The questions begin in high school. “What will you study in college?” “What will you do for a career?” Hopefully, soon into the undergraduate years these questions are answered as a sense of calling emerges. For some, it means continuing on to graduate school, where the focus of study is further refined by research interests and additional specialization. Among those doing their graduate work, some will arrive at a definitive answer to the question first asked years before: “I want to become a professor.”
Notice, though, that the questions throughout one’s preparation are most often begun with the word what. Certainly, as we think of calling, the concept is a calling to a role or to an activity. Think of the calling of Elisha. As Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak on him, what he was now called to do — take over Elijah’s ministry as prophet — became quite clear. Jesus saw Simon and his brother Andrew fishing. He said “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” They were called to become disciples of Jesus and witnesses to others.
Yet, the question of calling doesn’t end with an answer to what the career is to be. Nearly as significant is where you will pursue your calling. Often the answers to where are assumed in the socialization we receive during our graduate studies. Who among us hasn’t been told, when checking out graduate programs, about the prestigious universities where their graduates have been hired. Many of us have had an advisor, a dissertation chair, or a leader of the research team encourage us to apply for positions at top-tier research institutions. The motivation for such encouragement might be to further the reputation of the sending program, or it simply might be a desire to provide us—those in whom they’ve invested extensive time and energy — the greatest opportunity for success.
Regardless of the voices encouraging us to head toward a university position of prestige and secular status, our responsibility for discerning the call God has placed upon us is to step off the well-trodden graduate school pathway of career socialization and listen to other voices as well.
Certainly, listening to those among your community of believers is essential. These sisters and brothers know you well, perhaps better or in different dimensions than your dissertation advisor. They know your heart, your longings. Some of them know you so well, including your motives and ambitions, that they may be able to reveal to you your own blinds spots. They can both identify your gifts and suggest new applications where your gifts are needed. Truly, God speaks to us through our faith families.
In addition, considering a wider range of options than offered by your advisor is part of listening. While a number of possibilities could be addressed here, let me mention only one: a calling to teach in a Christian college. While some of your faculty mentors will recoil at the possibility because such colleges are, in their opinions, much too provincial, certainly not prestigious, and offer a problematic epistemology, keep listening — in at least three ways.
First, listen to those whose undergraduate years were at a Christian college, whether or not you attended such a college. While some may report that their Christian college experience was oppressive and rule-oriented, I trust many more will point to a milieu of freedom. Learning and teaching at a Christian college requires the freedom to honestly examine the underlying assumptions of all worldviews in the academic marketplace of ideas, instead of the uncritical acceptance needed to foster the relativistic impulse so prevalent in the academy today.
Second, listen to your own desires about scholarship. Will your gifts for the scholarship of discovery require an NSF-funded research program? If so, the number of Christian colleges for your consideration will shrink, but you may be surprised to learn of the research resources — both in terms of outside funding and in terms of institutional releases and stipends — of some Christian colleges. Perhaps your skills lie in the scholarship of application or the scholarship of integration, knitting together various disciplinary perspectives to address crucial questions. While neither the secular university nor the Christian college can claim to be free from departmental insularity and competitive spirits that block such scholarship, my experience in Christian colleges has provided me and others splendid opportunities to integrate disciplinary perspectives and apply scholarly results to communities and professions. Whether due to size or an orientation toward collaboration, a Christian college may fit your calling to these forms of scholarship.
Third, listen to your experiences. What have your classroom teaching experiences told you? While the degree to which faculty positions involve classroom instruction varies among colleges and universities, a clear characteristic of Christian colleges is their emphasis on the calling to the classroom, with student-faculty ratios purposely kept low for the possibility of personal impact. While not a vision always perfectly realized, Christian colleges promote a pedagogy that, at its core, is incarnational. Christ came to earth, took on human form, and moved into people’s hearts, lives, and experiences. While ample opportunity and need for such incarnational impact can be found both in public and Christian colleges, be clear about this: such work is clearly part of the call of the Christian college faculty member, and the classroom is where it begins its flourishing.
The call to the professoriate may bring you many places, or you may end up spending an entire career at one institution. But as you make plans for your calling beyond graduate school, understand God desires your faithfulness not just in what you will be doing, but also in where you will live out that calling. I encourage you to listen to a full range of possibilities.