At Work

Work. Career. Calling. What’s the Difference?

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When we are introduced to someone, what is one of the first questions we ask?

“What do you do?”

When we ask this question, what we really mean is, “What is your job?”

We define ourselves by our careers. Even most Christians find their identities in their vocations. Our work no longer serves God. It serves us.

In his article “Careerism and the Ethics of Autonomy: A Theological Response,” J.A. Donahue writes,

As a secular perversion of calling, careerism invites people to seek financial success, security, access to power and privilege, and the guarantee of leisure, satisfaction, and prestige.

Avoiding this “secular perversion of calling” is essential to integrating faith and work. Many Christians desire a deeper, more integrated approach to serving God in their work, but they struggle with how to do this. Understanding the difference between work and calling can help.

The Difference between Work and Calling

In an interview with Fast Company, Harvard Business School psychologist Timothy Butler offers the following advice about how vocation differs from career or job:

There are three words that tend to be used interchangeably—and shouldn’t be. They are “vocation,” career,” and “job.” Vocation is the most profound of the three, and it has to do with your calling. It’s what you’re doing in life that makes a difference for you, that builds meaning for you, that you can look back on in your later years to see the impact you’ve made in the world. A calling is something you have to listen for.  You don’t hear it once and then immediately recognize it. You’ve got to attune yourself to the message.

Christians today have the same difficulty understanding the differences between vocation, career, and job. We also throw in the word “calling,” which further complicates things. Calling may or may not mean the same thing as vocation.

If we look at the origins of the words career and vocation, we immediately get a feel for the difference between them.

Vocation comes from the Latin verb vocare, which means “to call.” This explains why Butler equates vocation and calling. The definition suggests that a person listens for something which calls out to him. The calling is something that comes to someone and is particular to someone.

In the secular world, career is the term we most often hear regarding work. it originates from the medieval Latin noun carraria, which means “a road for vehicles.” Hence the term career path.

A career is usually associated with an occupation. Becoming a lawyer or a securities analyst is a career choice. It is not usually the same thing as a calling.

The most specific and immediate of the three terms is job. It has to do with current employment and a specific job description.

The Difference between Vocational Calling, Career, and Everyday Work

In order to understand the biblical doctrine of work, we must understand a fourth term, vocational calling, and how it differs from career, occupation, or job.

Vocational calling is the call to God and to his service in the sphere of vocation based on giftedness, desires, affirmations, and human need. It is usually stable and permanent over a lifetime (unlike a job or a career, which can change often).

How are vocational calling and career related? A career should be based on the opportunities for service presented to believers, enabling them to fulfill their vocational callings. Finding the right career at any one time is a matter of God’s specific leadership, guidance, and provision.

Vocational calling from God to the workplace is above a job or a career. Luther and the Reformers saw occupation as timely opportunity for service, in God’s providence, presented to believers to enable them to fulfill their vocational calling through what we would call everyday work.

Rather than equate vocational calling with a specific occupation or career, we are called to be Christians in whatever situation we find ourselves. Vocational calling stays the same as we move in and out of different jobs and careers. It is directly related to the discovery of our God-given talents. We develop and hone these talents into useful competencies for the glory of God and the benefit of others, often in various jobs or occupations.

Thus vocational calling provides a framework for our jobs, careers, and occupations. As R. Paul Stevens describes in Doing God’s Business: “The New Testament treats work in the context of a larger framework: the call of God to live totally for him and his kingdom.”

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  • Bekako

    What is a difference between vocational calling and ministerial calling? Can the word be used interchangeably? In these terms, how can you define a devoted christian medical doctor serving the community in humility (fear of God) and a devoted and ordained pastor serving God’s kingdom?

  • GERRY ORGAN

    It must be made clear that calling is primarily to a Person not to a position. A person called into a strong, intimate, dependent relationship with Jesus will serve others and glorify God in any situation including work! Brother Lawrence explained this well in his story The Practice of the Presence of God, a marketplace Christian classic.

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