I interact on almost a daily basis with college students who are in the throes of career decision-making, trying hard to identify a course of study and eventual job options that appeal to them. Most students want their work to matter, not just as a means to a paycheck, but in a more existential sense. This is certainly the case for Christians who generally want to use their gifts to advance Christ’s kingdom. But where? Within what career path? And what is the best way to figure this out?
Responding to Change by Focusing on Calling
Often, these questions are framed in terms of finding or discovering a sense of calling. As common as these questions are for young adults, they are relevant for far more than only this demographic. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, adults hold an average of 11 jobs by the time they turn 44 years old. Furthermore, the median number of years people have worked for their current employer is just 4.4. These numbers tell a story in which constant career change is the norm, with people at all career stages asking themselves questions like, “What should I do now?” and “Which path should I take?” What approach should Christians take to answer questions like these? To put it another way: How should we go about discerning our callings?
What is a Calling?
Let’s begin with some context. The concept of “calling“ can be tricky to define. Today, many people think of a calling as a passion to do what makes them the happiest. For Christians, this view isn’t all that far off, but it is incomplete. For one thing, the word, “calling,” implies a “caller,” whom Christians identify as the triune God. In addition, although a calling often includes a sense of passion, this passion, for Christians is not chiefly about pursuing personal happiness, but glorifying God and serving His kingdom (though this is precisely what makes us happiest).
Callings also exist on multiple levels. For example, Christians are called, first and foremost, into a relationship with Jesus Christ and into a life of discipleship. Theologians describe this as the “general call.” But there is a “specific call” as well; this refers to God’s calling to engage and serve His kingdom within a particular sphere of influence, like a career field. Many of us may experience multiple callings over the course of our lives and within our different life roles. This means the question of how to discern a calling is relevant for a lot more than just how we approach our career decisions. However, the career domain is a context in which the question frequently comes up.
How to Discern a Calling
Sometimes, people who are struggling to gain a sense of career direction look at Biblical examples, like Moses in the desert, and express desire for a sign as unmistakable as the burning bush. A direct message from God would certainly provide the desired clarity and, thus, take some pressure off. Yet even in Scripture, instances of God directly issuing specific instructions regarding life direction to individuals are not common. Although I have talked with a few trustworthy people who have experienced such an encounter, an audible voice scenario certainly does not seem to be the norm, nor something that most of us should count on. Theologians note this as well. “Though there are exceptions,” offers Douglas Schuurman, professor of religion at St. Olaf College, “generally God uses mediators to call individuals to particular places of service.”1 By implication, people who are searching for a calling may be wise to focus on the mediators—the seemingly mundane activities and processes that can facilitate the identification of a calling.
Schuurman suggests that Scripture points to gifts, needs, obligations, discussion, and prayer as key mediators often present in the discernment process. Psychological science offers additional insights. For example, research in vocational psychology reveals that career development interventions (e.g., individual or group career counseling and workshops) generally work well in addressing career choice concerns. What makes such interventions effective?
5 Critical Ingredients to Career Interventions
Researchers at the University of Loyola Chicago conducted a sweeping review of studies that offer answers to this question and found that the most effective career interventions contain some combination of up to five “critical ingredients”: individualized interpretation and feedback, attention to support-building, accurate occupational information, and modeling opportunities, and written exercises. What follows is a description of these, along with discussion of how they converge with teachings in the Bible.
1. Individualized Interpretation and Feedback
Individualized interpretation includes interacting with results from career assessments and receiving personalized feedback on other self-appraisal information, like career plans. The jobZology VIP (values, interests and personality) assessments are just one example of reliable and valid measurement tools that can help you understand what you enjoy, what is most important to you in a work environment, and how you differ from other people in terms of your personality traits.
Identifying Your Gifts
The New Testament contains several passages that articulate a role for gifts within the church (e.g., Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:7-13; I Corinthians 12:4-31). Collectively, they teach that diverse gifts are distributed across people to equip them for serving different functions and that for the well-being of the body of believers, they must work together like different parts of one body. Reformers applied this basic principle beyond the church to the broader culture, noting that society is bound by common needs and mutual service.
Puritans like Richard Baxter and William Perkins, in richly written treatises on the role of work in human life, used this application of such texts to instruct that attending to one’s gifts is a wise strategy for discerning a calling. Such teachings align very closely with theory and research in vocational psychology, which supports the notion that measuring the person and the environment and striving to optimize “fit” is a useful strategy for career decision-making. To summarize, a good starting point for discerning a calling involves identifying your gifts and exploring promising opportunities for expressing them in the world of work, for the benefit of the greater good.
2. Accurate Occupational Information
Accurate occupational information consists of up-to-date descriptions of various career paths. One place to explore different occupations is the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network, or O*NET. This site provides detailed information for more than 1000 job titles, including the interests and values that characterize people who are happily employed within each job.Taken as a pair, these intervention components reflect a “person-environment fit” approach that builds on the fact that people differ in important ways that have implications for the types of occupations most likely to lead to success and satisfaction. These individual differences can be described using the catch-all term “gifts” and includes the kinds of psychological characteristics that are frequently measured by career assessments.
3. Modeling and 4. Support-Building
Modeling in career development interventions involves learning effective decision-making strategies from people who have been there and done that. Attention to support-building recognizes that career decisions are best made with the help of friends, family, and mentors who can provide advice and encouragement. Both modeling and support-building converge with the Bible’s teachings on the role of discipleship in fostering spiritual formation, which draws from an ample supply of mentoring examples (e.g., Moses and Joshua, Naomi and Ruth, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus and his disciples, Paul and Timothy).
Vocational psychology theory and research suggests that learning from role models, along with social support and encouragement, are some of the most important influences on people’s confidence that they can do a good job navigating the decision-making process. Not only that, but social support helps people move from merely making plans to actually taking steps to make those plans happen. For these reasons, the process of discerning a calling is made smoother when modeling and support-building are incorporated.
5. Written Exercises
The final ingredient, written exercises, includes activities that invite people to record their thoughts, feelings, and reflections concerning their career development and their work’s role within the broader context of their lives. Exercises like these help individuals not only set effective work goals, but life goals as well. They also help people make sense of their current experience, reflect on their larger sense of purpose in life, and both envision and create possibilities for translating their sense of purpose into daily activity through work. This process of meaning-making is a key component of discerning and living a calling.
An Ongoing Process
Theologians often interpret the grand narrative of scripture (i.e., creation, fall, redemption, restoration) along with specific teachings (Genesis 1:28; Colossians 1:20 paired with 2 Corinthians 5:18) as charging humans with the responsibility of integrating their faith with their work. Often, this integration involves approaching work as a way of co-creating in divine partnership and of serving as a “minister of reconciliation” to restore order and goodness (i.e., shalom) in whatever sphere of influence we find ourselves, regardless of profession. Teachings like this imply that discerning a calling is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process. The process of discerning a calling doesn’t end when a person decides on a particular career path—it is only the beginning.
11 Questions to Help You Discern Your Calling
1. Have you faced (or are you facing now) the challenge of discerning a calling?
2. If the concept of multiple callings resonates with you, how have you balanced your callings in life?
3. If you have discerned a calling in the past, how did you go about it?
4. In your experience, have you tended more toward a “pray and wait” approach to discerning your callings or a “pray and be active” approach?
5. One pathway to discerning a calling involves understanding our gifts. What are your gifts?
6. What kinds of opportunities offer the best chance for you to express your gifts? What kinds of opportunities would make this difficult?
7. What role models have mattered most to you in your career path? What things did they do that really counted?
8. If you had to name a “personal board of directors” consisting of 5-7 trusted supporters, who would be on it? How might you draw wisdom from these people when you are wrestling with tough career decisions?
9. To whom in your life can you serve as an effective role model and mentor?
10. If you’ve ever engaged in journaling to help sort through decisions you’ve had to make, describe what this process was like. If you’ve found this helpful in the past, would you consider making it a regular practice? If you’ve never tried it, what is holding you back?
11. Do you agree that the process of discerning a calling doesn’t end when a person decides on a particular career path, but that it is an ongoing process?
The challenge of making meaning and living a calling on a day-to-day basis within one’s current job will be the focus of the final post in this series.