Janel Kragt Bakker, Associate Director of the Collegeville Institute, interviewed Bonnie Miller-McLemore, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University, on her work on children and vocation.
Bonnie is a member of the Collegeville Institute Seminar on Vocation across the Lifespan. This interview took place during the Seminar’s 2013 meeting on the vocation of children.
Janel Kragt Bakker: How has your participation in the Seminar influenced you or interfaced with your own work?
Bonnie Miller-McLemore: Vocation percolates through a lot of my interests in terms of women’s lives, children’s lives, family, and family spirituality. But I wouldn’t have picked the theme or thought, “I’ve got to write something on vocation,” maybe because of the abstract nature of that word. But it’s reinvigorated not just my work, but my own life.
In the Seminar, we’ve explored different life phases—adulthood, elder years, youth, and childhood—which has allowed each of us to think about our own lives at those stages. How were we thinking either intentionally or unintentionally about vocation in terms of our call or our faith lives? I think it’s expanded my own personal self-reflection. It’s led me to wonder about teaching a course on vocation at the divinity school where I work. Studying vocation has opened up new ways of thinking about teaching and writing.
They came largely out of my own life experience that fit with my professional interests in why people do what they do, how we become who we are, and how we care for people. There was a connection between my discipline as an academic and what was happening in my own life as a mother who was also teaching and writing.
My initial interests were around women’s lives and how women were struggling to negotiate the complexities of paid work and family responsibilities. I was interested in the coming together of work and family, or work and love, and suddenly I realized that’s what vocation is. That led me into how Christians and culture have defined and mis-defined or distorted work. So I backed into the topic of vocation, but then found it a useful term to talk about work and love together.
In my work in psychology, I was exploring Erik Erikson’s life cycle theory, in particular the identity crises in youth and young adulthood and the concept of generativity, for the adult stage of producing and taking care of what you produce. I began using that psychological term to describe adult struggles around how we take care of the gifts we’ve been given, and what we produce in our work and our family lives. Then I realized there’s a Christian concept for this, and it’s vocation. We’re so facile in our culture with psychological ideas like identity crisis or generativity. But we lose sight of the rich theological language and traditions that help us understand the demands of adult life.
Since vocation is a term that is often applied to adults, how do you connect vocation with children?
BMM: Initially I hadn’t thought about that until a colleague invited me to contribute to a book entitled The Vocation of the Child. The fact that I hadn’t thought about it is typical of our failure to include children fully as full persons and humans in the Christian life and in everyday life. Part of that problem is that we’ve misconstrued childhood for the last two centuries as “other than adult” and as a romanticized, innocent, and protected period (which is a 20th-century Western, privileged, middle-class perception). That’s led us to demean children’s need to make contributions to their families and communities. Being asked to think about children vocationally allowed me to rethink their place in the family and in the Christian faith life.
Another place that I was led to think about children and vocation was as a parent. I became aware of how little most children see themselves as contributing members of the household, as enhancing the welfare of the family and the wider community.
Once when I was with one of my three sons on a field trip while he was in elementary school, we went to a farm where one of the hosts was showing us different farm implements. She asked the children, “Do any of you have any chores or any work you do at home?” They all said, “No.” It illustrated the demise of children as full participants in a family as an economic and religious unit. So I began to ask myself about children’s contributions, responsibility, and call. They have more to contribute than our 20th-century view of children in the household allows.