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Calling in Context: Social Location and Vocational Formation

Susan L. Maros
Published by IVP Academic in 2022

Your Calling Here and Now: Making Sense of Vocation

Gordon T. Smith
Published by InterVarsity Press in 2022

Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues: Christian Ethics for Everyday Life

Brent Waters
Published by Baker Academic in 2022

Reappraisal of the operative vocational theologies that dominate popular Christian scholarship and teaching are actively under way. As with many sub-disciplines and fields of theology, vocational theologies are being vigorously re-examined with greater attentiveness to context and the underpinnings of their guiding theological assumptions. Vocational theologies, maybe more but certainly not less than other fields, reflect the dominant social location of their inquirers. To ponder calling and purpose is a luxury; it is a privilege a surprising few are afforded. At the very least, it requires time, energy, and access. It is no surprise that higher education represents the prototypical space for such inquiry. At universities and graduate schools, exercising the life of the mind is engendered and supported by robust communities of curious and critical peers and professors with ample access to learning resources. Moreover, the period of early adulthood, which traditionally comprises higher-education enrollment, has a vested interest in vocational inquiry. Robert Havighurst’s analysis of key developmental stages has long been influential for higher education curricular and co-curricular outcomes. Among the tasks in early adulthood, Havighurst indicates establishing identity, establishing a career, and increasing association with a group or community (e.g., a cause, organization, or even institution) as essential.1 This stage of human development entails vocational discernment. Add to this any number of external pressures on the student or school which emphasize career placement, monetization of education, or evidence of societal impact, and it is clear why settings of higher education have been, and will likely remain, hubs for vocational theologies and its inquirers.

None of this is particularly problematic, and certainly the luxuries of time, energy, and access enabled by universities and graduate schools can be regarded as ideal. But the ideal never represents the whole and certainly not the majority. Beyond the classrooms and libraries, beyond the archetypal image of the student untethered by cultural, economic, or family constraints, beyond “the world is your oyster” (so deeply engrained in middle- and upper-class American individualism) is a world of the mundane and commonplace. A world of responsibility, demand, dependence, and compromise. A world far more complex than what the predominant concerns of self-actualization and meaning-making in vocational theologies can address.

Enter Maros, Smith, and Waters and each of their above texts. All three represent the widening examination of vocation emerging within the field, including identification and evaluation of the limitations of modern vocational theologies. Each has a penchant for attending to the particular—the way time, place, practice, and personhood are interwoven with Christian calling. similarly, each author seeks, in her or his own way, to demystify calling by freeing it from the encrustations of heroism, certainty, permanence, and importance that conceal its more fundamental (and far less daunting) purposes.

All three texts (Smith being the best-case exception) are written with the higher education context in mind and are best suited for persons with a developed theological vocabulary and general familiarity with vocational theologies. Waters’s Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues is arguably foremost a work in Christian ethics and only secondarily a work on vocation or calling, but the overlaps are both inevitable and intentionally illuminated by Waters throughout the text. Following the lead of all three authors reviewed in this essay, the terms vocation and calling will be used interchangeably, at least when referenced theologically. In considering the corresponding contributions of Maros, Smith, and Waters, the themes of stewardship and place expose a common thread and offer provocative insights against the backdrop of prevalent vocational emphases. Analysis of this common thread will follow a brief overview of each text.

Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues is an ode to the ordinary. The reader is quickly ushered into an intricate analysis of the formative power of the mundane and commonplace, which Waters argues has profound capacity to form virtue and direct the Christian moral life toward human flourishing. For many readers, like myself, who wonder why Christian theology gives scant attention to the fundamental practices and performances of human existence, this book is a refreshing addition. His goal is not to offer some “tightly reasoned theory or moral vision,” but to praise and elevate the mundane (xi). The unexceptional routines and patterns of daily life are where habits are developed “that in turn contribute to the formation of character by predisposing virtue rather than vice” (xi). Waters acknowledges that he aims to bring forth a subject “almost always ignored” (xiii). The culprits, or at least two prominent miscreants woven throughout the text, include a modern fixation on the extraordinary and “the fat relentless ego,” a phrase he borrows from Iris Murdoch (xii). His thesis proceeds through engagement with theological foundations before devoting twelve chapters (parts two and three, respectively) to everyday relationships and activities, from neighbors to leisure. The postscript on “The Good of Being Boring” is a highlight of the text and may even justify its occasional monotony (which Waters acknowledges in scholarly self-deprecation in the preface). Chapter two, “Calling and Vocation,” offers the most direct connection to the topic at hand. In this chapter, Waters illuminates the connection between vocation and the ordinary by first decoupling vocation from the modern social imagination that has a “proclivity to fixate on the self” (20). Through attentiveness and embrace of the common and basic—the context of calling and vocation—persons engage in the work of “unselfing” (xii). In other words, it is the mundane, the very stuff of life, that aids in correcting an undue fixation on the self. Secondly, Waters decouples vocation from the modern social imagination that generates “cultures that are infatuated with the extraordinary” (28). The need for every act to be “thrilling or rewarding” and for all time spent to be “productive or meaningful” is, Waters contends, “the very denial of calling and vocation, for it places oneself rather than the other in the center of attention” (28). Whether intended or not, Waters offers a challenge to popular vocational theologies: can they be constructed in a reverse logic? Rather than starting with the individual and their existential needs, which presumably translates to purpose and profession and trickles on down to basic relationships and daily activities, start with the ordinary and common. Start with those activities and communities that comprise the bulk of life. Attend to their formative power, discover purpose and meaning not in uniqueness outside the ordinary, but through participation with and the gifts that can be offered to that commonplace.

Readers looking to this work for a contribution to theology of vocation will not be disappointed, but nor will they be entirely satisfied. Offering a theology of vocation (in the standard sense) is simply not the primary purpose of the text, though it is a suitable companion to other more comprehensive works on vocation or calling. Of the twelve chapters devoted to everyday relationships and activities, it would be difficult to parse any out as inapplicable to a theology of vocation. Certainly, some chapters, like Waters’s chapter on work, are more likely to capture the attention of instructors or students exploring vocational theologies. As mentioned before, the book is foremost a contribution in Christian ethics, and it certainly fills a gap in that field, predisposed to doing either second order ethics and meta-ethics or first order ethics and applied ethics. Lost in that binary is the concreteness of place, relationships, time, and basic activities that shape and receive our habituated patterns of excellence. Waters steps into that vacuum with a robust examination of the power of the ordinary.

Your Calling Here and Now is Gordon Smith’s latest exposition on a subject to which he has devoted much of his academic writing. Like his preceding works on calling, this book benefits from Smith’s own vocational journey and experiences, including his current role as president of Ambrose University and seminary. Notable to this text is how the practical wisdom garnered through his work with various students, colleagues, institutions, and ecclesial bodies engenders a clear awareness of the dynamic and complex nature of vocation, especially when it confronts careers, relationships, and organizational commitments. True to the book’s title, Smith’s underlying argument is that “vocation is always particular: this person, at this time, and in this place” (1). The claim, engaged across all nine chapters, becomes increasingly hard to refute. While, at first, the statement reads as standard acknowledgement of the subjective nature of vocation, Smith seems disinterested in interpreting calling through the lens of self-fulfillment or self-actualization. Instead, the particularity of calling—this person, this time, this place—is about “doing what is needful” and stewarding one’s capacities, gifts, and relationships within a sphere of responsibility (5). Smith refers to this as “vocational integrity:” the “gracious acceptance of who we are,” the ability to “leverage what we bring to the table,” and “to [do] the work required in this time and place” (25). As such, particularity acknowledges that calling is dynamic, ever shifting alongside emerging circumstances. Some traditional notions of direct calling infer permanence and inalterability. Many clergy, in fact, construe (or at least reside under a construal of) calling in this way—fixed. Clearly Smith articulates a more fluid and flexible understanding of calling, though persons are never released from the commitments of work in community. In this regard, his thesis rests in an interesting tension. On the one hand, he frees calling from any undue captivity to duty, permanence, or static station. A clear audience of the book are persons in transition between careers, roles, organizations, etc. Smith even offers an array of theologically grounded and seasoned advice on discerning and navigating transitions in the middle chapters of the book. On another hand, Smith avoids pitfalls of hyper-subjectivism by balancing the mutability of calling with Christian responsibility. Chapters three, “The Stewardship of our Lives,” and seven, “Vocational Thinking Means Organizational Thinking,” are poignant examples. Smith might well argue that while vocation and calling are highly personal, they are never the possession of an individual. Our callings are not our own.

If there is any equilibrium or point of stability in the tension between subjectivity and responsibility, it can be found in Smith’s development of the term “congruence.” Recognizing both that “life is full of multiple callings” and that “vocation is negotiated through a mix of various obligations, responsibilities, and aspirations” (37), persons should aim for a “high level of congruence between [themselves] and the mission and values of the organization” (111). There is never complete congruence. Giftings, passions, ideals, and communities change, and as such, there can emerge incongruence between a person and an organization. Smith is delightfully forthright in his acknowledgement that shifts do occur where a happy union may once have existed between persons and their gifts and an organization’s mission and needs. Vocational discernment is paramount in such instances, and Smith’s text is an ally to persons immersed in vocational liminality. Many readers will find Smith’s development of congruence liberating. A person cannot remain in a liminal vocational space indefinitely. Congruence offers a lens for evaluating when to transition from an organization, and when and how to stay.

Susan Maros’s Calling in Context represents the most deliberate engagement of the three texts with the field of vocational theologies. The driving thesis of the text, namely, that social location and identities need to be recovered as an essential part of vocational discernment, positions the text to bridge two audiences: the teacher/scholar and the student/inquirer. Maros offers her own experiences as an educator as rationale for the book. In teaching and writing on vocation, especially in listening to diverse and non-U.S. student populations, Maros discovered how calling is uniquely tied to the perspective of a particular context. Moreover, most academic works on vocation presume a U.S.-American context. Invariably, Maros began to see how “the United States shapes our assumptions about calling and experiences with vocational formation” (7). For the teacher/scholar, then, this text offers a much-needed alternative to the dominant literature on vocation. Maros seeks to give due attention to context and is unabashed about allowing social location to carry authority in the vocational discernment process. The notion that any theology of vocation is universal, and that its biblical and theological perspectives apply to everyone, is precisely what Maros hopes to dispel.

Beyond providing needed critical evaluation and offering an alternative approach within the field of vocation, Maros’s text is largely intended to serve persons directly engaged in vocational formational processes. For the student/inquirer, Maros adopts a writing style and organization commensurate with the theoretical framework she articulates. Personal experience, not of simply one person, context, or circumstance, but of many, represents a principal feature of the book. Maros is intentional about letting stories speak, and the varied social locations of those stories are illuminated for the sake of the reader. In this regard, Maros’s text exhibits a unique capacity to connect to an array of students and inquiring persons who will likely discover overlaps and commonalities between their own vocational formation and the stories of persons highlighted in the text. Additionally, her pedagogical strengths are on full display within the book. With both comprehensiveness and lucidity, she engages challenging and sometimes divisive concepts. Gentle but instructive forays on identity formation, socioeconomic status and class, gender, sex, and power (to name a few) are knitted into the text and serve to both substantiate her thesis and provide a tangible starting point on such concepts for budding theologians.

Turning back now to tug at the common thread of stewardship and place in these three texts, I hope it is sufficiently evident how each emphasizes particularity and counters modern vocational proclivities like universal propositions, hyper-subjectivity, or extraordinariness. Their theses generally correlate with those emphases: Maros and the importance of social location for vocational formation; Smith and his claim that vocation is found at the intersection of a person, time, and place; Waters and the retrieval of the formative power of the ordinary. Proceeding with the caveat that one can only inadequately, at best, condense the authors’ respective emphases into some shared contribution, I will briefly acknowledge how their use of place and stewardship bear significance for contemporary vocational theologies.

To be placed is counterintuitive to any worldview that fetishizes a notion of freedom unburdened by environments, communities, and commitments. Theologically, of course, freedom is construed as freedom for, not freedom from. True freedom, much like personhood or even calling, is discovered in the context of community and place and the interdependence of rhythms, relationships, and responsibilities. Placelessness, if such a thing is even possible, is an illusion of the modern self and only imaginable if being (ontology) begins and ends with oneself. Community and place, then, become merely instrumental—aids, influences, encounters—and support one’s self-realization and self-determination but are never intrinsically and invariably connected to personhood. Ironically, freedom from only ensures a void in identity and purpose. It is no surprise that modern vocational theologies prioritized meaning-making. People desire meaningful lives and professions but were often paradoxically taught to ignore or overlook those places and communities to which they belonged. As Walter Brueggemann famously stated of modern placelessness:

That promise concerned human persons who could lead detached, unrooted lives of endless choice and no commitment. It was glamorized around the virtues of mobility and anonymity that seemed so full of promise for freedom and self-actualization. But it has failed . . . it is rootlessness and not meaninglessness that characterizes the current crisis. There are no meanings apart from roots.2

Maros, Smith, and Waters recognize persons as placed and they challenge notions of calling that would deny place as a fundamental component of vocation. Waters engages place as a theological subject more directly than Smith or Maros, which is not a criticism but merely recognition of the varied purposes and audiences of the authors. For Waters, place is a requisite for human flourishing. Largely because humans are embodied creatures, but partly so that humans can “congregate to collectively undertake certain tasks and establish relationships over time” (176). Place enables those daily exchanges and interactions that shape virtue and instill identity. Smith and Maros share this assertion. For Smith, vocation is discovered alongside and never without time and place. It “is always a calling to and in this particular set of circumstances” (3). Maros recognizes that identity is incomplete without attentiveness to place. She engages the interdependence of identity, culture, and socio-historical context most explicitly in chapter four, “The Gift of Particularity.” Social location encompasses more than place, of course, but place remains an essential component. Naming and claiming social location includes coming to terms with triumphs, hardships, saints, and sinners that compose the places we belong. Even a former place, severed or sent from, retains its marks and influence on a person.

Eighteenth-century theologian and founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, once stated that “no character more exactly agrees with the present state of man [sic], than that of a steward.”3 Central in Wesley’s practical theology was a conviction that nothing, whether money, material goods, or talents, are rightly our own. God is proprietor and we are called to be stewards. Wesley’s admonishments to the Methodists on the stewardship of money are widely known, mainly because of his own ascetic practices. But Wesley’s understanding of stewardship stretches well beyond money and material goods. Not even our lives are our own; all belongs to God. The Christian task, then, is to faithfully respond to God’s grace and employ one’s gifts and talents for God’s purposes. Wesley’s comments on vocation align with those of other Protestant forbears—Luther, Calvin, and Baxter, for example—who emphasize human work and calling as contributions to the common good. The neighbor, especially one in need, and the broader social order are the objects of human work and calling. These early Protestant vocational theologies can sound strange if not discomforting to our modern sentiments. Self-fulfillment or discovery of purpose are not part of their guiding theological questions. Submission, self-denial, and duty are more present in their frameworks, terms that appropriately spark suspicion today due to increased recognition of their potential abuses.

Stewardship, I hope, at least as employed by Maros, Waters, and Smith, offers a bridge to pre- or early-modern vocational theologies and can help recover overlooked but essential elements of calling. Stewardship invariably shifts calling and vocation from primarily an exercise in self-actualization to an opportunity for authentic participation in God’s commonwealth. It need not imply that vocation is somehow impersonal or non-subjective, but it does infer that the principal object of calling is not the self. Waters and Smith are explicit in their attempt to shift the primary lens of calling and vocation away from the self. Given his underlying concerns of the “late-modern technoculture” and his return to everyday virtue as a work in “unselfing,” Waters is notable in this regard (x). Though steward or stewardship is only mentioned four times by Maros, the relationship of social location and stewardship holds promise for contemporary vocational theologies. Put plainly, Maros’s text prompts the question: what does it mean to steward one’s social location? And how might that reflect God’s vocational purposes for persons and communities? Recognizing that persons are bearers of God’s creativity, beauty, and diversity, stewardship of social location requires attentiveness to particularity and place. Denial of social location, especially in the dynamic processes of theological discourse and vocational discovery, is a denial of God’s direct calling. I am employing “direct” intentionally here to differentiate, slightly, from its traditional use in vocational theologies. Social location is one of the highly subjective and deeply personal ways God marks, images, and directs persons. Might we consider that Ruth’s cultural-ethnic identity is little different than God’s call of Samuel? Are not both directly employed for God’s purposes? In this regard, maybe racial, ethnic, cultural, and class identity, like those communities and places to which we belong, are not instrumental add-ons but intrinsic and invariably connected to vocation. Vocational formation still requires “unselfing” and reordering of “the fat relentless ego” that would otherwise turn diverse, disparate, and disconnected social locations into a simulacrum of God’s commonwealth. Social location and individual identity are not ends in themselves. That would again turn self into the object of vocation. Instead, social location, including place with all its promises and perils, is ultimately a gift and talent to be employed for God’s purposes.

Cite this article
Joshua R. Sweeden, “Vocation and the Stewardship of Place”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 52:4 , 119-126


  1. Robert J. Havighurst, Developmental Tasks and Education (New York, NY: Addison-Wesley Longman Ltd., 1972).
  2. Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1977), 3–4. Emphasis in the original.
  3. John Wesley, “The Good Steward,” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, eds. Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991).

Joshua R. Sweeden

Nazarene Theological Seminary
Joshua Sweeden is Dean of the Faculty and Associate Professor of Church and Society at Nazarene Theological Seminary.