Vocation Virtually: The Importance of People

Part 4 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, story, and people.

A fourth metaphor for vocation is people. Vocations are crowded, populated with individuals and communities that clarify our callings. This can happen negatively. “I never want to be like that!” More often, it happens positively. “I admire this person or those people.” Understanding this metaphor positively cultivates the sense that “If you’re with me, I can be my best self.”

The metaphor of people or relationships brings attention to the complex relationship between individual and community. What communities do I claim? And what communities claim me? I belong to my wild and crazy family, even if I didn’t choose them and they didn’t choose me. I belong differently to my university, my professional colleagues, my church community, the people in my neighborhood, my friends and fellow travelers. Again, I chose some of these people; others chose me. In a friendship or marriage, two people continue to choose each other day after day. Each of these relationships marks its members with certain values and certain practices or rituals of belonging. 

For example, a student felt a deep sense of belonging to the Hmong people, a community into which she was born and to which she felt deeply loyal. Whatever her place, wherever her path, she felt called to work with that community. When she started her sophomore year, she wanted to be a lawyer, specializing in civil rights for her people. After a rough pre-law course, she changed her major to business, and she focused on working with vendors in the vibrant Hmong Village in St. Paul. 

If her sole metaphor for calling had been place, this young woman might have worried about changing, even forsaking, that calling. Vocation as a calling by and to a people rang true to her. The Hmong community anchored this woman, even as her career and professional goals shifted. 

A powerful biblical mentor for this metaphor is Ruth, a Moabite woman who married into a Jewish family who’d fled to Moab to escape famine. When all the men in the family die–her husband, her father-in-law, and her brother-in-law–Ruth’s Jewish mother-in-law Naomi decides to rejoin her own people. She instructs her two daughters-in-law to do the same. Ruth demurs, refusing to return to her own people and choosing instead to “belong” to Naomi’s. 

Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

Ruth 1:16-17, New Revised Standard Version

Seeing her determination, Naomi does not dissuade her. Indeed, Ruth makes her way into Matthew’s gospel, where she features in Jesus’ genealogy, a list dominated by men (Matthew 1:5).

Jesus himself offers more mentoring in the claims of community. In the ancient world, whoever you ate and drank with were literally your “peeps” or your friends. Among his detractors, Jesus quickly got the reputation for hanging out with the “wrong” kinds of people. They whispered about him as “a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners”  (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34). Those were the people Jesus claimed; those were the people who claimed him.

Outside the bible, the metaphor of people surfaces powerfully in Eastern religious traditions. The Hmong people count the ancestors in their community of belonging, and they call on shamans to ritually communicate with them. 

Community dominates the Confucian landscape in this-worldly ways, helping people navigate imbalances in power. Relationships exist at the interface of twin virtues, ren and liRen describes five relationships that composed ancient Confucian society, between parent and child, ruler and subject, among older and younger siblings, husband and wife, and older and younger friends. Li describes the appropriate virtues that make for “right relationship” in each contexts: e.g., kindness, respect, deference, affection, loyalty, et al. Together these virtues animate the known world. 

Here are some exercises that invite students to think about the importance of relationships and communities of belonging in their own lives. It asks them to identify specific mentors and gets them thinking about people who’d be willing to recommend them for a job, fellowship, or graduate program. 

Exercise #1: Name your “peeps/people”

Read Ruth 1:1-18.  

Ruth chooses to belong to one community; she rejects another. Have you ever made a similar decision?  What was at stake? 

We are all part of communities or groups that claim us, communities that we claim. It could be a family, a faith tradition, a sports team, a choral group. It could even be a campus community like mine, where “We are called |Auggies.” Being an “Auggie” means belonging to a particular community that orients around certain values, like service, intentional diversity, being a good neighbor. 

  1. List three communities you claim.  
  2. Give an example of a value or core commitment you learned by belonging. 
  3. Describe a ritual or practice your community shares.  
  4. In a brief paragraph, tell how you made this value your own. 

Exercise #2:  Name your mentors:  Three snapshots

In his book Let Your Life Speak (2000), Parker Palmer writes that “the ancient human question ‘Who am I?’ leads inevitably to the equally important question ‘Whose am I?’”—for there is no selfhood outside of relationships (p. 17). Describe three people whom you believe have helped you be your “best self.” For each, address the following: 

  • How did you meet this person and how long have you known each other? Tell a brief story that captures your relationship.
  • What’s one value or core commitment you’ve learned from this person and how did you learn it?
  • How has this relationship made you a better person or focused your calling?

Each “snapshot” should be about 200 words long. If appropriate, include a photo. 

For further reading: For more Confucian insights about vocation, see Matt Duperon’s “Confucian Metaphors for Discerning Meaning.” For more on community, see Jeff Brown’s two-part post on Wendell Berry and community. On the importance of community during the pandemic, see Mindy Makant’s “Casseroles and Community” and Jason Mahn on “Neighbor Love.”

V-PORTFOLIO SERIES: Click here to see the entire series of posts describing the v-portfolio and each of the five metaphors.


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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