Jack Fortin is a senior fellow at Augsburg College’s Center for Faith and Learning and author of The Centered Life: Awakened, Called, Set Free, Nurtured (Augsburg Fortress, 2006). Formerly, he was executive director of the Center of Lifelong Learning at Luther Seminary.
Ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Jack has also worked in pastoral ministry, youth and leadership development, community building, and church-related mission efforts. Jack is a member of the Collegeville Institute’s Seminar on Vocation across the Lifespan.
You’ve dedicated much of your life to helping people explore the notion of calling. Why?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in the doctrine of vocation, both from Lutheran/reformational and Catholic perspectives. I’m particularly drawn to the parallels and contrasts between Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola, who were rough contemporaries. Ignatius’ spirituality was a spirituality of path, and Luther’s was a spirituality of place.
Luther was interested in the context of calling. He believe that all are called, not so much to their work but in their work. All types of work can be understood as a calling. But if we are called to our work, it is easy to say the work of doctors is more important than that of single moms. If we are called in our work, we are on the same playing field.
Luther maintained that we are justified by faith, and that there is nothing we can do to contribute to our own salvation. But then what? Vocation is our response to God’s unconditional grace—it’s how we live out the calling that God has created in us to serve the world.
Christians tend to think about the work we do within the church as “serving God” more so than our lives of faith out in the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We don’t scatter to gather; we gather to scatter.
Singing in the choir and serving on the finance committee are not higher callings. It’s not so much that God’s church has a mission, it’s that God has a mission to create peace here on earth—and we participate in that mission.
Your book, The Centered Life, is a resource for people of faith about vocation. What inspired you to write this book?
Because the church’s job is to equip people to live out their faith in the world. I started asking people if I could meet them in their workplace to talk about what they do, and how they are called in their work.
The goal of the book was to help people seriously consider their sense of call, and how their congregation could nurture that sense of call. The congregation should become more like an equipping center rather than an end in itself.
On average, less than ten percent of any member is involved in congregational programs. By contrast, everybody returns to some sort of community when they leave church on Sunday. It is in those communities that we bear witness to faith.
What did you find in your research among congregations about calling?
I found is that there’s confusion among people of faith between what I label “Calling” with a capital “C” and “calling” with a lowercase “c.” Calling, in one sense, is something given. Work, or vocation, or career, is what we choose on the basis of that primary sense of calling. God called me into existence and gave me DNA of strengths and capacities that are unique to me. God didn’t create me with a vocation as much as God created me for a vocation, giving me a unique capacity to serve my neighbor.
In the lowercase “c” sense of calling, it’s up to me to decide how I want to serve my neighbors as my unique self. These are choices I make, inspired by my identity as someone who is created and called by God. Because “Calling” with a capital “C” is an identity, it can never be taken away. If my identity is based on what God has done in me, I am free to make choices, trying to align my giftedness with the world’s needs. But if a choice doesn’t work out, I can see it as a learning experience, rather than that I didn’t have a calling. We are always called, and no one can take away our gifts.
What insights did you gain about the relationship between calling and community?
Calling cannot be discovered in isolation. We were created to be in community. It’s hard for each of us to notice and take seriously our own natural strengths. We need to be around other people who can recognize and affirm our strengths—our own little sparks of uniqueness. Community helps us find our “sweet spot,” where we are fully engaged with our DNA, where our unique strengths are applied to our calling, where time disappears when we work.
It’s through community that we find our purpose. Friendship helps us get drawn into mission. In friendship, we learn about each other’s gifts. At some point we might say, “Let’s do something together.” Perhaps we decide to work on a Habitat for Humanity house. I love working with my hands. You don’t particularly like swinging a hammer, but you are well connected, and you are great at mobilizing people. Soon, something larger than our friendship emerges, and we find our purpose in the mission.
Community without mission can become self-absorption. Mission without community can become exhaustion. But community in mission can be thrilling, productive, and enlivening.
What does your conviction that the church should focus less on self-preservation and more on equipping people to do God’s work in the world say about the church’s identity in our time?
I think that vocation is the theme of the twenty-first century. The people I meet aren’t interested in keeping the institution of the church afloat, but they are interested in meaning and fulfillment, both are which are intrinsically tied to calling.
From the perspective of religious leaders, seeing their work as equipping and commissioning can be liberating. When we start thinking that way, everything shifts. For instance, our concept of stewardship is different. Giving is about using financial resources in service to the world, not just helping the church meet its budget. But a lot of churches don’t think that way. So we have work to do.