Practical Application: When a Calling Becomes a Career

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.

—Proverbs 3:5–6 NIV

The world is changing rapidly and is anything but stable. Companies and institutions that existed for decades and thought “too big to fail” no longer exist. Guarantees of retirement pensions, healthcare and other benefits, and a lifelong career with one employer have long been forgotten. The world of work has fundamentally changed, and it’s not going back to the way it used to be. With such uncertainty about the future, everyone wants an anchor to secure his or her life.

As Christians, we know—and are so grateful—that the anchor is Jesus. But even with our commitment, our education, and our faith, we still doubt.

We ask so many questions: Isn’t there more that I need to know? Or more that I need to do? What skills, experiences, education, and connections do I need to find that perfect job?

You know—that perfect job where I’ll be well-paid, have an amazing boss, a cohesive leadership team, friendly culture, kind colleagues, lots of resources, a short commute, reasonable hours and travel, work-life balance, free food and gourmet coffee—and be performing my one-and-only “calling”?

Career Development Today

Researchers predict that today’s college students—often called Millennials—will have on average 29 jobs over the course of their lives. Oxford researchers predict that over the next two decades, 47 percent of jobs that exist today will be replaced by technology.

In the past, career development theory and practice focused on helping people to “find their fit” for the right work or job with the premise that one would do that type of work over a lifetime. Given the structure of organizations and the state of the world back in the 20th century, that was reasonable thinking. But not any more.

Today, career development requires knowing yourself, knowing the world of work, developing job search and professional skills, and cultivating a positive, productive mindset to face the dynamic and unpredictable world in which we live. It’s not sufficient to just take a self-assessment test or read a self-help book to have it tell you which jobs will be most satisfying for you. It never really was—but it’s especially the case today.

Knowing Yourself

Who are you? This is the foundation of all career development. By having a clear sense of your interests, values, strengths (those skills that you are good at and enjoy using most), aptitude, talents, personality, aspirations, and life experiences, you can begin to envision the type of work—and life—that would be appealing and meaningful to you. A few people have an intuitive way of knowing themselves on all these dimensions. However, most people would benefit from working with sage, balanced, and unbiased career coaches and mentors to clarify and confirm their unique wiring. By knowing yourself, you will develop a new set of valuable lenses to evaluate potential opportunities and prioritize work that you could pursue and work that you probably shouldn’t.

A crucial aspect of knowing yourself is being able to define where your self-identity resides. The answer to this question often drives career decision-making on both conscious and unconscious levels. I have coached many people whose career interests are driven by what they think will please their parents, impress their friends, be acceptable to their spouse, or provide personal benefits like money, power, influence, or prestige. Some can name these attachments; others cannot without the help of both an external perspective and reflective introspection. These attachments are often things that people might perceive as important to them but upon close examination really are not.

Knowing the World of Work

When I meet with job seekers and ask about their career interests, most of them know very little about the careers that they claim are of interest to them. In the past decade, I have spoken with numerous collegians who have expressed an interest in becoming thoracic surgeons, forensic investigators, and lawyers. It’s not coincidence that during this time, popular television shows among collegians have included Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, and The Good Wife. Obviously, we are heavily influenced by what we watch and read, and most of us don’t have any idea about what these careers truly entail, what’s required to succeed, and if the work aligns with our interests, values, strengths, personal “wiring,” and aspirations.

Optimal ways to learn about jobs and careers include doing research via reading job descriptions on job boards, scanning people’s jobs and careers on LinkedIn, and especially by talking to people in the field. In job search terms, this is called networking, which I define as gathering job and career information and building relationships one person at a time. Since the majority of all job openings are not posted on job boards and are secured though networking and referrals, learning to connect and build relationships with others to obtain information about jobs, careers, and opportunities is one of the most important foundational skills to master for career and job search success.

Developing Job Search and Professional Skills

To succeed in the job search, one must be proficient in telling his or her story in a manner that is compelling and relevant to the audience, with the understanding that the audience is often unique in each situation. Today, one must create a strong resume, LinkedIn profile, and for extra credit, a social media presence and brand. One must not only be a strong interviewee in person and by video, one needs an “elevator pitch” and informational interviewing strategy. Everyone knows that perfect practice makes perfect, but few people truly perform perfect practice of the above job search competencies.

In addition to the above competencies required to secure a job, there are many professional skills required to succeed on the job—which will vary based on the specific job and career. In today’s diverse, dynamic work environments, most employers desire employees who are collaborative, communicative leaders, relationship builders, and logical problem-solvers, with an entrepreneurial, can-do mindset, and strong work ethic.

Developing a Positive, Productive Mindset

Perhaps the biggest difference today is what is most required to thrive in the dynamic 21st-century world. Today, the ultimate aim of career development is for each person to develop career self-reliance and career agility. These, along with a positive, productive mindset, transform career development from a transactional “just get a job” process to a “build a career” lifelong learning process.

In my work, I find that the greatest barrier that most people face is their own mindset and expectations. Often those who have been admitted to or graduate from a selective college or graduate school feel some entitlement that life—and the job search—should be easier, or that better opportunities should come to them than to others. Others feel ill-equipped, unprepared, or undeserving, saying, “Who will ever want to hire someone with a major or degree like mine?” Both perspectives create barriers for achieving a positive, productive mindset.

The truth about job search and career development is that it’s never easy. It takes more time, effort, grit, and resilience than most people want to invest in it. It usually entails some confusion, pain, failure, and rejection. So, it’s understandable why people prefer to avoid working on it.

To remain aware that my own life is not about achieving the highest level of daily personal comfort, I read a devotional that my sister-in-law Hannah recommended to me, Streams in the Desert by L. B. Cowman. It reminds me daily that my trials are part of God’s plan to shape me to become more like Jesus and to fully “lean in” to him. By frequently connecting with my life purpose and relationship with God, I can develop appropriate expectations as well as a positive, productive mindset regarding my career—which is just one part of my life.

Ministry Career Development

Given the foundation required to thrive and flourish in the 21st-century and the expectations of our students, all higher education institutions must devote serious thought to how to teach students to be prepared for the world of work. For seminaries, several key concepts elevate the importance and impact of ministry career development for every single student.

  1. DREAM BIG. Inspire students to dream big in alignment with their purpose and values. The world—and our fears—tells us what’s not possible and to play it safe. With God, anything is possible, so encourage students to believe in the possibilities and explore the many ways in which people are realizing these possibilities.
  2. TEACH PERSONAL DECISION MAKING. Learning how to make great decisions early in life will have a positive compounding effect over a lifetime. My friend, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church Senior Pastor (and Fuller Board of Trustee member) John Ortberg, recently gave a compelling sermon, “The Secret to Making Great Decisions,” which conveyed how we can consistently make God-honoring, life-giving, with-God decisions. Learning how to develop “with-God” wisdom is essential.
  3. EQUIP THEM TO THRIVE. Students need practical tools and valuable competencies to navigate the career process—while in school and throughout their lives. There’s no better place and time to learn them than at school. They want it, they need it, and they are expecting it.
  4. CULTIVATE ENTREPRENEURIAL MINDSETS. In every organization, industry, and career, the most successful are those who create value, creatively solve problems, and can persist, overcome, and bounce back from obstacles and failures. In essence, the entrepreneurially minded survive and thrive. Teaching and driving this into students will result in lasting dividends.

Implications for Seminaries

At Wake Forest University, we have completely transformed the college-to-career experience by making personal and career development mission critical. We have made significant investments in people, processes, and facilities to deliver on this strategy and now demonstrate our serious intent to all of our constituents. It has had positive impact on the university’s culture, reputation, and value proposition—with 98 percent of students in jobs or graduate school within six months of graduation in 2013.

For seminaries like Fuller and other Christian schools, there are several steps that would enable them to progress on delivering the experiences and outcomes that their students, alumni, and friends expect from the institution given today’s challenging employer and economic environment.

  1. MAKE IT MISSION-CRITICAL AND ACADEMIC. Personal and career/vocational development must become a core aspect of the academic experience right from the start. Creating courses for academic credit and/or building it into existing courses will insure that students truly learn and do what’s required to build their personal and career development foundation that will have lifetime impact. To reach all students, solely offering extracurricular learning and experiences is not sufficient.
  2. ENABLE CONNECTIONS. The university is a network of people—internal and external—with shared interests, values, and experiences. Rarely is this network fully activated. Connect students and faculty with alumni and friends of the institution for learning, for support, advice, and mentoring, and for further connections that lead to new open doors, opportunities, and walks with God. Career treks, job shadowing, internships, information sessions, speakers in classes, networking events, and an accessible alumni directory and/or LinkedIn alumni group are all methods to activate these connections and demonstrate the power and breadth of the network. This engagement will pay dividends for the student and the institution long in the future.
  3. UNIFY THE CULTURE. Activate the internal network so that all are open to mentoring and helping students in their career process, especially through faculty support, partnerships, and career and professional development curriculum and programs. Leaders and faculty should speak publicly about individual success stories as well as programs and results that demonstrate the institution’s commitment and success in transforming the personal and career development experience for the network of constituents, both internal and external.

As the world continues to change at an accelerated pace, people are under increasing pressure and stress to successfully navigate through their lives and careers. Our educational institutions have the opportunity and responsibility to educate and equip our students to lead lives of purpose and meaning through intentional focus and investment in personal and career development. With this education secured to the anchor, our Lord Jesus, seminary students have a bright future ahead.