Series editor’s note: To gain deeper understandings about Christian vocation, I turned to the deans of our ELCA seminaries for theological and personal reflections on their callings. All were able to respond except Bradley Binau of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, who is on sabbatical. They are donating the author stipend to the ELCA Fund for Leaders, which provides scholarships to the seminaries.
As deans of Lutheran seminaries, we have many occasions to talk about and think about vocation. Indeed, this often is one of the best parts of our work: discerning our own calls and assisting in the discernment of others, and thinking about the task of theological education, the state of the church, and the role of a public minister in a congregation and society.
Kristin Johnston Largen, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Pa.)
One of the best things about a Lutheran concept of vocation is that it continually reminds us not to equate it with occupation, as if we only live out our vocation through our employment. Instead, we understand that all Christians receive their vocation in their baptism, and the call is as straightforward as it is daunting: love God and love your neighbor.
When seen this way, every Christian has a vocation, whether she is 5 or 95. We live out that vocation raising children, studying, working retail, nurturing friendships, playing sports, volunteering and voting. In all we do, we are called to glorify God, serve our neighbor and dedicate our lives to the care and redemption of all God has made. We are invited to live boldly, love radically and walk alongside the Spirit in the path she sets before us. While a Christian vocation isn’t easy, it’s a gift and joy all the same.
Craig Nessan, Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa
Just as each of us lives out baptismal vocation in the arenas of daily life—at home, school, workplace, in the community and across the globe—so an academic dean lives out vocation forming church leaders.
Theological education serves “to equip saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). In our time this means increased focus on equipping all the baptized for mission in their particular spheres of influence, with renewed attention on forming congregations as teaching and learning communities. Ministers of word and sacrament serve the gospel with its power to set people free from all that prevents them from being the people God intended. Ministers of word and service are both personally involved in and act to catalyze the whole church in its movement from sanctuary to the streets.
Jayakiran Sebastian,Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia
In our context, where we have created all kinds of hierarchies, talking about vocation is a challenge. Even as we speak of ourselves as dust, ashes and earth, we create hierarchies of class, caste and gender, and of race, economic, cultural, social, educational and national status, do we not? Does the propensity for violence and our complicity in the spiral of violence relativize who we really are? When it comes to the use and abuse of power; when we claim to have agency over the lives, destinies, bodies and future of others; when we deem others dispensable and disposable, we have denied their God-given callings. Do black lives really matter, or do we merely want to make sure the right people hear and affirm our protests?
It is in this cauldron of sorting things out in everyday life where our vocations lie.
Craig Koester, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.
My vocation centers on the ministry of the gospel. I’ve been called by the church to that ministry and over the years it has taken various forms. For a number of years I lived out my calling in parish ministry. There were the regular pastoral responsibilities of preaching, administering the sacraments, teaching and community formation.
Later that shifted to a calling into the specialized ministry of seminary teaching. As a teacher of New Testament, I’ve focused on equipping the students who will be leaders in the ministry of the gospel in our congregations. For several years I’ve also been academic dean, involving oversight of educational programs and the faculty and staff who make them possible. Supporting their vocations is my vocation, and it’s for the sake of the church’s witness and service.
Esther Menn, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
Sometimes the vocation of a dean finds expression through the most ordinary of things. Writing a letter from the dean’s office, for example, is so routine that it may not seem worthy of note. Yet it’s often in such simple matters that a dean’s dedication to the faculty, students and entire institution becomes evident.
A well-written letter has the power to communicate a difficult decision clearly and diplomatically, to argue for a strategic course of action, or to recognize and honor individuals for work well done. Such a letter takes thought, research and even consultation to get everything right. All this effort is behind the scenes, and the letter itself soon ends up in some file or trash can. Still there is a quiet satisfaction when the practical kind of work that one does as a dean proves effective in furthering the seminary’s mission.
Alicia Vargas, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif.
I see my vocation first and foremost as a baptized child of God. God calls me to be precisely that, a child of God in all relationships and responsibilities of my life. I’m privileged to be able to exercise that vocation as a spouse, parent, grandparent, friend, citizen, community partner, ordained minister, professor and academic dean. I recognize this to be a privilege in the positive aspects of that word. Many are blocked from exercising their vocation as God’s children in areas denied them because of socio-economic and systemic reasons beyond their control. The negative effects on those who are “underprivileged” bid those of us who can choose our vocations to examine our privileged status. A prime expression of my vocation as professor and academic dean is to foster inquiry into vocational areas from which many find themselves prohibited.
Mary Sue Dreier, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, S.C.
The image of a midwife shapes my understanding of being interim dean this year. Midwives facilitate the natural birth process by lending a hand as God brings new life into the world. As midwife dean, I attend to colleagues as they give birth to practices, pedagogies and programs that form and transform theological education. I attend to students as they give birth to imagination, insight and expertise for leading a 21st-century church that is becoming a new creation.
This is one expression of the radically free vocation of all Christians who, as Martin Luther invites, do not serve the neighbor in search of gratitude, praise or gain but out of love and joy in Christ.