Vocation is a historical Christian term denoting how we serve God and neighbor through many kinds of work - both paid and unpaid. The Christian idea of vocation points to creative, redemptive, and protective forms of work that honor God and promote the flourishing of others. This category is extensive, as God provides for the needs of his people through the vocations of many.
The Christian Church has historically used the word “vocation” to refer to callings from God. The word is based on the Latin vocare, meaning “to call.” Thus we use “vocation” and “calling” synonymously. In the thought of Martin Luther and John Calvin its usage was expanded from a limited medieval meaning, denoting the special status and calling of the clergy. The Reformers spoke of at least three biblical levels of calling:
- the Creation calling to be fruitful and multiply and to cultivate and keep the earth (Gen 2:15) and exercise dominion in the earth (Gen 1:26),
- the Gospel calling to love God and neighbor (Matt 22:37), serving them both by preaching, making disciples, and teaching (Matt 28:16-20) and through practical, physical help (Matt 25:31-46), and
- the particular callings in which we serve others through our particular gifts, doing all as unto the Lord (Col 3:23).
These particular callings—which are what we usually have in mind today when we say “vocation”—should reflect and help to fulfill the Creation and Gospel callings. They are just as truly kingdom work as are preaching and evangelizing. Through our ordinary vocations, as Luther taught, God meets the needs of all people.
We understand “work” to include all human activities that create value and promote the flourishing of others. This certainly includes unpaid work, such as work done in the raising of a family or in civic participation, volunteering, etc. But it excludes, for example, activities of consumption or leisure that create no value for others.
In its myriad contexts and permutations, work should be understood as that part of our activity which creates value for others, helping them to flourish. By this definition, all of our work should qualify as “vocation” in the terms described above. However, there are dimensions of what the world recognizes as “work” that do not conduce to the flourishing of others (and the same is true of our careers). But by God’s grace, we can work to bring more and more of these arenas into service of God and neighbor, as true vocations.
"Career" is a term we use to describe an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life and with opportunities for progress. In popular usage, careers usually involve paid work related to institutions that serve the public good.
Technically, “career” implies longitude and progress. A career is the course, or one significant part, of a working life. The English word comes from an old Italian term for “road” or “a running,” which was itself derived from an older Latin word for “chariot.” “Career” was first used to describe the course of a working life in the early 1800's.
Because it points to a progressively growing service in public, paid vocations, “career” implies that we should be wise and practical in stewarding our gifts, abilities, and opportunities for the good of others. Our careers are, for most of us, our primary public vocations, usually carried out within institutions, and usually rewarded with pay—a share in the public value we are helping those institutions to create. However, career is, for the Christian, most fundamentally not about remuneration, but contribution.