Vocation and Lutheran Higher Education

The latest issue of Intersections, published by the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities (NECU), includes articles by colleagues at NetVUE schools about campus programs at their institutions. Entitled “Called and Empowered (and Assessed),” the Spring 2022 also includes a note from out-going editor (Jason Mahn, a contributor to this blog) and in-coming editor Colleen Windham-Hughes of California Lutheran University. As Jason states in his editor’s note, most of the essays summarize comments that were shared at the 2022 NetVUE Conference in Dallas this March, and/or at the NECU gathering that preceded the NetVUE Conference.

Contents of Spring 2022 Intersections.


Jason writes, “As the authors here testify, grants and guidance from NetVUE have been instrumental in supporting their work. At the same time, Lutheran institutions—with our uniquely historical and contemporary commitments to educate for vocation— have provided noteworthy leadership within these wider networks. I think that part of the work ahead of us is to own and live into that leadership role.” The issue can be downloaded here.

A fire that burns but does not burn us out

Remember that booth from the Peanuts cartoons where Lucy used to offer Charlie Brown psychiatric care for five cents? That’s roughly where Moses is halfway through the Book of Exodus, sitting in his wilderness booth, chin in hand, the leader of a newly formed nation of ex-slaves spending his days fielding endless disputes.

It does make you wonder what quarrels the Israelites raised in the wilderness. How do you make a class action lawsuit about manna? How do you have a meaningful dispute about sandals that never wear out?

But humans gotta human. And I confess that on most days in 2022, I would gladly take a number and stand in line for some Mosaic adjudication.

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Familismo, success, and service to others

In my last post, I considered how approaching students of color from a deficit perspective (focusing on what preparation, skills, motivations, or resources they might lack) can be harmful to them and detrimental to the mentoring relationship, especially in the situation when the mentor is white. This focus does not recognize the assets that students have and which they bring with them to campus. Tara Yosso has identified six distinct forms of capital forming what she has termed “community cultural wealth,” a robust framework for thinking about the student experience. This model moves away from a more narrow, individualized understanding of assets and capital to a broader understanding, one based on the history and lived experience of communities of color. In this post, I want to focus on two forms, aspirational capital and familial capital, and how they come together to help students in navigating the world of college (and beyond). As David Pérez has shown in his work, this is especially the case with Latino male college students, who put a high premium on family (or familismo).

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Soaring Sophomores: A Pilot Course

The start of fall semester on a college campus brings a special feeling of excitement. But sophomore students face new and different challenges in year two of college. How might vocational exploration help sophomores not only persist but soar? I developed a 2-credit hour course called “Exploring Life Purpose and Your Major” to help students dive into their major while asking big life questions.

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The Problem with Colorblind Mentoring

Malcolm X described an early encounter with an English teacher as marking one of the major turning points in his life. In response to Mr. Ostrowski’s inquiry about what the young man was considering as a possible career, young Malcolm surprised himself by saying, “I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.” The “reddish white man” with the thick moustache told him that he needed to be realistic and suggested Malcolm go into carpentry.

This excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X is included in the first edition of Leading Lives That Matter in a section that addresses the influence of advice from others when considering vocation (“To Whom Should I Listen?”). The scene makes a reader cringe to imagine the situation and its implications, and the take-away seems clear. Thankfully, young Malcolm did not listen to the advice.

The strategy of “colorblindness” arose in part as a way to deal with the racist attitudes of the Mr. Ostrowskis of the world. In a “colorblind” society, as Omi and Winant in Racial Formation in the United States put the point, “racial inequality, racial politics, and race-consciousness itself would be greatly diminished in importance, and indeed relegated to the benighted past when discrimination and prejudice rules” (p. 22). But this imagined remedy often perpetuates racism by giving it a cover and does not sufficiently address the fact that racist attitudes are part of a larger racial system, a situation that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has called “Racism without Racists.” In this post, I want to briefly consider some recent work about how colorblindness negatively impacts mentoring.

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Vocation and the power of certain spaces

Have you ever had an experience of a physical space so powerful and so sudden that it energized your creativity and prompted the open question, “What if . . . ?” This happened to me recently, at the national NetVUE conference in Dallas. During downtime, my colleague Dr. Amy Hermanson let me accompany her on a long walk from our hotel to the site of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. As we walked, Amy fondly recalled the seminars and lectures she attended at the Institute earlier in her academic career. We were met by our host, Francis Ryburn, who graciously gave us a tour of their facilities at the Stroud House, on Routh Street.

The Stroud House is a modest, late 19th-century brick structure. Originally built as a residence, it was later used as a business center for small, arts-related designers and dealers, and the Dallas Institute acquired it in 2014 through the generosity of Dr. Joanne Stroud, who died in 2021. After chatting briefly with us, Francis offered to show us the interior spaces, which include a couple of large meeting rooms on the second floor. It’s here, in these rooms, where I was immediately impacted by the simplicity, dignity, and possibility of space—for the kinds of spaces that are perhaps needed for thinking about vocation and vocational discernment. These quiet rooms are places in which to dream, reflect, be befriended and mentored, and get clarity.

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What Is Our Work Now?

Our Religion department chair always begins meetings with a round of check-ins. The check-in question changes, but the invitation to share from something professional or personal is always there. This feels right—perhaps because the members of our department have worked together for over a decade. Or maybe because we know intimately how twined and tangled the personal and the professional are for those of us who out live our teaching vocation.

This week, a department member opened our check-in saying, “I’m having a rough day, but I’m doing my best in this moment to be present to the work.” Before I could think, I blurted out, “I’m also having a rough day, but I’m not sure what our work is now.”

On the surface, my comment made no sense. The agenda for the department meeting was clear: discuss core curriculum revisions, construct a shared assignment on “identity” for all first year religion and theology classes, and set hiring priorities for the fall (we lost three faculty this academic year). But eight weeks into the semester, five semesters into the pandemic, and two plus years into educational upheaval, my confusion was real.

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Valleys and Hollers: Vocation in Rural Settings

Some might associate the word “rural” with “the boonies” or the “middle of nowhere.” If you have Appalachian roots like me, the idea of the “holler” might come to mind. Whether you’re a “flatlander” or nestled in a cascade of valleys, the word “rural” might conjure images of rolling farmland or long stretches of road across the horizon. Being rural has implications for higher education, ranging from policy creation to fascinating ideas like placemaking and boundary spanning. It also affects how we think about vocation.

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Playing Devil’s Advocate: Vocational Wisdom from The Screwtape Letters

In a previous post, I wrote about assigning “Learning in Wartime” in a vocation seminar when COVID first hit. I wrote about how profound that text was for my students and about their moving responses to Lewis’ sermon. Here, I want to describe the next reading I assigned, The Screwtape Letters, which was equally engaging to students, similarly insightful about vocation, and provided them with an essential skill for persisting in the right direction: playing devil’s advocate.

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Vocation and the folly of “time management”

What are we assuming about time when we consider our vocations or work to help students in discerning their callings?

The metaphors we use when we talk about time reveal some of those assumptions. In a recent episode of On Being, Krista Tippett talked with Oliver Burkeman about time, specifically all the ways that we try to organize time when we engage in the project of “time management.” It puts us into a very strange relationship with time. Burkeman’s observations are a helpful reminder of something with which existentialists have wrestled for over a century.

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