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Name: Interview with Bill Placher
School: Wabash College
Topic: Bill Placher talks about his book, Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation
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1. You have searched 2000 years of Christian writing to find texts on vocation. How difficult was it to find texts that spoke directly to vocation? What other vocabularies were used to speak about the calling to Christian life?

In some ways, there are texts everywhere, because the question of “How do I think about what to do with my life?” is a question people are always trying to figure out in any period. But, as you implied, the focus of that question changes through different periods. As I talked about in the book, in the early church the focus is on the question of, “Should I be a Christian?” That’s really the central issue. And then in the Middle Ages, it’s more about, “Should I be a monk or a nun or a priest, or should I have a secular life?” --a kind of either/or question. In the beginning of the Reformation, it expands so that the question of vocation is a question about whatever your job is and whatever your condition in life is. In the contemporary age we in some ways haven’t figured out how to define the topic of vocation.

2. What standards or methods did you employ to decide which texts to include?

I met with the Lake Fellows over at Second Presbyterian in Indianapolis a couple weeks ago, and they kept pushing me for my methodology and I kept saying, “Well, I just kind of picked readings that seemed like people would enjoy reading them.” I resist having too much method. I mean, obviously, you think about: Are we representing different periods? Are we representing different traditions? Are we hearing women’s voices as well as men’s when we can?

But then you hit the practical considerations: Can we get copyright permissions? Is there a good translation? Can you figure out a selection that’s not too long that captures the text properly? And so you find some kind of compromise between the perfect book and the one you can actually produce. Some of these selections come from texts where I knew where they were, and that was easy. Sometimes you’d sort of think, “Well, there must be something there somewhere,” and you can find it. And sometimes you just get lucky. But there are also times when I’m sure there are things I missed. Some of the best selections, I think, were things people suggested to me.

3. Your book is divided up into four historical periods; is there a selection or a particular entry that seems to transcend cultural and historical boundaries?

In some sense I hope they all do. The ones that seemed totally of their own time-- stopped dead--are the ones that got left out, by and large. It seemed to me that a book like this, while it’s a historical work, must connect with people right now, and some texts do that better than others. For instance, I’ve found that reading the story of the martyrdom of Perpetua from the early church, which is this pretty weird kind of martyrdom story in some ways, has an extraordinary reality and power. Surprisingly, I’ve found that’s one of the texts from the early church people want to talk about, so I’m not always good at predicting which ones will connect. Again, in the selections from the early church, there’s the whole property debate. There’s Clement of Alexandria saying, “Well, if you don’t keep some of your property, you’re not going to be able to help your neighbors when they need some help.” And there are others such as St. Anthony who want to give everything away. It turns out people want to talk about that!

4. Is there a text that you find particularly moving or appealing?

The one right at the end, the Karl Barth reading, which I found late in the day, is in some ways an amazing summary of the whole book. He reviews everything in this piece. So intellectually I think there’s a real power to that one for me. On the more emotional level, again toward the end, is Dorothy Sayers’ little essay about how the artist might provide a model for how we all think about our vocation. Her idea is that it doesn’t make sense for an artist to join a union and get a 40-hour workweek because what artists want is to free themselves up so they can do their work. And in some sense the dream would be that we could all live our lives that way. Then the central question becomes, “What if we could create a society where lots more people could feel that way about their work?”

I think we’re not doing a very good job of it at the moment. It’s not just at the level of people at the bottom of the economic scale having to work at fast food restaurants and whatever, but 70% of lawyers in this country say if they had a chance they’d do something else the next time around. Even the people who you would think are society’s success stories, who have the ability and the good luck and were able to choose whatever they wanted to do, don’t seem very happy, lots of them, about what they’re doing. I wish we could, as a society, find a better way to help people feel better about their careers and their lives.

It’s really sad to think of all the changes we’ve seen, because when I was a kid there were all these pieces in popular journalism and even books about how the work week was going to keep getting shorter with all this new technology. We were going to be scarcely working at all - something badly went wrong there. So one version of the dream was that maybe we’re not going to like our jobs much, but at least we’re not going to have to put a lot of time in them. That hasn’t proven true. So if we’re going to be spending that much of our lives on our work, it ought to be fulfilling or rewarding or something, or we’re going to be pretty miserable people.

5. As a teacher, describe ways and settings in which this text might be used on an undergraduate campus.

I think one strategy would simply be either early on or late in the college career to offer a course that invites students to think about the shape of their lives and their work, and to read this text and the book that Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass are doing. I think I’m going to do this in a year or two for seniors, because I don’t think we do a very good job with students in helping them move from the intellectual life of the Liberal Arts to thinking about their careers.

I think one of the nicest things that has happened in a lot of the PTEV schools has been the conversation that’s developed between faculty members and career services professionals. We say (“we” meaning, not just Wabash, but lots of colleges and universities) that we think the Liberal Arts is good career preparation, but then in practice, we say, “Oh, well, now you need to go get a job. Go over there to the Career Services Office and they’ll show you how to make a resume.” But that Liberal Arts education ought to have been shaping from the very beginning how people think about what really matters to them and what they feel confident about and what they want to do in their lives. So there ought to be more “bridges” on campus, I think. I think that’s one place a book like this could work.

One of the interesting questions, to which I don’t have the answer, would be what turns out to be the best time to do that. Is that the senior year? Or is that too late, and it ought to be for sophomores or freshmen? I want to try at a couple different spots and see what happens, and to see what other people’s experience is in that.

But there are other contexts, too. I think if you were just teaching a kind of standard History of Christian Thought or History of Christianity, this would be an interesting thing to run alongside the other kind of texts with the question, “OK, now we’ve found out what these people believe, now what difference did that make in terms of how they lived out their lives?” I think when I was putting the book together, I realized again how important that re-definition of all work as vocation is for understanding what the Reformation is about. And I think that really influenced the way people saw themselves in their world, and their lives changed.

6. How have you seen the questions of vocation at work at Wabash College? Do you perceive that men approach these questions differently than women?

Let me start with men and women. I think my impression would be that for women over the last, what, now three generations, it’s just been so incredibly complicated. Vocation is a hard thing to think about for anybody. I gotta’ pay the bills; I wanna’ do something rewarding that satisfies me; I wanna’ maybe do some good in the world. How do I do this? That’s a hard thing to figure out. But then, unfairly, to some degree in our society women have had more hard choices there than men have had. By that I mean the assumption has been often in my generation that it was still the man who had the job and the woman, his wife, might be working, might not be working, but was doing most of what needed to be doing with house and kids. Bonnie Miller-McLemore has written about this better than anyone else. And then we changed all that. We were going to have everybody be equal, and that didn’t happen. It turned out what happened was that an awful lot of women got the incredible burden of doing everything they were already doing plus a lot more things.

Now my sense is that some women want to say that they just can’t do all of those things. The claim that they don’t have to choose between work and family isn’t compatible with their own life experiences where sometimes they do have to choose. So, how are we going to find our way through that for women? I think that’s still very, very hard because it goes beyond those particular issues of the roles of men and women to some deep questions in our society. Is it all right to do your job very well two-thirds time? We’re not really good at that as a culture. The model is the gung-ho sort who shows up earlier and works later, and two people who are both following that model find it very hard to raise children adequately, I think. There may be other reasons quite apart from gender and family for thinking that’s not really a good model for a healthy life. But it’s a model we find it very hard to get out of. You even see it with college students.

The whole medical school education system and the pre-med pattern is, in part, about selecting from people who are willing to work really, really hard. And some of that’s an economic issue- we as a society put in an incredible amount of money into the education of a doctor. We don’t want her or him to finish that education and say, “Yeah, well, I’ll put in a few years and then I’ll take some time off.” But is there a point at which that process of selection properly says physical endurance of long hours is a necessary prerequisite for being a doctor? Or might we have doctors who were very good doctors, but didn’t want to work quite that hard? How do we feel about that?

You can transfer that to any profession. And in some ways, although we act very superior sometimes, I think colleges and universities are one of the worst cases in the degree to which we tend to make the highest demands of people in the four- to seven-year range, which is often where they’re busiest dealing with a young family and they’re coming up for tenure and they’ve got to get publications out. So colleges and universities do not offer a model of humane behavior in these matters, I’m afraid.

7. How easily can these questions of vocation be translated into an environment which has not received funding to develop programs on this topic?

I think that the last part of the question I just wouldn’t worry about because I think the questions of vocation are just there. Young people have to figure out what they want to do with their lives. And that includes whether they want to marry and if so, whom? And whether they want to have children, and how they figure out their relation with God, if they have a relationship or think that they do. But among those basic questions what kind of job are they going to have is one of the big ones. And I think most college-aged students are if anything too worried about that, because they are incorrectly convinced that sometime within the six months after they graduate from college they’re going to make the decision that’s going to set their career for the rest of their lives. Actually that doesn’t happen all that often, but that’s the model. Sometimes their parents would feel better if that were true, so there’s some pressure there, too. All of that goes into the package. And they want to figure this out.

I think “back in the day,” as my students say, the pressing concern for an awful lot of people was how am I going to feed myself and the family and the cat? Maybe that’s going to come again if the economy really collapses, but right now for most students who are in college, probably with some privileges of either background or ability or something, that doesn’t feel like an absolutely pressing question. Their assumption is that they’re going to find a way to pay the bills. So the central question becomes with a big part of my life – my job – how can I find some way of thinking about that part of my life so that it will not merely pay the bills, but it will give me - choose your favorite noun - satisfaction, fulfillment, joy, accomplishment, a sense that I’m doing what God wants me to do – something?

I think the PTEV program and other things have been wonderful ways of opening up that conversation and making it more public, but I think it wouldn’t have worked as well as it has if you were trying to impose questions on students that they didn’t want to think about. The Endowment’s vision for this project was terrific, but some of its success is that there was a hunger out there to think about these things. And if there weren’t that, you could throw an awful lot of money at it and nothing would happen.

8. What are the challenges and impediments that prohibit students from entering into vocational reflection?

A lot of things. One is it’s just gotten so complicated. I mean, what kind of career, let’s just put it at that level, could one have? I’m just so conscious, even at a Liberal Arts college, where we don’t train technical specialists at all really, that a lot of our students straight out of college end up with these jobs that I don’t really understand what the job means. Like, you’re the person who listens to the clients and then goes and explains to the computer people what it is that the clients actually want because the computer people can’t talk to clients. What is the name of that job? I don’t know, but apparently it does have a name. And an awful lot of people are doing that job for quite remarkable pay, in some cases!

Here’s a nineteen-year-old who says, “Well, I like working with people. I want to help people. I want to make a difference in people’s lives. I don’t want to just sit behind a desk all the time. I’m good at math. I’m pretty good at conversation. My friends say I’m good at helping people who are disagreeing with each other find a middle ground. So tell me some careers that I haven’t even thought about that might suit me.” There are a lot of popular books you could recommend, for example What Color is Your Parachute, and some of those are sure a lot better than nothing. But I still don’t think we do enough.

I don’t want to keep picking on the lawyers, but I think there are an awful lot of people who end up going to law school because “lawyer” is the name of a job that they’ve heard of. There may be a lot of other jobs that they would really find much more interesting, but they literally don’t know the names of them. I think that the sheer complexity of it all is one set of issues.

We had a dean of the college here years ago who said that for him the ideal administrative position would be dean of a college for orphans. I think sometimes parents are wonderfully creative and supportive, but I think sometimes they’re not helpful in letting their kids be who they need to be and try something out and discover that it’s not going to work, knowing they will still have plenty of time left to try something else. Particularly in a place like this, where we have a lot of kids who are the first generation in their family to go to college, where students accomplish all these things and spend all this money only to want to experiment with some things? I mean, you’re supposed to know by now, surely! So I think parental pressure and social pressure are issues.

I think churches have, in this as in many things, not been brave enough. I think Christian young people are by and large more prepared to be challenged than churches are prepared to challenge them. The last couple years here – I don’t know, I haven’t seen any numbers on this, so I don’t know if it’s a trend nationally – but we suddenly have a significantly larger number of graduates wanting to do something like Teach for America or Peace Corps for at least a while. And there are some good programs out there, even in some churches. It would be too bad if one of the impacts of PTEV were turning out a lot of young people really excited about doing something interesting but then institutions not prepared to offer them interesting things to do. I’m worried about that.

I think these students will do fine. But I think the mainline protestant churches have been so cautious that we haven’t done much on a big scale by way of asking what our equivalent is to the Mormons’ two years of missionary service. One of our philosophy majors who graduated last year was a Mormon from Utah, very much like our other students in a lot of ways, but after his freshman year he went off and became, my colleagues in languages tell me, genuinely fluent in Portuguese. He went down to Brazil to some of the pretty bad neighborhoods of Sao Paolo, and came back with a fascinating depth of understanding.

I think many of us in other traditions wouldn’t want to define what young people did for two years in the same way that the Mormons do, but at least they’re doing something. And I doubt we would want to say everybody ought to do it. And we certainly wouldn’t want to say men ought to do it and probably not women, so that is not the model most mainlines are going to adopt, hook, line and sinker. But I think many young people would like to have some opportunity to do something that would help people and would like to do it particularly in a context that was explicitly coming out of their faith commitments. That rules out Peace Corps, which for good reasons wants to be pretty careful about keeping those lines very separate. I don’t want to seem to be the person who doesn’t know that there are already such programs – there are. But not real big scale stuff. So I guess the question would be, why don’t we give students more opportunities to channel all that energy and idealism? Because I think there are a lot of them ready to go.

9. What questions do you think future students will bring to the consideration of vocation?

I think the core questions are not going to change very much. I think Frederick Buechner got that pretty much right: Where does my joy in the world come from? How can I find the something that lets me use the gifts that I have in a way that I find rewarding and also does some good? I don’t think that’s going to change ever. Now, what needs to change is how we as a society allow for men and women to be married to each other, have children and both have careers and not be on the edge of exhaustion for about 18 years. I think we’re going to have to keep working on that. And I think that has all kinds of consequences. It has consequences for the church: if the brightest and best of our society of a certain age are in that role, how can they be active church members? They’re just bushed. They can’t get out of bed Sunday morning. I mean really edge-of-exhaustion tired. That’s not for all kinds of reasons, but it’s hard for them to play a role in their congregations.

And economically, who knows? It might get a lot worse. I won’t go into my dark visions with this, but we as a nation have taken it for granted for my lifetime, which is now a stretch of time I realize, that we were going to get paid more than the rest of the world by a big margin, even more than the educated professionals in the rest of the world. Maybe that’s not going to be true anymore. Tom Friedman, the columnist who writes for the New York Times, has published a book called The World Is Flat, and his argument is that the computer expert in Bangalore can do everything that the computer expert can do in Silicon Valley, so there’s just no reason to assume that Americans can do the jobs and get paid lots more. That the economy flattens or levels wages across the globe. In some ways, hooray! The poor are going to be better off! When seen on an international scale, it’s a good thing. But for the societies that have been rich, it might be a little tough for a while. All that’s to say that in terms of the questions of vocation, we may go through a stage where the business of how I feed my family is a more central issue for most Americans than it has been since the 1930’s.

I think one vision of PTEV has always been directed to people who are thinking about ordained ministry. Again, that’s been a career that, while some people find richly rewarding, others find hard, frustrating, and destructive of themselves. How are we going to make that better? I don’t think that in fifty years Crawfordsville, Indiana is going to have seven or eight mainline protestant churches, each with one-and-a-half pastors, which is roughly what we have now. But I don’t know what it is we’re going to have instead. Maybe just that segment of the Christian world is just going to die and there’s just not going to be that many mainline Protestants at all. Or maybe it’s going to be in a very different form. I don’t know. But I think if we talk about vocation and one of the things we’re talking about is the call to ministry, then that’s going to look different in some ways in a generation than it does now in ways that I’m smart enough to see that it’s going to be different, but I’m not smart enough to know how.

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