Work can be viewed as a job (a source of money and security), a career (a source of achievement and advancement), or a calling (a source of meaning and purpose).

Since the days of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation, the notion of a “calling” has been associated with religion. But researchers have found strong parallels between secular and sacred callings. They say that regardless of whether the source is religious or secular, a calling has three characteristics:[i]


  1. It involves an outside summons. A sense of having been called upon by an external source. For some, that’s God or “a higher power.” For others, it’s a response to a social need, the needs of one’s country, a family legacy (such as a profession or business), or some other force that’s external to the individual.
  2. It provides a source of meaning and purpose. The work is aligned with the individual’s sense of purpose in life.
  3. The work serves the greater good. There’s a sense that the work helps others directly or indirectly.

Until the Protestant Reformation, having a calling referred to a call to ministry or the call of the gospel. But the Protestant Reformation redefined all work as a calling. Callings were no longer limited to a specific set of occupations; instead, callings became an attitude toward work. According to Prof. Joanne Ciulla, “Work became a kind of prayer. More than a means for living, it became a purpose for living.”[ii]

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the work ethic became secularized, and secular notions of callings began to emerge — some credit Benjamin Franklin’s writings for aiding this process.

The secularization of callings expanded dramatically in the mid to late 20th century with increased academic research on the topic and related subjects such as meaningful work. At the same time, there was an increased interest in the meaning of life and work, as evidenced by the popularity of Victor Frankl’s writings and best-selling publications such as “Habits of the Heart.”

Public interest and academic focus led to the development of tools and strategies to help managers and workers elevate the meaning of work, for example, through the concept of “job crafting.”

Implications of Having a Calling

For people with a calling, often work is not separate from the rest of their lives. Someone with a calling isn’t working just for money or career advancement, but the fulfillment that their work brings to them. Many people with callings report that they would continue to do the work even if they were not getting paid.

According to Michael Steger, the director of the Center for Meaning and Purpose at Colorado State University, a calling “is the attitude with which people approach their work rather than more objective job characteristics…”[iii]

Callings aren’t limited to the world of paid work. For example, many researchers point to parenting and childrearing as roles where people can experience having a calling.

The Source of Callings

Are callings delivered, discovered, or developed? The answer to this question is “yes.” Some people report that their calling was delivered to them by an external source. For others, it was discovered after a process of discernment. They reported a sense of destiny about finding the work that they were meant to do. And, for still others, their sense of calling was something that developed over time. The work became a perfect fit — matching their interests, values, and skills.

But the source of the calling doesn’t seem to affect job and life satisfaction so long as the individual feels that they’re living out their calling.

A sense of calling can increase over time. The deeper one’s engagement in the role associated with the calling, the stronger the sense of the calling. And there’s evidence that social support is another factor that can deepen one’s sense of calling, particularly socializing with people in the same role, or colleagues in the same profession.

Callings aren’t binary. In other words, there isn’t a sharp dividing line between “having” and “not having” a calling. Instead, people can have a stronger or weaker sense of calling.

Benefits of Having a Calling

Researchers report that people with a calling experience greater meaning in life, higher overall life satisfaction, and lower incidence of depression than people without a calling.

Work that is a calling has also been linked to a stronger commitment to one’s profession, increased clarity about one’s self-concept, longer job tenures, greater enthusiasm, less job-related stress, and higher job performance and job satisfaction.

And people with a calling are more likely to use constructive approaches to cope with challenges and are less likely to use avoidance as a coping mechanism.

The Dark Side of Callings

Studies have found that people with a greater sense of calling are more willing to make sacrifices — such as time, income, comfort, or even wellbeing — for the sake of their role. This is especially true for those who felt that destiny had led them to their calling. For example, a study of zookeepers found that callings can be “a painful double-edged sword, both a source of transcendent meaning, identity, and significance as well as unbending [moral] duty, sacrifice, and vigilance.”[iv] And that sense of moral duty transcends personal choice about the role. Thus, a failure to live out one’s calling could be seen as a moral failure.

Studies have also found other dark sides of callings, including the increased potential for workaholism, opportunities for organizational exploitation, and possible tensions between management and workers when workers have a strong sense of calling that they believe management doesn’t share.

Leaving Work That’s Been a Calling

My interest in exploring the topic of callings is how to successfully leave behind a work role that involves a sense of calling.

Before we do that, let’s remind ourselves of those three aspects of callings:

  1. An external summons — a sense of having been called to the work we are doing through one of those sources that we just mentioned.
  2. Work that provides a source of meaning and is aligned with our sense of purpose in life.
  3. Work that serves the greater good. Work that helps others directly or indirectly.

So, if you’re leaving work that feels like a calling, what should you do?

Pre-Retirement Strategies

Before you retire, here are three things you can do:

  1. Supplant. Identify post-retirement activities that provide that sense of meaning and social contribution of your calling. It’s useful to remember that a calling is an orientation toward work, not a specific type of work. In other words, it’s the fruits of the work, not the specific role that is existentially meaningful. Perhaps that’s a commitment to a particular field or serving a particular population or aspect of society. Examples of supplanting might include post-career consulting work, serving as an interim executive, or serving as an executive coach in your field or profession. Of course, there’s also volunteering with organizations that serve that population or aspect of society that’s been the subject of your calling.
  2. Wind down your calling through a gradual withdrawal from working life. An example of this approach is phased-retirement, which might involve a pre-retirement reduction in hours as you wind down your role.
  3. Listen for other callings. Look for callings in other spheres of your life by consciously rebalancing your life portfolio, investing your energies in other domains of your life. As pointed out earlier, the boundaries between work and private life can become blurred and arbitrary. And work that’s a calling has a way of crowding out other aspects of our lives, depriving them of our attention and energies. It might be time to pay closer attention to those areas of life that received short shrift over the years toward discovering a new calling.

Of course, these strategies are not mutually exclusive. You might combine them.

Post-Retirement Strategies

If you’re already retired, what can you do?

  1. Maintain. Continue to engage with your calling elsewhere through bridge employment, an encore career, or volunteer activities. Seeking out the three aspects of your calling, but with a change of venue.
  2. Reframe. Reclaim yourself from the calling, refocusing on your own needs, reclaiming your rights over your schedule and commitments, declaring the right to be retired, and making the adjustments between the old and new routines, or refocusing your energies elsewhere by rebalancing your life portfolio.
  3. Redefine. Use the freedom of post-career life to be open to a new calling. Discover or develop a new calling through activities, such as volunteer work, or within other areas of your life, such as family.


If you feel a sense of calling about your work role, you may experience some angst as you move toward post-career life. Callings touch on core existential questions, such as why are we here and what are we supposed to do. And all transitions poke at these questions.

But callings aren’t necessarily something that you have to leave at retirement’s door. A recent study that looked at calling among retirees found that a majority — over 75% — perceive that they were pursuing a calling in retirement. And nearly two-thirds of them said their calling involved serving others and the greater good (helping others, family/caretaking, teaching, and civic engagement). Of course, serving others or the greater good is one of the critical characteristics of callings and a source of life satisfaction in retirement.

As we’ve seen, your calling is an orientation to the role, and not the role itself. As we’ve also seen, callings aren’t necessarily just delivered; they can also be discovered and developed. Post-career life can provide the freedom to explore unanswered callings or create a calling you haven’t yet imagined.

You have power. You have options. And you have a choice over those options. You have the power to compose your post-career life — to extend your current calling, declare it complete, or develop a new calling if that suits you.

The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap Cover

For help sorting out your succession plan, click here to send Don an email with your questions or book a free one-on-one call.

And for more on managing executive succession, check out Don’s latest new book, The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Next Chapter.


[i] Duffy, Ryan D., and Bryan J. Dik. “Research on Calling: What Have We Learned and Where Are We Going?” Journal of Vocational Behavior 83, no. 3 (2013): 428–436.

[ii] Ciulla, Joanne B. The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work. Crown Business, 2011.

[iii] Steger, Michael F., Natalie K. Pickering, Joo Yeon Shin, and Bryan J. Dik. “Calling in Work: Secular or Sacred?” Journal of Career Assessment 18, no. 1 (2010): 82–96.

[iv] Bunderson, J. Stuart, and Jeffery A. Thompson. “The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-Edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work.” Administrative Science Quarterly 54, no. 1 (2009): 32–57.

.  .  .

Related Articles