Reflections on the Gift and Challenge of Vocation from Richard Carlson

CHICAGO, IL (August 7, 2013)—Dave Kersten, dean of North Park Theological Seminary, recalls Richard Carlson, a retired pastor and professor emeritus at the school as, “a pastor among pastors, a scholar among scholars—widely read with tremendous expertise in the field of ministry—but probably best known for his care and mentoring of students. He gave the most significant portion of his vocational life to the seminary and the formation of a whole generation of Covenant ministers. I would not be in ministry today if he hadn’t guided and mentored my early and difficult years in ministry.”It is an opinion repeated often as Covenant ministers have reflected on the life of Carlson, who died July 27 at the age of 73. He had stopped teaching only a year before.

Based on his years of mentoring pastors and students, as well as contemplating on his own life and the Scriptures, he wrote the following article, “The Vocation Takes You: Some Reflections on Call,” for the May 1993 issue of the Covenant Companion.


The Vocation Takes You: Some Reflections on Call

By Richard W. Carlson

A few years ago, while our family was on vacation in Florida, my son Andrew and I had a conversation about vocation. At issue was why we as a family couldn’t just pick up and move to Florida. He argued that “Mom could find a church here to pastor and you could teach at some school.” Obviously, we were having a good time and enjoying an environment rich with recreative opportunity, fresh sights, sands, surf, and the “worlds” (of the Mouse, et. al). Presence of extended family filled out the pleasure.

It was a long conversation; thirteen-year-olds in bloom of growth don’t like to hear “no” accompanied by theological discourse. But to our mutual credit, we stuck at it and some of the reasons why my wife, Jolene, is committed (called) to Douglas Park Covenant Church and I to North Park Seminary began to take root in the fertility of a young mind. “I think I get it, Dad,” Andrew said, “You take a vacation; but a vocation takes you.”

Vocation or calling has always been of major importance in the lives of the people of God. In the Bible we learn of the encounters of Moses with Yahweh and the “calls” that overcame reluctance and timidity. Similarly so with Jeremiah and Timothy whose youth was not sufficient to limit the power of the call of God.  Hannah heard the call for her son clearly in her heart; Samuel wondered at its source, but finding, followed.

Matthew too must have wondered how a fiscal mercenary, tax-collector for the Romans like he could be called to the select company of those closest to Jesus, and we know that Jesus’ mother, Mary, did “ponder in her heart” what her call meant to bear the Son of God. Ruth was called to become an alien refugee for the sake of love; Esther was called to exercise wisdom and cunning and power for the sake of a people. Peter was called from family, simplicity, and fish to discipleship, complexity, and death.

Simply put, “call” concerns the questions and directions of “what God wants me to do” and “who God wants me to be.” Call is not my preference or profession or potential but my submission, service, and sacrifice. It’s letting my life be led. “A vocation takes you.”

Like Moses or Samuel or Mary we each can be alternately wondering about the why or where or what of a particular call. We also wonder about the who. Do we kid ourselves? Are we hearing self-projected voices? Why don’t we hear any voices? Are voices the only way call comes?

The church has attempted to give some discernment, if not direct answer to such questions, by suggesting that determination of call involves at least three components. One has to do with the deeply personal, inward-self motivation. A second has to do with the gifts, skills, and talents one has. The third has to do with the judgment of one’s community.

The personal call

Glenn P. Anderson, a former dean of North Park Seminary, regularly included in his final recruitment address to the annual Conference on the Ministry the admonition: “If you can walk away from a call to the ministry, do so.”  It may not have been the best recruitment slogan, but it was theologically on the mark.

The personal call involves a deep sense of “have to” but is yet not confined to the emotional mood swings of life. Rather it gnaws away at the conscience like “something I forgot to do but can’t remember” until it is given freedom to live in the commitment that “here is where I’ll give my life.” Such commitment is in response, not out of resolve.  A call is given, not grasped. “A vocation takes you.”

The providential call

Such “chosenness” is even given at birth. Wonderfully made as each person enters the world, each is bearer of gifts, talents, potential skills, and sensibilities. Such attributes can dispose one toward vocational direction. Psychological tests can indicate possible “job fits” according to degrees of satisfaction or discouragement. At issue for the Christian is to ask, “What has God fitted for me?”

“As I’m honest about my gifts and dispositions, what might they suggest about what God might want me to do, or what might they define as beyond ‘me’ that God has granted?”

The providential call assumes that “each has received a gift” (Ephesians 4:7) and hence is empowered for vocation in and through the church and for the world. It also assumes that gifts differ (Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:4; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:10) so that each one has the task of 1) identifying the gifts of providence in the self, 2) thanking God for the same, and then 3) offering such gifts in vocational service wherever they fit. But fit is more than function. It has to do with God’s ultimate purposes as well. Vocation has not to do with finding a comfortable place. Rather, as Frederick Buechner says: “the place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

The communal call

Some term this the “ecclesiastical” or “churchly” aspect of a calling. Whatever its name, it means that discernment about the nature of given call and the decision to follow it is not an individual matter alone. Not only are “none of us as smart as all of us,” but also in the Christian community we depend on the wisdom of the brothers and sisters with whom God has placed us.

A vocation has a corporate dimension in at least two senses: 1) a family, group, community, congregation, denomination, worldwide church might be gifted with a call to all those encompassed. Calls are not just to individuals; they come to us gathered as well—to be sent forth. 2) Even for the individual, the particular community of friends, family, congregation, or larger church is important in helping a person discern a call, understand what it means, provide resources for its fulfillment, bless its divine origin, and hold its exercise in accountability. Each of these communal actions related to call demands much longer treatment than here provided. Let only the last one be underscored for the moment.

Fifteen years ago, an unchecked call, void of larger accountability, led ultimately to a mass suicide of “believers” in Jonestown, Guyana. In recent months, similar individualistic lack of larger religious accountability has led to many deaths in Waco, Texas. Such are the headline makers of those who ignore the communal dimension of vocation. The smaller stories of isolated incidents, fractured relationships and congregations, or prideful falls of once promising ministries, are tragic as well.

Universal and costly

Two additional dimensions of call must be raised. One results from a hierarchical history; the other flourishes in the narcissistic now. The former finds root in human proclivity to compare and contrast. “Which one’s better?” In terms of calling, despite the biblical evidence of a breadth and richness of gifts (as mentioned earlier), the church has tended to point to the clergy as more significantly called than the laity. In terms of the functions and orders of the church, this is certainly so. In terms of the purposes of the reign of God, not. Some evangelize souls, others encourage broken bodies to walk again. Some baptize, others make sure that water is fit to drink. Some are “prayer-warriors”; others stand sentinel for communal safety. My administrative associate/secretary, Jeanine Brown, and I are both called. One is “ordained,” one not. Our gifts and creativities are different; the God who calls us to our work is the same. That we are called to our work unites us in another way: we show up on days we’d rather stay home.

Such is the second additional dimension of call; it’s not always what feels good or fulfills dreams. In fact, a call can be a nightmare. In our culture whose media advertisements beg primary value as self-satisfactions or enhancement, any call that involves sacrifice, downward mobility, debt, lack of public esteem, and the like is going to be suspect as a “good thing.” Even if publicly acknowledged as “noble,” it will be seen privately as “weird.”

Where such influence becomes dangerous is when “calls” begin to take on self-preferential treatment. “Of course God wouldn’t want us to have to undergo any additional hardship, given what we’ve already given up.” Or, “God led us to this home in a safe community where our kids can receive the best schooling.” Or, “God is really blessing my work and has called me to a much bigger…” These circumstances are hard to judge. Often the “uncalled” critics of the freshly called are themselves swimming in the same sea of values. It’s just that no one has given them the bait.

Nonetheless, it is clear from the Bible that to be called by God does not necessarily mean a big win in this life. Eat lunch with Ezekiel (4:9ff.). Squirm in the cesspool with Jeremiah (38:6ff.).  With Peter, be “led away to where you don’t want to go” (John 21:18).

The twentieth-century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was called from security and safety in the United States to solidarity with his own people suffering in Germany, wrote that when Jesus calls, he “bids come, and die.” Bonhoeffer so lived and died; this past Good Friday, April 9, marked the forty-eighth anniversary of his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis. Calling is costly.

But most of us are not like Jeremiah or Bonhoeffer. Our “costs” are not so great. Our “calling costs” are in the little daily deaths that sometimes make us want not to show up for work, not to walk away from it, but to run.

Yet we stay. Overworked. Underpaid. On call. In call. Because of call. We stay. Why? One, because God’s callings are not only for martyrs and surely not for masochists. Rather they are invitations to partnership in a task that is nothing less than the redemption of the world (cf. Ephesians 1:9-12). Such vocation has glory built in. The God of such vocation welcomes every offering freely given to its purpose. There is no gift too small or insignificant. So we stay.

Why? Second, because a vocation is neither a “job” nor a “career.” A job is a thing to have, to “get by,” to “make it.” Studs Terkel in his book Working records the voice of a newspaper editor, Nora Watson: “Most jobs are too small for the human spirit.” Careers are different, better than jobs; they can be pursued and made. They’re a step up. But they’re in our hands, to do or to drop.

Vocations are in God’s hands. Guaranteed. No letting go. And that’s a promise, whatever life or death might bring, “confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6). So for God’s sake, seek your calling!

Reprinted from The Covenant Companion, May 1993




  • Even for those of us who came to the Covenant later in life and were never immersed in the North Park Seminary experience, Richard found a way to welcome us and help us graft into this “Mission Friend” family. I will always be grateful for Richard!

    Today’s article is very rich and timely for me, as was the one on racial righteousness.

    Again, thanks,

    Bob Hoey

  • Thank you for posting this article. I can hear Richard’s voice in every sentence!

  • A good word for us all. Thanks Dave and The Covenant Companion for posting. These words penned by Richard Carlson help challenge and renew my own calling. They brought back memories at North Park in the late 80s and early 90s of Richard’s solid challenge and encouragement. With the Bonhoeffer quote, I was also reminded of Richard’s colleague, Burton Nelson. Well done, good and faithful servant and servants. God’s peace.

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