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The World Needs our Graduates: Vocation as the Leitmotif of Lutheran Higher Education

Jason Mahn
Dr. Jason Mahn, director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning

Remarks for the Lutheran Identity Gathering of ELCA College Presidents, June 16, 2017

Jason A. Mahn, associate professor of religion and director of the Presidential Center of Faith and Learning at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois

It’s a pleasure to be with all of you this morning. Thank you to the presidents of the 27 colleges for serving as the board of directors of the new Network of ELCA colleges and universities. Thank you to Rebecca Bergman, president of Gustavus Adolphus College (my alma mater) for serving as the president of the network, and to Mark Wilhelm for serving as its executive director.

My name is Jason Mahn, and I’m an associate professor of religion and the director of the new Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. I’m also the third editor of Intersections, following Bob Haak and the late Tom Christenson.

It’s been a joy to be part of the task force who put this document together and to help spark and sustain conversation today. I’ve been asked to talk about that word “calling” and its Latin-derived alternate, “vocation.” Why do we talk so much about the vocation of a Lutheran college or university? Why, today, are we discussing our common calling? Indeed, how and why has education-for- vocation become something of a leitmotif, a central organizing principle, for the diverse missions of our 27 schools?

As Mark describes in a really helpful essay from this book, "The Vocation of Lutheran Higher Education," “education for vocation” or what he calls “the vocation movement” was not always front and center of discussions about what it means to be a Lutheran institution. In fact, 150 years ago, or 100 years ago, or even 50 or 30 years ago, there was very little discussion about what it actually meant to be a Lutheran college or university. A Lutheran college or university was simply assumed to be a place where Lutheran students went to be educated by Lutheran faculty members, who were overseen by a Lutheran president.

Now for some (including for some of our alumni) this period up until 30 or more years ago entailed a kind of golden age of Lutheran higher education. Certainly there was no debate or doubt about what it meant to be a Lutheran college or university — it was quite simply a campus that had a majority (usually a vast majority) of individual Lutherans on it. But notice that the designation “Lutheran” can mean very little here. It marks the church membership or self-identity of individuals on a campus, but it tells us next to nothing about what the institution as a whole is, and — even less — about what it does.

All of this changes when, in the latter part of the 20th century, Lutheran institutions diversified along with most every other mainline church-related college. I say “diversified” rather than “secularized” because the latter assumes a loss of religious identity. On our campuses, there certainly was and is a decrease in the percentage of individuals who identify as Lutheran. Our Lutheran students (at Augustana College, the percentage hovers somewhere in the low teens) now have classmates and professors who identify as Jews and Muslims and secular humanists and neo-pagans and as “nones” (that is, none of the above — those who identify with no particular religious tradition).

This rapid diversification of the religious affiliation and non-affiliation of individuals on our campuses was worrisome for many. The first and understandable reaction of many Lutheran colleges and universities was to try to hold onto a certain percentage of Lutheran students or Lutheran faculty or Lutheran board members. As long as we didn’t fall below a certain threshold, we could assure ourselves that we were Lutheran. You can see how easily this strategy could backfire. Besides having to revise downward that percentage of select individuals who need to be Lutheran as demographics change, this strategy of marking the “Lutheranness” of an institution by way of the individuals populating it, when taken alone, threatens to overlook and overshadow the more meaningful and relevant ways that a college — as a college — can be decidedly and effectively Lutheran. Couldn’t the college be Lutheran, couldn’t its mission be Lutheran, regardless of personal affiliations of those advancing that mission? (This all heralds back to Darrell Jodock’s very useful distinction between the deck and pillars and footings of a bridge.)

Taking all of this as a positive opportunity, some 20  or 25 years ago, our institutions began a serious and sustained conversation with one another about what Lutheran identity means when we are talking about the identity and mission of a college — what it is and it does. That conversation was sparked and sustained by the annual Vocation of a Lutheran College conference, as well as by the journal Intersections, by Thrivent Fellows Seminars for Administrative Leadership, by Lutheran Academy of Scholars and in many other ways. It is a long and ongoing conversation, but in recent years there has emerged something of a consensus around “education for vocation” as a helpful way to talk about our institutional identities and common calling.

What is meant by “education for vocation”? At best, ELCA-related institutions educate not exclusively or primarily to secure employment, to develop a “life of the mind,” or even for citizenship and to cultivate civic virtues, as important as each of these is. Lutheran institutions principally educate students so that they can discern the material and spiritual needs of other human and nonhuman creatures and then respond with committed service and out of a sense of gratitude. In the Christian tradition, such service is patterned after the life of Jesus, whose solidarity with a broken world brought salvation and healing to it.

Language of vocation is deeply Lutheran. Before Martin Luther, only nuns, monks, and priests had vocations. For Luther, all persons are called to meaningful work — especially work which serves the common good and leads to the flourishing of other people, or what Luther called the neighbor (about which Marty will say more). Educating young persons so that they can discern their calling, their needed place in a needful world, is deeply Lutheran stuff.

At the same time, “calling” and “vocation” are not the exclusive property of Lutherans or even Christians. Rather, out of the depths of our own theological tradition, Lutheran colleges and universities educate Lutherans, other Christians, people from other religious traditions, and the nonaffiliated for lives of meaning, purpose, and responsible service so that the world God created and redeems might also flourish.

Individuals live out their callings whenever they match their own passions and capabilities — their sense of being gifted — with the real needs of the world. They learn in order to respond, to be helpful, and to care. Lutheran colleges and universities live out their callings when they teach and support and help form such students. You could say that our collective vocation is to educate for vocation.

ELCA colleges and universities are thus called to good and needed work in a world. The world desperately needs our graduates, persons able to respond capably and compassionately to all those who need them.

I’ve tried to suggest why we are talking today about “our common calling,” and why education for vocation helps us to name and sustain the decidedly Lutheran identity of our colleges and universities.

Marty Stortz of Augsburg College will now take us more deeply into the particulars of what our common calling or shared vocation entails as we transition to our conversation with one another.