Recently, at our chapel service on Inauguration Day, the day after Martin Luther King Day, I was asked to share a few thoughts on “The Vocation of Leadership.” Even on an ordinary day, either half of this topic is worthy of reflection--the meaning of vocation or the meaning of leadership--never mind an assignment to talk about both together.

And this was no ordinary day but rather an occasion that few among us expected to see in our lifetime: the removal of the last great color barrier in our society, with the inauguration of a person of color to be president of these United States.

I confess that, when reflecting in advance on the talk, I found myself unexpectedly emotional. Some of that emotion arose from the soul of an aging baby boomer, some from the memories of social activism from my own college years, and some from my experience as a former teacher-scholar of American Cultural Studies.

I also found myself thinking of some prophetic documents and speeches in our history:

  • John Winthrop’s plea to those first pilgrims before they embarked for the Massachusetts shore in 1620 that their community should serve as an example, like a “citty on a hill,” to inspire godliness and goodness;
  • That famous Declaration, 150 years later, that “all men are created equal,” a promise left unfulfilled for generations of our countrymen and countrywomen and, notwithstanding great social progress, even today a work in progress;
  • Dr. King’s stirring speech, now almost a half century past, reaffirming both the inspirational power of the American idea and the long journey still ahead for the liberation, equality, and respect due his people . . . And his final speech, five years later in Memphis, the night before he dies, a remarkable reflection, in which at the conclusion he evokes powerfully a vision of his people someday entering the promised land, though he suspects he himself won’t live long enough to do so.

We recognize prophetic leadership in individuals like Dr. King, whose memory we perhaps honor best not by tributes or even holidays from work and school, but by a recommitment—

  • to respect for human dignity and affirmation of our diverse, yet shared, humanity;
  • to service, particularly to the underserved;
  • to peacemaking, in our own circle of family and friends and well beyond;
  • to social justice, here in America and globally;
  • to values that, here at Alvernia, are embodied by our Franciscan foundresses, rooted in the Christian gospel, and yet also shared around the world by women and men of goodwill with many faiths and differing belief systems.

Yet prophetic leadership is exercised by many without the titles and positions that bestow power and authority. Servant leadership is an opportunity open to us all. And it can be practiced by we who, unlike larger-than-life figures, like Dr. King and Mother Teresa, are merely ordinary people sometimes able to contribute in extraordinary ways.

So in this spirit, we should be inspired, as was Dr. King, by the pacifist heroes of the southern bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins, whose commitment he celebrated in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by quoting what he called the “ungrammatical profundity” of one elderly woman protestor: “My feets are tired, but my soul is at rest.”

Her simple declaration expresses the undramatic heroism of a person with a deep sense of calling that fuses mind, body, and soul. A person both active and at peace. A person, that is, with a genuine vocation.

Growing up in a very religious Catholic family, I had as a young boy a narrowly focused understanding of vocation. It was a calling, to be sure, but a mysterious, elusive one reserved for a select few. One might seek it, but membership was limited. And it would be lived in a seminary, monastery, or convent.

Years later, as a young administrator, I was introduced by my oldest friend to Frederick Buechner’s simple, yet profound, definition of vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet.”

Imagining myself as responding to “the world’s deep need” has always seemed to be claiming too much for my modest work, first as a faculty member and later as an administrator. Yet for those of us fortunate to work in colleges and universities, especially at a special place like Alvernia, our vocation is rooted in a profound sense of service, a commitment to education. When we put aside the petty and picayune preoccupations that too often dominate campus conversations, it is easy to remember that the growth of our students—intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual—is indeed serious, important work worthy of a career and a life.

“Deep gladness,” in contrast, captures perfectly for me an essential dimension of a genuine vocation. It suggests not simply happiness but a profound satisfaction and inner joy. It implies the marriage of talents and skills with values and personal goals. It has a spiritual element, not necessarily a religious one, but has thoroughly secular applications. It suggests almost the impossibility of imagining ourselves doing anything else!

A woman or man of vocation is, by necessity and by gift, comfortable in her or his skin. Literally and symbolically. Such a person can indeed do many things, can work in different jobs, perhaps even in different careers. But Buechner’s concept of “deep gladness” sets a far higher standard: it suggests the full deployment of our values, our social philosophy, our personality, our leadership style, our spirituality and/or our religious faith. It is a call to do well and to do good.

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet.”

In 2009, there is no question that, whether a call from God or from a more secular source, assuming the American presidency provides the challenge and the opportunity to respond to “the world’s deep need.” Let us hope and pray for President Obama that he responds fully and well and that in so doing he indeed experiences “deep gladness.”

And let us hope and pray that all of us, whatever our work and our values, find the “deep gladness” that comes from tired feet and a soul at rest.

Flynn Files