Q&A: Char Rachuy Cox on St. Olaf’s Nourishing Vocation Project
Backed by a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., a St. Olaf College initiative is working to help congregations and their members gain clarity about their values and missions, work through challenges, and thrive in a fast-changing world.
The college’s Nourishing Vocation Project, launched in 2021, is now in its first phase of work with a small group of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregations in the Midwest and South. Led by St. Olaf Program Director for Congregational Thriving Char Rachuy Cox, participants will move through a four-part experience that aims to help them explore the connections between faith, vocation, and living and working for the common good.
Cox describes the project as one of spiritual renewal, centered around the work of answering three primary questions: Who are we called to be? What are we called to do? Why are we here?
“Throughout the project, participants have the opportunity to apply the primary questions, both personally and collectively, to five critical concerns facing the church today — well-being, antiracism, economics, young adults, and digital ministry — while seeking ways to intentionally engage responsibly and accountability with their particular contexts and communities,” Cox says.
Cox, who joined St. Olaf in 2021 to lead the Nourishing Vocation Project, has spent three decades as an ELCA pastor, working in higher education and in rural and suburban congregations. Most recently, she served as director of contextual education at Wartburg Theological Seminary. In her work at St. Olaf, Cox is part of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community, which provides opportunities for students, faculty, staff, and alumni — as well as the wider church — to explore and connect around issues of belief, purpose, and vocation.
In this Q&A, Cox shares what drew her to this work and how it supports the mission of the college.
What drew you to St. Olaf and this project?
The Nourishing Vocation Project at St. Olaf College combines everything I love: matters of vocation, Lutheran higher education, emerging and young adults, and congregational ministry. It seeks to weave these critical threads together in a way that creates something new, something good and nourishing for the individual participants and for people who are a part of Christian communities. It also asks critical questions of contextual relevance that I find not only important, but essential, for Christian people and communities to consider at this particular time. How can we center young adult voices? How can we be communities of antiracism that seek justice? What does it look like to nurture whole life well-being? What is a responsible approach to economic challenges and opportunities? What does Christian ministry look like in a digital age?
This grant is funded through the Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations Initiative. What does it mean for a congregation to be “thriving”?
That is a good question, and one that I continue to ask. I imagine that every congregation that walks with us through this program will be asking the same thing. At least I hope so! That is part of the point of the program, for individual people and whole congregations to discern together: “What does it mean for me, for us, to thrive?” And then to seek, with intention, to live into the answers.
For me, personally, the answer is both theological and practical. Thriving congregations are those that fundamentally understand that God has called them, created them, and knit them together as a community of faith to be a people and presence of good news, active in love. Practically, thriving congregations seek to faithfully lean into their life and ministry with intention and purpose. They live out ministry together, engage in ministry together in a way that pays attention to the congregation’s wider context, the congregation’s values, and the congregation’s unique and specific place. Thriving congregations do ministry on purpose, embodying a posture of humility and an attitude of generosity. They live out their ministry in such a way that their values and their attention are in sync, not just for personal satisfaction, but for the sake of the greater good. Thriving congregations are those that seek to be good neighbors, good partners within the communities in which they find themselves as they come alongside, roll up their sleeves, and ask: “How can we help?”
How does this work build on the mission of St. Olaf, and of the Lutheran Center?
Because the mission of St. Olaf College includes the challenge to “explore meaningful vocation in an inclusive, globally engaged community nourished by Lutheran tradition,” this project is in many ways an extension of and an expression of this St. Olaf mission in the wider community. Vocation is this life-enriching idea that we exist, not only for our own personal gain for fulfillment, but we exist for the sake of the world, for the sake of the flourishing of the common good. Because St. Olaf College cares deeply about vocation, this project provides a unique opportunity to enrich the life and ministry of those who are a part of Christian congregations through a deep engagement with the questions and suppositions of vocation — all for the sake of the flourishing of the common good.
Vocation is this life-enriching idea that we exist, not only for our own personal gain for fulfillment, but we exist for the sake of the world, for the sake of the flourishing of the common good.
In a related way, this project is also a logical extension of the work of the Lutheran Center. The Lutheran Center here at St. Olaf College offers a unique voice in the wider context about what it means to “be Lutheran” today — which is not necessarily the same as what it meant to “be Lutheran” in the previous century. This contemporary, complex time in which we live not only invites this question, but necessitates that those who identify with any particular Christian denomination take this question seriously about their denominational identity. The Lutheran Center so aptly embodies a variety of ways to live into the nuances of this question.
The St. Olaf community is made up of people with a wide range of beliefs, perspectives, and life experiences. How is this project relevant to a diverse community?
It is the richness of perspectives from a community like St. Olaf that will actually make this project valuable to a wide range of people. Fundamental to the project is the Learning Community/Community of Practice model in which people are in dialogue with each other about their experiences, questions, challenges, and learnings. Because St. Olaf is a community that fosters dialogue across difference, various voices from within the St. Olaf community can actually be a model for others about how we engage across differences for the sake of the common good.
Additionally, the vocare spiritual or meditative practice can enrich anyone’s life, regardless of faith or religious perspective, or worldview. It can be valuable for all people to regularly think about the life-impacting questions that this practice raises: What do I value, and how am I living my values? To what am I being invited to be open? How do I respond? What voices are calling to me? Which ones do I listen to, and why? Where am I giving or investing my attention? Does my attention align with my values? What are my regrets? What insight do I gain from them? When, where, and how have I encountered the holy or the transcendent in my everyday life? What do I need? In light of this reflection today, what do I need to more fully embrace and lean into my vocations in the future?
What’s your goal of the project, both for St. Olaf and for congregations?
My goal for all aspects of the project is quite simple. I hope that this project provides an avenue for participants and for St. Olaf College to embrace vocation in a new way, a way that helps people see vocation as a holistic way of both thinking about and living life so that each of us and all of us live life with intention, we live life on purpose for the sake of the common good.