Roots and Routes: Calling, Ministry, and the Power of Place

Roots and Routes: Calling, Ministry, and the Power of Place

by Randy G. Litchfield

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Randy Litchfield’s fresh look at the perennial question of vocation combines theological reflection on the development of personal spiritual identity with a thoughtful look at the significant dimension of place – how the realities of our contexts call for particular responses to vocation in specific times and places.

Roots and Routes helps pastors and leaders claim a rich vocational imagination for recognizing God’s ongoing call to partnership in the specific, concrete locales of ministry.

The Carnegie Institute’s rich ethnographic studies of graduate education in the professions reveal that guiding experiences of risk are at the heart of professional development – combining call with experiences in the actual realities of professional life. Hence the emphasis on field education and internships. But how can we help pastors and leaders see calling as a life-long process of discernment and response? With ministerial burnout (and confusion) at an all-time high, connecting the dots between the ongoing call of God and the specific locales of ministry is an interpretive life-skill necessary for pastors, leaders, and disciples of Jesus Christ.

Failed vocational imagination obstructs the effectiveness of individuals and the church as a whole in fulfilling their mission of partnership with God’s creating, redeeming, and sustaining work in the world.

The primary audience for the book is seminary educators and students and pastors. It also has congregational leaders in mind.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501868160
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 656 KB

About the Author

Randy Litchfield is the Browning Professor of Christian Education at Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO). His experience as both an engineer in the corporate world and theological educator gives him a unique background for addressing vocation and place.

Dr. Litchfield served five years as Academic Dean at MTSO and helps form graduate and Course of Study students for a variety of lay and ordained ministries through courses on education, practical theology, place, and leadership.

Read an Excerpt




When I tell stories about vocation in my life, they are often punctuated by the refrain, "It was a great experience; it was a terrible experience." I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from a college with a General Motors–related co-op program that had students alternating each twelve weeks between school and our sponsoring division, which in my case was located in my hometown. College included some religious searching. I almost became Roman Catholic, and I spent some time in a Nazarene congregation, but whenever home, I attended our Disciples of Christ congregation with Mom. After graduation, I continued to work for my sponsoring division as a product engineer. I started getting more involved at church, volunteering as a youth group assistant and becoming good friends with the part-time youth minister, Scott. That first summer Scott invited me to join him as counselor for a weeklong fifth- and sixth-grade church summer camp. "It was a great experience; it was a terrible experience." I enjoyed working with the kids, but ultimately, I felt so clueless as to what I was doing or how to just talk about faith.

Shortly after, following Scott's advice, I enrolled as a part-time, non-degree student in two classes at the seminary in town. One class was on ministry with children, and the other was an introduction to the Synoptic Gospels taught by Dr. James Earl Massey. "It was a great experience; it was a terrible experience." The classes were wonderful — I learned both content and new ways of seeing the world. I also felt so out of place in class — I was sure I was a sinner among saintly seminarians ... an imposter.

Work was going well, and I was thinking about doing an MBA to prepare for corporate advancement, but work was also straining and draining. Volunteer ministry at the church was satisfying and my youth minister friend was mentoring me, but I was uneasy about what might lie ahead. Did these "great and terrible" experiences mean I was facing "the call" to formal church ministry? Surely not! Preaching, evangelism, visitations ... these do not mix with a self-conscious introvert. Yet something was happening. I met and married Terri, the love of my life. I enrolled part-time in the Master of Religious Education degree program, taking two classes a semester while continuing to work as an engineer. I became associated with the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), the denomination of the seminary, and was very involved in church ministries.

I was grappling with a doggedly stubborn question of vocation. It presented itself most forcefully in terms of career but rippled through many aspects and places of my life. All I could imagine was formal ministry. Terri married an engineer, not a pastor. Our household economics might be put on the line. Was I being called to be a pastor or just a well-prepared layperson in a congregation? Was that even an option? Increasingly my identity was amorphous, hyphenated to connect the place I was at the time with other places of identity. Was I a seminarian-engineer, an engineer-seminarian, a seminarian-congregant, or something I could not express? This particular season of vocational discernment stretched a two-year degree into six and saw me become a product development team leader. Many of the things I studied about learning, groups, and community contributed to the role of team leader. Apart from the accumulating burnout, was I having a great experience — or did it qualify as another terrible experience?

At the end of my MRE, clarity about pursuing academics coincided with separation incentives offered by GM. I took the opportunity to earn my PhD in Theology and Personality (Religious Education) and then taught at Anderson University and now at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

In working with undergraduates and seminarians, I resonate with the ups and downs I hear in their stories about the journey of faith and about finding a place of purpose — a place of vocation. Several themes in recognizing and living into one's vocation emerge from these stories. One theme is the challenge of finding identity — who am I in the midst of various places, roles, and formative relationships? A second theme is interpreting experiences of satisfaction and difficulty — what are my animating passions? A third theme is facing fears of taking risks and facing self-doubt — am I sure enough about my calling to act upon it? A fourth theme is limiting vocation to certain roles (such as pastor) and certain places (like the church). Young adulthood is the stereotypical season of life to be sorting out issues of identity, purpose, and belonging. But the reality is that identity, purpose, and belonging are continually evolving throughout life, whether subtly or vastly.

This chapter begins the project of exploring these and other themes in the hope of fostering robust vocation in the places and on routes of life. Our starting point is the interplay of identity, vocation, and place. The nature of our identities is narrative. We construct our identities through the stories we tell about ourselves, and we do that by drawing upon the stories we find in the places and routes of our lives. Identity is also closely connected to vocation. Vocation projects a sense of what our story is about — where the storyline of our identity is heading. Additionally, vocation and identity come together as a sense of whose we are and with whom we partner — belonging to God, places, and routes. I suggest that many struggles with embracing vocation emerge from failed vocational imagination — imagination that is limited in scope and disconnected from the places and routes of life. This chapter ends with a sketch of a more robust vocational imagination.


The nature of human experience is narrative. It is a way of understanding the self as episodic and fluid, while still having some degree of coherence. Our telling and retelling of life experiences through narratives is a process of becoming ourselves. With each retelling, there is a re-valuing of moments of experience and that retelling can be either destructive or redemptive. The moments of experience are ours, but we do not create the storylines connecting them ex nihilo. We draw from narrative patterns from the communities and places where we find ourselves, blending them into our self-understanding with a mix of conformity, novelty, and even hostility.

For example, when I was working at GM, I drew upon storylines of corporate culture about being an engineer. At home, the storylines were of my family of origin and about being a spouse. At church, the storylines were of being a Christian. I interjected novelty into the storyline of engineer, tried to reject parts of inherited spousal storylines, and largely adopted storylines of being Christian. There is no lack of resources for creating the stories of self. We encounter the storylines of the variety of places in which we move in daily life and over the course of our life-span. Additionally, each place we dwell and move holds many storylines. Some predominate and some are muted; some are liberating and some are entrapping.

In Christian faith communities, testimonies of faith, faith journeys, and call stories provide good examples of what I am describing. Each story is unique, as no two people have the same experiences; yet, the patterns of the narratives found in them follow an oft-used plot drawn from the place of community. Testimonies tend to describe a struggle building up to a pivotal period when God somehow comes through and renews hope. Faith journeys tend to depict the rhythms of trust and doubt in God in relation to life events and places. Call stories tend to move from sensing that God is addressing us to a period of denial to acceptance: "Here I am, Lord." Such storylines live as resources in the traditions of place through the accumulated witness of the saints and favored stories of scripture. With each telling and retelling of experiences, individuals are authoring themselves through the resources of traditions, and in turn these traditions are author-izing individuals when personal narratives embody those flowing in the tradition — the authority of tradition is the power given them to author identity and vocation.

To find a story that rings true to our experiences, we need to be aware of the type of story we seek. To understand a text we are reading, it is very important to know whether we are dealing with poetry, mystery, science fiction, history, or religious autobiography. Testimonies of faith and call stories share some themes, but they are different types of stories. Testimonies witness to God's involvement in our lives. Call stories are about vocation and attempt to describe the trajectory and ultimate aim of one's life. In the years after college, I was deeply engaged in a search for such a storyline and was quite uncertain whether the genre of calling was the right one. Today, I frame my experiences in a call story, but with each retelling of those years following college, I continue to re-create meaning — sorting things out once again, getting new insight, redeeming experiences into an evolving sense of direction. Our telling and retelling of life experiences is an ongoing process of finding a storyline that provides a sense of identity and purpose.


Finding a storyline for identity and purpose in Christian traditions requires facing the questions of whose we are and what vocation we claim as ours. The answers to these questions are deeply and profoundly intertwined with place.

The primary theological answer to whose we are is that we belong to God our creator. We are creatures of God. An equally important, and theological, answer is that we also belong to places — the contexts and relationships in which God's creating call arises. Saying that we belong to place is not some form of romanticized parochialism; rather, it is a way of naming the embodied human, ecological, physical, and spiritual relationships that constitute our identity. God's creative work of forming life from the soil of Eden continues to this day. In each moment of experience, God offers the most redemptive and life-giving way to form our past and the elements gathered by place into relationships that make us who we are. We are creatures of place. We can only know our vocations if we see them embedded in places — and making a difference in those places.

God's creative power beckons and redeems rather than coerces and condemns. It is a power of lure and call. This means that creation has freedom to accept or reject, in part or in whole, God's vision for who we are and for relationships. This freedom is often used to explain the capacity for sin and evil in the world. It also explains our capacity for friendship and partnership with God in the world. In the Farewell Discourse in John 15:15, Jesus says, "I do not call you servants [slaves] any longer, because the servant [slave] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father." Friendship is rooted in freedom, responsiveness, and relationship. Free then, we play a role in God's ongoing creation. Freedom creates the opportunity for partnership with God's work in the world — the opportunity to be in vocation.

Place is not simply the setting in which identity and vocation are expressed, nor is it the backdrop to the divine-human-creation drama. Place is the fabric of the drama itself, the unfolding web of relationships between God, humans, and creation. Place evokes us into identity and partnership with God. Place and vocation are intertwined in a rhythm of form-giving in which place gathers local elements of experience and vocation responds to God's vision for these elements to become life-giving relationships. We are in vocation, with purpose, as we respond to and partner with God's continual creating, redeeming, and sustaining work that forms the elements of place into relationships increasingly reflective of God's Kin-dom. In other words, place gathers together a certain set of people, creatures, plants, climate, and physical structures. The relationships between these take particular forms such as a home, workplace, school, or outdoor area. God is active in places leading them toward the Kin-dom. When we encounter God in a place, God calls us to be more than a spouse, co-worker, student, or friend. Our partnership with God compels us to form relationships in place that are redemptive, sustaining, just, and loving.

Our identity is in belonging to God and place. Our purpose, grounded in freedom, is partnering with God in the journey toward the Kindom in a concrete context. God is continually offering us creatively redemptive storylines in each moment that provide us identity and purpose amidst the relationships in the places we dwell and between which we pilgrim. These storylines are mediated by the Spirit and the accumulated witnesses cradled in sacred texts and traditions.


Storylines link moments of experience together in the process of sorting out a sense of identity and purpose. Places in which we dwell and between which we move hold many possible storylines for constructing identity and purpose. Traditions within places author and authorize stories of identity and vocation. We also encounter the important role of place in identity and purpose as we consider the questions of whose we are and vocation.

We belong to God and place. In and through place we are called forth into identity and partnership with God. Being conscious of the story-formed process giving rise to identity and purpose and how this is embedded in place may not make discernment easier. Discerning the forms of our partnerships with God's work in the world (vocation) and knowing where we dwell and move are rarely easy because they involve deep commitments, complexities, and life implications. Too often, vocational imagination fails because we look for abstract answers for all time, rather than an embedded call for a particular time and place. Clergy, church professionals, and laity alike unintentionally suffer from a failure of vocational imagination — it is not a conspiracy but an accumulated habit of mind.

Vocational imagination, like faith itself, is a way of being in the world. Imagination is about recognizing connections between things in the world and giving relationships meaningful form. "Place" is the way we imagine the web of relationships in particular areas and the relationship between God and the world in those areas. "Vocation" is the way we imagine God's relationship with the world, God's work in the midst of the world, and ways to partner with it. Failed vocational imagination constrains our ability to sense God in our midst and dis-places us from the enfolding Kindom of God. When we dull our vocational imagination, we foster a slumber that interferes with God's ongoing creation of persons, communities, and nature. Think of the woe of those in parables and stories who slumber and do not see God's work about them. Over the years I have read and heard struggles, questions, and fears people have about vocation through faith journey papers, admission essays, new seminarian classes, advising sessions, and conversations in corporate offices and congregations alike. Often comments suggest an assumption about vocation that is displaced and imagination that is too small — and many of these comments I have voiced myself.

I also hear connections people make between place and vocation, but often in these comments place is merely the setting for times of discernment or the location for expressing vocation. People talk about place in several ways. Summer camps, retreats, service projects, mission trips, and the like are places integral to stirring vocational awareness. Places where deep conversations about faith and vocation happen often hold significance for persons. Individuals hold powerful emotions in relation to settings where groups or communities expressed affirmation, ambivalence, or doubt about their vocational pursuits.

Unfortunately, conversations and exploration of vocation too often are limited to formal educational settings, be they theological or secular. In such settings, place becomes a matter of contextualizing their profession as they participate in field education and internships — a profession as one participates in field education and internships — that is, bringing vocation to a place one acts upon. Perhaps an exception to tendencies of displacing vocation are persons in diaconal ministry, whose charge is bridging the place of church with the place of the world.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Preface ix

Chapter 1 Purpose, Place, and Vocational Imagination 1

Chapter 2 Gathering and Flourishing: Forming Relationships in Place 17

Chapter 3 Partnership with God in Place: Rethinking Vocation 35

Chapter 4 Gathering and Emerging: Place and Relationships 59

Chapter 5 With Whom Is God Partnering? Capacities and Stories in Vocation 79

Chapter 6 Attending to Roots: Vocation and the Places We Dwell 97

Chapter 7 Attending to Routes: Vocation and Connections between Places 125

Chapter 8 Gathering Saints: Fostering Vocational Imagination 149

Notes 169

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