As part of our Visions of Vocation series, we have been gathering stories of vocation from our community to share with one another to help illustrate and give life to how our vocations are integral and not incidental to the Kingdom of God. This story comes to us from Donna Burns, a pastor’s wife who found herself working in community colleges across California as part of God’s Kingdom.
My husband pastored a church in Southern California that grew from a couple dozen to a few thousand over 35 years. As the senior pastor’s wife, I was heavily invested in a variety of ministries and was directly connected to the mental and emotional load carried by my husband. Over the years I was asked occasionally whether I had felt “called” to be a pastor’s wife. My answer was no. I wanted to marry Dave. If he stopped being a pastor, I still wanted to be married to him. We marry people, not professions.
Some people know apparently from birth what God created them to do with their life. I’m not one of those people. I backed into a career out of necessity, kept at it for decades, and somewhere along the line realized that my professional work had mattered to God all along. He was in it, from the menial tasks to the scary challenges. During the last two years of my professional career, I was asked to serve in a role for which I was specifically prepared because of God’s hand on my path.
I spent my first 21 years of employment doing research, public relations, and fund raising for Christian agencies working in the developing world. Besides finally learning world geography and developing my skills, I grew in my appreciation for the complexities of poverty and the dignity of those who suffer. My eyes became a little more focused outside myself. My heart expanded.
In my 40s I went back to school so that I could teach English to Speakers of Other Languages, and I began teaching ESL at a large community college in L.A. My classes typically had adult learners representing a half dozen native languages and a dozen nationalities. The world came to me, and we shared our stories as they gained confidence in English.
Along the way I developed a passion for the public California community college system, which serves more than 2 million students in 113 colleges throughout the state. Most of these students are the first in their family to attend college. Most of them qualify for tuition waivers because of their low income. The majority represent ethnically underserved populations. Community colleges are among the most significant drivers of economic equity in urban communities.
Among the students served by California community colleges are adults who need noncredit opportunities before moving forward into credit (unit) classes leading to a degree. Many need significant help with their basic skills of reading, writing, and math. Many are non-native-English speakers. More than 7 million adults in California have no high school diploma. Adults with disabilities need instruction in life skills or career preparation appropriate to their needs and abilities. Older adults need skills for supplemental work or to maintain cognitive skills. These noncredit students are served through Continuing Education programs of some colleges as well as some adult schools operated by the K-12 system.
During the Great Recession, education budgets were cut along with other programs. Major, disproportionate cuts targeted Continuing Education students, particularly those served by the K-12 system. By then I was the Dean of Continuing Education at my college. We served more than 30,000 noncredit students annually. As the fourth largest in the state, our program was among the leaders, and I was asked to serve on state-level advocacy teams as part of my responsibilities. Most of the colleges were able to survive the recession with their noncredit programs intact, though reduced. But adult schools in the K-12 system were decimated.
At the same time, the demographics of need were staggering. Of California’s adult population, 9.5 million lived in poverty; 7.3 million had no high school diploma; 3.6 million were unemployed, and 6 million lacked basic literacy. These adults were among California’s poorest, and they had no voice.
With a better economic forecast, legislators in 2013 called for an improved, restructured adult education system that required regional collaboration among all providers. Two systems that had been historic competitors had to come together for the sake of their students. At stake was an “intended” increase of $500 million for adult education. I was asked to serve on a state work group to help coordinate the 2-year planning process for the restructure.
We were a group of 12 from two systems: directors, deans, a provost and a president, all from robust adult education programs. We represented “the field,” and it was quickly evident that a field perspective was vital to the success of planning. We didn’t trust each other at first, but we quickly bonded through our shared passion for students. Also, we realized that legislators and bureaucrats needed people who knew what they were talking about and could advocate in unity. The timeline and workload were truly daunting. We had pushback from every imaginable interest group who accused us of being secretive and subversive. But ultimately, the planning was completed, increased funding was provided, and opportunities for students are growing.
Last March 2015, I joined an adult education (K-12) colleague to testify before the California Joint Budget Committee for Higher Education about how the planning process had played out within local regions and to advocate for adult students. That colleague, Bob, was someone I came to know and love as we served together on the work group. He also happened to be a committed, thoughtful Christian who was passionate about the role of public education in addressing the needs of the poor. During our work sessions in Sacramento, we had enjoyed after-hours discussions about our faith in the context of adult education and social justice. I felt tremendously privileged to serve with him and the rest of the work group on a project that helped address people’s needs on such a large scale.
When I was young, I had ideas about “vocation” that needed to be refined by experience. I believe it is a mistake to confuse “calling” or “vocation” with the skill or talent that comes most easily to us. God-given strengths are relevant, of course. But vocation means work. Jesus asked for laborers, not hobbyists. That isn’t to say there is no joy in vocation; in fact, he gives joy, fulfillment, and even fun along the way. But fundamentally there is work to do, and there are days or weeks or seasons when that work is a grind.
“Vocation” happens wherever God puts us to carry out work that matters to him. It may be within a church or other Christian organization, the home, the marketplace, civil service, politics, or some combination of things. When I was young, I would not have predicted that I would work in the arena of California educational structures, policies, and politics, or that I would feel a passionate alignment of that work with God’s kingdom values. But that’s what happened, and I didn’t really see it all within God’s plan until I looked back.
So if you are like I was, looking into the future without sensing a clear, singularly-focused call, I would say to you: Relax. Love God. Align with his purposes and values in the work you are doing. Work diligently. And trust that he has his hand on you.