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Some years ago a retired pastor was describing, for a group of people, his transition into retirement. He had experienced a long and satisfying career in ministry, and had enjoyed the respect and admiration of many colleagues. However, tragically, it seemed that the most powerful memories of his career were often associated with things that he regretted: Commitments he had made but not kept. Words he had spoken that hurt people. He remembered taking ministry shortcuts, pretending to know things that he really didn’t, using his power to get his way, and so on. Most of all, he realized that he had regularly ignored the needs of his family. It wasn’t long before his collection of regrets became overwhelming, he told his audience, and depression sank in. 

What if this retired pastor had been able, long before his retirement, to develop a robust understanding of his vocation? What difference might it have made to know that his ministry career– complete with all of its triumphs and regrets– had a larger context, his calling from a gracious and compassionate God? Understanding the concept of vocation and its application to his life might have made a difference in his experience of retirement.

It turns out that the idea of vocation is not something that many give much thought to. We tend to think in more practical terms, about things like career and work and job. 

Vocation, it turns out, is a much larger idea than career is, and it helps you to develop “big picture perspective” that provides grounding and context both for your work and for your retirement. In the biblical worldview, a person’s vocation is the general calling from God to be a citizen of His Kingdom– his reign and rule in the world– and it includes the specific way that God has called and equipped you for your identity as a citizen. 

Dr. Neal Plantinga taught hundreds of Calvin University students to think this way about their lives. He told them that a citizen of God’s Kingdom is “someone who accepts with enthusiasm Jesus’ commission to participate in God’s kingdom as witnesses, agents, and models.” It is the joyful work of increasing the net amount of Shalom wherever that person is in the world. 

Adam and Eve were called by God to be fruitful. What kind of fruitfulness? Children, surely, but also the fruitfulness that comes with pursuing their calling to be at work, contributing to Shalom in God’s Creation. 

Adam and Eve were also called to have dominion. What would that dominion be characterized by? Shalom. Alignment with God’s life-giving wisdom and will. In the context of the Fall, of course, that calling would take on a new importance in a world whose Shalom had been broken. 

Further on in the biblical story, Israel as a nation had that same vocation in the Promised Land– to be a witness to the nations of God’s Kingdom and its governing principle of Shalom. Each one of the Israelites had his or her own version of that calling, to be lived out wherever they found themselves. 

David pursued that calling, to be a Shalom-bringer, both while tending sheep and while sitting on the throne of Israel. Sadly, he abandoned it when committing adultery with Bathsheba and, later, when he chose to count up his fighting men. 

Peter learned his vocation when Jesus called him to discipleship. Mary (and then Martha) learned it while sitting at Jesus’ feet. Paul learned it on the road to Damascus. And Lydia, the purple cloth dealer, learned it by that river in Philippi, as she met Paul and, through him, the Lord Jesus.

A few decades ago Frederick Beuchner called vocation “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” More recently, Ruth Haley Barton has said that vocation is the something that one can’t not do, and is actually more who we are than what we do. In very general terms, your vocation is your calling to partner with God as his instrument of shalom, in your unique setting, with your unique abilities, given your unique opportunities. It is to be a citizen of His Kingdom.

Getting back to the pastor in the story above, what if he had started his ministry career knowing that his ministry was, first of all, to bring God’s great Shalom to his corner of the world in all the ways available to him? How might that have shaped his understanding of himself and his ministry role? How might that have shaped his perception of where his true accountability lay, of the complaints and praises from the people around him, and of the “why” behind all the meetings he attended, conversations he led, and worship services he created? 

Knowing that God was the one to whom he was responsible for carrying out this calling, he might have reflected on his shortcomings in ministry with the freeing realization that:

  1. God is a God of grace and forgiveness
  2. God would always hold those he, as a pastor, might have “failed” in ministry
  3. God loved His people more than the pastor ever would.

The pastor might also have realized that his many ministry successes came because of God’s provision both for him and for the church, as God was building his Kingdom on earth and using him in that great work. 

The concept of vocation is immensely helpful at the end of one’s full time ministry career too. It equips you to realize that:  

  1. Your vocation doesn’t end just because your full time ministry does. Your life’s calling remains. Only the venue changes, so to speak. You now have the opportunity to be a Kingdom citizen in a new way– with the opportunities and challenges that come with leaving a career behind, getting older, and having more freedom to invest one’s energy in new ways. 
  2. You can hold your regrets differently– more loosely– as you transition out of full time ministry. Why? A clear understanding of your vocation offers a lighter load than the task(s) that you might give to yourself: Your vocation was always to bring Shalom, not build the church. Your vocation was always to participate in God’s Kingdom, not supervise it. Your vocation was always to love God’s people, not save them. Regrets arising from failures to be successful in self-directed ministry plans or other shadow missions are misplaced regrets. And when we recognize them for what they are, they become opportunities to realize what was truly important about our ministry careers: Their alignment with the Kingdom rather than their indications of our cleverness and skill.
  3. Grace is BIG. We who pursue our God-given vocations are always working in someone else’s Kingdom, with someone else’s provision of gifts, in pursuit of someone else’s plan. That “someone else” has always been the God of great grace and deep compassion. In the face of our regrets he offers his forgiving mercy. In the face of our triumphs he points to his wise provision. 

“Location! Location! Location!” is the slogan of real estate agents.

“Vocation! Vocation! Vocation!” is the anthem of citizens of the Kingdom– later career and retired pastors as well as everyone else. 


Follow up steps:

Circles of Calling Exercise

Vocational Ministry Assessments

Pastor’s Spiritual Vitality Toolkit

Read Cornelius Plantinga’s book Engaging God’s World: A Reformed Vision of Faith, Living, and Learning (Eerdmans, 2002), especially chapter 5. 

Reflection Questions:

  1. How might you articulate your life’s vocation in one, powerful sentence?
  2. How might the many roles in your life (neighbor, family member, minister, gardener, citizen, etc.) give particular expression to your vocation?
  3. How will your vocation find expression in whatever comes after the conclusion of your full time ministry work?
  4. How does your vocational understanding speak to the griefs and laments that you might experience during the transition out of full time ministry?
  5. How does your vocational understanding speak to the joys and satisfactions that you might experience during the transition out of full time ministry?

NOTE: This article comes out of a study of ministry transitions, done by members of the Thrive staff of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The studied transitions include the transition from later career into retirement. The guidance here is part of a larger retirement resource that updates a 2006 resource called "Closing Well-- Continuing Strong". 

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