Moving from one stage of life to another can be extremely challenging. The future appears scary and unstable; pursuing one’s passion feels too risky; status and security are very luring. It is easy to be swayed in different and conflicting directions by the pressures of friends and family. Very few, if any, people listen without giving advice that confuses more than it illuminates.
We are leading a project which aims to help those in such a situation by providing spaces to discuss and discern vocation.
The project was inspired by our experience this summer on the CTC Summer Internship, led by the Revd Tim Clapton, Selina Stone and Sister Josephine Canny. Alongside our community organising placements, we spent a handful of afternoons thinking about vocation. We all wrote spiritual autobiographies, heard and shared various vocation stories, and also reflected on scripture.
Throughout we were guided by a number of maxims that Tim laid out about the nature of vocation – among others, that our vocation is connected to our humanity; that discernment is a communal rather than individual activity; and that we receive guidance by somehow letting go. We were struck by the power of several CTC staff members’ honest testimonies. Discernment, we came to see, is a continuous life struggle.
Towards the end of the month it became clear to us that others could benefit from the kind of experience and guidance we interns had received. And so, Dunstan Rodrigues, Francesca Webster, Zoe Mathias, Shermara Fletcher, Laura MacFarlane and Laura MacDonald formed a core team to share what we had learnt – a ‘vocation project’ was born.
Crucially, we realised, just as the experience of the summer interns was made possible by an institution – the Centre for Theology and Community – in the same way people across the country need institutions that can help them discern. So, we decided: not only will our project address the question of ‘where is God calling me?’; we will also think about ‘what do institutions that help their members discern where God is calling them look like?’
We want to collaborate with all sorts of institutions – churches, schools, universities, youth groups, trade unions, businesses – to provide spaces and resources for discernment. Churches can model this by addressing the struggles that most young people face – ‘What should I do with my life?’ ‘Who should I listen to?’. Rather than presuming that students should prioritise prestige and stability, careers services should more consciously listen and assist students in processes of reflection before jumping in with professional advice. Businesses can create graduate schemes which genuinely allow employees to discover what gives them life.
We feel that this kind of discernment – reflective but not clerical – is somewhat lacking at present. On the one hand, there are of course lots of careers services which offer advice, but sometimes do so in a materialistic, narrow way, skipping any period of thoughtful reflection. On the other hand, the church discussion of vocation often remains rather clerical: religious vocation is given priority over other kinds of lay vocation.
But we think it vital that those with broader lay vocations – such as a call to leadership, to teaching, or to encourage others (Romans 12: 6-8) – can also reflect deeply and gain the courage to search for or even create a form of life in which they can flourish.
We are excited that our initiative comes amidst broader political calls for the embedding of vocation in our institutions. In their newly-published book The Politics of Virtue, John Milbank and Adrian Pabst argue that for an individual to flourish they require a renewed sense of vocation. They have various suggestions about how this can happen including a national programme for on-the-job training and mentoring; an increase in apprenticeships; and the creation of a national Vocational Fund to improve quality and workplace standards.
But we are also wary that the concept of vocation can easily be distorted. It can be used by employers to legitimate unjust working hours – (‘Teaching is your vocation, so don’t complain about the extra work’), understood in an entirely functional way (‘Vocational training ultimately gets you a job’) or simply elided with ‘career’.
So our project seeks to help institutions use and discuss vocation in a way that is authentic and responds to people’s vulnerabilities.
We are currently on the listening stage of our project, reaching out to individuals and institutions. We hope before the end of the year to run a small event to test out and share our ideas.
If our project interests you, please do contact Dunstan Rodrigues (firstname.lastname@example.org)