"Reflections" panel grapples with questions of vocation, calling, work

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

Each semester Yale Divinity School releases an issue of Reflections, YDS’s magazine of theological and ethical inquiry, and more often than not one or more public discussions are held in connection with release of the magazine.  In keeping with that tradition, following publication of the spring 2012 issue, entitled Seize the Day: Vocation, Calling and Work, a corresponding panel discussion was held April 19 in Marquand Chapel.

Phelps and BankisOn the panel, composed of writers from the spring issue and moderated by Reflections editor Ray Waddle, sat two YDS alumni: Stephen H. Phelps ’73 B.A. ’86 M.Div., who serves as interim senior pastor at historic Riverside Church in New York City, and Kat Banakis ’03 B.A, ’09 M.Div., a priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, IL, a fundraising consultant, and author of the forthcoming book Bubble Girl: An Irreverent Journey of Faith (Chalice Press). Graduating M.Div. student Kyle Brooks ’05 B.A., ’08 M.A. and Stephanie Wong, a second-year M.Div. student, were the student representatives on the panel.

Banakis began the discussion by recalling her experience graduating at precisely the time the economy was failing. Due to a lack of job openings, her diocese told her she would have to find work elsewhere. Comparing herself to the biblical Esther, Banakis spoke of finding herself in a situation she did not expect, having to ask, “How does this fit with my priestly vocation?”  Said Banakis, “I wanted so much to have a voice come in the night and to be able to respond, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening!’

“But that didn’t happen,” recollected Banakis, “and I think that’s true for a lot of people.” After moving to Silicon Valley, Banakis began working in the non-profit world. There she discovered opportunities to bring her ministry to the workplace. “It was through an event that I didn’t want to have happen at all,” she reflected, “that I came into the reality of my vocation as a tent-maker, bi-vocational person, and having that adaptive nature that says ‘I’m going to be a priest and a baptized person wherever I’m plopped.’”

WongAs the grandson of a Pentecostal minister, Brooks said that for him “the experience of vocational calling has always been steeped in this strong familial tradition of being a preacher.” At YDS, Brooks reached a turning point. “I found myself seeking the call and the vocation of my life in the places of silence,” he recalled, asking himself, “Who am I right now? What has been placed in my hands? And what has God gifted me with?”

At that point, Brooks explained, he learned to be satisfied with the silences from God and to recognize that sometimes the silence can be a form of affirmation that says, without a clearly defined role, “Yes, you’re taking a step in the right direction.  Keep walking.” As a preacher, artist, and developing religious leader who begins studies for a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt in the fall, Brooks said he has come to recognize that his vocation is “a sort of hybridization of things.”

Wong drew analogies between vocation and the shadows of oneself that are created on a sunny day. “We ourselves have to be out there walking in the sun for that image to take place and for us to see it ourselves,” said Wong. “You think you see one shadow or silhouette, but when you change positions and look again you may be surprised.”

Wong herself testifies to the experience of having one’s vocational silhouette change. As a Roman Catholic who entered YDS with the intention of becoming a sister with the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Wong has since ‘pivoted’ from that route and has decided to pursue a vocation in educational ministry, studying in the Education Leadership and Ministry program headed by Tony Jarvis.

Phelps, whose essay “What Is Worth Doing” appears in Reflections, said, “When we think about vocation we need to be invoking something impossible, something that goes beyond what is ordinarily at the beck and call of our gifts so that we’re being stretched further than our needs and our abilities.”

BrooksPhelps said he worries about the way we promiscuously speak about vocation, too easily equating it with “job,” making the term tenuous in an era of capitalism, which he described as leading to “the commoditization of everything—including the idea of vocation.” Wong made a similar point, voicing concerns that some people being ordained today are thinking about ministerial calling simply as a job they can eventually retire from.

The panel also addressed whether, in the past, churches did a better job of nurturing vocational formation. In contrast to the contemporary scene, Brooks pointed out, people used to be much more stationary and rooted in local communities. The problem, asserted Brooks, is that we cannot see ourselves as clearly as we need to without a community setting to reflect on our lives. Related to this, Wong said the biggest struggle for people in young adulthood is that it is difficult to find people in their communities who will let them know if they are “on track” or not. As for herself, Wong relies heavily on prayer for discernment and has found mentors she can trust in YDS’s Annand Program for Spiritual Formation.

As the discussion closed, Banakis voiced optimism about the positive impact YDS exerts on questions of vocational formation. “At it’s best,” she said, “YDS creates adaptive public theologians who are going to carry some gossamer thread of gospel into the world in the midst of changing situations.”

Click here to view video of the panel presentation.

Date Posted: Friday, May 4, 2012 - 2:53pm