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Trust in God and Work: A Reflection on Vocation

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Written by Dr. Jodi L. Porter, Director of Education for Ministry Innovation at Acadia Divinity College


Deo Fisus Labora.

The motto of my undergraduate liberal arts college, William Jewell College (WJC) in Liberty, Missouri, reads Deo Fisus Labora – “Trust in God and Work.” The motto also happens to capture the two most formative influences of my childhood years: Christian faith and a strong work ethic. My family attended a Southern Baptist church in rural Missouri until after I entered college, and almost every summer from age 14 until age 24 I worked as an agricultural labourer (in the sweltering Missouri heat) for my dad’s hybrid seed corn company.

I confess I’m a fan of proper grammar – even the Oxford comma! – and so as I reflect on the WJC motto, I wonder … does it mean “Trust in God and (trust in) work”? Or maybe, “Trust in God, and (then get to) work”? The comma, even if it’s only implied in the motto, makes all the difference.

I suspect the motto doesn’t intend to detach faith in God from the work that is done. Nonetheless, beginning my work with faith in God has never been easy for me. When faith has seemed more elusive, I’ve been sufficiently shaped by my Protestant upbringing to lean into the work side of the equation just a bit more than the faith side. And that’s been a safe way to go for me. I’m a hard worker. I’m a Type A personality that loves crossing off every item from my list, especially when I do so efficiently. It feels like faithful work.

But is it, really?

Uncertain Next Steps

Since before I enrolled at WJC, I wondered about my work vocation – about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Perhaps I’ve almost figured it out now at the age of forty-something, but it’s taken a long time to arrive in this place. I have taken so many personality, career, and spiritual gifts tests that I can’t remember them all. I’ve talked to so many family members, counsellors, and friends and asked so many questions. I’ve been jealous of those who always knew what they wanted to do and went after it.

In college, I shifted from a pre-med major to a religious studies major, because I wanted to enjoy something like “Advanced Placement Sunday School,” though that’s not what my classes in religious studies turned out to be. They were scary! They were a first step in a long journey of discerning how my faith and my work might integrate as an adult.

In graduate school, I pursued a master’s degree in applied (practical) theology to understand why all that academic study of religion matters. But it turned out that focusing on “practical” theology didn’t necessarily point to any obvious work ideas. My dad’s question, “So … what do you plan to do after college?” still rang in my ears as I arrived back home, mid graduate degree, to determine my next steps. That was 20 years ago.

A Small Flashlight

Thankfully, wise mentors along the journey have shared insights that kept me going as I navigated my often-aimless ambition. One of those mentors was a fellow attendee at a Baptist Women in Ministry gathering of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leaders in the late 1990s. I was complaining that I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up; why couldn’t God just shine that neon light that others feel they’ve encountered in their own journeys?

She said: “Jodi, in my journey, I’ve discovered that God’s light is less like the headlight on a train engine and more like a small flashlight at my feet. I can’t see all the way down that track, though I really might like to! – but I can see the next small step or two. When I take those steps, then the flashlight shines onto the next steps.”

Others pointed out to me that we should emphasize not what we want to be when we grow up but who (or even whose) we want to be, shifting the emphasis from doing to being. Though discerning faithful work matters, our vocation first and foremost (at least as we understand it in our Christian story) is to love God. We are to be God’s, and the rest can follow.

Rewriting the Story

So how did I arrive in this current role, as Director of Education for Ministry Innovation at ADC?

A friend in college once asked about my work vocation. I told her that I’d like to be a permanent Vacation Bible School director. The only problem: there never has been such a thing. In addition, Director of Christian Education positions or related Associate Pastor positions at churches were no longer common opportunities in those days. My friend assured me, “We’ve already discovered a lot of good pieces about who you are or might be, and eventually, we’ll see how they go together.” She gave me a copy of the novel The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley, and she felt confident one day I would discover my great good thing to do.

Since that conversation many years ago, I’ve connected with different ecclesial communities that helped expand my understanding of God and the Christian faith. I’ve cultivated additional faith mentors and work mentors and consulted with them often, particularly at major transitions. I have decided that, though it may be important to wrestle with faith and doubts, and to engage with hard work, my work must be faith-rooted – not just faith-adjacent – if I hope to flourish in all my vocations: Christian, spouse, parent, and theological educator.

And as it turns out, like for the main character of The Great Good Thing, my great good thing also involves rewriting the story I’ve been given. I most enjoy helping the church and academy talk with each other in ways that improve each other. I pursued a doctorate in Education that cultivated my thinking about skills in leadership, learning, and data science to help institutions, and our faith, be their best. For me, working in teaching, learning, and lifelong learning – the sorts of work I’m facilitating at ADC through the Futuring Lab – are a perfect fit for me. They involve reflecting on the faith and the work we’ve been given and embodying them better – ever more faithfully – as we go forward.

Good Work in Any Season

There is one important part of my story I would have done differently. I’ve navigated my journey with a lot of angst because I didn’t lean much into the faith side of that faith and work equation. I’ve worked hard to figure things out and do good work along the way, when perhaps I could have trusted that God could guide (or even was guiding!) all that work.

A friend said to me once, as a fellow Christian, spouse, parent, and theological educator, “God has always given me good work to do in any given season, if I chose to engage it.”  Similarly, I’ve never had a train engine headlight, but I do follow a flashlight. After all, I couldn’t possibly have chosen what I wanted to be when I was in high school and college, because the work I do now hadn’t been dreamed up yet!

I’m still learning that being is more important than doing. My communities and mentors are my discernment partners. And I’m discovering good “rewriting” work through various seasons of service.  As I do this work at ADC, I trust God, and work – Deo Fisus, Labora.

 

What good work is God calling you to in this season?
Let us help you be equipped to serve with purpose.

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