Ashley Boutte has always known she was meant to be a missionary.
As a child, she was fascinated by the verse in Matthew 24 that said Christ would return after the gospel had been preached to all nations.
“I knew I wanted to go tell people about Jesus who hadn’t heard about him,” said Boutte, who graduated from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor last May with an undergraduate degree in Christian studies.
Last summer, she began working to save up money to prepare to do long-term mission work and church planting in Japan, which has one of the largest unreached people groups in the world, with less than 1 percent of the population professing to be Christian.
“When I knew God was calling me to become a missionary, I didn’t know anything about unreached people groups,” she said. “It was a calling I’ve had on my heart since I was a kid, and it’s been confirmed as I’ve learned more about it. There’s never been anything else I’ve wanted to do in my life.”
Initiative helps students find calling
For many young college students, finding their calling and knowing their purpose in life may not be as cut-and-dried as Boutte’s experience. That’s why leaders at UMHB have been working to develop the Vocaré initiative, a program designed to help students do just that.
Closely related to the word for “voice” in Latin, “Vocaré” literally means “to call.”
“Vocaré represents the belief that every person has a call or calling in life and that, if you find and live out that call, you’ll have the best life you could possibly have,” said Bill Carrell, director of Vocaré. “Finding your calling is about two things—it’s about self-discovery and the discovery of how you can make a difference in the world.”
Calling is not just a job or an occupation, he explained. It’s much bigger than that, although for many people, their occupation or career is an expression of their calling, Carrell said.
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“Calling is something that stays with you all your life, no matter what you’re doing at any given time,” he said. “It expresses the idea that ‘meaningful living’ stems from an awareness of a guiding, moral purpose that forms a person’s identity and links that identity to social goods and community needs.
“At UMHB, we believe that calling comes from God. As a Christian university, UMHB is grounded in the view that God created and cares for the world, and that he has a purpose for every person in the world. That purpose grows out of every person’s unique gifts, talents and abilities. That purpose involves each person in God’s care for the world.”
Invitation, not indoctrination
Evangelism isn’t an overt or primary objective of the Vocaré initiative. Carrell stressed Vocaré is not indoctrination, but “invitation.” It represents the best of the Baptist vision for higher education, he asserted.
“Many students who are already believers in Christ may have little or no sense of a personal life purpose. Many students who are non-believers may be open to conversations about meaning and purpose, but have no interest in direct, evangelistic approaches,” Carrell said.
“So, a basic approach of the Vocaré initiative is to engage students with the questions surrounding meaning and purpose rather than prescribed answers.”
Some of the questions students can explore in finding their “calling” include:
- Who am I?
- What are my gifts, passions and abilities?
- What is truly important?
- How can I make a difference in the world?
“We certainly hope that through the Vocaré initiative many students will find God and come to know Jesus Christ, but if they do not, they may still enhance the quality of their lives and make positive differences in the world,” Carrell said.
Faith in the midst of uncertainty
Sometimes, students think they will automatically find their calling by taking courses and completing a college degree. Larry Locke, associate dean for McLane College of Business, insisted it’s not always that easy, and sometimes the ambiguity in finding their “true calling” can plague them.
“Students struggle with the uncertainty that comes with being 18 to 22 years old and not knowing what will happen in the future,” Locke said. “They don’t know what they will do for their careers, where they’re going to live, how they’ll make money, or if they’ll have a spouse or family.”
Through all their anxiety about what the future holds for them, Locke pointed out God wants students to learn to walk in faith and obedience in the midst of their uncertainty.
Any career—whether it’s teaching business courses at a Baptist university in a small Central Texas city or cleaning latrines in Botswana—can be meaningful and have purpose in serving the kingdom, he said.
UMHB freshman Caleb Guenther is excited about the Vocaré initiative and believes students don’t have to wait for their careers to begin living their calling.
“College students can have meaningful lives too, even if they haven’t started their careers,” said Guenther, a music business major. “For instance, we can change our lifestyles to better fit a Christian lifestyle. I think it’s important because that’s where the foundation of your career can come from.”
Think intentionally about purpose and vocation
The idea to create the campus initiative began to take shape in November 2015 when former Provost Steve Oldham called a small group of faculty and staff together to discuss how to help students think more intentionally about purpose and vocation. The vision was to help enable graduates of UMHB to live meaningful lives that fulfill the will of God and contribute to the common good.
“Through Vocaré, we want to help foster a campus culture of meaningful life exploration,” said John Vassar, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “The goals of the initiative also include training faculty and staff to engage students in conversations that explore life purpose, providing opportunities for students to explore and experience potential life callings, and shaping our curriculum to help students consider the spiritual, moral, and societal commitments that produce meaningful lives.”
In the fall 2019 semester, the Vocaré initiative was awarded a NetVUE grant, which was used to create workshops and trainings for staff and faculty.
“There is much enthusiasm for the initiative and a growing awareness of its goals across the campus,” Carrell said.
According to a freshman seminar report from fall 2019, 68.9 percent of students moderately or strongly agreed they have a specific calling in life.
“It is clear that the majority of first-year students are at least receptive to the language of ‘calling,’” Carrell said. “From this, we know it’s prudent that we give them regular opportunities to identify and reflect on their own personal strengths and gifts.”
Yvette Shackelford, assistant to the vice president for student life, said working alongside students and helping them see their gifts and talents has given her own life and work meaning and purpose.
“I love helping give students a sense of direction,” she said. “I love to serve other people and work alongside the students and see them happy. That truly makes me very happy.”
William Tanner also finds meaning and purpose in his work as a professor and department chair of computer science, engineering and physics. He is excited to share the initiative with his students to help them on their journeys to find “calling.”
“I have always felt that there is a need for folks to be able to work with students in a way that they can become aware of their potential and to achieve that,” Tanner said. “I really enjoy being a part of that process.”
Even though someone’s calling may evolve and change as they get older and go through life, Carrell says the process is essentially about discernment.
“It’s our hope that while at UMHB students will listen thoughtfully, read broadly, and think deeply about calling,” he said. “So, when they discover their gifts, develop their talents, and explore their passions, they can go out and make a difference in the world.”