In part two of this interview, Katherine Turpin spoke with Janel Kragt-Bakker, former Associate Director of the Collegeville Institute, about the forthcoming book from the Collegeville Institute Seminar on Vocation Across the Lifespan, in which she authored chapters on youth and young adults. Read part one of the interview.
For the Seminar’s book Calling All Years Good: Vocation across the Lifespan (Wm. B. Eerdmans, forthcoming 2016), you’ve written on youth and young adulthood. How does vocation look differently between those two parts of the lifespan?
Cultural expectations are different. Adolescents have less responsibility to maintain their own life in terms of food, shelter, or clothing, but also more freedom to explore different ways of being in the world and different ideas. Young adults, on the other hand, have the pressure to perform as adults, to get themselves together vocationally, and to provide for their own needs. People often ask teenagers, “What are you going to do?” But they expect them to be exploring. For young adults there’s more of an expectation that they should have it together and a frustration when they don’t.
There is also the difference between internal and external validation of call: your sense of what you’re called to versus other people’s affirmation. In adolescence the external validation of call is strong. Adolescents are starting to understand that other people think of them differently than they think of themselves and that they’re performing a self for an audience. So that external naming of call—what their gifts are and what they can offer the world—is crucial.
Young adulthood is a phase where the internal validation of call becomes more important: “What do I think is important in the world? What am I able to do?” Young adults are moving into less restrictive environments where they have more control over how they spend their time, where they’re going to live, and who they’re going to live with. Adolescents can do this theoretically, but young adults have more power to determine how they will be in the world.
How has your understanding of vocation for youth and young adults been shaped by your experiences of teaching in a seminary?
There’s a misconception that vocation in young adulthood means you’re supposed to figure out what your calling is and get established doing it. Among the young adults I have as students, some go through seminary and then discern that they’re not called to be in ministry. So they feel like this is a failed call story, if they are no longer sure what they are supposed to do.
But I think those experiences of giving themselves over to an educational experience, an internship, or a relationship are all part of vocational discernment—what Sharon Daloz Parks calls young adults’ “probing commitments.” When the discernment concludes, “That’s not what I have the gifts for,” it’s not a failure. Trying things out is part of the ongoing process of calling.
The other thing about young adults is that particularly in the seminary context, they tend to be more ideologically pure than older students who have lived and failed and dealt with paradox in their lives. Young adults have a certain clarity about what’s right and good in the world. Sometimes we write that off as naiveté or idealism in an unhelpful way. But I think that clarity of call before it gets chastened is really a gift to the rest of the community.
What is a common misperception about young adults and vocation?
The idea that there’s one vocation and that the purpose of young adulthood is to identify it and get established in it. Through the Seminar’s work on the lifespan, I’ve realized how many callings people have over a lifetime—even multiple callings at the same time that can conflict.
I have so many young adults in class who want to know, “What am I supposed to be doing?” and “What’s God’s plan for me?” Young adults often have a linear way of thinking about calling. In reality we get called to many things at different times, sometimes for a season and not for a whole life. Like many aspects of vocation it’s paradoxical because there are certain callings that do endure over a lifetime. But other callings can come to an end or get shifted and translated from context to context.
How can congregations better support young adults in their calling?
The trick with young adults is they are a highly mobile population, more mobile than almost any other group. Part of that is the economic reality of the type of work that’s afforded to them, and part is their exploratory life phase of following work or relationships.
Churches, on the other hand, are not highly mobile. So they want a young adult ministry that will become the next generation of their particular congregation. But young adults will come for a while and then leave. When you do young adult vocational accompaniment, you’re probably serving some other congregation where those young adults will end up. They’re not going to be your finance chair in ten years.
For young adults, institution building is not generationally their vocation. They are in a different place. So there’s not a perfect match between what churches are seeking with young adults and what young adults need in terms of their own vocational development. It’s a complicated dynamic. For congregations I think a shift has to take place—that this is a ministry of hospitality, not a ministry of long-term institutional development.