What shall I do with my life?
The question puzzles us as youngsters, when we hear well-meaning adults ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It riddles us as students, when teachers inquire about postgraduation plans. It presses on us in adulthood, when we consider work, volunteer opportunities or further schooling. We face it again when our jobs end, our children move out, our loved ones depart or our living arrangements shift.
The Christian answer to the question “What shall I do with my life,” asserts Dorothy C. Bass, is vocation. In other words: “Respond to God’s call.”
Bass, a Lutheran author, studied vocation and other associated topics alongside her husband, Lutheran academic Mark Schwehn, while updating their anthology Leading Lives That Matter (Eerdmans, 2006) for publication of a second edition this June. Though student input guided the first edition, Schwehn said vocational discernment isn’t just for young people.
“Vocation has to do with the shape and meaning of a human life,” he said. “So long as [you’re] alive and functioning, you have multiple callings, such as grandparent, parishioner or citizen. … It’s very Lutheran to think you’re multiply stationed in places of responsibility.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Luther on vocation
In Martin Luther’s day, the general public believed that those called to ministry were more noble than the common person. The word “vocacio” was reserved for spiritual occupations, such as being a priest or nun, said Timothy Wengert, professor emeritus of Reformation history at United Lutheran Seminary.
What’s revolutionary about Luther’s theology is that he believed God calls everyone to serve, Wengert noted. Vocation gives our lives purpose from childhood through older adulthood. “He [understands] that we are called through our baptism. He also insists that we are called into this world to serve our neighbor,” he said. “Luther understood the callings of God to include absolutely everything we do in life.”
Vocation includes both our daily rhythms or livelihoods and our responsibilities as they relate to others. Luther was especially interested in familial relationships. The very act of changing diapers, he declared, is living out one’s parental vocation.
“Any kind of honorable work, any daily activity … becomes an expression of vocation,” said Michael Bennethum, author of Listen! God Is Calling! (Augsburg Fortress, 2003) and director for evangelical mission in the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod. “For a child, that calling might be schoolwork; for a homemaker, it’s keeping a home; for an artisan, it’s using your gifts or talents to create good products for the benefit of customers.”
What’s key for Luther is living with a sense of Christian love and intentionality, he added.
Martin Luther King Jr. echoed such notions in a 1967 address to students in Philadelphia: “When you discover what you’re going to do in life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. … If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.’”
Even work that society deems lowly is honorable in God’s eyes insofar as it contributes to the well-being of our neighbors. Luther’s teachings on vocation bring dignity to our daily living.
One criticism of Luther’s stance on vocation is that it suggests menial laborers should be content with their station in life. Bennethum said this is a misunderstanding: “[People suggest] Luther is trying to keep the servant class down. [Luther] was for social mobility. … What he was saying is you may stay in the social role and position you’re in. He was acting over and against a religious culture that said the only way to lead a holy life was to enter ministry.”
Every moment can be holy when you live your days attuned to God’s call.
Realms of responsibility
“For Luther the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to which we are joined in our baptisms, frees us from having to impress God with who we are or what we do. By faith in God’s promise in Christ we are free to serve our neighbor not by escaping from this work to live among religious people, but by living our everyday lives” (Luther’s Small Catechism, Anniversary Study Edition; Augsburg Fortress; 2016).
How do people shift their perspective and tap into their vocation? Luther’s household chart, found in his Small Catechism, is a great starting point, Wengert said. Luther divided life into three arenas:
- Household (this encompasses family life and career because many worked from the home during his time).
The text that follows breaks down these realms even further to guide reflection on your unique vocation. Pull out a pad of paper, open your laptop or launch the Notes app on your smartphone, and use this section to reflect on your myriad callings.
- At home or work
Child. Sibling. Parent. Doting grandparent. Proud godparent. Partner. Spouse. Roommate. Friend. Pet whisperer. Tender of houseplants. Begin your exploration of vocation by considering the many “hats” you wear at home—some are duty-driven; others relational. Ask yourself: Who or what do I care for? And who cares for me? Jot down each unique role.
Who or what do I care for?
Luther notes in his household chart that even widowers have a role to fulfill. If you are mourning, you might also name that on your list. Additionally, if you actively host visitors such as neighbors or exchange students, you can write down “host/hostess.”
Now reflect on your daily work. You may be actively studying, raising children, working for an organization or a company, taking a break from work or retired. Perhaps you’re a consultant or other freelancer. Maybe you’re in ministry or the armed services.
Describe your duties. Consider the micro-responsibilities associated with your calls. For example, a pastor may also write and speak extensively outside of her congregation. A retiree may live his vocation by pursuing travel, hobbies, time with family or volunteerism.
When you can write no further, examine your list. Consider the sense of satisfaction you derive from performing such roles. Ask: Which calls bring me the most joy? How about the most dread? Are there roles that I’m not actively embracing?
Spend some time brainstorming fresh approaches you can bring to each call. For example, you may resolve to approach your friendships with more intention. Or maybe a shift in perspective will provide extra energy the next time you’re summoned to parent or grandparent a child.
- In your church
In her role as spiritual gifts director for Women of the ELCA, Valora Starr has observed that parishioners still tend to see vocation as relegated to rostered ministers.
Luther would remind us that our call as members of a faith community is equally important, Wengert said. Answering this call can take a variety of shapes, including our presence at worship, our friendship toward others in our congregation, our leadership in a committee or our mentoring of young people.
For this call, it’s important to discern all of one’s gifts and talents. An incorrect volunteer match can diminish a parishioner’s joy or sense of purpose in his congregation, Starr said. For example, a banker joins a congregation and is expected to be the treasurer. She really wants to volunteer using gifts besides her ability to work with numbers, but she feels stuck in this call and eventually burns out.
This is where the ELCA’s spiritual gifts assessment tool can come in handy. Starr suggests that ELCA members use the tool to appraise all their spiritual gifts so they can find volunteer opportunities more closely matching their natural talents and abilities.
Congregations need musicians, teachers, preachers, committee members, readers, greeters, quilters, organizers and others for creative, innovative ministries. “Congregations are wonderful little laboratories of vocation,” Bass said. “Older people and rostered [ministers] are often crucial in helping young [parishioners] determine their vocation.”
“Congregations are wonderful little laboratories of vocation.”
Before volunteering, ask yourself: What does my congregation need? How am I involved? Where do I need to step back in order to realign my talents with the existing calls? Jot down your answers.
Beyond your congregation, consider living out your calling through your synod. If you aren’t already receiving your synod’s newsletter, sign up. What speaks to you? There may be synod-led initiatives you can support.
Your vocation as an ELCA member also includes the work of the churchwide organization. From ELCA World Hunger to ELCA Advocacy to the ELCA Youth Gathering, there is a place for you to match your talents with existing ministries. Learn more at elca.org/our-work.
Consider your spiritual gifts and passions and the ways they might match the needs of the ELCA in its three expressions (your congregation, your synod and the churchwide organization). Ask: Do I feel tugged toward leadership? Do I feel a need to step back from congregational work that is not fulfilling and make room for new opportunities? Write this down.
Remember, you don’t have to do it all. We are part of a faith community doing God’s work with our hands—together.
- Around the block, country and world
Finally, consider your vocation as it relates to society. Luther knew the church wasn’t the center of the universe. He was more interested in how God calls us outside the church walls. “The absolute core of Luther’s ethics is the notion of neighbor love,” Bennethum said.
Vocation urges us to love and serve our neighbors. Calls in society include being a:
- Neighbor to people living on our block or in our community.
- Greeter to those visiting or seeking refuge in our city.
- Citizen who votes, pays taxes, obeys laws and speaks out against injustice.
- Volunteer who assists schools or civic organizations.
- Activist who protests poverty, racism and other kinds of injustice, near and far.
- Earth-dweller tasked with caring for a planet in crisis.
Write down these calls and take time to consider each one. How are you living out your vocation as a neighbor? Where can you grow or improve? What’s missing from this list that is key to your sense of neighborly service?
Listen to God
For Lutherans, the question “What shall I do with my life?” has many answers, but we need listen to only one voice—God’s.
Bafana Khumalo, a bi-vocational pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa and a prominent activist for HIV and AIDS issues, human rights and gender justice, said it took him years to awaken to God’s call in his life. When he finally “stopped running,” the course of his life changed for good, marrying his social justice work with faith.
For those overwhelmed by the many calls available in one’s life, Khumalo has this advice: “God uses many ways to speak to us and get through to us. Listen to [God’s] voice. Pray about it and allow the Holy Spirit to guide you.”
Much has changed since Luther introduced a new lens for vocation—we’re living with new technologies, cultural challenges and environmental issues. The only constant is that God continues to call each of us to love and serve our neighbors.
Sometimes answering God’s call is easy. Other times it pulls us from our comfort zones. Nevertheless, Wengert believes that Lutherans are uniquely positioned to respond to God’s call in this time and space.
“No other church emphasizes [vocation] quite the way Lutherans do,” he said. “It’s something to be proud of. I think it’s part of the reason we have so many social ministries, not just in the ELCA but in the Lutheran World Federation too.”
For Lutherans, the question “What shall I do with my life?” has many answers, but we need listen to only one voice—God’s.
The many organizations that act on behalf of the church remind us that we are not alone in our vocations. We are members of a vibrant global church, professing the gospel in word and deed.
Despite our good efforts, sometimes the church falls short. We may run away from our calls. We might fail to raise our voices.
“Where is the voice of the church that says our God is a God who loves all of us unconditionally?” Khumalo asked. “We need to escalate our voices so that we represent who has sent us—that is our mission in the world.”
Vocation requires courage. This is where we must lean on our faith. Though God calls us into service through baptism, we can’t do it all and we won’t get it right every time. We can do nothing to save the world ourselves—that job is for Jesus Christ alone. God acts through us.
- Luther’s Small Catechism, Anniversary Study Edition by Martin Luther (Augsburg Fortress, 2016).
- Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, second edition (Eerdmans, 2020).
- The ELCA Spiritual Gifts Assessment Tool
- Listen! God Is Calling!: Luther Speaks of Vocation, Faith, and Work by D. Michael Bennethum (Augsburg Fortress, 2003).
- Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation Throughout Life’s Seasons, edited by Kathleen A. Cahalan and Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore (Eerdmans, 2017).
This story was first published in April 2020.