Calling and Vocation and College

October 26, 2016

In recent years, maybe because of the high cost, parents seem to expect colleges to guarantee employment for their children upon graduation. Colleges have responded with an eagerness to claim they can discover students’ callings and place them in good jobs. However, there is no guarantee. While colleges can teach some skills that will impress employers and help write a resume that will catch their eye, they cannot force employers to hire their graduates.

The term “vocational school” may be a misnomer. When any school begins to insure its students’ employment, students begin to believe the degree is ultimate. The common student phrase “C’s get degrees” has a false assumption that the degree will automatically produce a good job.

A calling is from God. For twelve years, I was the chaplain at a Christian college. I discovered that students receive their calling through prayer. If I were to claim I could tell them what their calling was, it sounded hollow, like “God loves you and I have a wonderful plan for your life.” Far better when I would assure students that God indeed did have a wonderful plan for their lives. God will call; do not be afraid. Listen for God.

Our calling continues to be formed every day. As we carry the cross of Christ into the world, we pray, “Holy Spirit, as I follow you, show me what I am called to do today.”

Vocation is learned on the job. Certainly, some skills and expectations are found in the classroom, but the living out of our calling is in the workplace. I learned that after seminary. Many assume seminary is vocational, but it is not. Yes, seminary trained me, encouraged me, and prepared me, but on my first day on the job, I realized a clear understanding of vocation would take a few more years.

Vocation may be best understood in retrospect. As we look back, we can acknowledge the way we integrated our work into our Christian life and our service in the church. Two saints I have known for many years recently went on to glory. One was a veterinarian, the other an orchardist. Both discovered their vocation. And I heard God declare, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

There is a haunting scene from the 1998 movie, Patch Adams. Patch, played by Robin Williams, is a doctor in residency. He is speaking to Dr. Prack, who wanted to be his mentor. Dr. Prack (rhymes with quack) is explaining what he does. Patch responds, “But you suck at it.” Assessing vocation too early, especially in college, is preposterous.

I believe colleges should encourage prayer to discover a vocation and a calling, but should avoid assuring students of employment and assuming what their calling might be.

Schools are for education. Education expands the mind, making new connections between knowledge and experience. Christian colleges can expand the mind more because they include Christ’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is both the world that is seen and that is unseen. Christian colleges encourage students to wrap their minds around it all.

The market dictates what courses colleges offer. Parents and students are less likely to beg for philosophy courses than something ‘practical’ like motorcycle maintenance. This reflects a naïve market that lacks awareness of what most employers will want.

Employers want employees with large minds – people who know how to learn, who can make connections, who know how to listen with compassion, and who can discern. Employers know that there is no applicant who knows everything needed for the job. They want employees who can perceive what things are needed, and learn them.

I have watched students enlarge their minds so well, that I have smiled to myself thinking how grateful their employers will be. Employers in high quality companies have impressed me with their ability to find those students in the piles of applicants.

What should college students do to expand their minds in preparation for their vocation? Studying philosophy can help and studying welding is also good. It depends on two things. One, the course must be rigorous, requiring hard work and struggle. Two, failure must be a real possibility. If there is no chance of failure, there is less learning. The courses can be taught in the classroom, laboratory, or field. “Easy A” courses are of no value.

After high school, I took an extremely challenging electronics course in a community college called “Linear Integrated Circuits.” I learned how much the microprocessor has impacted our culture, almost as much as the splitting of the atom or individual freedom. The professor introduced us to the big picture of complex circuitry, as well as the smallest capacitor. My mind was enlarged, and I would not recognize how it would help my vocation until much later.

Consider the story of my dad. My father didn’t have a high school diploma. He was the oldest of seven. All of his siblings graduated from college. All of his brothers graduated from seminary. He longed for education, but didn’t have the opportunity. He loved to read; so when electricity was came to the farms in his area, he went to the library, read about it, and became an electrician.

He was called by God to be an electrician. Working as an electrician and living the Christian life were synonymous. Every detail of his work was as though he was doing it for the Lord, because it was for the Lord. His relationships with his clients and coworkers and all the families of the earth were as important as his relationship with God. He didn’t need college for this.

But he would have loved to have received a college education, to read authors who were also striving to know God and love their neighbors. He would have benefited from Christian professors who could have encouraged him to expand his knowledge of the visible and invisible world.

Colleges should continue to educate, in every possible way, with rigor and the possibility of failure. Parents and students should demand it. But they should not expect college to provide them with a calling or a vocation. The Lord will do that.

About the Author
  • Harlan VanOort is from Denver, CO and has recently returned home to be pastor at City Church Denver, an RCA church in the heart of the city.

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  1. Harlan,

    Thank you for sharing. There is so much wisdom here; I am confident I will return to it often as I walk with students.

    Best Regards,
    Brandon Huisman