New Conversation: Solving the Reverse Mystery: Vocational Calling and Theological Education
Solving the Reverse Mystery: Vocational Calling and Theological Education
A Conversation with Nathan Cost
In January 2024, JPHE Senior Editor Z.W. Taylor spoke with Dr. Nathan Cost, Director of Vocational Life and Formation at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University (Georgia, USA). The two discuss a study by Dr. Cost on the lived experiences of vocational calling among non-denominational graduate seminary students training for ministry and nonprofit roles. Dr. Cost found that despite no denominational affiliation, participants' experiences were still impacted by prior religious backgrounds. Surprisingly, feelings of disorientation and grief were most common in describing their calling journeys. Dr. Cost concludes that calling is an embodied, lifelong phenomenon shaping one's identity, not just a singular career decision. Dr. Cost recommends that institutions validate students' callings and provide adaptable training to equip them for evolving vocational paths in an uncertain future.
Zach Taylor: Today, I’m chatting with Nathan Cost about his research focused on vocational calling experiences of non-denominational graduate students and theological education, all of whom are training for nonprofits, chaplaincy, ministry, and community development. So, Nathan briefly. Introduce yourself. What do you do and what's your education background?
Nathan Cost: I am Nathan Cost. I direct the Center for Calling and Vocational Formation at McAfee School of Theology, and we are Mercer University’s seminary. My background is in education and theology. I went to undergrad at Lipscomb University where I studied education and history. I did my own theological education at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, and then just wrapped up my PhD at the Tift College of Education in Ed Leadership here at Mercer. And before I moved into this position, I was a Director of Admissions for 5 1/2 years here at the School of Theology.
Zach Taylor: OK, great. So, first of all tell me what issues or what research problems launched you into doing this work about vocational calling.
Nathan Cost: So, the short story is that it really emerged from my experience as a practitioner in higher education. As I was directing admissions at the seminary, I reviewed students’ autobiographical statements, and part of that application process is to articulate a sense of calling to ministry. I was just completely surprised at the different--I’m using air quotes here—theological languages that were being spoken when talking about a calling to ministry. And it occurred to me that perhaps our admissions criteria or prompts we provide to students to discuss their sense of calling to ministry may not match their lived experiences. And I wanted to try to understand how students could have such vastly different languages and experiences when expressing their purpose in life—their calling and vocation.
Zach Taylor: Excellent. So, your study was qualitative with 12 participants. Describe some of those folks, obviously no names, but who were those people and what were the kind of questions you were asking about?
Nathan Cost: That’s right. I had 12 participants. I ended up having 11 that I could use. And so out of that group, the youngest was 22 and the oldest was 52 years old. They were all from currently non-denominational contexts. What that meant is they self-identified as being non-denominational and there really is no explicit definition for what “non-denominational” means. Which, by the way, was something that became visible very early in the study; denominations still significantly impacted and continue to impact their lives.
Zach Taylor: OK, so really it was Christian or non-Christian, but all under the umbrella of religious students identifying as being religious but being Christian or non-Christian. But you didn't go down to Lutheran, Baptist, you didn't look at those differences?
Nathan Cost: They all identified as Christian, but I didn't explicitly look at were you raised in this denomination or that. That wasn't part of their entrance or interview structure, but their denominational history certainly came out during the interviews. Like I said, it was very clear that denominations still significantly impacted their lives.
Zach Taylor: Great. So, getting to some of those things, what were some of the questions you asked and why did you pick those questions?
Nathan Cost: Yeah. So, the first, the primary research question is "What is the lived experience of being vocationally called?" The secondary research questions were: 1) How do participants validate that calling? 2) How does the participant identify who or what the caller is? And 3) How does that experience of being called lead them to seminary? That last one was really important because this is a PhD in higher education. We have an abundance of data on these questions relating to denominationally affiliated students, but very little on those that aren’t affiliated.
Zach Taylor: OK. And as you were going through analyzing data, you mentioned earlier some of the coding procedures and actually what you started finding, which was surprising to you. What were some of those findings?
Nathan Cost: Yeah, so I'll go through a couple of things. One is like I already said - denominations are in the room with us, even if these students are identifying as non-denominational. As denominational engagement in America declines, I don't know that the influence is declining. You don't erase 5 centuries of denominational institutional life in 30 years.
The second thing was that as I was coding the interviews, a pattern began to emerge. As I looked at the line-by-line coding, the number one code related to the experience of being called was "feelings of disorientation". Number two was a "feeling of loss or grief". And number three was "feeling of joy" - these feelings of joy, satisfaction, and peace that we typically associate with following your life’s purpose. But we don't usually associate a vocational calling with disorientation or grief. So that rocked me as a researcher because it was so unexpected.
Zach Taylor: And what was the essence of the participants' calling? Were there main commonalities or was it very different for everyone?
Nathan Cost: Well, the essence of a vocational calling experience for my participants is a transcendent phenomenon and it's an embodied or ontological phenomenon. I used some jargon there that I should unpack. First, talking about it as ontological makes sense of the disparate feelings and experiences. It relates a sense of self or identity. I wrote in my conclusion that the research question was actually insufficient. It's not so much, “What is the experience of being vocationally called?” I think a better question is “What is it like to be a called person?” Because nobody had this experience and then thought “Eh, I could take it or leave it.” What they articulated was a journey of accepting, understanding, and listening to this calling that shaped their entire lives.
There's also this sense of being overcome or overtaken by the calling, where their sense of personal agency feels overwhelmed. One participant described calling as like walking in a deep forest that they don’t think they’ll ever get out of, but they just keep getting better at walking through it. So, they have these open-ended descriptions of calling as something they're not sure where it will lead, but they can't ignore it.
Zach Taylor: And that pathway involves a lot of time investment, consciously or not, in experiences relevant to their calling, continually gathering data on themselves. It’s like a reverse mystery, where the calling emerges first and then they look back and see the clues leading up to it.
Nathan Cost: Exactly. I actually used a similar metaphor in my dissertation. It's not following clues to solve a mystery; it's solving the mystery first and then finding the clues in hindsight. Once the destination becomes clear, the breadcrumbs emerge. There's a song I love by John Craigie called “Dissect the Bird” that talks about a bird in a tree - the moment it sings is the product of biology, genetics, climate, conditioning, maybe even transgenerational trauma. In theology, we often think of a calling on our lives as a singular event that exists in vacuum, and I think that’s an accurate description. But it’s also accurate to say that the clues to the experience are in the world around us, just like the bird. You don’t dissect the bird to find the ‘songbox’ inside. You look at the world around it to understand the phenomenon of a bird’s song in that moment. That’s what’s so incredible about the experience of a calling. There’s both conditioning involved but also some unexplained, transcendent wonder to it.
Zach Taylor: Did your participants make a distinction between having a job versus a vocation or calling?
Nathan Cost: Out of the participants, they mentioned something like 34 different jobs they felt called to. But calling for them is a lifelong journey without a destination in the sense of a specific job. You asked earlier about a lightning bolt moment versus a culmination - neither is quite accurate. They can identify moments along the journey that were profound, but not one lightning bolt where everything became clear. I called those “ontological triggers” in my dissertation. That's why they're coming to seminary, to try and figure it out. It's increasingly open-ended, not like 30 years ago when your denomination put you on a set vocational track based on your gender, abilities, etc. These students rely on seminary to help clarify the next step through experience. They don’t have the security of a denominational network to provide that ministry placement and paycheck upon graduation.
Zach Taylor: Fascinating. So, speaking of experience, what sacrifices were they making in pursuit of their calling, especially in terms of the precious resource of time?
Nathan Cost: Yes, when you talk of sacrifice, you're saying “I will lose things in this area of my life in order to follow this calling that feels like an unrelenting law from God”. Carl Jung hauntingly describes vocation as a phenomenon “that acts like a law of God from which there is no escape”. So, there’s a sense of being compelled to follow it regardless of the cost. And the sacrifices these students make are huge - leaving high paying jobs to be local hospice chaplains or being full-time students with 4 kids and unable to be there for families in all the ways they want. Sometimes they lose whole relationships due to their calling, like so many female or LGBTQ ministers from evangelical backgrounds. The grief over those losses is immense, but the calling propels them forward, nonetheless.
Zach Taylor: Speaking of moving forward, what implications did your research have for how institutions should support students’ vocational callings, especially when each calling is so individualized?
Nathan Cost: Yes, it is incredibly difficult because we are dealing with validating someone's fundamental identity and existence, not just their career choice. In denominational circles, the battles are often over women in ministry and LGBTQ ministers. Institutionally, progress is just so slow and that’s an injustice in my opinion. So, when opportunities, resources, and programs don't exist for incredibly talented, extraordinary ministers, what we are not just saying to them that we don't have career support for your occupation. In a sense, we are saying that we don't validate their existence as the person they are. The institution's first responsibility, in my opinion, is to validate their presence as called persons in the room as they are.
Another example is the programs and certificates that we offer. It’s more than just providing career opportunities. It’s fundamentally validating their experiences and identity as a human being called to that specific kind of ministry. Like, for the student who experienced trauma and now wants to helps others through that journey, a combined degree in theology and counseling or a certificate in pastoral care demonstrates that we value their emerging sense of vocation. One of my participants went to seminary after the George Floyd murder and racial unrest. An African American student, she chose her seminary because of a Black Church Studies certificate, that connected to her emerging sense of calling and her identity.
Zach Taylor: And their calling and who they want to be.
Nathan Cost: Exactly, yes.
Zach Taylor: It’s complex navigating the bureaucracy. Institutions provide resources for who students are now and want to be, but what about preparing them vocationally for the future despite societal changes? Maybe they have a calling, but previous roles weren’t the right fit, lacking support or alignment. How do institutions anticipate future changes to help students despite circuitous paths? More LGBTQIA+ protections help, but how to future proof them vocationally?
Nathan Cost: First, not well. We speculate but can’t fully predict the job market, cultural responses, etc. in coming decades. But theology specifically should see itself as intersectional, no longer siloed. Seminary graduates won't just spend 40 years in one church anymore, that’s the exception to the rule now. Theology can add value across professions, even for non-religious principals wanting to cultivate staff callings. It intersects helping professions but beyond too.
We prepare people for intersectional work, not one job forever. Teachers double as part-time ministers, or people work at multiple nonprofits. This is especially true for non-denominational students that don’t have a global or even regional institutional network to support them.
Your graduates get holistic education for an unknown future and shifting workforce. They gain multiple skill sets - core helping skills but the tool to adapt as their sense of calling evolves, like better “forest wandering.”
Students will have multiple vocational lifetimes, more than so that in previous decades. A calling can be a privilege – for the parent trying to finance their childs’ college, nonprofit jobs might not cut it and they may need to pivot to a new career for a season. While they may not feel in those moments that their calling is being fully expressed, it still remains and it will “out” itself no matter they’re doing. Because, we have to remember, it’s an ontological phenomenon—a core and inseparable part of their sense of personhood. Our mission is to form students who will graduate knowing their callings may evolve into entirely new shapes and contexts throughout their life. And when those new shapes and contexts change, we are able to provide the resources they need to re-tool and grow.
Zach Taylor: Yes, it’s an optimistically adaptable view, whereas many students are quite pessimistic. It widely applies too. Students likely don't see parents as having multiple vocational lifetimes until experiencing that themselves later. But religious students often start with a calling - a superpower for life. My mentoring research found many youths adrift, lacking callings or societal places, often unsatisfied in work without personal meaning or motivation. But callings breed motivation persisting despite sacrifices.
Nathan Cost: That’s it exactly. Like the reverse mystery - if directionless, purpose can emerge later—at any point in our lives—and you understand your formative experiences better then. When the student is ready, the teacher appears.