Growing up, my mother and grandmothers provided role models of success. My maternal grandmother, Imogene, had been a stay-at-home mom, raising her daughters while caring for her elderly parents and in-laws. She was a gifted cook and loved to sew. She loved to read and play bridge.
Then there was my paternal grandmother, Anita. She was a missionary in South America. She earned a master’s degree in education and worked for many years as an educator and administrator. She also loved to read and sew.
My mother, Carolyn, started her career as a computer programmer in the early 1970s. When I was in high school, she went back to school to get her Ph.D. in information systems. As a professor, she helped build a university before she retired. As a pastor’s wife, my mother’s work helped to support my dad’s ministry work. She also played piano for church most Sundays.
Which one of those paths led to success for me as a woman? On the one hand, secular culture would say that my mother and grandmother Anita were the successful ones. They had impressive careers and advanced degrees. According to society, staying home as a mom is a waste of a woman’s talents and education. Real success means breaking glass ceilings.
On the other hand, conservative Christian culture would say that my grandmother Imogene was the successful one. Sure, women can work outside the home if they really need to, but pursuing a career isn’t feminine. God’s design for women, they say, is to be in the home caring for their husbands and children. Success means submission and obedience to God’s design.
Women are caught in the tug of war between these two views. Both sides seem fully convinced they’re right, and there’s no middle ground. Women are made to choose their priority: career or family. It’s interesting to me, as a mom of boys, that men don’t have to make a similar choice. My sons, for example, talk about their plans for career and family and look forward to both.
In watching my boys plan for the future, I’ve wondered if there is a better way for women. Could we think of success not as diametrically opposed options, but as encompassing a range of possibilities? Could the concepts of callings, vocation, and Christian liberty help us reach a more balanced understanding of success?
Our calling is what we were created to do or to be. As the catechism answer says, we were created “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” As believers, we are called to serve and glorify God in everything we do, whether in the home or the workplace. This calling is the foundation for our understanding of work and should be our baseline in measuring success.
In addition to the general calling we all have as Christians, we each have unique combinations of gifts and interests. Our vocations are how we use the gifts God has given us. As Romans 12:6 tells us, “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly.” Vocations will vary from person to person and may change throughout our lives.
For example, a woman with gifts in math and science might go to college to be an engineer. She then starts her career working professionally. After she gets married and has children, she decides to use her gifts as a teacher so she can be home when her kids are home. When her children go off to college, she goes back to school for her Ph.D. She retires after many years as a professor. In each of these vocations, she’s using her gifts and interests in ways that honor God and care for her needs and the needs of her family.
Another woman with gifts in art and teaching might become an artist and a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her children. She teaches art classes at co-op and Sunday School classes at church. Her interests aren’t the same as the woman in the first example, but she too is using her gifts in her vocations.
Even if women have the same gifts, they may choose different vocations. Whether we have different sets of gifts and interests or decide to use them in differing ways, we should recognize that our decisions are part of the liberty we have as Christians. Christian liberty is the freedom we have to make decisions about how we live and work and serve God. It’s not a freedom to sin or to ignore what the scriptures teach.
Paul writes in Romans 14 that each of us has to make our own decisions and not judge other believers for their choices in such matters: “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. . . . But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” As the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes, “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” When we measure our success, it’s important to remember only one judge matters.
We are all called to use our gifts in various vocations as we serve God and the needs of our families, and we are free to do so even if our choices aren’t the same as everyone else’s. Success is defined by fulfilling our calling as believers and serving in the vocations we choose. According to this definition, which one of my role models was successful?
The answer is that all of them were successful. Each woman was a success in her own way. All three used their gifts in different vocations, but all sought to serve the needs of their families and to glorify God through their work inside and outside the home. Whether a woman has a career or never works outside the home, whether she has several children or is never blessed with any, whether she’s married, single, widowed, or divorced, a woman is successful when she serves God and uses the gifts he’s given her to the best of her abilities. Every woman’s success is found in the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Cover image by Kyle Glenn.
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 1.
 The Westminster Confession of Faith, 20.2.