What does it mean to have a vocation?

Nun at a waterfall

nun and waterfall by xinem

I’m never quite sure that I understand the difference between ‘vocation’ and ‘things I want to do and can do, that need doing’.

Except maybe in the context of music. People talk about making music your ‘avocation’. And by this they mean pursuing music as an amateur or semi-professional, but not dedicating your life to it.

Being a professional musician means coping with constant rejection, spending hours practising whether you want to or not, living an uncertain precarious life, all for little or no reward. There is no guarantee that just because you want to be a professional musician, you will get performing work, nor that it will pay a living wage. Received wisdom is that you should only make music your vocation if you can’t imagine doing anything else.

Is the same thing true of ministry? I’m not sure that it is. In Britain, there are marginally more vacant pulpits than active ministers to fill them. So, if you qualify, you will probably find a job. And it’s true that you will need to put your life on hold for a couple of years whilst you train – something that’s difficult for mid-career professionals, but is true of many career changes. Whilst ministry is not amazingly well-paid, Unitarian ministers earn more than about half the population (and less than about half the population) – so it’s not exactly like trying to make it in the arts.

Do we only want ministers who can’t imagine doing anything else with their lives? Or do we just need ministers who want to be ministers, and can (have the right skills and training) to be ministers? Does only imagining yourself as a minister say something more about your lack of imagination, than it does about some kind of calling?

Yet on the other hand, I could describe myself as being ‘called’ to be a Unitarian. Because saying that I’m a Unitarian is just describing a feature of me – like saying that I’m an introvert. Being a member of a Unitarian community is a way of owning and living my Unitarian identity. But I am Unitarian because I couldn’t honestly be anything else. Being Unitarian is simply how I should live my life.

And the best ministers I know, are the ones who just are. Whether they are official and trained or not, they do not minister because it is their job, they seem to minister because they can’t help themselves. I do not mean that they are all perfect people, just that ministry fits them like a glove.

Perhaps that’s what it means to have a vocation.

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