completed or not…whether a job is done well or badly.” This, Peterson argues, is the primary way Americans think of the pastor (and, presumably, that pastors think of themselves). Ministry is “a job that I get paid for, a job that is assigned to me by a denomination, a job that I am expected to do to the satisfaction of my congregation.”
A vocation is not like a job in these respects. The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, “to call.” Although the term today can refer to any career or occupation (according to Webster), the word (vocatio, I imagine) was coined to describe the priestly calling to service in the church. So vocation=calling. This is how Peterson is using the word, anyway. And the struggle for pastors today, he continues, is to “keep the immediacy and authority of God’s call in my ears when an entire culture, both secular and ecclesial, is giving me a job description.”
During his seminary education in New York City, Peterson worked with a group of artists. They were dancers and poets and sculptors, and they all worked blue-collar jobs as taxi drivers, waiters, and salesmen—whatever they had to do to pay the rent and put food on the table. Soon enough Peterson realized that “none of them were defined by their jobs—they were artists, whether anyone else saw them as artists, and regardless of whether anyone would ever pay them to be artists.” That is to say, being an artist wasn’t a job for them, but a vocation. Their jobs simply kept them alive so they could pursue their vocations. “Their vocation didn’t come from what anyone thought of them or paid them.”
I found this discussion both liberating and convicting. Looking back over the past decade or so, I wonder if the angst I’ve experienced while trying to figure out what to do with my life has stemmed from confusing these two categories.
In my senior year of high school, I “surrendered to the gospel ministry” (that’s what we called it). I sensed a calling to dedicate my life and career to serving Christ through the local church. I immediately understood that vocation in terms of the jobs that commitment made possible or impossible. Before then, I wanted to teach high school English for a living. After, I knew that a call to ministry meant abandoning that career. At the time, the only ministers I knew were senior pastors, youth ministers, and worship leaders. The job description of pastor seemed the best decision.
In college I waffled. I was pastoring a church and didn’t appreciate the identity foisted upon me when people from church introduced me as “Pastor Brandon.” I still felt the sense of vocation, but didn’t like the job. Since then I’ve been trying to figure out what job would be enable me to live out my vocation.
The trouble is, I’m not sure I could tell you in a sentence what I feel called to. I have several jobs: editor, writer, college instructor, doctoral student (not paid for it, but it sure is work). None of those things are “ministry” in the strictest sense. Yet I feel “called” to ministry still, and there are parts of each of my jobs that satisfy my sense of calling. But it sure would be nice to answer the question, “What do you do?” with a sentence that doesn’t begin, “Well, it’s complicated…”
Jobs pay the bills; vocations may or may not. I suspect bi-vocational pastors, as they’re called, must have a deeper sense of vocation than the rest of us. So many men and women who feel called to the ministry drop out when they can’t find a job at a church that’s big enough to pay their rent and student loans because we tend to think of ministry as the job that will put food on our tables. I admire the men and women who do what they have to for a living so they can do what they are called to do for the kingdom.
—Brandon O’Brien is a contributing editor for Leadership and author of The Strategically Small Church (Bethany House, 2010)