Acton Institute Powerblog

Vocation vs. occupation: Embracing the breadth of ‘full-time ministry’

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Christians have routinely embraced a range of false dichotomies when it comes to so-called “full-time ministry,” confining such work to the life and vocation of the pastor, evangelist, or missionary. The implications are clear: Those who enter or leave such vocations are thought to be “entering the work world” or “leaving the ministry,” whether for business, education, government, or otherwise.

Yet even when we reject such divides, recognizing the depth and breadth of Christian vocation, we still tend to parse which path is more “special” or “specific” when it comes to Christian calling. “God may have called me to the factory floor,” we might say, “but despite the meaning I find in the workplace, such work is far less important or spiritually significant than the vocation of the pastor or priest.”

In a chapter from Essays for the Common Good, the latest ebook from the Made to Flourish network, pastor James E. Baucom, Jr. points out the dangers of such a perspective, as well as its surprising prevalence, even amid the seeming self-awareness of the faith and work movement. “With apologies to all of my clergy friends and colleagues, there is nothing vocationally special about me, and there is nothing vocationally special about any of you,” he writes.

For Baucom, who serves as senior pastor of Columbia Church in Falls Church, VA, far too many Christians are still dwelling on a false dichotomy between “vocation” and “occupation,” often recognizing the spiritual value of “everyday labor” across the economic order even as they assign greater spiritual weight to “clerical ministry,” or assume a greater level of spiritual discernment is necessary therein and throughout.

“This common distinction [between occupation and vocation] raises a critical question for the faith, work, and economics movement,” Baucom says. “Does every person committed to the cause of Christ have a vocation, or are some called while others are merely occupied? More precisely, is everyone called to their career by God in specific ways, or are only those engaged explicitly in clerical ‘Kingdom endeavors’ called forth by God while others are challenged to commend their chosen occupations to the common good retrospectively?”

In embracing this perspective, we dilute our economic imaginations and limit the scope of our service, both in the church and the world. Further, in doing so, Baucom argues that “we are nurturing generations of Christ-followers who are becoming deaf to God’s call for all believers.”

What if, instead, we expanded our view to consider the diverse ways in which God is moving among those created in his image?

To inspire that vision, Baucom draws heavily from the Bible, whether from our common calling to cultivate creation as a whole (Genesis 1:27-28, 2:15, Exodus 20:9) or our individual callings to manifest that cultivation in specific, Spirit-directed ways across the economy (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). “There is no special manifestation of the Holy Spirit given to any particular category of believer,” he writes, “except that everyone receives gifts suitable to the work assigned them by God. The same God is working in all of us for the common good, and together we form one body of Christ at work in the world (1 Corinthians 4:12-26).”

Further, throughout the Biblical story, we see God working through and amid a wide variety of vocational and/or occupational paths and seasons, bringing diversity and unique expression to spiritual mission, whether we observe the similarities and differences of Jeremiah vs. Isaiah as prophets, Daniel vs. Nehemiah as political influencers, Moses vs. Joshua as leaders, or Samuel vs. Ezra as priests.

Each has a specific calling. Each has a specific story when it comes to how they heard, discerned, and followed that calling. And yet none is elevated as more “special” or “spiritually directed” than the other.

Drawing from his own context and experience, Baucom also recounts multiple occasions where congregants and pastors have challenged his basic assertion, each coming from a different perspective. Even in the faith and work movement, Baucom sees plenty of confusion and missed opportunity.

Among congregants and workers:

There are the proverbial people in the pews, many of whom would prefer to do whatever they like and whatever profits or pleases them most without regard to God’s plans for their careers. A theological construct in which calling has primarily to do with the clergy affords such persons greater personal freedom with lower degrees of accountability.”

Among pastors and those in “clerical ministry”:

Far too many pastors are more than willing to play this game…Western society has increasingly discounted pastors as respectable and valuable community leaders, and this fall from societal grace has not been easy for clerical professionals to stomach. The titans of our culture today are entrepreneurs and business magnates, not spiritual leaders. For many pastors, to acknowledge the calling of people as equal to their own is to affirm the collective judgment of the culture. Some clergy may hang on to the uniqueness of their calling as a sort of last bastion of dignity.

Among leaders in the faith and work movement (“business spiritualists”):

Leaders in the faith and work movement have also fed this phenomenon — or at least missed significant opportunities to counter it — by failing to acknowledge the importance and breadth of clergy and the larger church to our undertaking. Too often, faith, work, and economics entrepreneurs have fostered a disjointed and disconnected collective of parachurch (and sometimes antichurch) organizations whose leaders have ironically divorced Monday from Sunday in the same ways that so many congregrational leaders have divorced Sunday from Monday. Too many business spirtualists have failed to honor or even acknowledge the significant impacts of congregational leaders and congregations in the lives and careers of those they sought to impact, though they have no seemed to know it.

In the end, Baucom doesn’t so much point to “balance” as he paints an expansive yet simple view of whole-life discipleship. Without it, our vocabulary about vocation and calling will become muddled and confused and our economic activity will be fragmented and disconnected from an active embrace of spiritual empowerment and transformation across all spheres of society.

Rather than solving some grand tension between “occupation” and “vocation,” what if we all embraced lives of “ordinary discipleship” — everyday economic actors who view their lives as “full-time ministry” and everyday clerical ministers who see countless opportunities for creative service and common-good transformation?

“The call of God on a person’s life is entirely ordinary to the experience of any true disciple of Jesus Christ, and that call encompasses every disciple’s occupation,” he concludes. “That is to say, vocation is basic to following Jesus.”

Image: Alfredo Mendez (CC BY 2.0)

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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