Dear Robert: the popular abuse of the term “vocation”

This is not a vocation, and that’s OK.

I’m posting an excerpt from a discussion I had with someone who took offense at my disparagement of an LCMS church’s “dance girls ministry” and the LCMS “comfort dogs ministry.” I think that conversation ended, if not in agreement, at least in some kind of rapprochement— in other words, it didn’t continue beyond what follows here. In any event, by posting it here I don’t wish to give further offense; thus the person’s name is withheld. However, I did think the discussion was illuminative of a certain popular misunderstanding of the doctrine of vocation which is, in a word, offensive, inasmuch as it is false. Boosters of this popular misunderstanding speak as though the terms “talent” and “vocation” are synonymous. And they’re not.

Dear Robert,

You write:

I completely and totally disagree. Was Albrecht Durer’s vocation not as an artist? Bach not as a musician?

Well, you’re still wrong. In the Table of Duties, appended to the Small Catechism, Dr. Luther briefly outlines what things constitute and are termed “vocations.” Vocations correspond to the three orders of creation: Church, Kingdom (now we would say “State”), and Household. They are, roughly, as follows:

1. Church
– Pastors (preachers)
– Laity (hearers)

2. State Kingdom
– Rulers (since “kings” would be too triggering— to us, not to Luther)
– Subjects (“citizens”? Nope. Besides, we don’t all live in city-states.)

3. Household
– Husbands/Fathers (also “Masters,” if applicable; nowadays we would say “employers”)
– Wife/Mother, children (all are subordinate to the father)
– Servants (if applicable; nowadays we would say “employees”)

No, “artist” per se is not a vocation. Neither is “musician.” Neither is “dancer.” Neither is “comfort dog handler.” This does not mean that “artist” and “musician” are illegitimate stations in the Church or improper w/r/t Her work; they certainly are (or at least can be) good and salutary. Describing such useful stations (musician, artist) as “offices,” while not necessarily wrong, introduces the problem of equivocation, as in Lutheran theological parlance “office” is used as a synonym for “vocation.” (Also, we are wont to use “the Office” as a shorthand to the Office of the Holy Ministry.) There is also the fact that, especially in our modern era, musicians and artists are often not in the sole employ of a church and thus are either sole-proprietors or employees. Much more problematic— irredeemably so, I would say— is the use of the term “ministry” for such things, e.g. “Grace Girls, a Dance Ministry of St. Lorenz Lutheran Church” and “Comfort Dogs Ministries.” But LCMS, Inc.™, seems to care very little about precision in such matters, and is happy to talk about ministries galore, and nowadays— since Confessionalspeak is lately trending— will refer to every possible human activity under the sun as a “vocation.” But saying so doesn’t make it so. Human activities may fall under the heading of this or that vocation; then again, they may not, and they often do not. We Lutherans do ourselves no favors by speaking falsely about the doctrine of vocation simply in order to “get people to check out Lutheranism!” (often this entails reading a $45 paperback), thus turning it into a theodicy for angsty modernists who want assurance that whatever they happen to do is worthwhile. Vocations have the command of God. They are described in Scripture and explicated in the Catechism. They are not simply “whatever I’m doing right now,” “what I’m really good at,” or “what I do for a paycheck.”

So, no, not only are “dancer” and “comfort dog handler” not vocations, they are also illegitimate stations in the Church and totally improper to Her work. They should receive no encouragement as such (i.e., within the context of the Church’s work), and, for the love of God and His Church, they should receive absolutely no subsidy. It is an utter reproach to the comfy Western modernist suburbanite mentality which is so prevalent in our churches that these and other imbecilities are praised, supported, and termed “ministries.” There are faithful pastors in our synod who live off of donations…and we’re paying airfare for dogs so that they can “share the Gospel” through the wagging of der widdle tails and their cute fuzzy snouts? Good Lord, deliver us.

There is much more I could say here, but this is sufficient. It also is the last thing I will have to say on the matter, as my vocations are making demands on me in very definite and timebound ways, i.e., I have a wife and two children, and I have duties associated with my station (which specifies what I do in my vocation as an employee) as a schoolteacher.


In Christ,