Belonging to God and place

October 4th, 2022

When I tell stories about vocation in my life, they are often punctuated by the refrain, “It was a great experience; it was a terrible experience.” I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from a college with a General Motors–related co-op program that had students alternating each twelve weeks between school and our sponsoring division, which in my case was located in my hometown. College included some religious searching. I almost became Roman Catholic, and I spent some time in a Nazarene congregation, but whenever home, I attended our Disciples of Christ congregation with Mom. After graduation, I continued to work for my sponsoring division as a product engineer. I started getting more involved at church, volunteering as a youth group assistant and becoming good friends with the part-time youth minister, Scott. That first summer Scott invited me to join him as counselor for a weeklong fifth- and sixth-grade church summer camp. “It was a great experience; it was a terrible experience.” I enjoyed working with the kids, but ultimately, I felt so clueless as to what I was doing or how to just talk about faith.

Shortly after, following Scott’s advice, I enrolled as a part-time, non-degree student in two classes at the seminary in town. One class was on ministry with children, and the other was an introduction to the Synoptic Gospels taught by Dr. James Earl Massey. “It was a great experience; it was a terrible experience.” The classes were wonderful—I learned both content and new ways of seeing the world. I also felt so out of place in class—I was sure I was a sinner among saintly seminarians . . . an imposter.

Work was going well, and I was thinking about doing an MBA to prepare for corporate advancement, but work was also straining and draining. Volunteer ministry at the church was satisfying and my youth minister friend was mentoring me, but I was uneasy about what might lie ahead. Did these “great and terrible” experiences mean I was facing “the call” to formal church ministry? Surely not! Preaching, evangelism, visitations . . . these do not mix with a self-conscious introvert. Yet something was happening. I met and married Terri, the love of my life. I enrolled part-time in the Master of Religious Education degree program, taking two classes a semester while continuing to work as an engineer. I became associated with the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), the denomination of the seminary, and was very involved in church ministries.

I was grappling with a doggedly stubborn question of vocation. It presented itself most forcefully in terms of career but rippled through many aspects and places of my life. All I could imagine was formal ministry. Terri married an engineer, not a pastor. Our household economics might be put on the line. Was I being called to be a pastor or just a well-prepared layperson in a congregation? Was that even an option? Increasingly my identity was amorphous, hyphenated to connect the place I was at the time with other places of identity. Was I a seminarian-engineer, an engineer-seminarian, a seminarian-congregant, or something I could not express? This particular season of vocational discernment stretched a two-year degree into six and saw me become a product development team leader. Many of the things I studied about learning, groups, and community contributed to the role of team leader. Apart from the accumulating burnout, was I having a great experience—or did it qualify as another terrible experience?

At the end of my MRE, clarity about pursuing academics coincided with separation incentives offered by GM. I took the opportunity to earn my PhD in Theology and Personality (Religious Education) and then taught at Anderson University and now at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

In working with undergraduates and seminarians, I resonate with the ups and downs I hear in their stories about the journey of faith and about finding a place of purpose—a place of vocation. Several themes in recognizing and living into one’s vocation emerge from these stories. One theme is the challenge of finding identity—who am I in the midst of various places, roles, and formative relationships? A second theme is interpreting experiences of satisfaction and difficulty—what are my animating passions? A third theme is facing fears of taking risks and facing self-doubt—am I sure enough about my calling to act upon it? A fourth theme is limiting vocation to certain roles (such as pastor) and certain places (like the church). Young adulthood is the stereotypical season of life to be sorting out issues of identity, purpose, and belonging. But the reality is that identity, purpose, and belonging are continually evolving throughout life, whether subtly or vastly.

This piece begins a project of exploring these and other themes in the hope of fostering robust vocation in the places and on routes of life. Our starting point is the interplay of identity, vocation, and place. The nature of our identities is narrative. We construct our identities through the stories we tell about ourselves, and we do that by drawing upon the stories we find in the places and routes of our lives. Identity is also closely connected to vocation. Vocation projects a sense of what our story is about—where the storyline of our identity is heading. Additionally, vocation and identity come together as a sense of whose we are and with whom we partner—belonging to God, places, and routes. I suggest that many struggles with embracing vocation emerge from failed vocational imagination—imagination that is limited in scope and disconnected from the places and routes of life. I'll end with a sketch of a more robust vocational imagination.

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The Storied Self and Place

The nature of human experience is narrative.[1] It is a way of understanding the self as episodic and fluid, while still having some degree of coherence. Our telling and retelling of life experiences through narratives is a process of becoming ourselves. With each retelling, there is a re-valuing of moments of experience and that retelling can be either destructive or redemptive. The moments of experience are ours, but we do not create the storylines connecting them ex nihilo. We draw from narrative patterns from the communities and places where we find ourselves, blending them into our self-understanding with a mix of conformity, novelty, and even hostility.

For example, when I was working at GM, I drew upon storylines of corporate culture about being an engineer. At home, the storylines were of my family of origin and about being a spouse. At church, the storylines were of being a Christian. I interjected novelty into the storyline of engineer, tried to reject parts of inherited spousal storylines, and largely adopted storylines of being Christian. There is no lack of resources for creating the stories of self. We encounter the storylines of the variety of places in which we move in daily life and over the course of our life-span. Additionally, each place we dwell and move holds many storylines. Some predominate and some are muted; some are liberating and some are entrapping.

In Christian faith communities, testimonies of faith, faith journeys, and call stories provide good examples of what I am describing. Each story is unique, as no two people have the same experiences; yet, the patterns of the narratives found in them follow an oft-used plot drawn from the place of community. Testimonies tend to describe a struggle building up to a pivotal period when God somehow comes through and renews hope. Faith journeys tend to depict the rhythms of trust and doubt in God in relation to life events and places. Call stories tend to move from sensing that God is addressing us to a period of denial to acceptance: “Here I am, Lord.” Such storylines live as resources in the traditions of place through the accumulated witness of the saints and favored stories of scripture. With each telling and retelling of experiences, individuals are authoring themselves through the resources of traditions, and in turn these traditions are author-izing individuals when personal narratives embody those flowing in the tradition—the authority of tradition is the power given them to author identity and vocation.

To find a story that rings true to our experiences, we need to be aware of the type of story we seek. To understand a text we are reading, it is very important to know whether we are dealing with poetry, mystery, science fiction, history, or religious autobiography. Testimonies of faith and call sto- ries share some themes, but they are different types of stories. Testimonies witness to God’s involvement in our lives. Call stories are about vocation and attempt to describe the trajectory and ultimate aim of one’s life. In the years after college, I was deeply engaged in a search for such a storyline and was quite uncertain whether the genre of calling was the right one. Today, I frame my experiences in a call story, but with each retelling of those years following college, I continue to re-create meaning—sorting things out once again, getting new insight, redeeming experiences into an evolving sense of direction. Our telling and retelling of life experiences is an ongoing process of finding a storyline that provides a sense of identity and purpose.

Identity, Vocation, and Place

Finding a storyline for identity and purpose in Christian traditions requires facing the questions of whose we are and what vocation we claim as ours.[2] The answers to these questions are deeply and profoundly intertwined with place.

The primary theological answer to whose we are is that we belong to God our creator. We are creatures of God. An equally important, and theological, answer is that we also belong to places—the contexts and relationships in which God’s creating call arises. Saying that we belong to place is not some form of romanticized parochialism; rather, it is a way of naming the embodied human, ecological, physical, and spiritual relationships that constitute our identity. God’s creative work of forming life from the soil of Eden continues to this day. In each moment of experience, God offers the most redemptive and life-giving way to form our past and the elements gathered by place into relationships that make us who we are. We are creatures of place. We can only know our vocations if we see them embedded in places—and making a difference in those places.

God’s creative power beckons and redeems rather than coerces and condemns. It is a power of lure and call. This means that creation has freedom to accept or reject, in part or in whole, God’s vision for who we are and for relationships. This freedom is often used to explain the capacity for sin and evil in the world. It also explains our capacity for friendship and partnership with God in the world. In the Farewell Discourse in John 15:15, Jesus says, “I do not call you servants [slaves] any longer, because the servant [slave] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Friendship is rooted in freedom, responsiveness, and relationship. Free then, we play a role in God’s ongoing creation. Freedom creates the opportunity for partnership with God’s work in the world—the opportunity to be in vocation.

Place is not simply the setting in which identity and vocation are expressed, nor is it the backdrop to the divine-human-creation drama. Place is the fabric of the drama itself, the unfolding web of relationships between God, humans, and creation. Place evokes us into identity and partnership with God. Place and vocation are intertwined in a rhythm of form-giving in which place gathers local elements of experience and vocation responds to God’s vision for these elements to become life-giving relationships. We are in vocation, with purpose, as we respond to and partner with God’s continual creating, redeeming, and sustaining work that forms the elements of place into relationships increasingly reflective of God’s Kin-dom.[3] In other words, place gathers together a certain set of people, creatures, plants, climate, and physical structures. The relationships between these take par- ticular forms such as a home, workplace, school, or outdoor area. God is active in places leading them toward the Kin-dom.[3] When we encounter God in a place, God calls us to be more than a spouse, co-worker, student, or friend. Our partnership with God compels us to form relationships in place that are redemptive, sustaining, just, and loving.

Our identity is in belonging to God and place. Our purpose, grounded in freedom, is partnering with God in the journey toward the Kin-dom in a concrete context. God is continually offering us creatively redemptive storylines in each moment that provide us identity and purpose amidst the relationships in the places we dwell and between which we pilgrim. These storylines are mediated by the Spirit and the accumulated witnesses cradled in sacred texts and traditions.

Failure of Vocational Imagination: Limited and Displaced

Storylines link moments of experience together in the process of sorting out a sense of identity and purpose. Places in which we dwell and between which we move hold many possible storylines for constructing identity and purpose. Traditions within places author and authorize stories of identity and vocation. We also encounter the important role of place in identity and purpose as we consider the questions of whose we are and vocation.

We belong to God and place. In and through place we are called forth into identity and partnership with God. Being conscious of the story-formed process giving rise to identity and purpose and how this is embedded in place may not make discernment easier. Discerning the forms of our partnerships with God’s work in the world (vocation) and knowing where we dwell and move are rarely easy because they involve deep commitments, complexities, and life implications. Too often, vocational imagination fails because we look for abstract answers for all time, rather than an embedded call for a particular time and place. Clergy, church professionals, and laity alike unintentionally suffer from a failure of vocational imagination—it is not a conspiracy but an accumulated habit of mind.

Vocational imagination, like faith itself, is a way of being in the world. Imagination is about recognizing connections between things in the world and giving relationships meaningful form. “Place” is the way we imagine the web of relationships in particular areas and the relationship between God and the world in those areas. “Vocation” is the way we imagine God’s relationship with the world, God’s work in the midst of the world, and ways to partner with it. Failed vocational imagination constrains our ability to sense God in our midst and dis-places us from the enfolding Kin-dom of God. When we dull our vocational imagination, we foster a slumber that interferes with God’s ongoing creation of persons, communities, and nature. Think of the woe of those in parables and stories who slumber and do not see God’s work about them.[4]

Over the years I have read and heard struggles, questions, and fears people have about vocation through faith journey papers, admission essays, new seminarian classes, advising sessions, and conversations in corporate offices and congregations alike. Often comments suggest an assumption about vocation that is displaced and imagination that is too small—and many of these comments I have voiced myself.

I also hear connections people make between place and vocation, but often in these comments place is merely the setting for times of discernment or the location for expressing vocation. People talk about place in several ways. Summer camps, retreats, service projects, mission trips, and the like are places integral to stirring vocational awareness. Places where deep conversations about faith and vocation happen often hold significance for persons. Individuals hold powerful emotions in relation to settings where groups or communities expressed affirmation, ambivalence, or doubt about their vocational pursuits.

Unfortunately, conversations and exploration of vocation too often are limited to formal educational settings, be they theological or secular. In such settings, place becomes a matter of contextualizing their profession as they participate in field education and internships—a profession as one participates in field education and internships—that is, bringing vocation to a place one acts upon. Perhaps an exception to tendencies of displacing vocation are persons in diaconal ministry, whose charge is bridging the place of church with the place of the world. Failed vocational imagination has several indicators:

  • Vocation is equated with career, profession, or paid employment.
  • Vocation is compartmentalized into isolated roles and statuses.
  • There is a sense that the roles and responsibilities one has in various places are in competition with each other, especially when vocation is identified with only one of these places.
  • Vocation seems to be static and a thing to possess.
  • Clergy and laity have false expectations of each other.
  • The vocations of persons with disabilities are dismissed.
  • The vocations of children, youth, and older adults are disregarded.
  • Attention is limited to human need to the exclusion of the rest of creation.
  • Persons fail to recognize the intersections of social, ecological, economic, and personal dynamics.
  • Vocation is disconnected from place.

Failed vocational imagination hinders the effectiveness of individuals and the church as a whole in fulfilling their mission of partnership with God’s creating, redeeming, and sustaining work in the world in several ways. Vocation is not about whether we enter full-time Christian service. It is about how faith lives in the worlds where we live and breathe. Otherwise, we risk making laity passive and stunting discipleship by reducing it to an individualistic spirituality. Rifts between personal and social holiness and between the church and the world are solidified. We reinforce the perception among younger generations and the people who have a passion to make a difference in the world that the church only has old wineskins to offer them. Collaboration between clergy, church professionals, and laity is impaired and the goals of ministry are constrained.

Toward More Empowering Vocational Imagination

Understanding vocation and creating communities that foster vocation is an important part of my work as a faculty member with students, whether they are seeking ordination or not. For me, vocation is both a professional agenda and a process in the evolution of my own sense of purpose and identity. This confluence flows out of my struggles with understanding vocation in young adulthood. Many factors feed into the shape of one’s vocational trajectory. One is the continual need to return to disrupting experiences and find redemptive meanings for the sake of our own wholeness and as offerings to the wholeness of others—a form of working out my own salvation.

To foster more robust and empowering vocational imagination, we need to reexamine our assumptions about vocation, reexamine our assumptions about place, and explore the interplay between them. It seems that when needing to address an issue, the church tends to think first in terms of programming and education. That is often a good thing, and much of my life has involved such efforts in schools and congregations! However, hoping to revitalize vocational imagination through programming and education may be a case of attempting Heifetz’s “technical” change (doing what we do better) when “adaptive” change (rethinking the enterprise itself) is needed. The ideas and arguments in my book are resources for reflective conversations and practices that map the terrain of vocational imagination in faith communities. Such resources contribute to raising awareness of contextual assumptions and by way of contrast, whether the ideas presented are embraced in part or whole, as ways to understand place and vocation.

My hope is that reexamining and exploring vocation, place, and their interrelatedness will help move individuals and faith communities toward more empowering vocational imagination. Making such a shift will require us to hold many aspects of vocation and place in energizing and creative tension. We must learn to live with the discomforts of such tension.


Personal Perspective

  1. In what ways has your discernment of vocation been easy and difficult? What contributed to either the clarity or difficulty?
  2. What role did place have in your discernment process?

Leadership Perspective

  1. How do you assist others in their discernment of vocation? What have you observed about what makes such discernment easy or difficult?
  2. How do you see persons connecting their vocation with a sense of place?

Congregational Perspective 

  1. In what ways does your faith community have clarity and dif- ficulties in discerning its collective vocation? 
  2. What role does place play in the vocation of the congregation?


Excerpted from Roots and Routes: Calling, Ministry, and the Power of Place by Randy G. Litchfield. Copyright © 2019 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Stephen Crites, “The Narrative Quality of Experience,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39, no. 3 (Sep. 1971): 291–311.

[2] James Fowler, Becoming Adult: Becoming Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 75.

[3] Attributed to Ada María Isasi-Díaz, “Kin-dom” emphasizes the just relationships in God’s reign in contrast to the patriarchal rule of territory that kingdom connotes. Kin-dom is an apt term in this project, since place is an arena of meaningful relationships rather than a controlled space. See Ada María Isasi-Díaz, En La Lucha (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 4.

[4] Jack Seymour identifies signs of this work as the blind see, the crippled walk, diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor hear good news, and the prisoners are freed. These actions bring social wholeness as well: “Restoring community or building community is therefore at the heart of God’s realm and of the healings of Jesus. Restoring community is also true for those who ask for forgiveness. Relation- ships are built.” Jack Seymour, Teaching the Way of Jesus (Nashville: Abing- don Press, 2014), 132–33. My project complements the work of Seymour in Teaching the Way of Jesus, Yearning for God (with Margaret Ann Crain), and Educating Christians (with Margaret Ann Crain and Joseph Crockett).

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