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Part 3 in a series on Work and the Church Today

The Difference Between Calling and Work

Harvard Business School psychologist Timothy Butler offers the following advice in an article about how vocation differs from career or job:

There are three words that tend to be used interchangeably—and shouldn’t be. They are “vocation,” “career,” and “job.” Vocation is the most profound of the three, and it has to do with your calling. It’s what you’re doing in life that makes a difference for you, that builds meaning for you, that you can look back on in your later years to see the impact you’ve made on the world. A calling is something you have to listen for. You don’t hear it once and then immediately recognize it. You’ve got to attune yourself to the message.

The Christian community today has the same difficulty understanding the differences between vocation, career, and job. To complicate matters further, we throw in the word calling, which may or may not mean the same thing as vocation.

In order to understand God’s vocational call on our lives, we need to grasp how these words relate to each other and how they are used in the Scriptures.

If we look at the origins of the words career and vocation, we immediately get a feel for the difference between them. Vocation comes from the Latin verb vocare, which means “to call,” which explains why Timothy Butler equates vocation and calling. The definition suggests that a person listens for something which calls out to him.

The calling is something which comes to someone and is particular to someone. Today this terminology is used only when we refer to someone going into some type of religious service. For example, John feels that he is called to become a pastor. For the rest of us vocation refers only to a particular occupation, business, or profession.

In the secular world, career is the term we most often hear regarding work. The word career originates from the medieval Latin noun carraria, which means “a road for vehicles.” It is fitting that we commonly use the term career path. A career is usually associated with a certain occupation. Becoming a lawyer or a securities analyst is a career choice; however it is usually not the same as a calling.

The most specific and immediate of the three terms is job. It has to do with current employment and a specific job description. These days, it is difficult if not impossible to try to describe what someone’s job will be twelve months from now.

We have used these words interchangeably within the church and it has led to great confusion. In order to understand the Biblical doctrine of work, we must put these terms in their proper prospective.

In our next post we will begin with the idea of “Calling.”

Question: How have you understood the semantic difference between vocation, calling, and work? Leave a comment here.

Hugh Whelchel

About Hugh Whelchel

Hugh Whelchel is Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and author of "How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work." Hugh has a Master of Arts in Religion and brings over 30 years of diverse business experience to his leadership at IFWE. Read More...

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