“Is who I am merely what I do?”
We sat in a coffee shop taking stock of the past decade. I met Kurt as a promising PhD student at Cal-Berkeley, and now, almost ten years later, his career seemed to somehow take over his identity.
Kurt had been given a sound theological framework that defined a vocation as a calling from God, whatever the field. Over the past thirty years, a lot of good work has been done to correct a false distinction between sacred and secular work. The work of a school teacher is no less (or more) sacred than that of a minister. Now, many churches take care to remind its people that our work matters to God, and God matters to our work.
So, Kurt understood that his career was a calling, a good endeavor connected to Christ’s restoration of all things. He knew that God cares about butchers, bakeries, and boutiques just like he cares about butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.
But somewhere along the way, perhaps like many Christians, Kurt began to equate God’s vocation with his career. And, just as the church course-corrected years ago in reminding our people that all work is sacred, perhaps we need another course-correction today to remind ourselves that a vocation is bigger than a job.
So when Kurt asked, “Is who I am merely what I do?” my response was, “Your vocation is bigger than your job!”
I grabbed a napkin and drew three overlapping circles—one for a church, one for friends and family, and one for a career.
God has called us into each one of these spheres:
We’re called to fulfill God’s purpose for us in our church.
We’re called to fulfill God’s purpose for us in our friendships and families.
We’re called to fulfill God’s purpose for us in our career.
Understanding our status in each of these spheres is a step toward understanding that our identity is more than just one of them. Our identity, first and foremost, is connected to who we are in Christ. The root of who we are begins with Christ calling us to himself, then placing us into a multifaceted vocation.
I told Kurt, “It seems like, slowly but surely, your career has eclipsed the other two aspects of your vocation over the past ten years. You should tell your career that you want your identity back.”
Granted, perfectly balancing these three spheres is a myth. Our life stage and all sorts of other factors will pull time and attention from one sphere to another. Regardless, we should never lose sight of how big our vocation really is.
Then we got practical. I told Kurt that one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, once said this about calling: “Vocation is where our heart’s greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” I find this quote inspiring, yet incomplete—it needs more context.
I turned the napkin over and drew four circles this time. The first two were passion and needs. Yes, Buechner is correct; these are big parts of a vocation. But while passion is important, it needs to be accompanied by skill. We’ve all experienced passionate singers who can’t carry a tune. It’s painful! Skill became the third circle.
Limits were the fourth. Meeting the needs of our world is admirable, but only with a careful inventory of our limits.
Having no skills to marry with passion can inflict others. Disregarding limits when meeting needs can inflict the self. After all, we’re bound by time and space — we have only 168 hours in a week, and a third of those should be spent sleeping.
Over the next few weeks, Kurt worked through this chart and kept a journal. Questions arose about each of the four circles. The journal entries became more difficult to write as we went along—it’s much easier to talk about our passions than admit our limitations. Yet, this was vital in understanding his role in his church, his friendships and family, and his career. Over time, Kurt began to get his identity back. He is, after all, a beloved son of God purposed to do good in his vocation—all of it.
I encourage you to take part in this exercise if you’re experiencing confusion about your vocation or feel like your identity is scattered or undefined—or even if you don’t feel this way. Over time, some of our answers and findings may change. It’s worth taking stock of ourselves every so often so we don’t end up feeling lost at sea.
Below is an easy, step-by-step guide to assessing your vocation:
1. God’s calling, our vocation, involves our church, friends and family, and career. These are the spheres of vocation.
2. The ingredients of vocation are passions, skills, needs, and limitations.
3. Identify your passions in each of the three spheres. These questions may be helpful:
- What do I not like to do? (Sometimes knowing what you hate shows you what you love.)
- When do I feel like I’m in the zone?
- What sparks my imagination?
- What recharges my batteries?
- What would cause me deep sadness if it were taken out of my life?
- How would you complete this sentence?
People often compliment me for ____________.
4. Identify your skills in each of the three spheres.
- What did I study in school?
- What are some of my natural talents?
- What experiences have shaped me?
- In what have I developed mastery?
- What am I really good at doing, but don’t like doing? (Sometimes we resent our skills, but this can help us identify them.)
- How would you complete this sentence?
People often compliment me for _____________.
5. Identify your limitations in each of the three spheres.
- What is it about yourself that may limit you?
- What is it about your past that may limit you?
- What is it about your present circumstances (e.g., finances) that may limit you?
- Have you been honest about your bandwidth?
- Complete the Time-Bound Exercise:
There are 168 hours in a week.
- How many hours do you sleep in a week?
- How many hours do you eat in a week (including meal prep)?
- How many hours in a week do you take care of your physical body?
- How many hours in a week do you work (on average)?
- How many hours in a week do you devote to church (worship and work)?
- How many hours in a week do you invest in relationships (friends and family)?
- How many hours in a week are leftover as discretionary time?
- How do you tend to use those hours?
6. Identify the needs in each of the three spheres.
- What physical needs are in each sphere?
- What technical, ideological, theoretical needs are in each sphere?
- What emotional needs are in each sphere?
- What relational needs are in each sphere?
- What spiritual needs are in each sphere?
7. Praying it all together.
- Spend time with God discerning how your passions and skills might meet the needs in each of the spheres.
- Spend time with God acknowledging your limits. We need to remember that we’re finite creatures with capacities.
With limits appropriately recognized, it is now time to ask the liberating question:
“Given my limits, how can I apply my skills and passions in each of these spheres to meet only one or two needs?”