The precious value of vocation

10.3.CC.VocationDiscerningCalling_148122522For some time I have been toyed with writing a blog post about what education and medicine need—amateurs. What I mean by that is that in both professions there has been an ‘industrialisation’ of what should be a relational task. So children become products of learning, educational widgets if you like, and through the mechanical process of schooling they have ‘valued added’ just the same way that components assembled in a factory have valued added, since the final, assembled product is worth more than the sum of the cost of the components. Teachers have become educational assembly technicians, and classes and schools have industrially measurable outcomes.

But I don’t need to. Paul Bradbury, a pioneer minister in Poole (where we lived and worked for 10 years), wrote about this back in March. And he went one step further—he extended the question to that of clergy vocation. In all three areas—education, medicine and ministry—we need amateurs: people who are called and gifted, and who give themselves to their work not in the first instance because they are financially compensated or because they have achieved measurable outcomes, but because they do what they do for the love of it, which is the original meaning of ‘amateur’. The question in all three areas is the recovery of the importance of vocation, a sense of calling to one’s occupation.

I repost here Paul’s comment, with his permission and at the suggestion of regular commentator David Shepherd.

stressed teacher

In the course of the past few months I have had a similar conversation with a number of very different people in a variety of professions. All have resigned from a profession they largely loved and felt clearly drawn to. And all have come to the painful and difficult conclusion that they can no longer continue in their chosen profession and remain themselves.

Of these, two are GPs. Both have spent huge amounts of time, energy and money and significant personal cost to qualify. Both have worked for a number of years in the NHS and yet both have come to point where they can no longer continue. For these two GPs the pressure to attend to patients at breakneck speed, ensuring that a quota of patients can be seen by lunchtime within the targets set for them by their practice managers, has simply proved too much. They are stressed, demoralized, almost broken. They are also heart broken, drive out by an atmosphere of systemic urgency which mitigates against the kind of time and attention required to really care for a human being.

Two others are teachers. Both have taught, quite intentionally, in schools with a challenging intake of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And both feel they can no longer attend to these children as people because the system will not allow it. Their vocation to nurture the potential of these children has been crushed by the sheer weight of administrative responsibility, suffocated by an airless atmosphere of one-dimensional achievement and endless inspection.

Asjunior doctors strike I write, junior doctors are in the midst of an unprecedented third strike. Whilst the strike is about a new contract, and therefore, in theory, about pay and working hours, at heart it is about value. It is about how much we value a vocation where intelligent people, invest huge amounts of themselves, often at great personal sacrifice, in order to tend to another human being at a point of need.  Junior doctors recognise, in the new contract soon to be imposed on them, not just something that is unfair, but something that ultimately devalues their vocation.

A vocation is something that will motivate the individual beyond the normal relationship between work and remuneration. GPs, teachers, and junior doctors already work far more hours than they are contracted to. They do so because something within them drives them to care, to nurture, to heal. We recognise it in them, we know that it is there to some degree in all of us. We want it to be there when we need it ourselves.

However, what we are witnessing, in all these professions, is the effects of a culture that has significantly lost sight of the value and beauty of vocation. In The Road to Character New York Times columnist David Brooks argues powerfully that our western culture has increasingly become infected by a ‘utilitarian virus’. This culture lives by a ‘the logic of economics’, in which:

Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Maximise your utility. Impress the world.

And it results in a kind of mean-spirited reductionism that distils everything down to what can be measured, what can be systematized, what can be reproduced and maximized. It is the world of economics translated into every corner of life. And now it is reaching those areas of life utterly ill-disposed to it, the care and nurture of our fundamental humanity, our health, our education.

In that same clutch of conversations I referred to earlier there were also two ordained ministers. I knew them both when, with myself and others, we arrived at theological college to train for ministry in the Church of England. Each of us had articulated our sense of vocation to a substantial number of people within the church and been accepted for training. We were a cohort of men and women, on average in our 30’s, passionate about our faith, hopeful for the future of the church, and committed to lead and serve the church in its worship and mission.  10 years later I happened upon two of that same cohort seriously considering leaving the ministry. Not for a loss of faith. Not primarily due to the demands of the job. They were on the edge of resigning from ministry for the same reason that my GP friends and teacher friends were resigning—the institution they had committed themselves to serving no longer seemed to provide the context in which their vocation could be exercised. Both spoke with a sad resignation at the conclusion they had come to. They remained motivated by their faith, and by the vision of church that is local communities of disciples living out their faith in a local context, yet could no longer see how this deep sense of vocation could be given space in an institution that placed such huge demands of administration on them. This burden of administration; managing graveyards, the paperwork associated with grade listed buildings, the responsibility of service provision across multiple churches over a wide area was becoming a tsunami of managerial drudgery that they saw no way out of—except by moving on.

It was clearly painful for them to come to this conclusion. It was a huge salutary warning to me to hear it. And it ought to be a salutary warning to the church, the Church of England certainly, but perhaps the whole church.

It is some years now since John Drane wrote about the ‘McDonaldisation’ of the church. He described concisely the economic dogmatism of the corporate world, a world which creates a tyranny of calculability, predictability, conformity and control. And he urged the church against these creeping tendencies, arguing instead for values of creativity, relationality, flexibility and proactivity as an antidote.

In an age of continuing decline in the mainstream denominations what Brooks calls a ‘utilitarian calculus’ and Drane ‘McDonaldisation’ can be a pernicious temptation. It can be a potential default mechanism for large institutions struggling to keep going. But the casualties of its dehumanizing tendencies are everywhere. Teachers choosing to teach abroad. Junior doctors striking. Young ministers reluctantly leaving a denomination and seeking a context somewhere else in which their vocation can be expressed.

church vocationsI can remember our college vice-principle warning us not to end up ‘cranking the ecclesial machine’, and yet some of us, despite out best intentions, have ended up doing just that. 10 years into my life as an ordained minister, I find myself as a training incumbent, Anglican-ese for a minister with responsibility for the 3–4 year post-ordination training phase of a new minister. The cohort of curates of which my curate is one are a phenomenal bunch of young ministers with a passionate sense of their vocation for leadership and mission in the church. Will this young group of fresh ministers also end up turning the crank? If they do we will have failed them. And the danger is we will also have lost them.

What then must the church do? First, we must listen. What is clear from my conversations with GPs, teachers and vicars alike is a sense in which the reality of the pressures of their jobs is not listened to by a distant and stubborn institution. The institution continues belligerently to eke out another year, another turn of the wheel, with staff constantly at the end of their resources. ‘Insanity’ as Einstein once said ‘is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ The church must listen to the vocations of those whose call it has affirmed, as they come into authorised ministry under their care. When I listen I hear people articulating a passion to make a difference, to lead in mission, to see the church change and be renewed. I do not hear a glowing endorsement of a ministry that will result in them wading knee deep in paperwork, or running from one service to another with hardly a moment for a meaningful conversation.

Secondly, in listening to these young ministers we must try to see that in them is a vision of what God is doing, a vision of the future of the church.  If we truly believe in the gift and divine value of vocation, as surely we do, then we must listen to what these vocations are saying, for they are the voice of God for what the church must be. We must be willing to take, in many cases, the bold risk of creating space for these vocations to flourish. We must stop forcing people into roles that give insufficient space for their gifts and call to thrive. This will mean tough decisions. It will mean that certain cogs in the ecclesial machine grind to a halt. It will mean investing in risky vocations, and creative individuals who don’t quite fit the mould. But it will, I believe, mean a shift toward shaping the church around its vocational future rather than its past.

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12 thoughts on “The precious value of vocation”

  1. So far as the medical world is concerned (and I suspect teaching and the church as well), he is absolutely right, which is precisely why the Juniors will vote against the negotiated contract they have been offered as “final”; it offers them minimal extra pay for a lot more stress. All doctors now are expected to provide exemplary healthcare within a totally unsustainable environment. When mistakes happen, which they inevitably do, it is the doctors who are made to carry to blame. I am aware of 4 friends, 2 of whom who have left medicine altogether and two who have largely moved out of General Practice precisely because of this.

  2. If someone is a seller-of-cheap-goods-on-eBay, or a farmer, or a sessional musician, how is that any less a vocation? The difference is that they don’t have a contract to work hours in excess of, and in practice they may earn learn less that the legal minimum wage, and sometimes the cheque bounces and then they haven’t been paid at all. Equally the immigrant office cleaner, and the car mechanic, and the tube driver, and the international bond trader, if they are Christians, then whatever they do is their vocation, and if it isn’t, they should give it up tomorrow. Some of us have the opportunity to do that and find something different, and no shame attached if so. No shame even for a vicar who gives it up when God is calling him or her to move on – they are in no sense lost to God’s real church, only to the institution employing them.

    Indeed yes, it’s about value – but in our fallen creation all these workers are not properly valued. So I’m protesting against the notion that we as Christians should expect to have access to a polite world in which our employers are nice to us. Also against the conventional misuse of the word “vocation”, as though God thinks some occupations are more spiritual than others. And in favour of the idea that whatever we do we do it as serving the Lord.

    • I very much agree that clergy have abrogated to themselves the concept of vocation. My job is just as much a vocation as anyone’s.

  3. Thank you for a very interesting post.As a consultant surgeon I empathise with a lot of what is said here. So much of what we do, clergy or medical is an inherited model of how it was done. When this model becomes unsustainable as a result of increased pressure then you can do one of two things. You can continue to try to sustain a model which is steadily eroding the reason you came into the profession or you can change the way you do things. The problem is that we “think” the way we have always done something is the “right’ or “only” way to do it. So in clergy land it is take on more churches do more admin and become less than an evangelist or pastor. In medicine it is to reduce clinic times ands more patients. However I think there are other models. They are new and scary and not the model we know. In medicine most of the patients are seen by therapists or nurses first of all now in my clinic. We are pioneering new ways of doing things which are radically different but at the heart I still care for patients. However it is in a way that my teachers would never recognise and which 5 years ago I would have called dangerous. Almost everybody in medicine is changing. Many things we thought had to be done by a trained doctor suddenly don’t. surprisingly patients like it, people are healed faster and care is often better. What this would look like for clergy I do not know but you will have to change!

    I am not underestimating how hard it is. You will have to look long and hard at what you do and realise that some things are not essential. As I see the job of clergy it is to “build up the people of God for works of service”. For many clergy I think it is to preside at communion.

  4. Very interesting article. For me, the key phrase is: “They are also heart broken, drive out by an atmosphere of systemic urgency”, referring to Doctors….but in recent times, I have found this applies more and more to Clergy. I have found that some of my colleagues are feeling driven out, not by the burden of administration but by the systematic urgency of reform and renewal, the expectation of strategic and Mission Action Plans etc etc that does not allow breathing room for the organic.

    I do wonder if we are in danger of not just cranking the ecclesiastical machine but also the mission machine, being seen to “do” mission, whilst, in reality, simply trying to keep up with the expectations that we will perform and dance to a certain tune that is not necessarily appropriate to the setting that we are in. That is not an excuse to disengage from mission of course but for systematic urgency to give a bit of room.

  5. “This burden of administration; managing graveyards, the paperwork associated with grade listed buildings, the responsibility of service provision across multiple churches over a wide area…”

    Isn’t managing graveyards and building maintenance what churchwardens are for? And the church is listening in these areas – for instance, the faculty process has been simplified and is now online. The amount of paperwork actually associated with these things is not that large in the whole scheme of things – for most repair and maintenance works all you need is a decent specification from your architect and to fill in a form. Applying for grants is a little trickier I’ll admit.

    As for the multiple churches – that’s mainly rural ministry. Which does have special difficulties which are widely recognised and very hard to know how to address. But – and I appreciate this is small consolation to those actually involved – it is only a small proportion of the population and the clergy who are affected by this, as the English population is around 90% urban.

    None of which helps your friends who were on the verge of giving up ministry. But it does leave me unclear what was the real underlying problem. Were they involved in rural ministry in a multi-parish benefice?

  6. In response to a number of these comments;
    a) I was not trying to colonise the concept of vocation for clergy only. A vocation can be any number of things. However the stipendiary system attempts to honour the concept of vocation by providing a sum of money which frees people up to carry out their vocation. This seems to me to recognise a distinct honouring of the vocation of ordained ministry. As was very succinctly put by another commentator there are a variety of fields where the very system that was designed to support a certain vocation is morphing into one that is throttling it because it is more concerned with the system than the vocation.
    b) In answer to the final question in the most recent comment. Both were involved in rural ministry, though not both in multi-parish benefices. It is perhaps true that the pressure of ministry is greater in these rural benefices. I would still argue that we are ordaining people through a process where we affirm their sense of vocation and many this is a strong affirmation of their call to be leaders in mission and to help the church reengage with the community around it. However the realities of a system that needs maintaining and the expectations of that system which are deeply embedded mean that the challenge to remain leaders of mission huge, and for many too much. For me there is systemic change required. It is not just a case of bolting on pioneer ministry and hoping that will help. Something more radical is required which involves how we see ourselves as church is a rapidly changing society and therefore what kind of church we need to be

  7. Right, systemic change. And here are some proposals for systemic change: 1) disestablishment 2) withdrawal from ministry where it appears not to be bearing fruit 3) the repudiation of responsibility for the bulk of our historic buildings 4) centralise the maintenance for the buildings we do want to keep 5) eliminate “faculties” and submit to the normal secular planning system 6) allow people to leave the ministry as readily as we allow people to join it.

    True, I haven’t stated how we reach this desirable end-state. But as any car driver knows, the first step is deciding where you want to get to, and when. After that, finding an adequate route to go is comparatively easy. And most secular organisations aiming for growth would embrace these or equivalent targets – so the onus is on those who say the Kingdom of God should be managed differently, to explain why.

    • I so agree with this comment. Why is the C0E acting as the unpaid wing of the national trust. Just give every listed church either to the village or the National trust and do something worthwhile with the money!

        • For sure, I have simplified, for the sake of keeping my blog post reasonably short. But Paul asked us for systemic change, and the change I long for is one that allows us to be members of a church whose “rules of engagement” with the surrounding society are similar to the rules applying to other churches and voluntary groups.

          The alternative is the Jose-Mourinho-type “we are the special one” (the “special church” in this context) which doesn’t come across well.

    • One major difference between teaching/medicine and churches is the funding. Teaching/medicine is funded from taxation, whether we like it or not. Churches are funded by those who currently attend and who are likely to like things as they are.
      If a patient doesn’t like a planned change in their GP’s surgery, they won’t have much say. If a church member doesn’t like a planned change in their church, they can threaten to leave and so take their giving with them.
      All the ‘new’ Christian work in our local area came to an end because the priority of the church leaders and the majority of the church attenders was to try to continue with things in the way they had been for the past x years (where x is a large number). Referring back to your post about church growth (and the mention of the book about deceased churches;, our local churches show most (perhaps all) of the signs of terminal sickness, but the folk who attend prefer slow decline (which will lead to death) instead of change – and they are the people who pay for what is provided.


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