The deepest vocational question


When Parker Palmer first learned about "vocation" - he realized that vocation was always presented as something "outside" of oneself beckoning him to move toward it. It was a "calling" from "out there" that often required him to respond to be someone that he was not yet - to be "someone different, someone better, someone just beyond our reach." 

"That concept of [external] vocation is rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood..." and created a "distance between who I was and who I was supposed to be, leaving me exhausted as I labored to close the gap. Today I understand vocation quite differently - not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess" (10).

This accepting of who I already am has been more difficult than trying to pretend to be someone I'm not. In fact, I think most of my life I've pretended, especially as I spent many years as a single female leader in a married man's world of ministry. I've pretended to be stronger than I was. I've pretended sexist comments and not being invited to participate because of my genitalia did not hurt me. I pretended by not being as capable as I actually am because someone once told me that my strength was intimidating to men. 

It is vulnerable and courageous work to be who we really are because "[We] too often betray true self to gain the approval of others" (10). Every time I betray myself to gain the approval of others - I am not living in who God created me to be. I am not offering my sweet and necessary gifts of strength and beauty to the world. And the world needs each of us to do that - now more than ever. 

The deepest vocational question is not, "What ought I to do with my life?" but "Who am I? What is my nature?" (15)

Vocation, according to Frederick Buechner is the place where "your deep gladness meets the worlds deep needs." If I start with the needs of the world I will be too easily overwhelmed. If I let the many needs of the world shout at me, I'll have a difficult time discovering who I really am. Early on in my ministry - in the angst of trying to discern whether to take on a new leadership role, or to lead a team overseas, or to stay put where I was, a wise mentor said to me, "Paula, you could aptly fulfill 100 needs in 100 places around this world right this minute. But you are not called to meet 100 needs. You are called to be you." That was 28 years ago - and I'm still discovering the fulness of who I am so that I can offer that to bring beauty and truth to the world.

Even now - in the wake of last week's election that uncovered very blatant and multitudinous needs (that were already present but are now more glaringly obvious and urgent) - we can't just rush out and join a riot or stand with every hurting marginalized person or take on every cause. Authentic and authoritative and loving service flow out of "who am I?" As Palmer asked it, "what are my native ways of being in this world?"

This, too, is what Saint Francis discovered and practiced. He asked himself two questions every day: "Lord, who are you? and Lord, who am I?" It is said that when he knew these two things, he knew what was his to do. He knew what was his to say yes to and what was his to say no to. And somehow, Francis, knowing who God was and living into who he was, has had an 800 year influence upon our world. There are more books written about him in the Library of Congress than any other human who has ever existed. The one who knew he was called to be an "instrument of God's peace" and to enter into healing relationships with all did so with creation, with lepers, with Popes and with Sultans. His job was to be a joyful herald of God's loving embrace with whomever in creation he encountered.


  • In what ways are you "pretending" to be strong when you are weak or weak when you are strong? 
  • Who are the people you find yourself needing to pretend around?
  • Pay attention this week for when you say "yes" when you know you're to say "no" and vice versa. What fear made you betray yourself?
  • What questions are arising in you as you read this reflection?