Challenges of Vocation in Mormonism

It’s a commonplace to note that in the Church nobody chooses her calling. Rather, God, through the mediation of priesthood leaders, calls us to serve, typically only for a limited time, in any of a wide variety of capacities. There is much to be said for this approach: sometimes, by doing things we never would have chosen for ourselves, we, like Moses, learn things “we never had supposed.” Having this potential for divine surprises built into the system is a good thing.

Still, this approach comes at a price: we lose the concept of vocation—the idea that God calls us individually to walk a particular path of divine service. (See Angela C’s excellent post about this.) To be sure, patriarchal blessings can provide something like an individual call, but in most cases there are not formal institutional venues for performing the things that we in the depths of our souls feel that God has called us to do. If a person in another denomination feels called to the ministry, in many cases there are formal processes of discernment and training to guide that person in working out whether this is really what God wants him or her to do. In Mormonism a person who feels so called must either wait for a formal calling or figure out some less formal way of acting as a minister. This latter option can mean “doing much good of [one’s] own accord,” but it can also lead to tensions with the institutional Church.

As we try to sort out how to act in the world according to our individualized vocations, we can look to the life of Florence Nightingale for an example. On 7 May 1837, at the age of sixteen, she experienced the first of what would be four calls to God’s service. [1] Like King Benjamin, she knew that serving God meant serving her fellow beings, but working out how exactly to do this took some time. She came from a very wealthy family, and, as such, her station in life was not to serve but to be served. The editor of some of her diaries observes: “In the early nineteenth century, nurses were little more than servants, often women without family [who were] notorious for sexual improprieties and their love of alcohol.” [2] Her eventual calling seemed profoundly at odds with her class.

Accordingly, Florence’s family (especially her mother and sister) actively resisted her efforts to act in her calling. This continued for fifteen years.  At one point, in November of 1845, Florence pleaded with God to take her life:

Lord, thou knowest the creature which Thou hast made, Thou knowest that I cannot live. Forgive me, O God, and let me die, this day let me die. It is not for myself that I say this. Thou knowest that I am more afraid to die than to live for I shall carry myself with me, but I know that by living I shall only heap anxieties on other hearts, which will but increase with time.

Lord, I do not wish for another life. I believe in a future state and I thank Thee and bless Thee for it. Many of my friends will find the reconciliation to their fates in it and I embrace the idea as a support which cannot be taken away from me. But Thou, Lord, who knowest all things, I do not think that Thou wilt insist upon my taking up life again. Thou seest that I can make nothing of it.

If, as Papa says, this is vanity and selfishness, then, Lord, all is wrong and there will be nothing of me left. My inmost self is hollow. Wilt thou not, O Lord, call the spark of life back to Thyself and send it out again under a new form, for if memory is left, there will be no heaven for me if this present I is remembered in anything. O Lord, if all is vanity and selfishness, Thou seest why I cannot pray to thee, there is nothing in me to do homage to Thee, the Pure, the Perfect. Lord into thy hands I commend my spirit. It cannot even pray. [3]

In these years of darkness, she could echo Job’s lament—”He has put my family far from me”—but instead of indicting God she commended her spirit into God’s hands. Her act of faith was not in vain, though her difficulties would still persist for several more years. The next month she wrote:

God has something for me to do for Him or He would have let me die some time ago. I hope to do it by living, then my eyes would indeed have seen His salvation, but now I am dust and nothing, worse than nothing, a curse to myself and others.

This morning I felt as if my soul would pass away in tears, but I live in utter loneliness, in a bitter passion of tears and agony of solitude. But I live, and God grant that I may live to do this. Oh if our Saviour walked the earth, how should I not go to him, and would he send me back to live the life again which crushes me into vanity and deceit? Or would he not say, Do this. Oh, for some great thing to sweep this loathsome life into the past. [4]

Like Jesus, Florence did not regard the riches and privilege of her station, “but emptied [herself], taking the form of a slave.” This was the price of her calling, of her service.

In time, after an 1848 retreat in Rome, journeys to Egypt and Greece in 1848-49, and a long-desired visit to the Protestant institution for deaconesses at Kaiserswerth, Germany (near Düsseldorf), Florence was finally able to put her vocation into practice. In Rome she met Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of War who later charged her with leading nurses in the Crimean War. Her successes there led to the publication in 1859 of her influential Notes on Nursing, in which she inveighed against circumstances that prevented women from acting in keeping with their God-given potentials:

But how much more extraordinary is it that, whereas what we might call the coxcombries of education—e.g., the elements of astronomy—are now taught to every school-girl, neither mothers of families of any class, nor school-mistresses of any class, nor nurses of children, nor nurses of hospitals, are taught anything about those laws which God has assigned to the relations of our bodies with the world in which He has put them. In other words, the laws which make these bodies, into which He has put our minds, healthy or unhealthy organs of those minds, are all but unlearnt. Not but that these laws—the laws of life—are in a certain measure understood, but not even mothers think it worth their while to study them—to study how to give their children healthy existences. They call it medical or physiological knowledge, fit only for doctors. [5]

The error in this way of thinking lies in categorizing spiritual knowledge as scientific. For all her scientific achievement in making hospitals safer and healthier places, Florence was at heart a mystic: as evidence of her disposition, she compiled a manuscript anthology of medieval mystical writing. She did not, however, think of the mystical state as one of spiritual ecstasy, but rather as one of quiet harmony with God’s laws:

It appears to me that the mystical state is the essence of common sense if it is real, that is, if God is a reality. We can only act and speak and think through Him and the thing is to discover such laws of His as will enable us to be always acting and thinking in (conscious) co-operation with Him. Grace is a mistake because we cannot conceive that this, the very best gift we can have, can be the gift of arbitrary caprice on the part of our Almighty F[ather]. But if we find out that He gives us grace, i.e., the mystical state in accordance with certain laws we can discover and use, is not that a truth and  common sense? …

The fact is, mystical books are for hard-working people to inspire their daily work, like you and me, not for mystical people, contemplative people, religious people, people in contemplative orders, idle people, excitable young ladies. [6]

This perspective can guide Mormons by showing that institutional venues can paradoxically detract from spiritual vocations. In this, Florence Nightingale is siding with St. Francis and St. Dominic who, around the turn of the 13th century, argued that the true apostolic way lay not in monastic life but in mendicant preaching among the people. [7] She is arguing that contemplative retreat from the world misses the point of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In a note of 2 July 1849 she reflects on how different ways of living can affect a person’s ability so recognize her neighbor:

Ought not one’s externals to be as nearly as possible an incarnation of what life really is? Life is not a green pasture and a still water, as our homes make it. Life is to some a forty days fasting, moral or physical, in the wilderness, to some it is a fainting under the carrying of the crop [cross], to some it is a crucifixion, to all a struggle for truth, for safety.

Life is seen in a much truer form in London than in the country. In an English country place everything that is painful is so carefully removed out of sight, behind those fine trees, to a village three miles off. In London, at all events if you open your eyes, you cannot help seeing in the next street that life is not as it has been made to you. You cannot get out of a carriage at a party without seeing what is in the faces making the lane on either side and without feeling tempted to rush back and say, “Those are my brothers and sisters.” [8]

As Latter-day Saints, whatever we feel our vocation to be, the important thing is to seek out our neighbors (in Jesus’ sense of the word) instead of acting in quiet and often unreflective ways to cut ourselves off from them. The world in its woundedness may inspire an understandable desire for retreat, but we, like Jesus, are called to incarnate ourselves in it. Thanks be to God for the example of Florence Nightingale in this regard. May we become her fellow-travelers on the path of discipleship.

mormon_lectionary-100x100px-rgbaMormon Lectionary Project

The Feast of Florence Nightingale, 1910

Job 19:13-22 (NRSV); Luke 10:25-37 (NRSV); Philippians 2: 1-11 (NRSV); Mosiah 2:10-19

The Collect: O God our True Physician, by the light of your Holy Spirit, and through the grace of your Son, Jesus Christ, show us the path whereby we might always be in communion with you; attune our hearts to your voice so that we may discern in our own hearts the sound of your call; and grant us the strength and vision to follow your call, that we may know how to bring your compassion and healing to the distressed of the earth. Amen.

To honor a person of spiritual power who was deeply invested in healing, what better than Nina Simone with my favorite version of “There is a Balm in Gilead”?


[1] From a diary entry for 7 Feb. 1892, recorded in Lynne McDonald, ed., Florence Nightingale’s Spiritual Journey, in Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, vol. 2 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2001), 516.

[2] Michael D. Calabria, Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and “Visions” (Albany: State University of New York Press), 2.

[3] McDonald, 366.

[4] Ibid., 367.

[5] Florence Nightingale, Notes on Nursing (London, 1859; facsimile reprint, 1946), 7.

[6] Lynne McDonald, ed., Florence Nightingale’s Theology: Essays, Letters and Journal Notes, in Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, vol. 3 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2001), 232-34.

[7] For more on this, listen to Blair Hodges’s excellent interview with Bernard McGinn for the Maxwell Institute Podcast. The Church did, of course, eventually embrace the Franciscan and Dominican orders.

[8] Gérard Vallée, ed., Florence Nightingale on Mysticism and Eastern Religions, in Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, vol. 4 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2001), 107.


  1. Clark Goble says:

    It’s very sad when people think their calling is the only way they are to do service.

  2. There are three “Church” vocations a person might follow for a lifetime, where these self-selected callings are seen as acceptable service. Home/Visiting Teaching, Family History, and Temple Work. Other than those, if you get released from a calling you’re expected to sever all ties, projects, dedications, and even input on how things should be accomplished.

  3. That’s a good list, Michael.

  4. anonymous today says:

    “if you get released from a calling you’re expected to sever all ties, projects, dedications, and even input on how things should be accomplished”

    This is especially true for women who have presided. A bishop is often called to the Stake High Council, where there is at least some venue for discussing needs and taking action based on the knowledge and experience of being bishop, and which takes him away regularly from having to watch how his successor handles everything differently. There is no such path for a Relief Society president who had been intimately involved in ward decision-making and welfare matters, who was in 5-8 homes per week, whose phone rang multiple times a day, and whose advice the bishop relied on. It takes months to recover from the sense of loss and voicelessness, even for a person with a firm testimony.

  5. Thanks for sharing that, anonymous.

  6. Also, there is a sliver of vocation in retirement. Adult missions may be customized to a great extent, although still limited to certain choices on offer, to meet the skills and felt vocation of the missionaries.

  7. First motherhood is and always felt like my call, as my 7 kids started to fly the coop early morning seminary was the call. One of the hardest things I ever did was resign after 5 yrs. I could have gone on forever! Now motherhood has taken over again, 22 grandkids later I barely have time to do my callings. Adult missionary service was a great experience and the adjustment back to my real life was confusing! If it weren’t for the gospel of Jesus Christ all I would receive in return from the rest of society is ridicule or disinterest (as I did in the 70’s as a young mom of many) My feelings of being called and useful come from God, my family and the friends I’ve made during my service. (when you feel called, your activities never feel like service)

  8. “when you feel called, your activities never feel like service”

    Indeed. Sometimes we all have to do things for which we feel distinctly no vocation, but the things to which we do feel called are a pleasure (even if they do still have moments of feeling like work).

  9. Awesome post, Jason. Loved it. Some deep learning there. More such!

  10. This is how you get the calling you really want. I base this on decades of membership in the church and observing those who do it this way. You don’t do any calling you are asked to do, even though you accepted, were sustained and set apart. Finally when someone has to ‘gently encourage’ you to do your calling because they are tired of doing your calling along with theirs, you say, “I will only serve in (fill in the blank calling)”. You do this passive aggressively through several callings until finally the bishopric breaks down and says “Well at least he/she says he’ll/she’ll serve in this capacity” and then you are called to your pet project for infinity. I grew up in a ward where the same lady is still leading the music. Although it’s fun to point out to my husband and kids that they are singing hymns led by the same lady who conducted me through my entire childhood, I can’t help but think of all the other ways she could have stretched and grown in new callings. My dad used to say that every time he got a new calling, he saw the kingdom in a different light. When you are exposed to a variety of callings, you aren’t as myopic. The same 10 people don’t do everything. On a rare, occasion, usually after I have moved to a new ward, I do get asked “If you could serve anywhere in the church, where would it be?” For some strange reason though, I’m still not the prophet.

  11. Really appreciated the insight into Florence Nightengale — thanks for this.

  12. Jack Hughes says:

    The idea that we can only be “called” to our ecclesiastical positions is disempowering. It carries a sort of “divine right of kings” attitude, that us rank-and-file members have no power to chart our own course of service in the Church, and that we are totally at the mercy of a fallible leader (presumably hand-selected by God) to decide what is best for us. This culture also ruins the spirit of volunteerism, at least in my observation, and creates a community of slothful and unwise servants who will only wait to be told what to do, rather than stepping up and doing what needs to be done. I know there is still value in having people do jobs they wouldn’t normally choose for themselves, but allowing for at least some choice in the matter will make us so much happier; for example, when issuing a new calling, a bishop might give the member a choice between 2 or 3 existing vacancies; or perhaps make members compete and interview for the more coveted callings.

    Once on the car ride home after church, when I half-jokingly said to my wife “…but if I were bishop, I would have done things differently” she shuddered as if I had just taken the Lord’s name in vain. She found it blasphemous that I even hinted at aspiring to a calling. I was expected to repent immediately.

  13. Jack Hughes: I think that a better approach is to dissociate ecclesiastical calling and spiritual vocation. There may be times when they align, as other commenters have said, but most of the time most of us are left to act in our vocations independently of Church structure. Lowell Bennion felt called to serve the elderly and widowed, and he didn’t need the permission of an ecclesiastical leader to do it, just like Florence Nightingale eventually decided that she didn’t need her family’s permission to be a nurse. It’s not the “divine right of kings” associated with our Church leaders that disempowers us, but rather our sense that we need their permission to serve God and neighbor as our hearts urge us to do. (And by this I don’t mean to put down serving in our ecclesiastical capacities. I teach Gospel Doctrine and love it.)

  14. I serve with someone who has taken just that approach, Jason, during frequent assignments to another country where he is unable to serve directly in his calling in his ward of record, and it has been quite inspiring to me. He doesn’t barge the local congregations or interfere with the local structures, he simply goes out among the people he once served as a missionary and reestablishes contact.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I once refused to accept a release from a teaching call. Surprisingly, they let me stay in it. I think it was more a “Can he/she do that?” than anything else. The next go-round (a few years later), they made sure it wasn’t an option. Now, I don’t have a teaching call, but I feel a call to assist in an unofficial capacity. I made it plain to my Stake President who has taken advantage of my particular skill set (along with a few others in our stake) and that ministering has gone very well. I found that when I let the leaders know of my willingness, they’re willing to let me assist them.

  16. Yes, many are called, but few are chosen to wield the bannination stick.

  17. Love this post and the idea behind it, Jason. I’ve been blessed several times in my life by that one ward member who isn’t called to anything specific, but has tireless energy and puts it to use helping in the ward/community with whatever’s needed. I hope to be that person myself someday.

  18. nurseryworker says:

    I think the way we do things in the Church discourages people from seeking to be of service in formal ways that could be quite beneficial. For example, I suggested to our bishop that we have a Sunday School class for people who are active but have sincere questions and concerns about certain aspects of Church teachings and history. I know this would have been helpful for me, and I know it would have been helpful for at least a half-dozen other people in my ward all of whom are struggling. The bishop, to his credit, asked the stake president, who of course shot the idea down: SS classes have to follow the official manuals etc. The bishop then called me to work in the nursery. Again.

  19. Clark Goble says:

    NurseryWorker, I’m not sure why a class oriented on that following one of the standard manuals couldn’t have worked. It seems to me the only difference is what’s focused on in each lesson. Honestly I think the class following the Gospel Principles manual but targeted members with questions rather than new members would be great. I’d love to teach such a class.

  20. nurseryworker says:

    Clark: Right, that was one option I suggested to the bishop: use the manual but have the atmosphere be one where participants felt comfortable bringing up concerns they had. (This is not the case in the regular GD class due to the insipid, infantilising teaching style as well as the attitude of certain members toward those of us with deeper questions–something that I’ve found in every ward I’ve been in, with one notable and welcome exception a decade ago in a very liberal area.) Again, it was shot down as being too controversial.

    Another reason that the bishop gave (I’m not sure whether this particular reason was from the SP or it was his own concern) was that we can’t have a different SS class to fit every need in the ward. Of course, by that reasoning, we should not have a temple prep class, mission prep class, or different SS classes for youth, nor should we try to do anything to solve one problem if we cannot by so doing solve all problems…but who am I to use simple logic in the face of unwavering orthodoxy. Oh that’s right, I’m a nursery worker. Again. :)

  21. The only real vocation that matters in the church is disciple of Christ. Most of the important aspects of development in that vocation don’t require any particular calling at all. Too often we look beyond the mark at what this means.

    Teaching is an important part of most of the callings in the church, so everyone needs to learn to be good at that, but not everyone needs to be gospel doctrine teacher, I’ve been wary of people telling me that they really want to be gospel doctrine teacher. Sometimes people think too much of their own intellect. Not always but sometimes.

    Leadership is WAY overrated in the world and in the church also. The most important part of leadership is teaching (see above). Elder Holland came once to tell the bishops that they were called to be teachers not administrators. I learned that the more I focus on being a disciple of Christ the less I feel I want to be a leader.

  22. WARD CHOIR. You left that off your list. Everyone does. And, in reality, most LDS church musicians (especially pianists) understand the fact that they will serve in that capacity on a regular and permanent basis regardless of their actual calling. Not to toot my own horn, but this very Sunday I was asked to do a vocal solo five minutes before sacrament meeting started. It was a double missionary farewell/not-farewell (because we obviously don’t have those anymore) and the musical number had fallen through and the bishopric wanted something that as they said, “would help the congregation feel the spirit better than a rest hymn.” They approached me very humbly and sincerely and while some musicians would really chafe at the last-minutedness of it all, I guess I have long considered music to be one of my “vocations” and have put a lot of effort and training into it so that I can always be prepared for whatever might arise. So, I grabbed the organist, asked her if she could play “Beautiful Savior” from the Primary Songbook and we did it (I sang the descant line on the last verse for variation). And you know what, it was not perfect, but it was beautiful and it achieved its intended purpose.

  23. Erika:
    I stand corrected. I suppose because my chosen instrument is the tuba, I’ve come to accept that as far as church is concerned, I have no musical talent. That puts the Ward Choir off my radar.

  24. Ward choir is a gift. Singing in the choir can sometimes compensate for less-than-uplifting experiences in other aspects of church. I’ve been saved by choir more than once.

  25. Jason K. it is so true. And so wonderful to hear. Also, and I should have said this first, thank you for this post. It was lovely and has given me a lot to think about.

    And Michael, if you can play the tuba, I assure you that you can sing the the ward choir. ;)

  26. Fantastic post, Jason. Finally got time to read through it. One of my favorite MLP’s so far. When we gonna look at making a book? ;)

  27. I think we need another year to finish out the project, but let’s talk ;)

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