Vocation Virtually: Path, Goals, and Core Commitments

Part 3 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 third metaphor for vocation is path. Understanding this metaphor cultivates the sense that “I’m on the right path.” One can be called to a path without knowing the final destination. A powerful biblical guide is Abram, whom God summoned to a journey with no more divine direction than “go… to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Abram had to depend on God–not Google Maps!–to get where he was going. He trusted God to get him there.

A student in my introductory religion course identified as a “none,” someone with no religious background and, in his case, no articulable religious commitments other than the Norse gods that roared through his video games. When the conversation turned toward future plans and aspirations, he confessed to being overwhelmed with choosing a major and wailed: “All I want to do it pass this course.”  

I could have encouraged him to embrace his role as a student, leaning into the metaphor of place, but he wasn’t sure being a student at a Lutheran university was the right place for him at all. Most immediately, he needed to take the next step. I assured him that passing the class was a worthy short-term goal and offered him some direction: he should find out more about that Norse god Thor. 

When vocation is seen as a path, the journey is as important as reaching a predetermined destination. Core commitments illumine the next steps. 

The metaphor of path is not as prominent in mainstream Protestant discussions of vocation, which frame vocation largely in terms of place. Other Christian traditions, however, highlight life as a journey. If Jesus is “the Way” (John 14:6), then disciples want to be on it. North African bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430) regarded the whole of the Christian life as pilgrimage (peregrinatio). Incorporating pilgrimage into his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuit order, invited disciples to imagine themselves on the journey with Jesus. A nineteenth century Orthodox classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, traces the meanderings of a Russian hermit summoned to a path of “ceaseless prayer.” 

The metaphor of path figures prominently in Islam, where pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of the faith, the hajj. Recommended for every Muslim once in the course of her lifetime, the hajj retraces the journeys of Hajar, Ishmail, and Ibrahim (Hagar, Ishmael, and Abraham).  Deepening the metaphor, Muslims refer to the “way of the Prophet,” the sunnah, a summary of the teachings of Muhammed (c. 570-632), as a way of life for his followers. 

Vocation as path emphasizes the alignment of goals and commitments. Understanding this dimension of vocation nurtures the sense that “I’m on the right path….”  

Here are two exercises to help students begin reflection on their core commitments and goals.

Exercise #1: Getting at core commitments – “This I Believe” statement

Writing a brief statement about one of your core commitments can be a powerful tool for reflection.  Study the examples of Eboo PatelDeirdre SullivanIsabel AllendeVan Jones, and Temple Grandin, each of which tells a brief story about a core commitment. 

Name your commitment: If you can’t name it in a sentence or phrase or even a single word, your essay might not be about one of your core commitments. Focus on one, e.g., Van Jones: “I believe in making my father proud.” Or Deirdre Sullivan: “I believe in always going to the funeral.”

Tell a story about you: Ground your commitment in an event that shaped it. Consider moments when that commitment was formed, tested, or changed. Be specific. Your story may heart-warming, gut-wrenching, or even funny, but it must be real. Tie the story to your own personal journey. 

Be positive: Write about what you do believe, not what you don’t believe. Avoid preaching and editorializing.

Be personal: Make your essay about you, your life, and your journey; speak in the first person. Write in your speaking voice, with words and phrases you would use in conversation.

Be brief: Your statement should be between 300-500 words. Make a voice memo and present it in your small group. As you listen to each statement, identify the core commitment and one take-away for your own journey. 

Exercise #2: Getting at goals – “The Summoned Self” exercise

Read David Brooks’ brief article “The Summoned Self” (2010). Here he outlines two different ways of calling, a “well-planned life” and a “summoned life.” In the end, he opts for a life that includes elements of both.

Make sure you understand the different elements of each life. Which kind of life appeals to you? Which better reflects your actual experience? 

A well-planned life
Life as a project to be completed
Individual agency emphasized “What should I do?”
A summoned life
Life as a landscape to be explored
Core commitments emphasized
“What is being asked of me in this place and time?”

Being called to a path highlights the importance of making a plan that aligns with your core commitments. Brooks shares the story of Clayton Christensen, who values family, but his plan didn’t have much room for them. Make sure your aspirations and goals are grounded in what you believe. 

Now, think more concretely about your own journey and identify: 

  • One short-term goal – “Where do I want to be at the end of this semester?” e.g., “I just want to pass this course.”
  • One mid-range goal – “Where do I want to be in five years?”  e.g., “I want to have a job and a family.”
  • One long-term goal – “Where do I want to be in forty years/when I retire?” e.g., “I want to travel throughout the Middle East.”

Now, return to each of the three goals. Does it reflect your core commitment? If so, how? If not, why not?  Do you want to revise any of your goals?

Look at your goals again. Are these the same goals you would have had before COVID-19, before George Floyd’s murder?  How have these twin pandemics altered your goals – or not? What circumstances might shift the goals you’ve identified? 

Finally, identify one thing you need in your backpack to make you confident you’re on the right path.

Next:  Exploring the metaphor of people through the communities we claim – and the communities that claim us.


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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