Shoes That Fit Our Feet–Insight into Vocation for Women

Recently I participated in a gathering of clergy women of color convened to discuss challenges facing pastoral leaders. There were nineteen or so of us, theologically trained women living out our callings in many ways. Of the nineteen women gathered, one of us was a senior pastor, a few served as full-time staff associate pastors and the majority of us serve concurrently in our churches and other contexts. For instance, I serve as an Associate Pastor at my church and as President of a consulting practice based outside of Chicago.

For years I struggled with the tensions of serving in multiple contexts. I minimized my work outside of the church because I did not serve as a full-time pastor in a church.  I remember some twenty-five years ago or so when a corporate colleague of mine introduced me to the label of bi-vocational pastor. He was a manager in one of the business units of our company and he was a pastor of a small church in southern Ohio. We didn’t use that term in my faith tradition and I remember not only being intrigued by it but trying to adopt it to define my own experience: since I served in the church and in the marketplace, I rationalized, I was bi-vocational.

Like a stylish but ill-fitting pair of shoes, that label never quite fit me and my experiences as a woman in ministry.  Yet I continued to walk gingerly in that label, accepting the fact I had a set of skills, abilities, gifts and experience that make up my life’s work both in the church and out. In fact one of the common threads for my life’s work has been working for gender justice through training and developing women leaders and consulting to companies to develop more equitable practices toward women. I worked hard over the years to make peace with how I lived out my vocation and tried many times to take off the ill-fitting label that suggested two vocations for me.

So, no one was more surprised than I was, when I fell back into the language of being “bi-vocational” in introducing myself to the eighteen other clergy women in that gathering, only to learn later that few of us were solo pastors.  One of our colleagues stated it so clearly, as she said, “I don’t use the term bi-vocational, because that’s not who I am or what do. I live out my calling in multiple contexts. In fact, for what I am called to do, a church would be constraining and box me in!”

At that moment, I addressed the group again and thanked my clergy-sister for reminding me and all of us that the term bi-vocational is not one that fits us and I didn’t need to pick it up again—either out of habit or out of devaluing my calling when in the presence of “full-time” clergy.

That’s my prayer for each woman who is reading this post and struggling with some of the same tensions around her true calling. Rather than try to fit our unique callings into a label that doesn’t fit most of our experiences, it would be more helpful for each of us to come to understand the true nature of vocation and how each of us has been uniquely gifted as women to live out our vocations.

Stemming from the Latin word, vocare (to call), vocation carries with it a sense of being called to work or serve. From the early 15th century it signified a “spiritual calling,” and evolved to connote those who were called to religious service, with religious service being narrowly defined as that done in or on behalf of a church or religious order. As Sister Joan Chittister wrote, the ancient theology of vocation was “the notion of having a special call from God that separated a person from the rest of the world.”[1]

Consequently, those called to serve in the church and yet maintained employment outside the church “secular” jobs were given the label bi-vocational. An entire lexicon emerged ensuring that vocation remained distinct from job or career. This bifurcation of vocation, unfortunately has caused too many people to live bifurcated lives—clergy inside the church and “engineer” or “administrator” or doctor” or “executive” or “mechanic” outside the church. As if “clergy” or “minister” is a role we can don and then discard at will.

[tweetthis]This bifurcation of vocation, unfortunately has caused too many people to live bifurcated lives.[/tweetthis]

What I’ve come to learn is that each of us has been uniquely gifted to live out our life’s calling or purpose. We recognize and begin to walk out that calling when we find the work and context which “fit” our unique design.  Many of us, especially women, are responding to a calling from within that we live out in many different contexts.

I remember clearly the moment I was called to preach. I’ll never forget it. Yet I also remember the moment the lights went on for me and I felt called to do organizational development work, using my gifting to create and provide tools for people to grow as individuals and work together more effectively.  The latter was not as dramatic as the former but it was clear. Furthermore,  I’ll never forget the atmosphere that was created in a corporate workshop of senior women leaders who advanced to but not beyond the glass ceiling of their company. In the session, we created space to tell the truth about our experiences as women leaders, acquire tools for influencing others and strategies for equalizing the access to opportunities for them and other women.

The truth-telling and sharing created a sense of liberation for those women and a release that comes with the realization that they no longer had to deal with these issues in isolation—together they were creating a support system.  I sensed the women walked away with feelings of  “I’m not crazy;” “It’s not my fault;” “I’m not alone;” and “I have choices.” That, my friends, was not only a transforming moment for the women in my workshop but for me to see the transforming power of my calling! Those shoes fit my feet!

Too often definitions are heaped upon us as women that don’t fit our experiences. I know “bi-vocational” is one of those. Trying to squeeze our life’s work into a constraining categories creates tension within, causing some of us to try to prove and compare our callings with others.

Thankfully, vocation today has emerged to mean one’s life’s work, or one’s purpose. It’s unnecessary to draw rigid lines in the sand between a vocation and a career as some writers do. For me, career became a path from which I lived out my calling.  The key is for each of us to remember Who called us, why we have been called and to walk confidently in that call.

[tweetthis]It’s unnecessary to draw rigid lines in the sand between a vocation and a career as some writers do[/tweetthis]

It is such a treasure to live authentically–clear on purpose and gifting for the greater good.  I urge you today to find the integration of who you are and what you do, so that you embrace your vocation as the unique calling that it truly is. In other words, find those “shoes” that fit your feet and walk out your calling, comfortable and confident of your distinct contribution to this world. The world is waiting for you!

[tweetthis]Find those “shoes” that fit your feet & walk out your calling, comfortable and confident of your contributions! [/tweetthis]

[1] Joan Chittister, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy. New York: Crown Publishing, 2012, p. 24.

© 2018 Jeanne Porter King

1 Comment

  1. CSJ

    Whoa. Well stated — and thought-provoking…

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