Finding a Way When Vocation is Denied

“I’m confused about my vocational direction.” I often heard these words from students when I was mentoring seminary students. In some instances, the student was clear that ordained ministry was the calling but was searching for the right fit of location and work. In other instances, ordained ministry was not the direction and so the task became helping the student to discern what service to the greater good might look like for them.

The most difficult situations, though, involved those students who had a clear sense of calling, meaning and purpose in a specific area in which there were barriers, based in bias and marginalization, to their engagement in that type of work. For example, there might be an inability to get the credentials needed because of poverty or a lack of opportunity due to systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, or transphobia. In other instances, the block might be an injury, family responsibility, a disabling condition, religious institutional practices, or larger world events. Most often in these challenging instances, the student was perfectly clear about a vocational direction; what was unclear was what to do instead.

How do we guide students to find their calling, when the fulfillment of that calling is denied to them in very real ways? How do we help them to find a way of living out their calling despite the barriers they face, rather than helping them find “what to do instead”?  

We serve our students best when we help them to discover ways to reorient the passions and skills that are genuine to a particular calling into a new direction that allows them to do the meaningful work they feel called to pursue, rather than resigning themselves to a secondary choice that does not pose the same barriers.

Engaging all the intersectional realities of social marginalization as a significant aspect of the process of vocational discernment makes this work deeply complicated. There are real structural barriers of discrimination that limit the choices available for some students. Counseling students to merely adapt and do something else that is open to them does not understand the reality of the dilemma or do the work of justice. There is no simple answer or recipe for how to help students through this struggle. It is likely some of the most challenging work as vocational advisors that we might do with students.

For LGBTIQ students dealing with marginalization and barriers rooted in homophobia and transphobia, these intersectional issues are compounded by the challenges of navigating disclosure. What should they reveal about their gender and sexuality? If they reveal a gender non-normativity, they place themselves in a situation for possible bias and discrimination directed at them. If they do not reveal themselves, they place themselves in a situation of internalized oppression and moral compromise that will affect their capacity to live freely in the work and perform most effectively. For some, like LGBTIQ-BIPOC persons or straight women, the decision about disclosure may be made for them. This “involuntary outness” could expose them to racial and gender discrimination and stereotyping as they pursue their vocational direction.

As I have struggled to assist students with these issues, I have found it helpful to support two movements in their lives: (1) helping them see their vocational direction as an activism of resistance, and (2) helping them to find a direction that allows the most freedom of spirit and passion so that the calling can be engaged in some manner. Attending to these factors can provide important grounding to reorient a sense of an authentic calling that does not settle for “what to do instead.”

On a communal level, when we engage in actions to resist barriers, we make a witness that the barriers are unjust and prevents important work that serves the world from being accomplished. On a personal level, if access to the fulfillment of the calling is denied, then the fact of you (your embodied non-normativity) and your willingness to pursue some way to live the calling out, embodies that resistance and presses for a transformation. In this type of action of resistance, you are not just resisting for your own sake, but for a transformation of a system that creates an injustice.  Additionally, helping students to clarify the freedom they hold to move in specific directions toward their vocational leanings occurs most effectively when we can understand fully the intersectional realities of their personal experiences. As we understand their lived reality further, we can help them to discern the freedoms they possess to move forward and the barriers in the way to vocational fulfillment.

These are difficult conversations to be sure; it requires time, openness, and opportune questions. Perhaps you have some that have worked well in your conversations with students. If so, put them in the comments for all to share.

Here are some questions that I have found useful:

What feelings are tugging most at your heart?

What is the cost (for you, for others, for your community) of the choices you have before you?

What communal supports do you have to bear those costs?

What are the significant joys and satisfactions of the decisions before you?

What are some ways to balance both the joys and the costs of the path that you seek to pursue?

What are the costs of gender and sexuality disclosures? What are the gains?

In what direction or choices do you feel the most freedom to be your most grounded and genuine self?

Can we think together of all the job areas that use your skills and passions in the work you feel called to pursue?

Most importantly, students need to be able to walk away from their discussions with us clearly aware of the difference between “making a living” and “making a life.”  Discerning vocational calling requires that we assist them in finding ways to balance out the conflicting realities of both demands—they need to be able to both live out lives of meaning and purpose and make a living to support themselves and other persons to whom they have commitments. This is the heart of the vocational struggle when the call is clear but the way forward has barriers of social injustice: helping students find ways to live out the spiritual and philosophical callings and convictions that lead toward a dedicated life of purpose and meaning, while finding a way to live responsible adult lives. And…sometimes the two cannot come together.

Assisting students in that struggle to discern choices that allow them to “make a life” rather than just “make a living” is our work as advisors and teachers—the work of our own vocational journey as well.

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. For other blog posts by Kathy, click here.

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