The minister who officiated at my wedding more than half a century ago told me about his days at Crozer Theological Seminary in the Philadelphia area and about how one day he went into a class where the professor asked each student to go around in turn and answer the question, “What is your mission in life?”
Despite the nature of the school, to educate ministers, most of the students gave answers like “I’ve never really thought about it” or “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.” Only one student in the class had an answer. “My mission,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., “is to help black people to help themselves.” Crozer is where Martin Luther King, Jr. went to seminary and received his divinity degree to prepare for ordained ministry.
Years later, on August 28, 1963, King stood before more than a quarter million people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was noisy with people talking, kids playing, and radios blaring. But you could hear a pin drop when he proclaimed, “I have a dream.”
Since I learned about that classroom story, I have spent a good part of my life thinking about what it means to have a mission in life, and also guiding others to consider their own mission.
Early in my career, I served as a college director of career planning and placement, attempting to guide students toward finding fulfilling careers and discovering what vocation best utilizes their interests, skills, needs and values. Every once in a while, I discovered someone with a Martin Luther King, Jr. sense of vocation. Vocation means a calling, which is more than a career. A vocation defines career goals by what purpose to which you want to devote yourself. If done as a career, it is a vocation. If done outside of career, which is just as powerful and meaningful, it is an avocation.
Consider the differences between a job, a career, and a mission in life. A job is a way of earning a living. A career is a way of living. Having a mission in life is the pursuit of a value in service to others or to an important purpose. Perhaps this is best embodied by Jesus’ message to his disciples: “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:26-27 NRSV).
One might choose a career in education to inspire children to reach their fullest potential or a career as an artist to fill the world with beauty. A person might choose a career as a hairdresser because they want to help people feel good about themselves. A person might work in IT but devote hours each week outside of the job to educate their community about climate change. A sense of mission does not require that we pursue any particular career, hobby or activity, but that we have a sense of doing it because of a higher calling to serve.
Defining a mission in life need not be complicated but embraces the ability to define in a simple and brief statement what it is we feel called to. For many people, that happens outside of their job or career. But it is more than a hobby or interest – it is truly a calling, felt from God, to go into the world to serve God’s beloved children. Unlike the career development target of identifying skills, interests and needs to be fulfilled, a mission in life identifies the value to which you choose to dedicate your energy and focus.
The Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, Sr. gave the commencement addressat Eastern University in May 2019. Wilson Goode served two terms, beginning in 1984, as Philadelphia’s first African American mayor and is an ordained Baptist minister. Dr. Goode spoke to the graduates, not about a career but about an assignment from God—an assignment to give of themselves to an important mission: “God has work for all of you to do. There are great challenges facing us. There is poverty, homelessness, hunger, AIDS, drugs, greed, inadequate education, dishonesty, and mass incarceration.”
“God expects you to be light in dark places. You are here to be an advocate for those some consider worthless, or not worth the effort. You are here to work on behalf of those some regard as useless, disposable, and forgettable. And never disregard those whom some think are unimportant because they’re poor, black, Asian, Latino, or immigrants. You are here to be an advocate for all the people and love them as God loves you.”
Dr. Goode concluded with these questions:
“Who among you will be the prophetic voice of clarity for justice and equality? With 15 million hungry children in this country, who among you will speak for them? With 14 million children living in poverty, who among you will carry the torch for them?
“With 7 million homeless families and children, who among you will take up their cause?
“With more black men and women being incarcerated today than there were in slavery in 1850, who among you will be challenged to do something about mass incarceration? With this country incarcerating more people than all of the countries of Europe combined, who among you will stand up for the children and families of the incarcerated?
“With more than 50% of blacks and Hispanics dropping out of school before they graduate, who among you will seek to change that statistic?
“Who among you will stand alone if necessary, to lift up your prophetic voice against discrimination because of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation? Who among you is willing to accept the uprooting and change God sends our way and say ‘I don’t know all the answers but I’m going to trust God nonetheless?’
“Whatever your assignment, this pursuit must be a part of your agenda…The world needs you and awaits your contribution.”
Those haunting questions were directed to freshly minted college graduates, but they inspire each of us to wonder about our own mission in life. It need not be profound nor complicated, but it most likely will involve service or giving of ourselves to a value that is bigger than ourselves to leave the world a little better off than when we found it. Few things contribute to purpose in life more than having a sense of mission and carrying out our assignment from God.
The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”