Vocation Crisis

Vocation Culture


by Bill Droel

There’s a vocation crisis among physicians. First, a crisis of numbers. Not enough young adults, particularly those from the United States, are applying to medical school and not enough of those who do apply want a general practice. Second, a crisis of meaning. Many doctors, to greater or lesser degree are disillusioned.

Meagan O’Rourke, writing in The Atlantic (11/14), reviews seven recent books by or about physicians. “The very meaning and structure of care” is in crisis, she concludes. It relates to our fee-for-service medical economy, concerns about litigation, the pace of patient encounters, ambivalence about medical technology, doctors’ relationship to hospital administration, complexities of private and public insurance and more. According to one survey, 80% of practicing physicians are “somewhat pessimistic or very pessimistic about the future of the medical profession.” Only 6% describe their morale as positive.

This serious situation is not what those in church circles have in mind when they use the phrase “the vocation crisis.” Editors of religious newspapers often run a special section on vocations. They feature priests, deacons, seminarians and vowed religious. Yet they neglect the vocations of manufacturers, financiers, administrators, appliance repair workers and doctors. Occasionally, a headline in one of these special sections makes their bias worse. It reads something like: “Leaving a Career to Do God’s Will.”

Those who write the Prayers of Intercession for the liturgy sometimes mistake the part for the whole. One prayer is “for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.” But there is no subsequent prayer “for an increase in the vocation of responsible parenting.”

Every diocese has a vocation office—either with paid staff or volunteers. Every religious order has a vocation division. Yet all their posters, mailings and programs are pointed at vocations to the religious life while they seemingly ignore the vocation crisis in the wider church; the crisis in some of the trades, in some professions and in homemaking.

Oh yes, clergy have a high calling but it is in virtue of their baptism. Oh yes, clergy have a vocation, but so do fathers who care about their babies. Oh yes, there is a vocation crisis, but it can be found in social work, some fields of education and more. A nurse who agrees to stay beyond his or her shift to cover for someone absent is responding to a calling. That’s the case even if the nurse does so grudgingly; even though the nurse will get extra pay; even though the nurse will not have a sense of holiness while completing that evening’s rounds.

To highlight baptism is not to suggest an elimination of ordination. Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a champion of the lay vocation, but his priesthood was valuable to him and ordination remains vital in Lutheran Christianity.

To highlight baptism is not to reach back for a two-tiered church where clergy and laity stay apart. Lay people have a duty to build up the internal or ministerial church by, for example, serving (paid or volunteer) as catechists, ministers of care, extraordinary ministers during liturgy and more. This duty, be reminded, is not because there is a relative shortage of ordained and vowed religious. Priests and religious have a duty to support and at time critique external church matters, including areas of business or medical ethics, policies for the poor, all matters of human dignity. This function though is more effective when conveyed in general tones. Ordination does not confer any extra talent or intelligence regarding specific details of business management, public policy analysis or journalism. A priest or vowed religious who wades deeper into those areas does so as a citizen and a baptized person. In other words, every Christian is a member of the church, the people of God.

Obviously in practice the exercise of a clerical vocation overlaps with the exercise of a lay vocation. That overlap is a clue. The only way to address the relative shortage of clergy is for the whole church—its workaday members and its institutions–to foster a vocation culture among all baptized. With that effort the relative shortage of ordained clergy and religious will take care of itself.

 Droel is editor of INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter about faith and work.