Calling as Summons: Treading carefully in the “cult of calling”

“So, I no longer say that ‘God calls me’ in the same smug way that I once did.” So writes Leslie Verner in a recent article on why she has left the “cult of calling.” Instead, Leslie concludes, she now uses language of calling more carefully, perhaps more reluctantly, thinking of her callings as contingent and subject to change — “if I use those words, I preface it by saying that I am called to this ‘for now.’ And if and when that calling shifts, I am left standing on solid ground, because my calling is to intimacy with Jesus Christ. And he never changes.”

Should we abandon the language of calling, even in difficult cases where our lives take an unexpected turn? Leslie’s insightful words are an invitation to think carefully about the nature of our calls — and specifically, what it means to be summoned by something or someone outside of ourselves. 

Verner begins the piece recounting the idealism of her twenties. She wanted to follow Continue reading

Avoiding the BS: Education as a Relationship

What if we stopped thinking of education as an object — a system, a process, a collection of entities — and started to think of it as a relationship? What if it is meant to be nurtured and cultivated, rather than quantified and evaluated?

Chronicle Review Illustration by Scott Seymour (Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9, 2018)

This was the question posed by a former student of mine, in a discussion on Facebook about Christian Smith’s recent Chronicle essay titled “Higher Education is Drowning in BS.” For those who missed it, Smith’s jeremiad is a 22-item list of everything that is wrong at the present moment, from “hypercommercialized college athletics” to “disciplines unable to talk with each other.” But one can agree with practically every item on Smith’s list and miss the larger point: that these problems stem from a failure to treat education as a relationship.

In our Facebook exchange, my former student comment that the problems that Smith identifies may be “the harvest of the ‘common grievance over parking.’” He was referring to Continue reading

Doing my job and doing it right (Part 2)

Francois Clemmons at StoryCorp, March 2016

In my last post (what seems like ages ago now!), I tried to argue that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, is a special type of story that engages important  themes related to vocational discernment.  Specifically, I was interested in the interplay of the particular work one does, the place where the work is done, and how that work supports the flourishing of individuals and relationships in a community.  In that post, I also promised to return to another story told by Mr. Miranda — not Hamilton — to support my claim that Miranda is a remarkable modern explicator of vocation.  If not the greatest!  But first, allow me a brief detour to explain how Miranda’s short musical, 21 Chump Street, captured my enthusiasm as something useful for engaging students with vocational discernment.

It was an otherwise typical Friday morning in March (2016!) while I was driving my daughter to school.   The weekly installment of StoryCorp on NPR moved me to tears when Francois Clemmons told the story of how Fred Rogers had approached him in the late 1960’s to ask him to play the role of a police officer, Officer Clemmons, on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Continue reading

Beyond “warm and fuzzy” mentoring

To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, “Mentoring kids is a difficult matter. / It isn’t just one of your holiday games.” Many obstacles confront undergraduate advising and mentoring. Faculty are pressed for time and advising often becomes a mere cog in the course registration machine. Colleges sell meaningful mentoring to students but rarely offer the needed resources to support robust advising. Students expect ready answers and affirming words — they want their advising to be “warm and fuzzy.”

Moreover, we tend to think of advising and mentoring as an individualistic endeavor; its goals include helping the student to navigate college and to find a personally suitable direction in life. But what if we looked beyond the student’s life-long personal fulfillment, and sought to make mentoring a socially transformative endeavor? What would this require Continue reading

Be Like Lulu

She’s all over the internet these days: soft brown eyes, deep in thought, with beautiful, shiny black . . . fur. Lulu is a service dog from Susquehanna who was enrolled in the CIA’s “puppy class” to be trained for explosive detection and other K-9 tasks. She has been showing up all over the web during the last few days for having failed to make the grade in her training.

It seems that Lulu was showing signs that she just wasn’t interested in the work. She was easily distracted; even when her trainers provided more incentives (in the form of food or play), she just wasn’t enjoying herself. She wanted to sniff for rabbits, rather than bombs.  She wanted work that provided Continue reading

Doing my job and doing it right: Part 1

What if I told you that the greatest modern explicator of  “all things vocation” isn’t Frederick Buechner, Parker Palmer, or Wendell Berry… but is, in fact, Lin-Manuel Miranda?  “Of course!” you would say, because everyone (especially our editor, David Cunningham) knows there is a Hamilton lyric for everything.  If the shoe fits . . . wear it.

I’m sure that a great blog post is just waiting to be written, connecting the story of Alexander Hamilton—especially in Miranda’s retelling—to vocation. That may come later; meanwhile, two examples of Miranda’s earlier work are worth exploring.  My larger topic is professional formation — and how college faculty might use certain stories to begin conversations with students about what it means to be a professional. If I’m doing my job, and I’m doing right, what exactly am I doing? Continue reading

An historical digression on “what” and “how” in vocational discernment

In my last major post, I suggested that vocation can be understood as story — namely,

as a type of story that we tell ourselves and others—a story that gives meaning to our lives and structures how we understand who we are and what we do. It makes sense of lives as we look backward and it guides our aspirations and choices as we look to the future.

Storytelling Bench in Lanesboro, Minnesota, by Be Here Main Street (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Storytelling Bench in Lanesboro, Minnesota

Vocation, in this approach, is one of the West’s master plots for making sense of life. This master plot has changed over the centuries, and its key insight—that it is more important to discern how to live than what to do—may be in danger of being lost.

In its modern forms, the vocational story can be understood in purely secular terms;  but in its origin, it represented a revolutionary recasting of an old Christian notion. Continue reading