Leaving a vocation

In yesterday’s post about some cardinals complaining about Pope Benedict XVI leaving his calling, I asked about when it’s permissible to leave one’s vocation.  We didn’t really talk about that much, but I think it deserves consideration.  Set aside the question of the pope and let’s discuss this as it relates to the various vocations that Christians hold.  At what point should we leave a vocation for another one, and how do we know that we should do that?  First, let me give some preliminary thoughts.It has often been said–by Luther, among others–that we should stay in our vocations, that the devil wants to get us out of the assignment where God has placed us.  At the same time, it is evident that vocations change.  A person is born into a family and has the calling of being a child to his parents.  Then the child grows up, leaves home, and enters into the vocation of marriage.  Later, a new vocation is added:  that of parent.  In the meantime, that person may have held many different jobs to make a living for his family, each of which was a vocation for awhile.  That person may also have been a citizen of a number of different communities or even nations.

It seems that some vocations are permanent or are meant to be permanent:  The Baptismal calling to be a Christian.  Parenthood.  Marriage.

Other callings change, as the Christian is called to new avenues of service. This is sometimes a natural progression (going from student into the workplace; marriage leading to parenthood).  Sometimes it is not voluntary (getting fired or laid off; taking the only job one can find).  Sometimes this involves making a decision.

We probably shouldn’t  over-spiritualize some of these changes, as if vocations are some special revelation, rather than ordinary workings of the world.  But it does seem that we should not abandon a calling lightly.  Merely having problems in a calling is not a reason to leave it behind, since we are to bear our crosses in our vocations.  (This applies to marriage but also, I would think, vocations in the workplace.)  And yet, doors slamming in our face and opening elsewhere may indicate a new calling (though not to permanent callings, such as marriage).  How do we know when it’s the right time to leave?

One factor in leaving a calling might be the claims of our other callings.  A new job offer with a higher salary may help a person better fulfill his calling to take care of the needs of his family.  If a husband’s wife is miserable living in one community, it might be an act of love and service to her to move to a new one.

I suppose that since the purpose of all vocations is to love and serve one’s neighbor, the urgency of a neighbor’s need, or the prospect of greater spheres of service, or the pull of love, should be factors.

I’m curious about how some of you have handled these issues.   How have you pastors wrestled with the question of (1) being called into the ministry from some other calling, and  (2) deciding whether to take a new call to a different congregation?

How have those of you in other professions decided whether to stay where you are or move on to a new position?

Do any of you pastors and laypeople see all opportunities as coming from God’s hand?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Grace

    “First, let me give some preliminary thoughts.It has often been said–by Luther, among others–that we should stay in our vocations, that the devil wants to get us out of the assignment where God has placed us”

    I don’t abide by what Luther thinks about “vocation.” The devil doesn’t know God’s plan, or the future of our lives, that’s the most important point.

    The HOLY Spirit guides each one of us IF, we listen, pray, and ask God to guild us.

    A vocation is only important, as long as God chooses one to be at that time. God takes many of us in directions we would have never thought possible, but by HIS guidance we forge ahead, to reach the goals God has set before us. They might not be what we thought it would be, but we must be willing to follow HIM no matter where HE leads us.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ theoldadam

    We are free in Christ.

    If you want to leave…then leave. God will use us wherever we are, and in whatever we do.

  • Tom Hering

    Re: Grace @ 1. The devil doesn’t need to know God’s plan or our future. He just needs to see the vocation in which God has currently placed us in order to tempt us away from it. (Of course, at all times, we have multiple vocations in which we are called to love and serve others.)

    As for Luther’s opinion that we should know and keep our place in society, it always makes me snicker. This from a guy who jumped, against his father’s wishes, from law student to cloistered monk. And in opposition to the authority of the church, from obedient monk to church reformer. Not to mention jumping from singlehood – the state in which he was called – to marriage with a woman who also left her place. I like his example better than his opinion in this matter.

  • nativetxn

    Tom-like you, I prefer Luther’s example! Others may not understand the changes we make, but it is up to us to follow where Christ is leading us.

  • James Sarver

    Tom Hering @ 3,

    “…who jumped, against his father’s wishes, from law student to cloistered monk.”

    Without the Gospel.

    “…in opposition to the authority of the church, from obedient monk to church reformer.”

    In the light of the Gospel.

    “…jumping from singlehood – the state in which he was called – to marriage…”

    In the freedom given by the Gospel.

    I think his example and opinion are both fine.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    If you do leave a vocation, make sure there’s a good reason for it and not an emotional or experiential whim (“God told me….” or “I feel the Spirit moving me like this…”).

  • Orianna Laun

    As was pointed out, some vocations are not those to be abandoned. I have vowed to be a wife until death parts us. The devil may not know God’s plans, but he will work hard at pulling us away from our present vocations. Sure, I am likely free to walk away from my 9-5 desk job at any time– unless I’ve signed a contract stating I would work there for at least this long. As a mother , wife, and daughter I am not free to just walk away from my parents, husband, or children. Nevertheless, Satan will do what he can to make me eye the want-ads longingly and the other family who treats their mother, wife, and daughter way better than mine treat me, or make being on one’s own exceedingly enticing.

  • Tom Hering

    James @ 5, maybe, if we’re free in Christ to alter our lives and our place in society, we shouldn’t be promoting the idea that we’re locked in by God. But hey, I suspect it’s a German cultural thing – even today.

  • Dennis

    Having changed job related vocations several times, this topic is near and dear to me. I have to admit that at times I have wondered if I was following God’s plan or my plan. However, I shouldn’t dwell on this–it is too late to go back. In addition, God has blessed my vocations and my life regardless (Romans 8:28). My biggest change was going from being a business owner to entering the teaching ministry. This certainly wasn’t for the money! This change was firmly God directed. It started with a conversation with my Pastor in which I stated that, “I’m thinking about going back to school and becoming a Lutheran School Teacher.” I had never had that thought! The words just popped out. And just who should be visiting said Pastor the very next week–the President of one of our Concordia’s. I found myself having dinner with him explaining why I wanted to be a teacher–something I had never even considered!

    I have been blessed in this ministry and it was really reconfirmed this year. I found myself out of teaching for two years due to a school closing. I received a call last summer and am really enjoying being back in the classroom (even as we struggle with being back to the lower income).

  • kerner

    I would like to know what, exactly, Luther’s words were. Or at least which statements Dr. Veith is considering.

    I have never taken Luther’s writings that I have read to mean that we were all bound to stay in our vocations no matter what. Rather, I have always understood Luther to be saying that all vocations, no matter how seemingly humble, are important. God grants our prayer for our daily bread through the efforts of all kinds of people doing honest work. Much of that work is not particularly personally rewarding. When I was a student I worked for awhile in a Univeral Foods plant that processed chili products. I found the work tedious and personally unrewarding. I knew that for me this work was only temporary; a means to an end. But for most of the other guys this was their long term permanent vocation: bringing spicy flavor to the food eaters of the world. But I think of them every time I make barbeque rub on Sunday Afternoon.

    I never thought Luther was trying to trap people in any particular job. I think he was only trying to recognize the value of the work that people do and to give some self respect to those whose jobs don’t get a lot of respect from others.

    But if there is something I have missed, maybe someone can direct me to it.

  • kerner

    Tom H @8:

    Yeah, definitely a German thing. Because there is absolutely no stubborn streak in Polish culture whatsoever. Nope. Nothing to see there… :D

  • Mary Jack

    Would this topic be simplified by saying, we are permanently called to be in the church, family, and society, though expressions of how we love and serve change?

  • LAJ

    Is it ok to stop being an organist if it interferes with your other vocations? My husband doesn’t want me to play anymore because I’m a lot calmer now. I can concentrate at my other calling better and have more time to help my mom as she is nearly 90. It’s especially difficult to give up a calling serving your church.

  • kempin04

    I’ll make the brief comment, in support of Tom, Kerner and others, that I do not understand the lutheran doctrine of vocation to be “to” a particular profession–as though it is a concern that we end up in the “wrong” profession–but rather a freedom to understand that we can serve God by serving our neighbor in ANY profession. (Sin excepted, of course.) The context of Luther’s formulation was the idea that some callings were “higher” than others. No one ever said that being a parent was a bad thing, but it was certainly being said in luther’s time that the monastic life was more pleasing to God than the married life. Our lutheran insight enables us to understand that we are FREE to marry or not marry, to stay or to change jobs, to advance or to stay put, because our identity as followers of Christ can be applied to ANY situation.

    There are, of course, certain obligations that do not terminate, and to these we are bound by God himself: Husband to wife; Father to son; Son to father. Yet these also have the clear command of God to make them explicit. God nowhere commands (at least to my recollection) that we are to stay in a particular profession, though we are to make such decisions in light of our service to Christ and obligation to serve our neighbor, and not flippantly or for personal fulfillment.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Tom, Kerner, Kempino4 has it right. Asking the question “is it permissible to leave…” comes to close to binding people’s consciences for me.

  • Jon

    I like Steve Martin’s advice @2.
    Give it over to the Lord in prayer, and then go for it. When you look in retrospect, then you can see just how He’s been guiding you. It’s much better than stressing and straining to hear that little voice tell you what you should do.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Dr. Veith, it is a very good question actually. A number of years ago I realized that nowhere in Scripture do we have any record of a priest or pastor or prophet or any servant of God “retiring.” The modern concept of “retirement” is perhaps not quite as Biblical as many might assume. Seems most servants of God kept going until they were physically incapacitated and simply no longer could fulfill their duties. I believe that Benedict XVI is doing what he did precisely because of the fact he has such a high view of the duties of the Papacy and feels that if one is unable any longer to carry out those duties, one should resign so the Roman Church can be served by a man who is able to carry out the papal duties. But this is far different simply than saying, “OK, I’m tired of this, time to move on.”

  • Trey

    Last I checked the doctrine of Vocation, which Luther exposits is from Scripture.

    Notice how some of the above comments exhibit enthusiast theology (God apart from the word) or nihilist thinking (do whatever you want there is no vocation). Both lead to the same place vocational anarchy and confusion.

    Leaving a vocation for another should be about ones’ skill set or gifts God has given. If I left my current work position to be a nuclear scientist I would be out of my interest and skill set.

  • http://derekjohnsonmuses.com DerekJohnsonMuses

    Is being a living person and citizen in this world a vocation? If so, no one will ever leave that.
    I know a lot of people who have different attitudes toward retirement. Some people retire in their early to mid-sixties, others work late into their seventies, and have to be handed retirement packages. I really struggled with the concept of vocation right after college, when I had stints of unemployment. But what I’ve come to realize is this: if you take whatever job is in front of you as a gift from God, you’ll end up doing your vocation no matter what.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    I’m with J. Dean here. Assuming that our chosen career is a specific calling from God comes dangerously close to binding the Holy Spirit to our whims.

    One other thought on Luther is that I’m told he said that one ought to love God, and then do what we desire to do, along the lines of the Psalmist. That would bind us from the wrong doctrine of vocation, and also explain Luther’s own actions.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

    I think Luther’s point was less about what we do, and more about why we do it. However, I think we should take Paul’s words seriously: whatever state we were in when called to the gospel, we shouldn’t seek to undo that state (1 Cor. 7:17ff).

  • http://www.whenisayrunrun.blogspot.com Andrew

    If Benedict were simply quitting his vocation he could simply go back to Germany and play piano is quiet retirement, but he is not doing that. In a sense he is continuing his vocation. If the John Paul II taught Catholics how to die, Benedict is teaching Catholics great respect and dignity in old age.

    There is great humility in knowing ones limitations and stepping aside to let others carry on the work.

    The real conflict occurs when vocations interfere with other vocations or when a vocation is ended by an outside force.

  • http://www.whenisayrunrun.blogspot.com Andrew

    Typos… it must be my vocation to create and not edit typos. Sheesh

  • helen

    PTM @ 17
    A number of years ago I realized that nowhere in Scripture do we have any record of a priest or pastor or prophet or any servant of God “retiring.”

    In recent decades, medicine can keep you ‘alive’ but not necessarily able to engage in your vocation. Popes and some other “for life” appointments need to know when just being ‘alive’ is not enough for the job.
    These days the indeterminate Call is only honored on paper, so very few Pastors are kept in the Office past their competence, (although I have seen that, too, and it was destructive).

    Benedict was very wise, in my opinion, but he had witnessed his predecessor’s slow decline and the power vacuum created by John’s inability to really govern the church.

    Lacking recent advances in medicine, most people didn’t live long enough to “retire”.
    Many couldn’t afford to stop working either… a situation we are getting back to.

  • Tom Hering

    Helen, I don’t expect to see Benedict bagging groceries, as amusing as that could be.

  • helen

    No, Tom, I think his company will provide a retirement package. ;)

  • helen

    I think you have to be young, and maybe have a streak of cruelty, to find that video “amusing”.
    It’s not the sort of thing I would have expected here. But I’m learning. :(

  • Tom Hering

    Hmm. The old comedian who made the video thought it was funny stuff. And he’s made a lot more of them. Look up the “Epic Old Man” videos on YouTube. There’s a total of 67.

    But I’m sorry, anyways, that it bothered you, Helen.

  • Len Stadler

    “nowhere in Scripture do we have any record of a priest or pastor or prophet or any servant of God “retiring””.

    Numbers 8:23-26 (NIV)
    The Lord said to Moses, “This applies to the Levites: Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work. This, then, is how you are to assign the responsibilities of the Levites.”

  • helen

    Tom @ 28
    I did notice. I always look at things on YouTube posted with the link recommended.
    I’ve sometimes had an educational and delightful hour or two with new things
    The “favorite music” topic was especially rich.

    It’s OK, Tom. Some days my “sense of humor” is even more lacking than usual. :(

  • helen

    Len @ 29
    Thank you for reminding us of that Levitical rule!
    Do you think it was partly because of hard physical labor involved in the animal sacrifices?
    Or was it in line with other rules which required that the priests have no physical defect?

  • SKPeterson

    Helen @ 31 – My own surmise here, but my guess is that the rituals of the priesthood demanded careful attention, and the consequences of failure might lead directly to death. As a result, you don’t want easily distracted youngsters overseeing the rituals, nor do you want old men (and 50 at this time was often a time of failing eyesight and health for most) trying to perform the duties with shaking hands. However, these older men were there to assist at the tent and help to train up the younger ones.

  • SKPeterson

    Helen @ 31 – My own surmise here, but my guess is that the rituals of the priesthood demanded careful attention, and the consequences of failure might lead directly to death. As a result, you don’t want easily distracted youngsters overseeing the rituals, nor do you want old men (and 50 at this time was often a time of failing eyesight and health for most) trying to perform the duties with shaking hands. However, these older men were there to assist at the tent and help to train up the younger ones.

  • SKPeterson

    Wow. Double post with one click. Patheos flummoxes me on occasion.

  • Tom Hering

    Have you noticed how moderation is a permanent state for comments that offend the great and powerful Patheos?

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    Congratulations on having achieved that high status, Tom! :^) By the way, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

    OK to the point, if Talmudic butchering regulations are any indication, the priests would have been required to cleanly slit the throat of the animal without nicking the blade, resulting in the animal’s collapse within four or five seconds. In the case of Passover, they’d have to do it hundreds of times in a day or more. Others would of course be employed in the handling of the carcasses.

    Yeah, I’m guessing that the strength of youth might have been kinda helpful. Not to mention a strong stomach.


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