Putting God Back into Work Calling Vocation and Service to the Divine

Putting God Back into Work: Calling, Vocation and Service to the Divine- Ted Cross MA, MSed

About Ted Cross
Ted Cross earned a Master of Science in Education from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. Ted also received both a Master and Bachelor of Arts in English from Arizona State University in 2007 and 2005, respectively.   


Notions of meaningful work are often associated with the sense of work calling. While secular versions of calling are popular in academic research, the religiously rooted notion of vocation has not been as common. This paper argues that the construct of callings in general is rooted in classical vocational traditions. Further, that for people of faith, vocation can provide a more holistic approach to meaningful work through the marrying of the spiritual with the secular. Hence, for those influenced by spiritual notions of work; the combination of work and spirituality can culminate in the expression of vocation as service to the divine. Last, the paper ends with a call for more research in the area or vocation and religiously motivated persons in the workplace.

In Western society most of us will spend one quarter to one half of our lives working (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p.10). This enormous amount of time not only helps provide for the necessities of life, but also creates a space where deep levels of meaning can emerge. Thus, one author observes, "In addition to earning money to pursue interests outside work, we seek activities and relationships at the workplace that are inherently meaningful in terms of our fundamental values" (Martin, 2000, p. 11). This meaning is often derived from, not only the relationships we forge at work, but also from the work itself. Simply put, because work occupies such a large portion of time it becomes increasingly important and often meaningful. Those who see their work as a source of meaning often refer to their occupations as callings (Bellah et al, 1985). The notion of calling is not new, but has evolved over time to encompass a variety of meanings, ranging from religious to nonreligious (Dik & Duffy, 2009). However, traditional meanings of calling are religious in nature and are denoted by the term vocation. While meaningful work and the notion of calling are receiving scholarly attention, some suggest that the traditional sense of vocational calling has by in large been secularized (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009, p. 33-34). As a result, studies of meaningful work and calling often exclude religious connotations.

While there is much good in these non-religious studies and in the notions of meaningful work and secular calling, it may be wise to reconnect calling to its original vocational roots as service to God through the employ of God given gifts (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009, p. 33). In addition, it may be useful to explore the possibility that for religiously inclined persons, vocational calling could represent a more holistic approach to meaningful work and career development (Brewer, 2001). Simply put, this paper argues that modern secularized notions of work callings are derived from the religiously associated idea of vocation (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009) and that for religious individuals, vocation may be a more holistic approach to meaningful work than strict notions of calling (Brewer, 2001). In this way, vocation can become distinct from normative notions of secularized calling and develop into an expression of service to the divine (Neal, 2000).

The Split

Although, many consider work as superficial and meaningless, others view work as more than just a simple way of making a living: indeed it is living. For such individuals work becomes a calling. A sense of calling can turn ordinary careers into something larger and more meaningful. In short, "In Callings, the work is an end in itself, and is usually associated with the belief that the work contributes to the greater good and makes the world a better place" (Bellah et al, 1985, p. 301). In this way, work becomes an activity laden with meaning.

In addition to a sense of calling, other individuals feel a further enhanced connection to their work. Not only is work meaningful and viewed as making a difference in the world at large, it also may become an expression of spirituality (Miller, 2007). Thus, Neal (2000) writes, "The act of making a contribution through our work can be an act of devotion to the divine" (Neal, 2000, p. 1319). This type of spiritually enhanced calling is termed vocation. For those who feel their work is a connection to the divine, work can become a way to serve others and through that service serve God (Neal, 2000, p. 1321). In sum, for those who feel that work is a connection to the divine, vocation becomes defined as meaningful work expressed as a calling from God. It is this sense of vocation that can doubly infuse work with meaning for the spiritually minded: first, as service to others and second as service to God. Hence, vocational calling can enhance secular notions of calling by infusing the world of work with that of the spiritual realm for those that see work as a calling from God.

Unfortunately, modern constructs of calling have lost the religious roots of vocation and as such have disconnected work form the theological purpose of service to the divine (Rodgers, 1978). For example, several authors applaud meaningful work while downplaying the importance theology serves in its creation. While acknowledging the fact that the term vocation carries with it the connotation "to be called... to a task set by God" these authors in a subtle but profound way redirect the reader by writing: "The power of a religious belief is not easily rivaled, but the mission of a domain--the sense of calling for a profession-- can play an analogous role" (Gardener, Csikszentmihalyi, & Damon, 2001, p. 89). In other words, these authors acknowledge the power of spiritually or religiously motivated vocational callings, but minimize its necessity for meaningful work. While meaningful work does not require a sense of vocational calling and can be achieved through a sense of secular calling, vocation is the genesis of the idea of secular callings. In addition, applying vocational constructs may create enhanced levels of meaningful work for religiously inclined persons (Dik & Duffy, 2009). To understand this position it is necessary to first examine the notion of secular calling and vocation as separate, but very similar concepts.


Within the study of meaningful work the term "calling" has several basic characteristics. While these features are not universally agreed upon (Dik & Duffy, 2009), many elements are shared across various models of calling. In general, most definitions of calling contain the idea of work done for its own sake (Bellah et al, 1985). In other words, callings are occupations that individuals pursue for the main motivation of doing the very work itself. Further, callings are often characterized by the belief that one's work contributes to a greater good (Bellah et al, 1985). Thus, secular notions of calling include work done for its own sake and a belief that the work contributes to a greater good.

First, secularized callings are characterized by the fact that the work involved is often its own reward and contributes to something bigger than self (Wrzesniewski, 2003, p. 301). Simply put, people who view their work as a calling often feel that they would continue to work even if they were not getting paid. Similarly, individuals who have a strong sense of calling also perceive their work as contributing to a greater good. Wrzesniewski (2003) summarizing Bellah et al (1985) writes, "In Callings, the work is an end in itself, and is usually associated with the belief that the work contributes to the greater good and makes the world a better place" (p. 301). In short, monetary or other extrinsic motivators do not primarily motivate callings, but rather the work itself and its contribution to something larger become the catalyst (Bellah et al, 1985).

Second, as mentioned above callings are associated with a belief that the work is contributing to something bigger than the self (Bellah et al, 1985). In this way, the individual feels a sense of purpose as they work towards large goals that they feel deeply in tune with or beholden to. Yet, it is important to recognize that the individual places this purposefulness on the work themselves (Wrzesniewski, 2003, p. 301). Wrzesniewski (2003) writes: It is necessary to note, however, that it is the individual doing the work who defines for him - or herself whether the work does contribute to making the world a better place. For example, a schoolteacher who views the work as a Job and is simply interested in making a good income does not have a Calling, while a garbage collector who sees the work as making the world a cleaner, healthier place could have a calling. (p. 301)

Hence, the subjective nature of attaching meaning to a certain occupation creates a space within which any job can become a calling. Put another way, any occupation that works for something greater than the self can become a calling.

In short, the sense of work calling is characterized by several factors. These include: work done for its own sake and work done in attempt to contribute to a greater good.


The theological positioning of work callings as an outgrowth of God given talents is what transforms basic notions of calling into vocational meanings of calling. This is what Bunderson and Thompson (2009) refer to as the classical notion of calling. They write, "In classic formulations, then, calling is that place in the world of productive work that one was created, designed, or destined to fill by virtue of God-given gifts and talents and the opportunities presented by one's station in life" (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009, p. 33). In this way vocational calling is the match of work and God's gifts, an idea emerging from Christianity and Western thought.

The idea of vocation has a long and somewhat complicated history. Scott (2007) explains that the term vocation comes from the Latin word "vocare" which literally means to "...call... or vocalize..." (p. 263). Further Max Weber (1958) adds, Now it is unmistakable that the German word "Beruf," and even more clearly the English word "calling," carry at least some religious connotations - namely, those of a task set by God - and the more strongly we emphasize the word in a particular case, the more strongly felt these connotations become. (p. 28)

Therefore, even in the term itself, vocation turns away from the secularized notions of calling that strip away religious meanings and reference to God and returns to the basic roots of all ideas of callings; God's call to an individual.

Hence, Scott (2007) notes that term "...originally meant 'a call...'" and was associated with "...the biblical calling of God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Old Testament and to the New Testament calling of disciples by Christ" (p. 264). Thus, from a Christian perspective, calling or vocation, was a chance for followers to "listen to God and understand who they are" before they can know what work to do (p. 264).

Later this concept moved from a call to listen to God, to a call from God to do certain works (Scott, 2007, p.264). This idea of vocation was greatly influenced by the protestant reformers, specifically Martin Luther (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009, p. 33). Commenting on this shift Bunderson and Thompson (2009) write: Martin Luther broadened the definition of calling to refer to any station that one might occupy in the world of productive work and suggested that through faithful execution of one's duties in that station, one both pleased God and contributed to the general welfare of humankind. So by working diligently to make shoes that will cover and warm human feet, the cobbler serves God in his or her station with just as much divine approbation as the person whose station it is to preach the word of God. (p. 33)Hence, vocation became an expression of God given talents, a calling to do good by serving man and thus God, and a way to be employed in an occupation that created personal meaning and associated identity, while transforming work from menial to honorable. Again, Bunderson and Thompson (2009) add, "Luther's concept of calling elevated work by transforming it from a necessary evil into a divine offering" (p. 33). The idea of work as laudable of course has not always been the norm (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Rodgers, 1978). Rodney Stark (2005) writes, "Traditional societies celebrate consumption while holding work in contempt...Notions such as the dignity of labor or the idea that work is a virtuous activity were incomprehensible in ancient Rome or in any other precapitalist society" (p. 62). In many societies, including that of ancient Greece, work was for the poor, while the rich were encouraged to engage in a life of contemplation. Some societies went so far to shun work as to alter their appearance. "In China the Mandarins grew their fingernails as long as they could (even wearing silver sheaths to protect them from breaking) in order to make it evident that they did no labor" (Stark, 2005, p. 62). Thus, the rise of Christian Protestantism and its veneration of work was a serious break from the historical standard.

Yet, the idea of work as admirable was only achieved by overcoming the notion often entrenched in Christian teaching of asceticism. This idea is often traced back to Catholic notions of rejecting the world and is espoused by Max Weber (1958) in his Famous book "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism." While this notion is widely accepted it is not without detractors. Rodney Stark (2005) responds to Weber: Of course, Max Weber identified this as the Protestant ethic, so-called because he believed it to be absent from Catholic culture. But Weber was wrong. Belief in the virtues of work and nuns were from the nobility and wealthiest families, they honored work not only in theological terms but by actually doing it." (p. 62)Whether or not the idea of work as laudable has its roots in early Christian Monasteries or in the birth of the Reformation, both Stark and Weber agree that the legitimizing of work as a religious engagement, at least in the west, was in large part a Christian phenomenon. Stark (2005) concludes: "Although the Protestant ethic thesis is wrong, it is entirely legitimate to link capitalism to a Christian ethic" (p. 62). It was within this environment of newly minted meaning in the world of work that vocational calling began to take hold and act as a balancer of the worldly and the spiritual.

As Weber (1958) argues, the protestant idea that secular work was not at odds with being a true Christian is what created the space for the sense of personal calling to exist. This concept is largely in contrast to the traditional Catholic view that the best way to please God was to retreat from the world through "monastic asceticism." Hence, in the protestant view, man could serve in the vocational "station" that God had proscribed and have that be "...the absolutely highest level possible for moral activity" (p. 29). Therefore, as Weber (1958) describes, though the Protestant ideals did teach against seeking gain and the "uninhibited enjoyment of possessions" it did not condemn the "getter" (p. 116). The sin of excess lay not in the accumulation of wealth, but rather in "...temptations associated with them" (p. 116). It was this negotiated tension between the worldly seeking of the material that was associated with secular work, and the self-denial needed to sustain spirituality, that vocational calling balanced. Thus, one could work in the call that God had given them through their station and talents, and still be a seeker of God because He ordained the vocation.

In sum, the idea of vocational calling is an integral part of Christianity and most arguably that of Protestantism. While vocation began as an idea inspired by the biblical notion of call, that of a call from God to the ministry (Scott, 2007) it later moved to a more generalized call from God to ones work (Luther in Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Weber, 1958). This shift from the ascetic ideals often associated with early monastic life, to notions of work as a "divine offering" (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009) created new space within which secular work and religious devotion reciprocally supported one another. Consequently, out of this historical shift came the notion of vocational calling that is comprised of several parts all couched in a Christian worldview. First, is the notion that vocation involves a call to labor from God (Rodgers, 1978). Rodgers (1978) explains this as a belief or "...faith that God called everyone to some productive vocation..." (Rodgers, 1978, p. 8) Next, is the idea that a vocation is an occupation within which the individual feels that they are using their God given talents (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009, p. 33; Rodgers, 1978). In addition, is the notion that vocational callings are occupations that contribute toward the greater good and God's glory (Rodgers, 1978). Last, vocation is infused with the moral obligation to not only seek out a calling, but to toil to fulfill vocational responsibilities (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009, p.33).Bunderson and Thompson (2009) sum up these components of vocational calling in their study of zookeepers by noting, "At the heart of the calling notion for these zookeepers, then, is a sense that they were born with gifts and talents that predisposed them to work in an animal-related occupation"(p. 37). Further, Bunderson and Thompson (2009) conclude that these zookeepers:As in the classical conceptualization, their sense of calling was therefore grounded in a perceived connection between personal passions and endowments and particular domains of work for which those passions and endowments seem particularly wellsuited. (p. 37)

In other words, these zookeepers' ideals and sense of calling matched the "classical" conceptions of calling. These "classical" conceptions of calling are rooted in the religious notion of vocational calls. Thus, vocation is a very specific notion of calling that requires a belief in God, a call from Him, a feeling of matched talents to task, and a perceived sense of obligation to proceed in the work.


Calling as a broad term has often meant work for its own sake (Bellah et al, 1985). Yet, within the realm of spirituality is the notion of vocation. This idea arising out of Christianity and Protestantism infuses work with theology (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Rodgers, 1978; Weber, 1958). Hence, vocational calling is not only work done for its own sake, and work done to contribute to something larger than self, but work that was ordained by God himself through the bestowal of certain individual talents and abilities (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Rodgers, 1978; Weber, 1958). In this way, vocation, for the person of faith may be defined as the fulfillment of divine destiny.

As mentioned previously, most of us will spend one quarter to one half of our lives working (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p.10). It is then an understatement to say that finding or creating meaningful work is vital. Vocation, then, can be a link between secular versions of calling and expressions of spirituality in practice at work.

While many may shun the idea of mingling the office with the spiritually laden concept of vocation, it may be important to step back and examine its implications. Hence, as Lambert (2009) notes, "For many Americans throughout our recent history, spirituality and business have seemed like exact opposites. The former is concerned with questions of meaning and ultimate significance while the latter is supposedly devoted to making money and to affairs of this world" yet today as meaningful work, calling, and vocation emerge as themes of scholarly inquiry and practical application the two worlds are converging (p. 11).

Therefore, because meaningful work can lead to higher levels of job satisfaction (Wrzesniewski, 2003), it may be useful to understand notions of calling in its various forms and the idea of vocation in particular. As calling is transformed into vocation by the presence of the divine for spiritual individuals, vocation has the ability to create new levels of meaning as work transforms from service to others and society to service to God and His children (Miller, 2007, p. 86). As Neal (2000) writes, "The act of making a contribution through our work can be an act of devotion to the divine" (Neal, 2000, p. 1319). It is this act of devotion that could make vocation a means of connecting the whole religious person to their work (Brewer, 2006). Hence, vocational calling can become a more holistic version of its secularized child, calling. Further, researchers are beginning to uncover connections to spirituality at work and a greater sense of general calling (Davidson & Caddell, 1994). Davidson and Caddell (1994) have found that those with religious frameworks are more likely to feel that their work is a calling rather than a mere job. Hence, as research begins to uncover the connection between spirituality and meaningful work it becomes even more important to explore vocation as an enhanced version of calling. Thus, more research into the relationship of religious workers, vocation, and productivity should be conducted to explore these emerging relationships.

In brief, as we reach for new levels of productivity and meaningfulness in the age of ever changing economic times, calling and vocation may emerge as anchors. However, it may be wise to remember that secularized versions of callings are adaptations of vocation. In this way, while secular callings can certainly produce meaning at work, for spiritually inclined persons vocational callings can enhance and transform callings into service to the divine (Miller, 2007; Neal, 2000). Neal (2000) concludes, "For those who see work as a spiritual path, one of their primary valleys is to be of service to others. It is through serving others that they can serve God because this part of the divine is in each of us" (p. 1321). As spiritual individuals serve the divine through vocational callings they may be able to bring their whole selves to work (Brewer, 2001). In this way, vocational calling may become an important avenue of meaningful work as well as service to God and man.

Author Biography

Ted Cross is a Manager of Full-time Online Faculty as well as an instructor at Grand Canyon University, teaching a wide range of classes from University Success to Communications. Ted was awarded a B.A., English, from Brigham Young University; an M.A., English, from Arizona State University; an M.S. Education, from the University of Pennsylvania; and a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Human Resource Management from the Wharton School of Business. Ted is currently a doctoral student at Pepperdine University studying Organizational Leadership and his interest is in applying his deep academic background to teaching and leading across disciplines. Mr. Cross can be contacted at theodore.cross@gcu.edu


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