Is Ministry a Job or Vocation?
And what difference does it make?

Eugene Peterson laments in For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books, 2010) that he has been "trying for fifty years now to be a pastor in a culture that doesn't know the difference between a vocation and a job." It was a bunch of artists that clued him in on the difference.

Definitions are in order. According to Peterson, a job is "an assignment to do work that can be quantified and evaluated." Most jobs come with job descriptions, so it "is pretty easy to decide whether a job has been completed or not…whether a job is done well or badly." This, Peterson argues, is the primary way Americans think of the pastor (and, presumably, that pastors think of themselves). Ministry is "a job that I get paid for, a job that is assigned to me by a denomination, a job that I am expected to do to the satisfaction of my congregation."

A vocation is not like a job in these respects. The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, "to call." Although the term today can refer to any career or occupation (according to Webster), the word (vocatio, I imagine) was coined to describe the priestly calling to service in the church. So vocation=calling. This is how Peterson is using the word, anyway. And the struggle for pastors today, he continues, is to "keep the immediacy and authority of God's call in my ears when an entire culture, both secular and ecclesial, is giving me a job description."

During his seminary education in New York City, Peterson worked with a group of artists. They were dancers and poets and sculptors, and they all worked blue-collar jobs as taxi drivers, waiters, and salesmen—whatever they had to do to pay the rent and put food on the table. Soon enough Peterson realized that "none of them were defined by their jobs—they were artists, whether anyone else saw them as artists, and regardless of whether anyone would ever pay them to be artists." That is to say, being an artist wasn't a job for them, but a vocation. Their jobs simply kept them alive so they could pursue their vocations. "Their vocation didn't come from what anyone thought of them or paid them."

I found this discussion both liberating and convicting. Looking back over the past decade or so, I wonder if the angst I've experienced while trying to figure out what to do with my life has stemmed from confusing these two categories.

In my senior year of high school, I "surrendered to the gospel ministry" (that's what we called it). I sensed a calling to dedicate my life and career to serving Christ through the local church. I immediately understood that vocation in terms of the jobs that commitment made possible or impossible. Before then, I wanted to teach high school English for a living. After, I knew that a call to ministry meant abandoning that career. At the time, the only ministers I knew were senior pastors, youth ministers, and worship leaders. The job description of pastor seemed the best decision.

July 06, 2010

Displaying 1–10 of 24 comments


July 14, 2010  9:53pm

For the last 25 years I've served both as a "full-time" and "Bi-Vocational" pastor, and quite honestly I've never felt that I fit any slot/title offered me. I've wresteled with feeling legitimate during the bi-vocational times, and felt like a "user" during the "Full-Time" assignments. Then I really looked at Paul's life - he served in both positions, and struggled with insecurities ("am I not an apostle?"). It's in the struggle that we "forge" our relationship with Father, and realize that it's what He thinks that counts. True ministry can only come from a relationship so forged.

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July 13, 2010  8:39pm

Yes, thank you Alan. You're speaking my language exactly!

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July 13, 2010  6:59pm

Alan Ward sums it up for the rest of us nicely. Well written–consider that comment a part of fulfilling your calling, Alan. :-)

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July 13, 2010  1:15pm

I think we can understand the "calling" aspect of what we do better than the "job" part. My work in Christian leadership (not in a pastoral setting) is certainly rewarding, but parts of it are routine and not always that interesting – and so be it. I imagine pastoral service would be the same. Yet Scripture has a ton to say about diligence! Professionalism, respect for authority, caring for the little things, giving a day's work for a day's pay: these may or may not relate to some romantic notion of "calling." Yet clearly, they matter to God.

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Alan Ward

July 13, 2010  12:45pm

If you believe you are called to ordained ministry, there is a prescribed path to follow. It may vary from one denomination to another, but the basic path is the same. But what about someone who feels "called" but has clearly figured out that it's not a call to ordained ministry? That's sort of "off the map" in the sense that there isn't a clearly defined path to follow to find clarity on one's calling the way there is for those pursuing ordained ministry. You sort of have to find your own way, and it's not easy. In fact, it's rather frustrating. My job is as a Science Writer for NASA; my call... As Brandon says, that's harder for me to express in a few words. I know it has something to do with writing, so I suppose that what I do can be seen as a "partial reflection" of who I was born to be. But I also know beyond knowing (after more than 9 years on the job!) that the kind of writing I do on my job for NASA doesn't really bring my heart fully alive. So I try to live out my calling "on the side" as I write for on-line publications, and participate in ministry at my church. But sometimes I feel like a house divided – I'm not able to fully commit to my job or my calling. I wonder if God will someday lead me to a "job" that closer meshes with what I really am "called" to be? I believe my calling is real. It nags at me; it haunts me... it won't let me go... In short, I think that's the "call" that I seek to understand and answer.

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July 12, 2010  8:02pm

Sheer Yes, protestants have several catholic hangovers that were left unreformed. It's sad to see a room full of "royal priests" designed by God to "proclaim the glories of Him who called you out of darkness into the light.." programmed by the system to say not one word of personal expression of truth to one another when they gather for worship time. Proclaiming all outsourced to one guy. It's not to late to fix it. God can do it if saints are willing. He won't force anyone out of the mold. He has outrageous rewards for obedience.

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July 12, 2010  4:23pm

"…been "trying for fifty years now to be a pastor in a culture that doesn't know the difference between a vocation and a job." Maybe the culture knows more than Eugene. Maybe his understanding of Col. 3:23 has been severely warped by tradition to realize minatory, job, vocation, etc are all in the same box for God because they are all to be done as service to Christ, not men. It's all ONE ministry, one calling. "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not men…" Maybe Eugene has been trying too hard to justify a "special" kind of ministry for the clergy orientation that has been around for so long. "In my senior year of high school, I "surrendered to the gospel ministry..." It was the same for me, however as I began my pastoral studies I realized what the Bible's description of shepherding was far different than what the clergy system said it was. I told myself, I'll do what the Word says and everyone will understand." I was so wrong. God helped me realize my "clear call to THE ministry" was a call from tradition, not the Lord himself. I am so thankful God helped me figure out the deep systemic errors so I could enjoy the freedom and reward that comes from "refusing" the right to be paid and ministering free of charge like Paul taught and modeled (1 Cor. 9. The part about the freedom and reward is at the end. Don't miss it.) The old rational about Paul only meaning that for himself is such a shallow interpretation. I remember hearing Swindoll chuckle as he said that in one of his "ministry" sermons. "I admire the men and women who do what they have to for a living so they can do what they are called to do for the kingdom. " How sad that even today, men who say they dedicate their lives to God's people and God's Word insist on separating secular job from sacred kingdom. It's all kingdom! It's all service to the Lord". God's Word is so clear unless you read it with clergy glasses on. Getting this right with God's design pays big rewards.

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July 12, 2010  1:25am

I've found that my job and vocation happen to carry the same title. There are elements of my role that I consider my job–-stats keeping, menial administration work and so on. I wouldn't do them if I had a choice, but if I didn't do them my denomination would show me the door very quickly. On the other hand, I also get to do things that are more 'ministerial'–-preaching, travelling with people and so on. These are the things God called me to, and they are the things I signed up for. The denomination is far less likely to complain if I'm not doing these because they don't keep track of them. There have been many times when I've shed tears because my job is getting in the way of my work. But generally, my role is great. I get to combine my job AND my vocation and even get to use the same stationery for each! CAPTCHA: An lifework. Yep, sums it up nicely.

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Bob Young

July 09, 2010  8:40am

I've been bi- & tri- vocational for almost 42 years. I finally came to realize that my vocation was pastoring, I loved it, and know that it is my "calling". However, I've also been a businessman, as that has paid the bills so I could minister in my calling. I've been at peace with this for a long time, but it sure is hard to explain to I quit trying to just "explain" it & went on "doing it".

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Marcus Goodyear

July 08, 2010  2:38pm

Len, thanks for reminding us all that vocation is not limited to religious work. Brandon, I was glad to hear you clarify that you were speaking from personal experience in that regard. Sheerahkahn, I'm going to take you at your word about discussing the idea of vocation and work in more detail. At, and Christianity Today's, we've had several authors, leaders, and pastors, address this issue over the years. Here are a few highlights from some of my favorites: Bonnie Wurzbacher, a VP of Coca-Cola, said, "We don't get meaning from our work; we must bring meaning to our work. God needs his people in boardrooms and business offices as much as in operating rooms and classrooms." Earl Palmer, a pastor and writer, said, "My discipleship goal is to obey the great commandment and the great commission while I do my work, wherever it takes me. We are called as God's people, young and old, to find out what we do well and enjoy doing, then cheer each other on to 'go for it'—which makes education and training so important to keep the doors open to what I want to do." Gary Klingsporn, a New England pastor, said, "Calling, vocation, purpose is often revealed through our own experience of the call of God. It is always a sacred or holy moment, no matter how small." Jonathan Dodson, a pastor, said, "I can subtly replace identity in Christ with my vocation. ...The challenge is not to put vocation before identity. We are disciples first, then pastors and professionals." Most of all, I'd be curious what resources pastors are using to think about the ideas of vocation and work.

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