Fall 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 2 · pp. 150–154 

From the Editor: Vocation

Douglas B. Miller

[Jesus] said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2 NRSV).

In this issue we celebrate labor, particularly in recognition of Mennonite Economic Development Associates’ fiftieth anniversary. Wally Kroeker recounts the early days of MEDA, offers a summary of the past fifty years, and presents the values and convictions which continue to energize Christian believers in the business world. He also helpfully provides an annotated list of Recommended Reading which addresses concerns of Christian calling.

God is a worker, Ray Bystrom reminds us, and then points out important implications for Christian living and ministry. Ron Toews makes a strong case that Christians are called to kingdom ministry in the marketplace and makes a plea that churches and their leaders equip such believers appropriately and adequately. Thinking similarly, Don Isaac notes how ideas with roots in the Bible have contributed to the financial success of some countries, yet also offers other biblical ideas to critique materialistic abuses. In addition, Isaac reflects on a process by which believers might discern God’s call on their lives wherever that ministry might be.

An intriguing juxtaposition is provided between the articles mentioned above and those of John Neufeld and Jim Holm, also very much concerned with calling but in particular with the calling of church leaders. Neufeld gives an introduction to the Hearing the Call project presently being administered through Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary for the purpose of raising up a new generation of church leaders. Holm challenges the church to consider some time-honored practices, now largely neglected, by which persons called to be pastors can be identified. Appropriately, Pastor Doug Enns tells us, in Ministry Compass, “Why I Do What I Do.”

This issue also includes a summary of missionary Susie Baltzer Kiehn’s diary by Larry Warkentin, an interesting variety of Book Reviews, and a response by Duane Friesen to a book review previously published in the journal.

The message of the main articles of this issue might be summarized as follows: God is a worker, God calls people to ministry both inside and outside of the church, all ministry is good, and yet we presently have a shortage of leaders within the church and need to nurture a workable process by which important ministry positions can be filled. There are several scenarios by which the need for pastors might be accomplished: persons leaving the marketplace for the pastorate, newly evangelized persons becoming pastors, marketplace {151} believers serving in church ministry without relinquishing at least some of their role in the marketplace, younger persons choosing to train for a pastoral vocation, some of all of these, and more. What is encouraging are the indications that God’s Spirit is indeed at work to address the needs among us.


The English word vocation, derived from the Latin vocatio meaning “a summons,” is used theologically of God’s call on people’s lives. I offer here a few concepts which have helped me structure my own thinking in this complex area. Some of those from whom I have adapted these points are indicated below. The term vocation as I am using it is different from career or profession. It is the call of God on a person’s life which subsumes any job or career path within it. A person’s vocation might include a profession such as medicine or business, yet it could also be broader than any given job in those areas. Another person’s vocation might be found within pastoral ministry or Christian foreign mission.

Christians are prone to falling off one side or the other of the noble steed Vocation.

Vocation may be conceived on three levels. The primary level concerns a fundamental reconciliation with our Creator. From an Anabaptist perspective, this must be understood to include a corporate relationship with God through God’s people. The secondary level of calling (also with individual and corporate dimensions) is a summons to mission. The biblical roots of this mission are found in two places in particular: the creation texts of Genesis 1:26-30 and 2:15—the creation mandate to both rule over and serve the rest of God’s creation, and Matthew 28:18-20—the great commission to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ. One might also consider a third level of calling, the immediate or urgent. The latter is the locus of such matters as helping a neighbor move, fighting a fire, changing diapers, and pulling one’s ox from the ditch, all of which have some connection to one’s mission but are not necessarily at the heart of that mission.

The secondary level is where the articles in this issue of Direction have their focus. And the interrelation of the creation mandate and the great commission is where they are energized but also partially in {152} tension. I propose, and believe these authors would agree, that believers are called to a variety of manifestations of the creation mandate/great commission mix, and that there is a call to ministry for each believer whatever the mix. This is secondary level vocation. We might also ponder a variety of ways in which a job or profession intersects with a person’s vocation: for some very happily and for others perhaps very little.*


To put the arguments of several of our authors into historical context, the matter of vocation can be likened to traveling by horseback. If one can avoid slipping off the back or being tossed off the front of the horse, there still remains the danger of falling off on the left side or the right. When riding the noble steed Vocation in Western culture, Catholics have tended to fall off on one side and Protestants the other.

The “Catholic Distortion” of vocation urges for a two-level understanding of Christian faith and mission. At the premium level are those persons in “full-time” Christian service, often employed by the church, devoted wholly to its tasks and activities. On the second, “permitted” level are those persons whose working lives are given to everything else, a kind of second-class existence lacking in complete faith commitment and from which not as much is expected. The truths being valued here are the importance of the great commission and the reality that leadership within God’s people is indeed vital so that leaders have much expected of them. But the distortion is a depreciation of the creation mandate and the possibility of marketplace ministry. The articles of Bystrom, Toews, and Isaac suggest that this kind of two-level thinking about vocation may have taken subtle roots among some of us Protestants as well.

The “Protestant Distortion” of vocation celebrates all work as God’s work. As God works to sustain the world, likewise are all workers extensions of that effort so that, in fact, a factory is a temple of divine worship. There is a kind of two-level thinking that can take place here as well—those who are successful in their business demonstrate the approval and blessing of God while those who are less successful or who fail demonstrate a lack of such blessing. The truth being valued here is the goodness of work which fulfills the creation mandate. But the distortion is a depreciation of the great commission and the need for leaders of God’s people who are released for such a life-focus. As we seek to avoid falling off the horse in one direction (the first distortion), it is important that we avoid the second direction (distortion) as well. {153}


If we are to affirm the call of God on persons in a way which includes all life-giving and life-affirming professions, while we at the same time wish to acknowledge the importance of gifts—particularly leadership gifts—in the church, we will need to find a process by which to discern and affirm our callings both individually and collectively. Several articles in this issue offer important proposals in this regard which involve the community of believers. Each believer can be challenged to consider what, in the light of their gifts and experience, would be the most vital way she or he could contribute to the needs of God’s mission in this world right now. And likewise, each body of believers can ask that same question.

Jesus calls us to go into the world, and to go into every person’s “world,” making disciples; to go into the harvest, into a particular harvest, and to be laborers in that harvest, for the workers are few.


* Examples of this variety include the following: a professional Christian counselor who also counsels voluntarily outside of the job (vocation bigger than the job); a pastor of a church who has administrative tasks not suited to that person’s gifts (job broader than the vocation); a retired person who volunteers to work for a food bank (vocation without a paying job); a carpenter who leads boys’ clubs on weekends (vocation separate from the job). For others the vocation may overlap with their job; it is partly fulfilled in the job and partly fulfilled outside the job.


  • Guinness, Os. The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life. Nashville, TN: Word, 1998. A high-class devotional book which instructs as it inspires with Scripture, concepts, and stories related to serving God in a variety of contexts.
  • Palmer, Parker J. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000. Offers various ways for listening in the process of discernment, including the Quaker “clearness committee” by which fellow believers can help in that process. {154}
  • Sine, Christine and Tom. Living on Purpose: Finding God’s Best for Your Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. Challenges readers to reject the lifestyle values of the dominant culture and to take up God’s call. Especially interesting is the proposal for a personal “mission statement” and a process for its composition.
  • Smith, Gordon T. Courage and Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999. Is especially good regarding the virtues of vocation, those qualities necessary to live out one’s ministry wisely. Includes chapters on vocation through the seasons of our lives and working with and within organizations.
Douglas B. Miller, general editor