Vocation Virtually: Place, Roles, Responsibilities

Part 2 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, people, story.

A second metaphor for vocation is place.  Understanding this metaphor cultivates the sense that “I’m in the right place.”

The metaphor of place is most at home in the Lutheran tradition, reflecting Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) revolutionary argument that God equally values all roles, that of parent as well as priest, that of shoemaker or brewer as well as monk or nun. Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) identifies these roles as “places of responsibility,” where one might serve both God and neighbor. In language prominent in the vocation movement in American higher education, theologian Frederick Buechner (b. 1926) defines vocation: “the place God calls you to is the place where the world’s deep hunger and your own deep gladness meet.” 

One can be called to a place. Consider the example of a student who loved playing hockey, but knew he wasn’t good enough to play at a Division I school. Charlie deliberately sought out a Division III school where he could more easily qualify for the team. By his senior year, he was captain of the team. Any resume or curriculum vitae offers the opportunity to list positions of leadership; a portfolio on vocation invites deeper reflection.  

In choosing his college, Charlie already demonstrated solid self-awareness. He weighed realism about his own abilities with passion for the game. He exercised agency in choosing a school where he had a chance to play. Further, he knew he’d be a better college student if he could also play hockey.  For him, these two roles were complementary. He found a place where he could do both. Maturity, executive capacity, a realistic assessment of ability, plus a wicked sense of humor–it easy to see Charlie as a leader. Thinking through his roles using the lens of vocation invited him to go beneath a simple entry on a resume. He was indeed in the right place.

Charlie’s example also underscores the fact that people inhabit multiple roles simultaneously. Often when students hear “vocation,” they put it in the future; they understand it as “career;” they worry they’ll choose the right one. They need to hear that, “No, your proper role right now is to be a student. And you’ve probably got other roles as well. You’re a friend. You’re a family member. You’re a teammate. You’re a citizen. Maybe you’re also a disciple or devotee of a particular religion. All of these are roles you inhabit right now. Let’s think about those roles.”

Here’s an exercise that invites students to reflect on the roles they inhabit, the responsibilities those roles entail, and the skills they display. 

Exercise 2:  Vocation as Place – What are my roles?

Think of your favorite actor or actress and the roles they’ve been in. Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) most recently played Stormin’ Norman in Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods (2020). In casting him, Lee referenced Boseman’s other great roles: “The character is heroic; he’s a superhero. Who do we cast?  We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and we cast T’Challa.” Chadwick Boseman inhabited all of these roles with grace. 

Inventory

Take a blank sheet of paper and put your name at the top, followed by a comma and a blank space:  Charlie Grant, _______.  Now underneath, list all the roles you play or have played. You are a Student, Friend, Member of a certain family. You may be a Hockey Player, a Residence Hall Leader, an Au Pair. Name your off-campus or summer jobs or internships. 

Think of all the roles you play. You may not think of yourself as a superhero, but someone else does. Unlike Boseman, you don’t get to play one role at a time. You have to play all of them at once.  

If you have trouble, think of the various stages on which you play: family, school, workplace, community or neighborhood, mosque or church or synagogue.  What roles do you play on each of these stages? 

Voluntary and involuntary roles

Now, look at your inventory of roles. Some of them you chose, but some of the roles chose you. Roles that we choose are voluntary; roles that choose us are involuntary.

For example, Charlie chose to be a Hockey Player, but he had to be persuaded to be Captain of the team. Abdul chose to be a Student, but he needed an afterschool job to pay tuition. He worked as a Youth Director at the YMCA three nights/week. Angela shopped for her ailing grandmother every weekend; she didn’t choose to be a Caregiver. 

We can’t always control the roles that choose us, but they are “places of responsibility” nonetheless.

Roles and responsibilities

Circle five roles on your inventory that are most important to who you are.  Take index cards, putting at the top of each one your name and the role you’re going to explore. List three responsibilities you have in that role.  

For example, the responsibilities of Youth Director are stated in Abdul’s contract: run the basketball program and drop-in center; be available for counseling; close up the building. Not scripted, Angela’s responsibilities as Caregiver are more fluid. She shops, unpacks the groceries, and prepares an evening meal. There’s no operating manual for being a Friend, though everyone has and is a Friend. Think about your closest friends and the responsibilities you have to one another.  

Skills and strengths

Strengths are different from skills.  A strength is something you’re naturally good at, an innate capacity, gift, or talent. A skill is something you can learn and, through practice and repetition, get better at. 

For example, knowing his own strengths and limitations as a Hockey Player made Charlie naturally attuned to those of his teammates. He learned how to maximize the strengths of his team–and minimize the players’ limitations. Playing basketball is not one of Abdul’s strengths, but he knows the game, and he became more skilled at playing it. But Abdul’s a natural coach. Being in a role he didn’t choose taught him a strength he didn’t know he had.

What strengths and skills have you discovered in your three roles?

For further reading: For more on this set of exercises, see Marty Stortz’s “Calling in this Time of Twin Pandemics” and “The Metaphor of Perspective.” On the significance of certain geographic locations, see Hannah Schell’s “The Calling of Place.” On multiple roles (and multiple callings) see Rachel Pickett’s “Identity Exploration and Vocation” and Daniel Meyers’ “Plurality of Vocations: Finding Seasons Rather than Singularity.” On the value of list-making as a tool for reflection, see Shirley Showalter’s “Make a List!”


Martha (Marty) Stortz is the Bernhard M. Christensen Professor of Religion and Vocation at Augsburg University. Prior to joining the community at Augsburg in 2010, she taught at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in The Graduate Theological Union for 29 years. She wonders why it took her so long to get into higher education. She is an avid swimmer and writer, and she is a life-long pilgrim. For other blog posts by Marty, click here.

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