In 2002, SPU was awarded a $1.9 million grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. to establish the original SERVE Program, which included sixteen program components supporting theological thought about vocational choices among students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the community. Part of the national Lilly PTEV (Programs for Theological Exploration of Vocation), the SPU SERVE Program was granted a $500,000 sustaining grant from the Lilly Endowment in 2005 to continue its work for an additional three years. In 2009, SPU took over funding of the SERVE programs and projects.
Past Lilly SERVE programs included: Cadre Development Grants, Faculty Grants in Vocation and Theology, the Urban Youth Leadership Academy, the Post-Baccalaureate Intern Program, Post-Doctoral Lilly Teaching Fellows, School of Education SERVE Programs, Staff Training, Theological Student Union, Urban Service Learning, Vocation and Career Development, Vocational Speakers Funds, Women’s Studies Program, and Youth Ministries Initiative.
Lilly SERVE Results
As a result of the SERVE program, the language and philosophy of vocation, understood theologically, has become more deeply embedded in the culture of Seattle Pacific University. Our institution’s evangelical and ecumenical identity, as well as our mission to prepare people of competence and character to faithfully engage the culture and change the world provided a natural home for theological reflection on vocation. The Lilly SERVE program allowed us to strengthen and broaden our commitment to help students, faculty, staff, and community understand God’s purposes and discern how their life choices serve those purposes. In the process, we have learned many lessons, including the importance of motion, community, and story.
Robert Penn Warren’s great novel All The King’s Men provided us with a way to think about motion; in writing the story the narrator comments, “It was not . . . any one event, which I recollected which was important, but the flow, the texture of the events, for meaning is never in the event but in the motion through event. Otherwise we could isolate an instant in the event and say this is the event itself. The meaning. But we cannot do that. For it is the motion that is important.” In the same way, we have learned that no single event, or speaker, or course, or retreat defines vocation at SPU, but rather that our campus is in motion propelled by and embodied in hundreds of different events around theological exploration of vocation.
The idea of motion suggests the importance of community in our understanding of vocation. While modern ideas of “vocation” tend to focus on the individual and that individual’s job or profession, a Christian theological approach to vocation involves a sense of the transcendent, of purpose, and of community. To receive a call means someone outside the self is calling; what I am to do in response to that call provides me with purpose; and this call and response occurs within and is guided by my larger community. A vocation-driven life strives to discover ways to serve the common good rather than to be driven by status and salary. The Christian faith claims that a purposeful God seeks humans who will partner their purposes with God’s purposes so that all of God’s creation might flourish. Wise people understand God’s purposes and discern how their life choices serve those purposes. Those discernment processes take place in community and contribute to community.
We thus learned the importance of involving the entire community in the discussion of vocation, providing a common vocabulary and theological grounding not only for our current students, but also for staff and faculty, for incoming students and alumni. By implementing sixteen initiatives across a wide spectrum of campus departments and organizational structures, we were able to create synergy around the idea of vocation. We learned that such a decentralized approach, while not without its own problems, on the whole functioned successfully to spread ways of thinking vocationally across campus.
In stepping back and examining the larger pattern of this intricate tapestry, we find a willingness to tell and listen to stories or narratives. Such exchanges take place in a variety of venues: during small group cadres, when visiting speakers address a chapel gathering, when students write a reflection essay in their senior capstone, or when fifth graders visiting from an inner city school are helped to envision their own story as leading to a college education. We are people who tell stories about ourselves. Theological exploration of vocation takes place time and time again when one person shares her story with another person—faculty member with student, residential assistant with hall resident, career counselor with frightened seniors, senior faculty with junior faculty, college seniors with bewildered freshmen, visiting speakers with chapel or convocation audiences.
Story telling assists vocational discernment in many different ways: in a story the teller may affirm her vocation, but she may also grasp or recognize it for the first time. The listener may discern his vocation by means of similarity or contrast, through what Martha Nussbaum calls “the narrative imagination.” He may become inspired by a role model or encouraged by a supporting presence. Stories help us to recognize God at work in our lives; stories assist us in locating our small story within God’s big story.