Unfulfilling work as vocation

The Patheos faith & work channel’s blog Mission:Work gave a nice shout-out to us here at the Cranach blog.  That site also has a poignant post from a man who left the ministry but all he could find was a factory job.   He found that kind of work lacking in meaning.  So now he quit that to go back to school to get an MBA in his quest to get a more meaningful “white-collar” job.

I link to that post and quote from it after the jump.  Then I give some thoughts, taking the opportunity to clear up some major misconceptions about vocation.

From Larry Saunders, Does blue-collar work have any meaning?:

On leaving my factory job behind after about two years, I have a lingering question about work and meaning. Most of my co-workers there are relatively content spending their working years doing this kind of work, day in and day out – very few have any plans to leave. Have they simply settled? Or do they find a meaningful connection to their work? Based on my limited anecdotal evidence, I think most do not find their jobs meaningful, but they never expected to in the first place. For them, work is only a means to meet their basic needs and desires for leisure. Their major sense of meaning is derived totally outside the workplace.

If I had been a pastor to my blue collar co-workers, I would have advised them generally not to get too tied up in an identity derived from their day jobs anyway, but rather to focus on doing a high quality of work and not to equate their jobs with their callings. In the midst of my own foray into working the factory floor, I am now not so sure I would have found that very helpful to hear from my pastor. It is surely easier said than done.

Whatever negative forces were at work to take me out of the white collar work of ministry, they couldn’t overcome the simple reality that I am not challenged at all in this work, and I want something more. No amount of reminding myself that the products I am helping make in the factory really do make people’s lives better could sustain me over the long haul. My brother actually put it pretty well when he told me that in this line of work, when I come home after my shift, I will never have the feeling of having done something smart – nothing I contribute to this job results from being a critical thinker.

(1)  Jesus was a carpenter.  The leading disciples were fishermen.  And St. Paul, a tent maker, urges Christians to “work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).

(2)  Contrary to the common assumption, vocation is NOT about self-fulfillment, self-aggrandizement, finding your greatness, finding meaning in your life, or doing what you love.  Vocation is about loving and serving your neighbor.  That means, in practice, denying yourself for your neighbor.  Or, as Jesus put it, denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Him in sacrificing Himself for others.  (Another Mission:Work post gets it right:  Jeff Haanen, What’s Wrong with “Do What You Love?”)

(3)  So vocation is not for the self but for the neighbor.  It seems to me that more menial jobs tend to be more directly beneficial to a neighbor than jobs that get lots of honor and higher salaries in the world.  Being a professional athlete or a movie star are legitimate vocations, but the service rendered by those who pick up our garbage and clean up our hotel rooms is much more significant.  The author of this post was working in a factory that made medical devices that would be used to heal the sick.  If he gets his dream white collar job in management, he will order around people in cubicles.  There is a vocation there too, of course, but still. . . .

(4)  I do feel for the author of this post.  He wasn’t happy in the ministry.  He wasn’t happy in the factory.  I hate to tell him, but he isn’t going to be happy in middle management.  Work isn’t supposed to make you happy in the sense he expects.  The doctrine of vocation can give meaning to whatever task that is put before you–when you see it as where God is stationing you to love and serve, when you see God Himself in your vocation working through you to give His gifts,  when you see it through the eyes of faith–but otherwise, if you just look at it in terms of your self, you will miss the fullness of God’s calling.

(5)  It’s true that lots of people are asked to do work that they do enjoy and find fulfilling.  But no one is entitled to that.  It’s possible to find satisfaction and pleasure in just about any kind of work, but sometimes you have to learn to do that.  But even the good, wonderful, fulfilling jobs have their trials and crosses.  (For the interplay of hating your toil and enjoying it, the sense in which it is vanity and the sense in which enjoying it is a gift of God, see Ecclesiastes 2:18-26.)

What else?

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.


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