Vocational Discernment Is Not a Luxury

Like many people, I find that in this time of pandemic crisis information helps me to feel calmer and more able to cope with the stress of the unknown. While the facts and figures provide a necessary base of knowledge, I find myself most drawn to pieces that offer experiences of and reflections upon how people are making meaning in the midst of the staggering numbers of infections and deaths and the economic disaster that has been a result of this public health emergency. I search for these reflections as a lifeline to hope and for the things they teach about courage, commitment and calling.

One of the most moving pieces I have read highlights the experience of vocational commitment of hospital chaplains who work in New York City area hospitals in the center of the pandemic storm. I was particularly struck when, after detailing the rigors and extreme challenges of chaplains’ work right now, the author comments, “If anything can shake a person’s faith, it seems an indiscriminate epidemic like this would be just the ticket. Why does a person in one bed die while the person in the next bed recovers? And yet not one chaplain I spoke to said this outbreak had done anything to diminish his or her faith or sense of purpose.”

Detail from photograph of army chaplains in Kansas City during the 1918 influenza epidemic

How do you form people who see a sense of their purpose so clearly and can reaffirm it during a major crisis that would test even the most stouthearted? Obviously, such maturity of calling must be built over time and involves multiple factors. These chaplains, though, expressed a grit born out of a deep imperative that compelled them toward those who were dying. It has helped me to understand more deeply that the discernment of vocation is not a luxury; rather, it is an imperative born out of a deep awareness of the insistent realities we experience in our lives and our response to them. When rooted in a clear-eyed, critical awareness of what is urgent in our experiences, vocational discernment becomes an imperative, not a luxury.

And this rings true for me. Vocational calling and purpose are often discerned and maintained within an awareness of a sense of urgency about who we are, the contexts that shape us, and what we must do to live out faithfully the imperatives we have come to understand. Uncovering that which has urgency in our lives can play a role in both finding purpose and maintaining it in times of duress when a commitment to its demands are extreme and taxing.

It is clarifying to think about who we need to be, our contexts of accountability, and what we need to do when we are in the midst of a crisis. For example, in one instance we may see what is before us, the need is compelling, and so we respond in the best way that we can, seeking to understand over time a meaning and purpose out of that action. John Barton’s posting in the aftermath of the mass shooting in a local bar in which a Pepperdine student was among those killed is a poignant reminder that a time of unanticipated crisis demands action in the midst of uncertainty. We can find calling in our response to the urgencies that a crisis presents—“It reminds us that vocation is less about easy optimism and more about service, love, and the search for hope in the midst of challenges and unanswered questions.”

In another instance, for example, we may have a clear role and sense of identity that makes demands on us when crisis arises. We discover in those moments how the realities of who we are, our contexts, and what we must do come together. Using the story of Esther from the Hebrew scriptures, Rachel Mikva points out the ways in which a crisis can force into view the clarity of action that your role and identity demands of you, leading to a greater awareness of purpose and meaning.  

A calling gets determined in the context of an awareness of the urgencies that we discern. Without it, career can be misunderstood as calling and purpose can be misconstrued as attachment that only brings joy and satisfaction. Without urgency, it is hard to know what matters enough for a steadfast commitment. As Richard Hughes reminds us, “one’s truest sense of vocation is always revealed in the meaning of one’s life” and this is dependent on understanding it in the context of loss, suffering and death.

Discovering and understanding that which feels most urgent to us represents the work of our vocational lifetime. And, it must be engaged in with others who can provide clarity, perspective, and accountability. We must recognize that an awareness of urgency can easily be misleading, leading us toward self-indulgence, misrepresentations, and the capacity to inflict harm in the name of the good. What feels urgent may not survive tests of critical thinking, and what rationally appears imperative may not survive tests of compassion and empathy. Only in dialogue with those who help us critically examine our perceptions and convictions can we trust that which feels urgent to us.

Critical questions can assist us in this process:

  • With whom are you in conversation about what you feel needs an urgent response, and who is left out?
  • How does the sense of urgency connect to other values that guide your life? How does it disconnect?
  • In what ways does the religious, spiritual or philosophical traditions of your heritage affirm or challenge this sense of urgency?
  • With whom can you test out the truthfulness of your perceptions?

In the midst of a crisis, recalling those critically-reflected-upon urgencies that fueled discernment has the capacity to sustain vocational action and provide hope. As we live in hope during this pandemic let it be a hope that embraces fully and critically, in a dialogue that is open to challenge and critique, that which compels us urgently to respond and has the power to sustain that action in the whirlwind.


Kathleen T. Talvacchia is a contextual theologian with interest in practical theology, Christian practices of marginalized communities, and Queer theology. She was previously at Union Theological Seminary and New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Most recently she authored Embracing Disruptive Coherence: Coming Out as Erotic Ethical Practice (2019) and co-edited Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (2015). While one part of her would love for vocational journeying to include a predictable map, her better-self rolls with and revels in the messy, unpredictable energy of Divine Wisdom.

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