Vocation and Community

The common theme in this series on vocation has been that our vocations are from God and for the community. We’ve seen both these elements in every level of vocation: The calling to bear the image and likeness of God isn’t about puffing us up, but about embodying generosity in and for the world; the calling to be like Christ is not about ‘grasping’ at intimacy with God but humbling ourselves in service to others; the calling to grow in faith is not about becoming the ‘biggest tree in the forest’ but about bearing good fruit ‘for the life of the world’; the calling to be our true selves is likewise not about retreating into self-centeredness but about freeing ourselves to offer what is uniquely and specifically ours; and the calling to contribute from our strengths and aptitudes is once again not about self-importance, but about playing our part for the good of the community. It all comes down to community. But, any one of us who has ever tried to build true community knows that this is far easier said than done. Community is hard, and more often than not seems to create barriers to vocation and genuine growth than to facilitate it. And so today I’d like to focus on the role of the community in vocation.

When Christians talk about community, we are talking first and foremost about the Church. I think it’s clear from the Scriptures that this will ‘spill over’ in the rest of the world, but the Church is always top of mind. God does not call us to be isolated individuals, but rather calls us into community. To pick up on Paul’s famous analogy of the body and its parts, God does not call us to remain disembodied livers, feet, or hair, but to come together to form a fully functioning body:

If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. (1 Corinthians 12.17-18)

But as wonderful as this vision for community life may be, Christians — or humans for that matter — have never been good at living this out. The Church has often excluded its members from contributing, or has insisted that ‘livers’ function as ‘muscle’, or encouraged all of its members to be ‘fingernails.’ I won’t go into the litany of ways the Church has let down its members — I don’t need to, since anyone who has been a part of a church community will have a list of examples ready at hand. The obvious reason why this is the case is ‘sin’: the Church is made of people who, despite our best intentions and efforts, remain caught up in our issues and baggage and still project and deflect our fears, insecurities, and disappointments onto others. But on the collective level, perhaps the Church’s greatest sin has been that it has thought of the healthy growth of its members as a threat to its own stability and wellbeing. We might very well say that the Church, like us, tends to operate to defend its own ‘false self’ rather than opening itself up to its true self — its true reason for being, which is to be the healthy and whole body of Christ in the world, comprised of healthy and whole members. This is deeply disappointing behaviour, but not surprising. Communities tend to have totalitarian and authoritarian impulses and all too often treat people as means to an end. This goes beyond a ‘Church’ problem and is true of any institution or community, but it seems particularly disappointing with the Church which is ‘supposed’ to transcend such petty human problems.

And yet, despite its myriad failings, we cannot in good conscience rid ourselves of the ideal of Church either. We need one another. Not only because we need the other ‘body parts’ to do the things we aren’t well-suited to do, but also because — for the very reasons that make genuine community difficult — authentic growth really only happens in community. As I’ve written previously:

In our day-to-day lives, what is better at dislodging our self-centredness than honestly engaging with another person, even if that engagement is only as deep as trying to negotiate what to have for dinner? The greatest chasm in the world is the one between two human hearts and minds. Meeting another person, conversing, negotiating, finding common ground and ways of working with difference — this stunning revelation that ‘I’, my thoughts, beliefs, experiences, hopes, and dreams are not all that matters in the world — is really the true work of being human.

This idea of needing to be part of community in order to be fulfilled and whole doesn’t mesh well with North American culture’s highly individualistic attitude, which is one of Modernity’s most pervasive consequences. Longing to be freed from traditional cultures’ stifling of personal freedom, interest, and ability — stifling of vocation — Modernity rejected the idea of community in the name of the individual. But it remains that we need community in order to be healthy and whole.

And so we’re left in a quagmire: individual persons need community in order to grow and contribute but those same communities, acting from a false sense of self-interest, act to erase individual personhood and stifle vocational growth. As David G. Benner has put it:

Genuine transformation occurs only within a communal and interpersonal context. Often those communal contexts inhibit transformation, but they can facilitate it and always mediate it. We either open each other up to the transformational possibilities that we encounter in life or close each other down. Sadly, it seems to me that much of the emphasis on spiritual formation and transformation that exists in Christianity does the latter, as do the ways we relate to each other in Christian communities and churches. (Spirituality and the Awakening Self)

As Nicholas Pearce notes, it’s often those closest to us who can push us off the track of true vocation:

Our lives are filled with well-meaning people who try to get us to run the race they think is ours. There are parents who try to get their kids to become what they could not become—without regard to what these children are uniquely well suited or positioned to do. There are spouses and significant others who push their loved ones into more lucrative, but less vocationally consistent careers. There are bosses who discourage certain employees from their preferred career tracks and pigeonhole them into something that does not resonate with them at all, just for the sake of keeping them around. […] In each of these cases, parents and spouses and friends and family members or bosses or mentors are trying to get someone to run a race that they believe would be best for this person to run. And they are wrong.

So the question before us is how can we foster better communities? How can we build churches, and by extension, schools, families, and neighborhoods that facilitate genuine transformation instead of inhibiting it?

I’m not going to pretend I have answers to this, but I will say this: When it comes to individuality and community, we have to affirm both. It’s not the case that community is inherently bad or authoritarian; neither does a focus on the person need to be individualistic or libertarian. This is one of those ‘positive-positive’ polarities that govern so much of healthy functioning. Obviously, this isn’t a new idea — it’s built into Western democracy in the dual focus on rights and responsibilities — but it’s one we need to recover.

Throughout Christian history, the Church has often been imagined as a mother to its members. This is a helpful analogy here — particularly since in the past century, there has been a lot of investigation into the kind of parenting that fosters healthy development in children. I think the insights from these studies can equally apply to communities, including churches, that want to encourage their members to grow up into the full stature of their shared humanity and personal vocations.

Like churches, families of origin are often invested in a particular way of being in the world. This is important for the continuity of culture, but if we’re not careful, it can easily stifle healthy independence. As Nicholas Pearce writes:

For many cultures, the expectation of immediate and complete deference to one’s parents—no matter one’s age—is an unshakably powerful force. In some cultures, many parents believe that they have the right to select (read: manipulate) their young adult children’s futures. In this situation, … it requires that much more courage to break free of the expectations that others have for you. And it takes action—asserting that while your parents are your earthly creators, you have a heavenly Creator who is calling you to live the life for which you were created.

The research of Donald Winnicott and Robert Kegan has arranged what they saw in healthy parenting under three categories: holding/confirmation, letting-go/contradiction, and staying/continuity. First, parents need to make their children feel safe and secure, but do this loosely enough that they do not feel confined or smothered. Second, they need to let go and allow their children to explore and change; if parents don’t do this, the child’s growth is stifled. This is called ‘clutching’, in which parenting becomes focused on the parents’ need for control and security rather than the children’s needs to understand their own capabilities and competence. And third, once parents let go, they need to stay around so the relationship can continue under the new circumstances. The holding/letting-go/staying language is a lovely image; it’s reminiscent of a parent teaching a child to ride a bike: first they hold the bike as the child pedals; then they let go, allowing the child to ride on their own; but as they do this, they stay, jogging alongside or watching nearby to be there if something happens. The other set of terms is more helpful when thinking of later childhood development: first parents need to affirm and confirm the children’s place within the family, then there’s a stage in which the children differentiate themselves from their parents, but as this is done healthily, the relationship will continue and even deepen.

To return these ideas to vocation, we need families that are curious about how their children’s unique embodiment of the image and likeness of God will contribute to the family legacy rather than just repeat what they’ve received. In this process, the family will change and it needs to be okay with that. In exactly the same way, we need churches and other communities that are able to see and celebrate their members’ callings and spiritual gifts rather than being threatened by them. And, yes, they too will change. What can churches do to facilitate this? Here are a few ideas that come to mind:

  • Holding / Confirmation: Welcoming, strong focus on catechism and Christian education, ministries to ensure members’ basic needs (food and housing; physical, psychological, and spiritual safety; and belonging) are met.
  • Letting Go / Contradiction: Encouraging participation, holding ministry fairs, teaching on spiritual gifts, treating vocational discernment as a core role of the community, encouraging members to follow their vocations even if it means starting new ministries or even supporting them in transitioning to other communities where their vocations might be more readily lived out.
  • Staying / Continuity: Supporting the ups and downs of vocation, encouraging trial-and-error, not shunning those who leave the community and welcoming back if they return to visit.

One thing that gives me hope — if not for the church then at least for society at large — is that precisely this kind of reciprocity of community and individual is becoming increasingly common in the stories we tell. For example, at least three recent Disney films — Moana, Coco, and Turning Red — have involved just this sort of plot: a child who loves their family or community, but comes to question certain assumptions or values; this is first perceived by the community as a rejection, but eventually everyone adapts and the child’s contributions are able to be integrated healthily into community life. I pray that we will be able to build Christian communities that similarly acknowledge this reciprocity, and that we will be increasingly able to tell similar stories of healthy integration of personal vocation into community life.

Hopefully, we will become less concerned with maintaining the status quo and fitting people into our comfortable boxes, and become more open to the ways the Spirit is moving in and through the bestowal of God’s gifts to the faithful. This won’t be easy. But, I do believe that God is at work in our institutions and that it is possible.

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