My husband and I host dinner parties often enough that a group of regulars has started to convene. Our friends are young professionals with varying careers and goals. At a recent dinner I looked around the table and saw a humanitarian who campaigns for clean water in Africa, a filmmaker, a high school Bible teacher, a city of Burbank marketing professional, a youth pastor, a web developer at Jet Propulsion Laboratories (NASA), a comedian, a children’s counselor, the owner of an allergy-sensitive catering company, a church planter, and an entrepreneur and doctoral student (myself). Noting that each of us graduated from Fuller, I realized that either by force or by choice, many seminary alums work outside traditional ministry contexts. On some level, that table represented the changing landscape of religious vocation. I looked around and saw friends who were able to respond creatively and with agility to their callings no matter what their careers.
In my past experience as a student at Fuller, I often felt that the mission statement “preparing men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his church” was limited to church ministry, faith-based nonprofit work, and counseling. And while these three spheres will likely always remain central, they are no longer the sole locations to which God is calling people to serve. Our dinner gatherings convinced me otherwise: our conversations often turn to updates on our work. Angela [PhD student], the youth pastor,
asks for input on the sermon she’s preparing for her youth group. Elizabeth [MAT ’12], the caterer, describes a cooking class she took last week. My husband Dan [MDiv ’10], a filmmaker, convinces us to help imagine his latest story protagonist. Lyndsey [MAICS ’13], the humanitarian, invites us to strategize how to provide clean water to children around the globe. Brenton [MAT ’11], a web developer, explains NASA’s latest scientific exploration. As the night grows shorter, our conversations often explore such questions as how our theological training impacts what we’re currently doing. And for those of us working outside the church, how do our professions speak to the church and to Fuller? My friends intuitively know that our work is theological. Still, we long for training that brings those intuitive connections to the surface in explicit ways.
The work of Martin Luther helps make explicit connections between theological work and the various professions we represent. As a Reformer, Luther ministered and wrote largely in reaction to medieval models of faith and religious practice—including perceptions of vocation and work. Medieval models thought of work as a part of everyday life, but they did not perceive work outside of the church as a vocation—a call—from God. Yes, society needed bakers and teachers and farmers, but that work was not spiritual. If a person wanted his or her work to be spiritual, it meant withdrawing from the world and entering into monastic life. But Luther rejected the idea that work was only spiritual if done within monastic parameters. He argued that humans live in the reality of two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth. In the kingdom of heaven, we are called to respond vertically to God with our faith. In the kingdom of earth, we are called to respond horizontally toward our neighbor with love. Vocations, then, are specific callings to practice faithfulness toward God and love toward neighbor from within a particular social location.
When Elizabeth graduated from Fuller, she strung together various part-time jobs to make ends meet. Yet a deeper urge was growing in her to start a catering business that had a double mission: serve people with food allergies and teach about the connections between faith and food. Elizabeth founded that business on the belief that all people, regardless of difficult dietary restrictions, should have access to healthy, delicious food. She infuses work in the “hospitality industry” with Christian meaning, and her theology frames her task as the creation of space for people to break bread and form community. While her technical training as a chef equips her to serve food, it is her training as a theologian that equips her to serve people.
Our friend Brenton works for Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) field center. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and English. After college he picked up technical skills that landed him a job as a web developer, but after a few years, he could not shake the feeling that God was calling him to something deeper. A series of investigative conversations led him to study at Fuller. At first, after he graduated, he looked for the jobs that seminary explicitly prepared him for: church ministry and faith-based nonprofit work. He was unable to find a job that utilized both his technical and theological skills. Brenton had always naturally understood God through the lens of science and mathematics, and at Fuller he took classes and attended conferences that explored the intersection between God and science. Brenton realized that he is called to live at that intersection—using his technical skills and theology together to contribute to scientific exploration. When the job at JPL opened up, the planets aligned in Brenton’s life.
Vocational agility, the subject of a great many of our conversations these days, is the ability to move quickly and fluidly between theological frameworks and one’s social location. Elizabeth practices agility when she responds to God’s call of hospitality by opening a catering business. She does the tough work of contextualizing theological frameworks into her business model. And she does this because she sees God’s narrative and teachings as the basis for her own place in this world.
I must admit that when I first started hosting dinner parties I was tempted to cook the entire meal myself—not out of service, but out of a desire for control. Since we have grown closer with our friends, however, I saw that in a desire to keep a tight rein on the meal I cheated others of the chance to contribute, and myself of the opportunity to experience my friends in a more intimate way. The dishes—and the stories—my friends bring flow from their own lives in the form of a favorite recipe from someone’s mother or a dish using lettuce someone grew. The way we’ve grown close through these dinners is a witness to the power of being intentional about our love for neighbor, about integrating our faith fully within our careers, and about sharing life together around the dinner table.