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A vocation (from Latin vocatio 'a call, summons'[1]) is an occupation to which a person is especially drawn or for which they are suited, trained or qualified. Though now often used in non-religious contexts, the meanings of the term originated in Christianity.

A calling, in the religious sense of the word, is a religious vocation (which comes from the Latin for "call") that may be professional or voluntary and, idiosyncratic to different religions, may come from another person, from a divine messenger, or from within oneself.


The idea of a vocation or "calling" has played a significant role within Christianity. Since the early days of the Christian faith, the term has applied to candidates for the clergy. It soon began to be applied to those who felt drawn to a more rigorous observance of their faith through the contemplative lifestyle of the hermits and monks and nuns.[2]

Use of the word "vocation" before the sixteenth century referred firstly to the "call" by God[3] to an individual, or calling of all humankind to salvation, particularly in the Vulgate, and more specifically to the "vocation" to the priesthood, or to the religious life, which is still the usual sense in Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism recognizes marriage, religious, and ordained life as the three vocations.[4][failed verification] Martin Luther,[5] followed by John Calvin, placed a particular emphasis on vocations, or divine callings, as potentially including most secular occupations, though this idea was by no means new.[6]

Later, Martin Luther taught that each individual was expected to fulfill their God-appointed task in everyday life. Although the Lutheran concept of the calling emphasized vocation, there was no particular emphasis on labor beyond what was required for one's daily bread. Calvinism transformed the idea of the calling by emphasizing relentless, disciplined labor.

Calvin defined the role of "the Christian in his vocation", noting that God has prescribed appointed duties to men and styled such spheres of life vocations or callings.[7] Calvinists distinguished two callings: a general calling to serve God and a particular calling to engage in some employment by which one's usefulness is determined.[7] Calvinism developed complex ideas about different types of vocations of the first type, connected with the concepts of predestination, irresistible grace, and the elect. There are the vocatio universalis, the vocatio specialis, only extended to some. There were also complex distinctions between internal and external, and the "vocatio efficax" and "inefficax" types of callings.[8] Hyper-Calvinism rejects the idea of a "universal call", a vocation, to repent and believe, held by virtually all other Christian groups.

The Puritan minister Cotton Mather discussed the obligations of the personal calling, writing of "some special business, and some settled business, wherein a Christian should for the most part spend the most of his time; so he may glorify God by doing good for himself".[9] Mather admonished that it was not lawful ordinarily to live without some calling: "for men will fall into "horrible snares and infinite sins"".[9] This idea has endured throughout the history of Protestantism. Almost three centuries after John Calvin's death in 1564 Thomas Carlyle would proclaim, "The latest Gospel in this world is, 'know thy work and do it.'"[10]

The legacy of this religious ethic continues to exert its influence in secular Western society.[citation needed] Modern occupations which are seen as vocations often include those where a combination of skill and community help are implied, such as medical, care-giving, and veterinary occupations. Occupations where rewards are seen more in spiritual or other non-financial terms, such as religious occupations, are also seen as vocations. Borderline occupations, where community service and more personal reward are more evenly balanced, such as politics, may often be regarded[by whom?] as vocations.


In Protestantism, the call from God to devote one's life to him by joining the clergy is often covered by the English equivalent term "call", whereas in Roman Catholicism "vocation" is still used.

Both senses of the word "call" are used in 1 Corinthians 7:20, where Paul says "Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called".[11]


The idea of vocation is central to the Christian belief that God has created each person with gifts and talents oriented toward specific purposes and a way of life. In the broadest sense, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being".[12] More specifically, in the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches, this idea of vocation is especially associated with a divine call to service to the Church and humanity through particular vocational life commitments such as marriage to a particular person, consecration as a religious dedication, ordination to priestly ministry in the Church and even a holy life as a single person. In the broader sense, Christian vocation includes the use of one's gifts in their profession, family life, church and civic commitments for the sake of the greater common good.

Distinctions among different denominations[edit]

Catholicism and Orthodoxy[edit]

In both the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, a candidate to the diaconate and priesthood is referred to as being called to this service in the Church. The term is also used for those in consecrated life.

Protestant churches[edit]

In Protestant churches, the decision of a church to invite for appointment a particular minister - to "invite in due form to the pastorate of a church (Presbyterian or Nonconformist)" (OED) may be referred to as a call, such as extending a call to so and so, and is first cited from 1560 by the OED.[13] In Evangelicalism, the sense of deliberate purpose before God is generally an expected part of the choice to seek ministerial work in the first place and is often referred to as a calling or call.

Latter-day Saints[edit]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints describes a calling as "a duty, position, or responsibility in the Church that is issued to a member by priesthood leaders.... [it is] an opportunity to serve."[14] The church uses a lay clergy, with most members receiving no compensation for the execution of their callings.[15] Prominent church leader J. Reuben Clark said, "In the service of the Lord, it is not where you serve but how. In the [church], one takes the place to which one is duly called, which place one neither seeks nor declines."[16] Prior to beginning service, a person is presented to church membership for a sustaining vote to that calling.[17] The person is then set apart to serve in the calling by the laying on of hands.[17]

Contemporary views on vocation[edit]

Since the establishment of Vocational Guidance in 1908 by the engineer Frank Parsons, the use of the term "vocation" has evolved, with emphasis shifting to an individual's development of talents and abilities in the choice and enjoyment of a career. This semantic expansion has meant some diminution of reference to the term's religious meanings in everyday usage.[18][unreliable source]

Leland Ryken argues for seeing the call of God to a particular occupation as a reflection of the gospel call, and suggests that this implies vocational loyalty – "modern notions of job become deficient" and "the element of arbitrariness of one's choice of work" is removed.[19]

Pope Francis refers to business as a "noble vocation", noting in its favour that it produces wealth and prosperity and "improves our world", especially when "it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good".[20]

Literary clarification[edit]

These books have attempted to define or clarify the term vocation.

  • States of the Christian life and vocation, according to the doctors and theologians of the Church by Jean-Baptiste Berthier
  • A Theology of the Laity by Hendrik Kraemer (ISBN 978-1-57383-031-7)
  • Living Your Heart's Desire: God's Call and Your Vocation by Gregory S. Clapper (ISBN 978-0-8358-9805-8)
  • The Fabric of this World by Lee Hardy (ISBN 978-0-8028-0298-9)
  • Your Work Matters to God by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks (ISBN 978-0-89109-372-5)
  • The Call by Os Guinness (ISBN 978-0-8499-4437-6)
  • The Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor (ISBN 978-1-56101-074-5)
  • Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer (ISBN 978-0-7879-4735-4)
  • Lay People in the Church: A Study for a Theology of the Laity by Yves M.J. Congar, O.P. Translated by Donald Attwater, 1959
  • Luther on Vocation by Gustaf Wingren, 1957
  • God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life by Gene Edward Veith Jr. (ISBN 1-58134-403-1)
  • The Fabric of Faithfulness by Steven Garber (ISBN 0-8308-1994-0)
  • Visions of Vocation by Steven Garber (ISBN 978-0-8308-3666-6)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 1985), s.v. "vocation."
  2. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church: Christ's Faithful - Hierarchy, Laity, Consecrated Life". The Holy See.
  3. ^ The OED records effectively identical uses of "call" in English back to c. 1300: OED, "Call", 6 "To nominate by a personal "call" or summons (to special service or office);esp. by Divine authority..."
  4. ^ Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 11.4
  5. ^ Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation
  6. ^ David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of biblical tradition in English literature, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992, ISBN 0-8028-3634-8, ISBN 978-0-8028-3634-2, Google books See also Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Alcott Parsons, Ch.3, p. 79 & note 1.
  7. ^ a b Calvin, John (1536). Institutes of the Christian Religion.
  8. ^ Kenneth G. Appold. Abraham Calov's doctrine of vocatio in its systematic context, p. 125 and generally, Mohr Siebeck, 1998, ISBN 3-16-146858-9, ISBN 978-3-16-146858-2, Google books. See also Jeffrey, 815
  9. ^ a b Mather, Cotton (1701). A Christian at his Calling.
  10. ^ Carlyle, Thomas (1843). Past and Present. Scribner, Welford.
  11. ^ King James Version
  12. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church – part 3, section 2, chapter 2, article 6". The Holy See. Retrieved 2023-03-11.
  13. ^ OED, "call", 6b
  14. ^ "Calling". Glossary. LDS Church. Archived from the original on May 9, 2009. Retrieved 2009-05-05.
  15. ^ Ludlow, Daniel H. (1992). "Clergy". Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Brigham Young University. Retrieved 2009-05-05.
  16. ^ Oaks, Dallin H. (2002-11-01). "I'll Go Where You Want Me to Go". Liahona. LDS Church. Retrieved 2009-05-05.
  17. ^ a b Brian L. Pitcher, "Callings" in Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
  18. ^ Douglas J. Schuurman; Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004) ISBN 978-0-8028-0137-1 pages 5, 6
  19. ^ Ryken, L. (2002), Work and Leisure, 147.
  20. ^ Pope Francis (2015), Laudato si', paragraph 129, accessed 28 January 2024

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