NetVUE Conference Renews the Theological Exploration of Vocation, Builds Momentum across Diverse Campuses

Participants stand in small groups to network and share ideas
The 2017 NetVUE Conference provided participants many opportunities to exchange ideas and network with colleagues in similar roles across campuses.

​CIC’s largest Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) Conference took place March 23–25, 2017, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Building on the momentum of the first three national conferences, the 2017 NetVUE Conference explored the theme, “Renewing the Theological Exploration of Vocation.” More than 600 participants representing 172 institutions (nearly 80 percent of NetVUE members) took part. Campuses were represented by three-to-five person teams of presidents, chief academic officers, chaplains, faculty members, student life leaders, and vocation initiative directors.

The Conference, generously supported by Lilly Endowment Inc., featured an array of distinguished presenters. Miroslav Volf, founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale University Divinity School, discussed how transcendent sources of calling influence life goals. Matthew J. Mayhew, William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration at Ohio State University, and Alyssa N. Rockenbach, professor of higher education at North Carolina State University, addressed how students’ identities and college experiences affect interfaith understanding and its implications for vocational exploration. And in a panel session moderated by Elizabeth J. Dias, an award-winning Time magazine correspondent, three theologians explored pathways for colleges and universities to renew theological understandings of vocation and calling among students. The panelists included Kathleen A. Cahalan, professor of practical theology at the School of Theology and Seminary, Saint John’s University (MN); Robert M. Franklin, Jr., James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor of Moral Leadership at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and director of the religion department at the Chautauqua Institution; and Barbara Brown Taylor, Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College (GA).

The Conference also drew practical lessons from the work of scholars and the experiences of campus leaders and provided opportunities to network with colleagues at other institutions.

In his opening address at the 2017 NetVUE Conference, Miroslav Volf challenged participants to engage students in learning to live a life that is more than “bread alone.” Volf described curricular possibilities, such as his new undergraduate course, Life Worth Living, that draws from a range of philosophical and religious traditions to help students develop habits of reflection for life-long processes of discerning the good life. During the course, he weaves readings with visits from guest practitioners and a weekend retreat for students to reflect on their worldviews and commitments. His recent scholarship on the relationship between faith and flourishing suggests that humanity needs to account for transcendent sources and goals for living. Volf also said that people need “Sabbath spaces”—quiet places where there is no need to strive—as well as spaces of spiritual discontentment to wrestle with current challenges. Both struggle and quietude are important for vocational discernment, he said.

In the plenary session, “A Call to Cooperation: How College Shapes Students’ Diversity Attitudes, Values, and Commitments,” Matthew J. Mayhew and Alyssa N. Rockenbach drew on their empirical research to address the importance of student engagement across religious and cultural differences. Based on initial results from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, a national study of students’ encounters with religious, spiritual, and worldview diversity, they noted that “provocative encounters with worldview diversity” can foster significant discomfort as well as growth for students. Rockenbach observed that experiences with religious and worldview diversity frequently occur informally among students. Undergraduates benefit from the guiding hand of college and university professionals to understand and value worldview differences. Institutions can create contexts for shaping interfaith understanding and cooperation. Mayhew noted, “Religious literacy should be an institutional priority for undergraduate education.” Both scholars recommended changes in institutional culture that could support student learning about diverse approaches to belief and purpose. These might include courses that emphasize appreciative learning about worldviews, reflective occasions in which students lay aside their digital devices and ponder deeper values, and community engagement projects through which students from varied religious and philosophical backgrounds support a common cause. Students need time and space to discover their own particular worldview commitments and healthy ways to engage diverse perspectives in a pluralistic society, they said.

During the closing plenary session moderated by Elizabeth J. Dias, panelists Kathleen A. Cahalan, Robert M. Franklin, Jr., and Barbara Brown Taylor explored theological ideas foundational to understanding vocation and how these ideas could become compelling for students. Dias asked the panelists how to understand the quest for purpose and meaning. Cahalan observed that vocational questions span a lifetime and recur at many junctures that are often unexamined in congregational contexts. Franklin noted the importance of theological reflection and vocational exploration in shaping moral leaders. He said, “Our society is in a time of crisis and needs moral leaders—women and men who live and lead lives of integrity, courage, and imagination to serve the common good.” Taylor expressed the hope that a theology of vocation would make room “for the things we do for love alone,” what some mistakenly have called “avocation.” Through courses, guided community experiences, and co-curricular occasions educational leaders can provide opportunities for students to discern what matters to them, explore the complexities of social justice, and encourage spiritual practices that foster courage and persistence.

Three panelists seated in chairs in the front of the room
The closing plenary session, “Renewing the Theology of Vocation,” was moderated by Elizabeth Dias of Time magazine (left photo) and featured panelists Barbara Brown Taylor of Piedmont College (GA), Robert M. Franklin, Jr. of Emory University, and Kathleen A. Cahalan of Saint John’s University (MN) (right photo).

Five Conference workshops focused on topics such as campus strategies for interfaith learning, understanding vocation across multiple fields of study, post-college transitions to work, theological imagination related to pedagogical practices, and the quest for purpose through the liberal arts. NetVUE college and university presidents gathered to consider strategies that sustain vocational initiatives over time, such as the development of an institution-specific vocabulary of vocation, inclusion of vocational exploration into courses, integration of various institutional efforts, and consistent support for signature initiatives. Other concurrent sessions probed first- and second-year advising, pedagogical practices, and ways to equip faculty and staff for vocational efforts to support students of diverse backgrounds. These exchanges highlighted how independent colleges and universities can embrace a holistic approach to learning that renews a sense of moral purpose and meaning in their lives. For example, a concurrent session on the vocational needs of Latino/a undergraduates emphasized how life purpose and meaning might be framed in connection with one’s community of origin and need. Another presentation explained the crossroads of student reading of scriptures, reflective writing, and active community service. Other contributions described how student moral values can be reinforced by habits and practices that student life leaders encourage.

During the conference, many NetVUE Scholarly Resources Project scholars, who have developed resources that support vocational initiatives on NetVUE campuses, contributed ideas and presentations. Participants showed great interest in the scholars’ work and the Oxford University Press NetVUE books, At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education (2015) and Vocation across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (2017).

Participants also reflected on the gathering through tweets. One writer noted, “Student development requires authentic engagement with diversity, not just compositional diversity.” Another resonated with the sense that “educated citizens ask reflective questions about vocation” and wondered “have you stopped today to think what matters most and why?” As the final panel came to a close one commentator paraphrased a panelist saying, “Go out and do what makes you come alive, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

With a total of 220 institutional members, NetVUE serves as a national network of colleges and universities to enrich the intellectual and theological exploration of vocation among undergraduate students. The CIC initiative is supported by Lilly Endowment Inc. and membership dues. For more information, visit the conference site.