Challenging Vocation at the European IAPCHE Conference 2016 25 April 2016

From April 12 to 15 the European IAPCHE Conference took place. Three days a group of 70 did get the opportunity to discuss the theme Challenging Vocation in Higher Education. Identity and Character formation: identity and character formation of the Christian professional.

Tuesday April 12

Challenging Vocation: that is the title of the European IAPCHE Conference that started last Tuesday. A group of around 70 gathered in the inspiring environment of a former convent in Biezenmortel (The Netherlands) to study identity and character formation in Christian Higher Education.
IAPCHE executive director Harry Fernhout opened the conference with a devotion on 2 Corinthians 5. He shared the thought that institutions for Christian Higher Educations are called to announce and enact Gods act of reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ. The devotion was followed by a keynote of professor George Harinck, an world leading expert on Abraham Kuyper. Not only did Harinck outline the particular interest Kuyper had for education in general. He also reflected on the recurrence of nationalism in Europe. Nationalism in holds specific dilemmas for institutions of Christian Higher Education when it comes to character and identity formation of students. They can very well play an active role in building characters that contribute to the stability of society by building citizenship. Yet their religious roots could render them suspect in the eyes of states or non-believers as religious calling manifests itself in society both constructive and destructive ways. Food for thought. 

Wednesday April 13

The second day was devoted to the concept of vocation. Pieter Vos (NL), David Cheatle (UK) and Pavel Hanes (SLK) delivered a keynote. The first full day of the IAPCHE Conference set the tone: the relativity of the concept. The multiple aspects and perspectives on the concept vocation challenge Christian Higher Education to formulate a powerful instrument to facilitate their students to own to the concept of vocation themselves.
The connection between vocation and work
Pieter Vos sketched the history of the theological approach of vocation: its origin as divine calling, the close connection to work during the Reformation, followed by the disconnection between vocation and work in the 20th century (De Kruijf, Barth), and its incarnation into the culture of self-realisation nowadays. Vos opened new perspectives by stating that vocation is about our future self and must be seen in the light of following Christ (based on Fil. 2). This approach relativizes vocation as an open process in which new dimensions present itself during life and is not dependent on our present historical manifestations such as age, aptitude and capacities. Christian Higher Education should approach vocation as Gods primary call to us to be a citizen in the kingdom of God, to serve him and our neighbour by working for the common good.
Called to be saints
David Cheatle described the concept of vocation as being called to worship, witness and lead a holy life. He focussed on the last aspect as he observed the church having a problem with the aspect of humanness when it comes to leading a holy life. Holiness meant avoiding daily life to the extent of monastic life, negations of all kinds of pleasure, the denial of the body. Cheatle pleaded for reinvention of holy life in daily life as a means to be witness to the Gospel and to be relevant to this world and life in all its aspects. He pointed at the ontological and the eschatological as guidelines for leading such a holy life in the daily context: ontological in the call to live our humanness like Christ did, eschatological in the way that Christians the normativity of the future.
Vocation in post-Marxist society
Pavel Hanes showed that Slovakian society is still defined by the Marxist era, f.e. the bureaucratic state, and passive civilians who await for the state to  solve their problems. Christian higher education has to fight a double prejudice. Education is in Marxist perspective non-productive and of lower status. Christianity is a faith and therefore seen as a non-materialist opinion. The dilemma’s of East European in the concept of calling is that institutions of Christian higher education wish to kindle with their students the passion to serve society inspired by God’s gift to them, while those students are living in a society that questions their world view and is dominated by bureaucracy and driven by materialist demands. 

Thursday April 14

The 3rd conference day of IAPCHE shed light on the manifestation and growth of vocation, and identity and character formation of the Christian professional. The day started with three key notes by Peter Balla (HUN), Jan Hoogland (NLD) and Mark van Vuuren (NLD). During the entire day there were several workshops and breakout sessions that shed light on the aspect of the vocation of the Christian professionals in several professional contexts (health care, education, journalism, etc.)
Vocation in Biblical perspective
Peter Balla outlined the aspects of vocation in the New Testament. By referring to many texts from the Bible he concluded that the aim of Christian higher education should be to prepare its students to live as Christians in their original settings, i.e. the situation in which they were when God called them. Being called is being the right relation to God through Christ in every situation of our lives: being called for salvation therefore cannot be separated from our daily life. Our daily life may be transformed into the image of Christ.
Current challenges of Christian higher vocational training
Jan Hoogland pointed out several societal trends that affect working and therefore Christian Higher Education. Globalisation and the simultaneous turn to the local; the growing freedom of individual choice and the highly collective patterns they lead to; the rise of reflexive modernity, i.e. the current reflection on the presuppositions of modernity and reflex, the need to take decisions without overseeing all relevant factors (improvising society). These trends mark a shift from plurality to diversity: from a pluralism of worldviews to thin communities to which you adhere on the basis of individual choice. In that context there is need for professionals who have the competence to act reflexive in complex situations on the basis of their knowledge, their moral character and wisdom, and make connection. Christian higher education needs to function as moral communities that enhance their students in these competencies.
Gift, gap, goal
Mark van Vuuren spoke about the tension of calling in professional life. On the one hand people who experience a calling in (professional) life have a sense of meaning. On the other hand a meaningful life is not per definition a happy life. People with a calling have a goal. Van Vuuren stressed that a calling asks for a personal response: knowing who you are as a person in relation to the goal (gift). However with ambition there is also tension of the gap between reality and goal. Having a goal provides men with aspiration and zeal, yet renders him vulnerable at the same time when in case of failure a feeling of moral fault can befall on him. Van Vuuren concluded with recommendations for teachers in Christian Higher Education. He underlined that a teachers need to reflect to the question what they think is a good job. They need to be determent to be competent and at the same time may trust in the knowledge one only need to live for the honour of God. Lastly they need to cooperate: the zeal of calling can isolate. Cooperation prevents isolation and supports the realisation of the calling at the same time.

Friday April 15

The concluding day of the IAPCHE2016 conference focussed on the nurturing of calling in Christian Higher Education. Three keynote speakers concluded this inspiring conference: Hans van Crombrugge (BE), Dana Hanesova (SLK) and Shirley Roels (US).
Being present
Hans van Crombrugge started by lining out that nurturing calling in education asks for character formation through dialogue and a holistic approach. Instead the formation of students is nowadays fragmented, functional, individualistic and diverted. Van Crombrugge stated that education needs a discourse of relations instead of discourse of functions, because when it comes to calling not your functioning but your being is the centre. Van Crombrugge introduced the relation mentor and mentee to illustrate his objective. Illustrating by the story of Eli and Samuel and Elijah and Elisha, Van Crombrugge stressed that mentoring is not acting, but being, not social engineering, but being present.
Nurture calling
Dana Hanesova illustrated by her research how her university builds on relations with students to involve their hearts, mind and hands in character formation. The aim is to learn them to think critically themselves. Also among teaching staff they try to encourage personal encounter with each other to nurture God’s calling.  
Putting ideas into practice
The key note of Shirley Roels focussed on the question how a university can weave its educational ideas on vocation into institutional practices. Her statement was that an institution has to start with inner work first before being able to do outer work. The inner work builds a common vocational vocabulary that fits the institution and starts with formulating how faith expresses itself in relationships, community building and working practices, and what this means for the profile of the graduate the university wants to achieve, for example that students learn to choose despite ambiguity and uncertainty. From this inner work follows an intensive process of building this into a vocabulary specific for professions, curriculum, co-curricular activities. To achieve this path some elements are crucial: a steadfast coalition, thorough communication, and small incremental changes to motivate the entire community to join the change.
After the keynotes the chair of the conference, Bram de Muynck, concluded the conference. He drew several overall conclusions. The concept of vocation revealed itself during the conference as a complex concept. We need different perspectives to understand the concept fully, the human as well as the biblical perspective of the kingdom of God. The role of autobiography should be taken into account. Looking from the perspective makes it a concept that pushes, looking from eschatology a concept that pulls. Another conclusion from IAPCHE 2016 is that education for vocation must be contextualized and adjusted to the specifics of the national culture, even to the specifics on institutional level. The needs of Central and Eastern Europe differ from the needs in Western Europe. The task for Christian Higher Education is to involve in the inner work needed to build a community that nurtures vocation among students through mentor groups that offer them time to ponder on vocation from a biblical perspective that goes beyond the current culture of authenticity and self-realization.


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