Vocation Discernment: My Optimistic Vision

When I was eight, my grandfather confirmed me a member of the church. The Primary President recorded the blessing and gave it to me as a gift.  The second line is striking, coming from this warm but very traditional family patriarch: “I bless you with a career that will serve your fellow man.”

When President Benson gave his To the Mothers of Zion talk a couple of years later, my dad came home from teaching his pre-med course at BYU and noted how confused, sad, and angry many of his female students were that day. He clearly felt agitated himself.  Sometime later, he took me aside and reminded me that I had a world of choices in front of me, that he trusted me to make good decisions with my life, and that I would always have his support.  For that, the word grateful seems painfully inadequate.

Mormons have a language problem when we talk about employment vs. motherhood for women. We get tied up talking about it, finding words that won’t polarize us. Working inside the home? Outside the home? Working because you want to? Working because you have to?

As women of faith, I think we should use the word vocation far more often than we do. Vocation – from Latin “vocare” or “to call” – refers to an occupation (or endeavor) that a person feels called to because of her individual disposition, skills, talents, and gifts.

What if we adopted the language of “vocation discernment” as we talk to our young women, in a church context, about education and career goals?  It preserves the spiritual core of decision-making without proscribing a singular “ideal” life path for women that views career training as simply a safety net.

When I think about a feasible vision for addressing this topic for the next generation of young women, I think of a dear friend of mine who runs a Catholic girls school — one that takes its religion seriously!  Her school is an exceptionally vibrant place.  Here is an excerpt from its vision statement:

What this world needs is not simply women who are smart, competent and savvy, but women of integrity who put Christian principles into practice. Our alumnae stand out as leaders in every professional field. Living across the country and in Europe, Asia and South America, they are mothers and engineers, CEO’s and published authors.  They are scientists, film editors and television producers; they are lawyers, medical professionals and educators. They are inspired by faith, character and vision.

Wouldn’t that be an awesome vision statement for Personal Progress? Wouldn’t it be unifying and richly respectful (and encouraging!) of the opportunities available to women, while still reverencing parenthood as one of those opportunities?

Our Catholic friends use the term “vocation discernment” in this way: Does one have a “calling” to enter religious life — as a priest, nun, monk, oblate, etc. — or does one’s vocation lie elsewhere? The discernment process requires time, reflection, listening to one’s inner voice and asking for insight from a Higher voice.  It can take years.

This concept fits our theology well. It would help us be respectful and embracing of divergent life-paths for women.  In fact, vocation discernment is already implicitly embedded in the Young Women’s values:

  • Divine Nature: I have inherited divine qualities, which I will strive to develop.
  • Individual Worth: I am of infinite worth with my own divine mission, which I will strive to fulfill.
  • Knowledge: I will continually seek opportunities for learning and growth.

Vocation is a liberating term.  It speaks to personal revelation and to knowing oneself and one’s divine potential.  It allows me to rejoice, unapologetically, pursuing a “career that serves my fellow (wo)man” (I found one – thanks, Grandpa!). It allows a close friend to draw strength in sensing that being at home with her children in these years is her vocation, her calling.

It means that instead of feeling threatened by one another, we could rejoice in our collective power as “women of integrity who put Christian principles into practice. [Mormon women] are mothers and engineers, CEO’s and published authors.  They are scientists, film editors and television producers; they are lawyers, medical professionals and educators. They are inspired by faith, character and vision.”

Now how do I get on the Personal Progress curriculum committee . . .?

P.S. For a grassroots opportunity to learn about Mormon women and their vocations, visit Mormon Women Project.

P.P.S.  Have you visited WAVE’s (new and under-construction) website?

We are a group of LDS women committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and interested in advancing gender equity within the LDS church. We are working on exciting plans to support members in their efforts to work together in a charitable and effective manner to encourage each member’s full participation in the gospel.

Deborah

Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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14 Responses

  1. kate says:

    This is beautifully written, and timely for me. My husband and I had a long talk over lunch today about life, careers, etc. I’m trying to figure out what is next for me, and your thoughts on vocation articulate what we were both trying to say, I think.

  2. CatherineWO says:

    I love this, Deborah. The idea of “vocation” fits beautifully into an LDS context. Thank you.

  3. Angie #2 says:

    I just wanted to throw my 2 cents in that the idea of ‘vocation discernment’ doesn’t just apply to women. I think it would be great to incorporate into the YM curriculum as well. I know of several men who started down a path of med school, dental school, lawyer etc. so they could support a large family when that wasn’t their true ‘vocation’. They’re not happy and/or changed careers only after spending a fortune to become a doctor, lawyer, etc.

    I believe the world would be a better place if we were all allowed to pursue a vocation without boundaries of this is what we’re ‘supposed to do’. Luckily my husband and I have supported each other in our ‘vocations’.

  4. Corktree says:

    I love this. I have always felt that my interests outside the home (as far as careers go) were more a vocation than a job. I know the feeling of being “called” to a type of work, and I think it would be wonderful to teach our youth to have a sense of discernment for what they would really do well in, and not just what would meet their needs or be lucrative or fulfill expectations.

    And I love that in the truest sense, motherhood is a vocation as much as anything else.

  5. Rebecca says:

    I’m reminded of a Presbyterian friend’s confusion a few years ago when I talked about a calling in my LDS ward. I hadn’t realized that for her a religious calling refers to one’s inner spiritual inclination, not something external like being asked to serve in some capacity in your congregation. I suppose in our theology the process frequently happens in reverse. One receives a calling and then hopefully develops or is endowed with the spiritual desires, abilities and discernment necessary to fulfill it.

  6. nat kelly says:

    I love the idea of a vocation. That’s exactly how I feel about the career I’m planning to embark on. Well said.

  7. Deborah says:

    Angie: I totally agree . . . and began to insert references to young men but decided it was too big for a small post. But the language of vocation seems so respectful to our concept of “teaching people correct principles and letting them govern themselves.” The “ideal path” rhetoric (for men and women) causes so much angst when someone feels called to pursue a different path.

    Changing language can change culture. When I see so many sisters whose lives — by choice, revelation, or happenstance — do not follow a proscribed pathway . . . and I see so many of those same sisters in pain or walking away from the church . . . it makes me wonder what small steps we could talk (grassroots) to broaden the church as a spiritual homebase. Shifting toward “vocations” and away from the SAHM/Employed and Single/Married seems like as good a place to start as any . . . even in as “small” a sphere as a YW lesson.

  8. Jenne says:

    Where’s the like button for this post?

    I love framing an educational/professional pursuit as discerning one’s vocation. I can certainly draw those parallels to where I have been led to study and work.

  9. Stephanie says:

    Love this post. Particularly this line:

    It preserves the spiritual core of decision-making without proscribing a singular “ideal” life path for women that views career training as simply a safety net.

    I’d also like to point out that one vocation can take many different forms throughout life. A vocation of serving children could mean being a mother and being a NICU nurse at the same time. Or a vocation could involve evolving roles and responsibilities. I think the key is this:

    The discernment process requires time, reflection, listening to one’s inner voice and asking for insight from a Higher voice. It can take years.

    This concept fits our theology well. It would help us be respectful and embracing of divergent life-paths for women.

    Well said.

  10. Deja says:

    Wow, Deborah. I always make little “huhh” and “yeahhh” sounds when I read your posts, and this one certainly induced those sounds in abundance.

    Vocation is a such a perfect word for this conundrum, which started for me when my parents suggested I get a PhD in poetry (which I ended up doing, actually), and then said, when I asked about a career, that my “career” would be raising my kids. What a confusing conversation that was. But now, I’m glad to say, they’re super cool and supportive of my career. And as much as I love my career, I wish I didn’t feel like I still had to make this big choice, this either-or or both and all of them weighty options, when I think about whether to stay home with (future) kids. Vocation truly emphasizes the personal revelation piece of it, which is, for me, the only the piece that seems to matter. Thank you for articulating this.

    Can’t wait to see you at the retreat! (I’m going! Are you still planning on it?)

  11. I like the word choice. It is tempting to use “calling,” but that term is already taken, vocation is well placed.

  12. Dora says:

    Deborah, I’m late to the party, but I wanted to add my absolute approbation. I love this post. There is so much that is unknowable in our lives. The standard script in the church is that a young woman marries in the temple, has children, and lives happily ever after. At least that was what they taught in my ward. Fortunately, my parents emphasized education, and I got a good one. Later on, my mother was called to be the YW 1st counsellor, to be an example to the YW of a mother who also had a career!

    But for YW, there is so much that is unknowable at their age. Will they marry? Will they marry in the temple? Will they be able to have children? Will they need to work outside the home? So much of this is beyond the control of any one woman. Why not focus on what IS within their control … becoming strong, educated, faithful women who have a vision of how they can use their individual talents to benefit the world. Maybe focusing on strengths and potential would help to retain these young women in the church, at a time when so many seem to fall away.

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