What is Calling?

At “Flourishing in the Academy,” the national gathering of the Emerging Scholars Network at Following Christ 2008, Marc Baer of Hope College addressed the question “What is Calling?” The text of his message is below.

Historians like stories. I’ll begin with two.

The first is how I came to be speaking this afternoon, which actually goes back to an encounter I had with a student three decades ago. The setting was my first tenure-track position. I was in my office the week before the start of classes, feeling a little overwhelmed about new preparations while trying to stay up with my scholarship. I knew I didn’t have time for anything else besides family and church. Then into my office walks this student, a soccer player, who introduces himself as Greg Baker and who tells me he’s the president of something called InterVarsity Christian Fellowship — which I don’t think I’d ever heard of before. He then informs me that his group’s faculty adviser is on sabbatical for the year, and the executive of IV has decided that I should take her place. Long story short, that request led to a terrific partnership with IVCF. Greg, by the way, went on InterVarsity staff at the University of Delaware, where he continues to serve faithfully.

The second story is about an Iowa farmer, a believer who grew up on land that his family had farmed for several generations. Unlike the first story, in this case it was a web of relationships and local experience that was the agent of his calling. And then one day when he was out in the cornfield on his John Deere tractor the young farmer gets a call on his cell phone. There’s this guy who wants to talk with him. The guy turns out to be in ministry, what in biblical times would have been called a prophet. Today perhaps think of a Billy Graham or a John Piper. And the visitor tells the young farmer that he’s heard from God that it’s nearing time to wind up his ministry and that God wants the younger man to take his place. And so, the visitor takes off his coat with the name of the ministry emblazoned on it, and puts it on the farmer. And then the truly remarkable part of this story: the young farmer said to the visitor, “I need to tell my family that I’m going to accept this call.” He then called his banker and asked that the tractor be applied to his line of credit, he went to the local butcher and bought all the ribs that were available, and he put together a barbecue for family, neighbors and friends and then — he left — forever.

At some point you realized that this second story was in fact Elijah’s call to Elisha in 1 Kings 19:1-21. But if I had read a biblical passage so well known, you may not have appreciated its strangeness.

Extracting a fixed set of principles about calling from the two stories is even more difficult when placed alongside what we just heard from our panel. This makes calling hard to reduce to a simple pattern. So, I want to approach our question, “What is Calling?,” from several angles.

I’ve been interested in the topic of calling for a decade plus, arising out of that expansion of my own calling when I was 50:

  • I teach a course, Exploring Faith and Calling, in Hope College’s senior seminar program
  • One of my current book projects, Believers: Minds at Work, includes chapters on the calling of modern British figures such as William Wilberforce, G. K. Chesterton, Florence Nightingale, Michael Faraday, and Dorothy Sayers

Some Characterizations of Calling

One response to the question, “What is calling,” is asking others who have thought about the topic to define it. See if any of these characterizations make sense to you:

  • God’s personal invitation for me to work on His agenda using the talents I’ve been given in ways that are eternally significant. (Thomas Addington and Stephen Graves, A Case for Calling)
  • Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service. (Os Guinness, The Call)
  • A God-given purpose to use one’s time, energy, and abilities to serve God in the world. (Jerry Sittser, Discovering God’s Will)
  • “The work that [a person] is called to do in this world, the thing that he is summoned to spend his life doing. … We can speak of a man choosing his vocation, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of a vocation’s choosing the man, of a call’s being given and a man’s hearing it, or not hearing it.” (Frederick Buechner, “The Calling of Voices”)
  • “Every individual’s sphere of life, therefore, is a post assigned him by the Lord that he may not wander about in uncertainty all the days of his life. . . . Our present life, therefore, will be best regulated if we always keep our calling in mind.” (John Calvin).

Here’s a summary: calling comes from God, includes gifting (which might looking backwards seem more like experience or habit), a job/career/post/thing, and certainty — supernatural certainty.

But answering the question, “What is Calling?” is also to recognize the different types of calling. All believers share a primary calling: to God in Christ. I experienced that when I was 25, a few weeks after I had passed the comprehensive exams for my Ph. D program. I had grown up in a non-believing family, completely outside the church. I wasn’t seeking salvation — I had no sense I needed it — much less a pass on the hell thing — I didn’t believe in that either. But I was challenged — in a winsome way — by an undergraduate student to read the Bible, and over many months I encountered such profound truths that I was, simply, overwhelmed — like being swept away by one of those big waves on a beach in southern California.

While all believers share this primary calling, each has a particular secondary calling, probably that job/career/post/thing. To see the relationship between primary and secondary callings, it’s helpful to ponder the two greatest commandments (Mark 12:28-31). Like them, the primary and secondary callings complement each other; as well, their order is significant. The first encourages us to love God in our relationship with Him; following from this, the second encourages us to love our neighbors. As our neighbors are all different, what our secondary calling is and how each of us does it is going to be different. Your secondary calling won’t look like mine because it was never meant to. Of all people, mature Christ-followers should be well beyond “calling envy.”

So, given what God is up to in our world, He has chosen to work through humans — including plenty who are not believers.

  • Healing through health care practitioners
  • Civil authority through politicians
  • Psychological peace through counselors
  • Thinking — that’s what professors do and help students do. But this call to thinking will take very different forms — because form follows fitting, or calling.

What Calling Is Not

Answering the question, “What is Calling?” is also to realize what calling is not. Consider two metaphors.

First, calling as a game of hide and seek.

There are sincere people who believe, sincerely, that there’s one right vocation, one thing you’re supposed to do, one perfect mate and no other, one right graduate program or postdoc or academic post, and so on. And God is hiding one or more of these from you. Our job is to discover them, then act on that discovery by appropriating them, and then God will be pleased with us.

Here are just a couple of the problems with this first metaphor.

  • Agape: this doesn’t seem like the God of the Bible. Would a God who died on the Cross for us play this sort of game?
  • The matter of small things: “Who despises the day of small things?” Zechariah asked (Zechariah 4:10). Or Bonhoeffer in Life Together: “Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things.” Our daily choices regarding small things when multiplied culminate in much larger outcomes. Thus, rather than focusing too much on the big question, “am I called to the academy?,” this next semester seek to do well on one paper, or project, or experiment—and then see what happens. Like marriage, rather than obsessing about Miss or Mister Right, would it not be better to work first on becoming a good friend?

As an antidote to the game of hide and seek, ponder: If we’re in the will of God, does whatever we choose become the will of God for our lives?

The second metaphor is calling as a journey.

There are sincere people who go to the other extreme, who believe, sincerely, that it’s all about the journey not the destination. Journey, of course, but journeys are means to an end, not the end. I would have let you down had I not gotten off the train at Millennium Station and made it to the Marriott Hotel, had I not known my destination and thus failed to show up this afternoon.

The main problem: Does not this feed our propensity to hyper-individualism?

As an antidote to calling as a journey, ponder: my calling is not just about me — it’s also about me thinking about you.

So, believers know they have a destination. It’s heaven. The more I conform my life to Jesus the sweeter will be my arrival there. He, Jesus, was the rabbi who added to the Shema loving God with our minds. There are some, among them academics, whose calling is precisely that.

I personally think the most faithful people are the ones who hang in there — in small congregations when the mega-church in town seems so attractive; in businesses, when success eludes; in departments, which may no longer be fun or where one is surrounded by negative colleagues; in marriages which look more like battlefield than bliss; in towns where more stores are closing than opening. These people reveal that supernatural certainty regarding calling. And isn’t that the definition of faith? Not happiness on the mountain top of exaltation, but courage in the valley of despair. I wish I’d follow my own advice more — but that’s another talk.

So, guard against taking these two metaphors to heart because while each contains an element of truth neither is exclusively true. Like some of my students who wish all answers to be, “all of the above,” think about combining the essence of the two metaphors: be a seeker who is having fun on the journey while knowing the destination.

Career and Calling

Answering the question, “What is Calling?” is also to ponder the distinction between vocations, and jobs or careers. I may retire or lose my job, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my calling, any more than I might somehow lose my primary calling. The venue may change, or our work may move from paid to voluntary or voluntary to paid. But like changing churches doesn’t affect the first commandment or the primary call, the same is true regarding the secondary calling.

So, four principles for thinking about calling/vocation in relationship to job/career:

  • Calling transcends career; not everyone’s calling fits into a specific career
  • Calling uses a career, but shouldn’t be reduced to a career, and the career should not get in the way of a person discovering or pursuing a calling.
  • Calling involves work that can send us in directions where traditional careers do not go.
  • Calling is very often not singular but plural.

Consider two cases. The first was my father-in-law. His job was car mechanic, but I would say his calling was to be an evangelist. He did his job so well — and charged so little for the doing of it — that lots of people put up with a presentation of the gospel because they respected Max Smith’s work (cf. 1 Thes. 4:11-12).

Second, there’s the case of Hannah More, one of the subjects for the Believers book (if you saw the 2007 film Amazing Grace you encountered her). More was a quite conventional schoolmaster’s daughter who became by her early 30s a very popular writer — and made a lot of money.

In her late 30s, she had some sort of conversion from a vague Christianity to a personal relationship with Christ. This unleashed her: she wrote a number of important works of social criticism; and she closed down a school for the wealthy she and her sisters operated and opened her first Sunday school for the poor. Within a decade the More sisters were supporting and administering over 16 schools, teaching poor boys and girls to read, learn Christian morals, and acquire skills which would help them in life.

These were not your mother’s Sunday school. In the More sisters’ schools there was a Sunday evening service for parents; Wednesday evenings there were adult classes. Girls were taught household techniques as well as useful skills so they were employable. There were job outplacement services.

It seems to me More’s calling exhibited all four of those principles: calling transcends career; calling shouldn’t be reduced to a career; calling may take us where careers cannot; and calling is often not singular but plural.

The Bible, Community and Calling

Considering “What is Calling?” causes us to ask how, exactly, God calls us to a vocation? Let’s think biblically:

  • God calls us directly: Abraham; Paul
  • God places a desire in my heart: Isaiah (Here I am; send me)
  • God takes people along a path they would not have chosen: Daniel
  • God offers an attractive option: Stephen called as one of the seven in Acts 6:1-15.

In the case of the latter two, notice the role of others. Very often God uses other people to call us. If you read Paul Anderson’s Professors Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of Christian Faculty, 22 personal narratives of living out the faith in the academy, many of our colleagues heard their call through a professor who knew them well.

We may be God’s agent in calling someone — especially to still another type of calling, termed special. This might be for a very brief time, or for part of a career, or alongside a job — or it may transcend everything else we do.

Consider William Wilberforce, another of my subjects in Believers: God used three different men to call Wilberforce: the prime minister, William Pitt, who was a non-believer; John Newton, his spiritual mentor; and John Wesley. In the early 1790s Wesley wrote Wilberforce to encourage the younger man to hang in there in leading the campaign against the slave trade:

 Unless God has raised you up. . . . I see not how you can go through with your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God is with you, who can be against you? Oh, be not weary in well-doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall banish away before it. (This was the last letter Wesley ever wrote; 88 years old, he died six days later.)

Another case, closer to home for me was Herbert Butterfield, an eminent early 20th century Cambridge University historian and Methodist lay preacher who had neatly divided his world between the two until he was asked by his university’s divinity faculty to give a series of lectures on Christianity and history. He told his eventual biographer he trembled “at the thought of proclaiming before a university audience what he considered to be the ‘intimacies’ of religion, things he had only uttered previously in the seclusion of Methodist chapels.” Even at age 49 Butterfield was intimidated by the anti-Christian bias of his colleagues. But he accepted, thereby uniting his spiritual and professional worlds, and out of the lectures came a path-breaking book, Christianity and History.

Os Guinness thought after his conversion he should be a pastor. A 10-minute conversation with a service station attendant caused him to understand his work was outside not inside the church, and he became a public intellectual.

So here’s a principle: let someone, besides a parent, know you well. In fact, let several people know you well. Consult them. Turn your face to God; pray really hard; read the Bible deeply. Read Christian writers as well.

And read yourself. Look for these six signs:

  • Passion: What motivates me?
  • Talent: Understand your gifts, and then seek work that matches them well.
  • Life experience: John Bunyan or Alexander Solzhenitsyn in prison.
  • Opportunity: is there an open door; but consider closed doors as telling us what we are not supposed to do.
  • Community: listen to the voice of others.
  • Joy — not happiness; joy. This truck driver’s story can be translated very easily to the academy:

I drove tractor-trailer rigs for several years. It was always interesting to sit in the driver’s lounge and listen to other drivers talk while our trucks were being loaded. Regardless of where I was in the country, the discussion revolved around the following four topics (the language has been sanitized):

  1. My dispatcher is incompetent; he’s out to get me and I am out to return the favor.
  2. My job does not pay enough.
  3. My company always tried to cheat me out of what they owe me.
  4. No state trooper ever cuts me enough slack.

It took only five words to render everyone speechless, for a dead silence to descend on stunned drivers holding coffee cups. The words? “I like what I do.” Whenever I uttered those words everyone sort of looked at the floor, cleared their throats, then announced that they needed to go check on when their trucks would be loaded. Conversation, as they knew it, was over.

As Dallas Williard puts it in Divine Conspiracy, “The deepest longings of our heart confirm me in my original calling.”


Finally, calling — because it is so vital—presents us with moral challenges:

First, our work should not drive us: Vocation is not about doing, but being. At the end of Hebrews 11, the chapter on the heroes of the faith, there’s Hebrews 11:39: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.”

Second, our work should not trump family. Professors’ spouses and children end up as involuntary associate members of the academy. A healthy sense of calling ought to lead to wise choices via good boundaries.

My conclusion will be brief. Vocations, careers, jobs, and work flow from the primary calling. Although our secular-minded friends, family, neighbors wish it were not so, there is no calling without a Caller. But, sisters and brothers, because there is a Caller, you have a calling.

I’ll give the last words to Jesus, which he uttered to that Caller in John 17:4: “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.”


Marc Baer has been at Hope College since 1983, where he specializes in modern British history. He is the author of Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London, published in 1992 by Oxford University Press. Besides courses in British, Irish, and imperial history, he also teaches a senior seminar, "Exploring Faith and Calling." In addition to his teaching and research Baer helped organize the Hope College Veritas Forum, serves as faculty advisor for the InterVarsity chapter at Hope, and for a dozen or more years has directed the college’s Pew Society, which through a mentoring program helps equip Hope students to consider and prepare for graduate school and university teaching careers.

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