Editor’s Note: The following is an edited excerpt from Bryan Dik’s Redeeming Work
Faith-work integration is a goal for many Christians, but the Christian community often makes integration a lot harder than it needs to be. I was reminded of this while working with Nate. When I first met him, Nate was a 21-year-old honors student in search of a thesis adviser. He wanted to develop a project that focused on his Christian worldview, and a colleague suggested he contact me for assistance.
In the conversation that followed, a few things became clear. The first was that Nate was a sports aficionado who possessed as deep a knowledge base of pro teams in Detroit as anyone I had ever encountered. He wasn’t only a fan, either—he worked part-time in the sports communications division of Colorado State’s athletic department. He attended multiple Rams home games per week and often traveled with teams when they competed on the road, tweeting highlights of game action and pulling together press releases to promote the team.
The second thing that quickly became obvious was Nate’s sincere Christian faith. His relationship with Jesus was clearly the most important thing in his life, and he was heavily involved in our university’s chapter of the Navigators, the campus ministry group. He also shared that he had received a lot of feedback suggesting he pursue a career as a pastor, a possibility that weighed heavily on his mind. Nate was a charmer, extraverted and winningly authentic, every bit a leader. He also communicated well, both in public speaking and as a blogger. When a student like Nate emerges as a mature believer in Christ with leadership skills, it doesn’t take long for fellow Christians to urge him to consider formal ministry.
I encouraged Nate to tackle a thesis topic that occupied the points where some of the central passions in his life converged. Nate wrote about God’s apparent creational design for sports communication, culminating in “practical guidelines for any person seeking to live biblically while employed in an Athletics Communications position.” It was a rigorous, well-reasoned, thoroughly excellent piece of work.
Given that homerun of a learning outcome, I was not expecting what Nate said next.
“I’ve learned so much from this project,” he said, “but I’ve decided I’m going to attend seminary next year and begin my training for the ministry.”
His choice to pursue a traditional ministry role felt like a mismatch with the passion he expressed about the need for Christians to work redemptively in sports. After all that research and introspection, how did he arrive at this as his path forward? All the same, I congratulated Nate on his decision and offered to write a recommendation letter, should he need it.
About three months later, Nate called.
“If you’re still willing, I could use that letter,” he said. “Not for seminary though. I’ve decided to pursue a graduate degree in communications.”
Nate shared how he came to realize his sense of calling to the ministry was rooted in the feedback he received from people, always telling him he should become a pastor. He admitted he felt pressure to enter the ministry. He felt he would let people down if he pursued any other path. And part of him, he realized, believed if he was truly a good Christian, he’d have to become a pastor.
Despite his deep focus on Christ’s lordship over all areas of life, and even recognizing both the profound need for Christians in sports and his own gifts in sports communication, Nate still felt pressure to pursue a traditional ministry career. He had internalized one of several half-truths—that “good Christians” need to consider ministry or missions before anything else. These half-truths may have honorable roots, but they miss what the Bible teaches. They sound reasonable, but they ultimately prove unhelpful, and sometimes harmful. Let’s look carefully at four of these half-truths and evaluate them in light of biblical teaching and what psychological science reveals about God’s created design for people as they discern and live out their callings.
Half-Truth #1: “If I’m serious about my faith, I should consider ministry and missions before anything else.”
As Nate’s experience illustrates, this has proven a hard viewpoint for Christians to shake. That this is a half-truth means it is not a total falsehood; ministry and missions are very important. We need more good ministers and missionaries. But this half-truth is problematic for at least two reasons.
First, it implies that anyone working outside of formal ministry or missions is not serious about their faith, at least not compared to pastors and missionaries. Experience tells us that this is simply not true. Obviously, as a group, pastors and missionaries take their faith very seriously. Yet faith heroes and spiritual role models can be found within any profession.
That brings us to the second reason this half-truth gets it wrong: it ignores the role of gifts in discerning a calling. Paul discusses gifts in several places in the New Testament. A good example is 1 Corinthians 12:4–7: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” The basic principle is straightforward: God grants us different gifts and there are different roles in which those gifts can be expressed.
As a Christian and a vocational psychologist, this is where I get excited, because what we’ve learned from research fits hand in glove with what Scripture teaches about gifts and callings. Psychologists have long studied “gifts,” or characteristics that describe how people differ from each other in the world of work. In his classic book Choosing a Vocation, Frank Parsons laid out this deceptively simple three-part decision-making strategy:
In the wise choice of a vocation, there are three broad factors: (1) a clear understanding of yourself, your aptitudes, abilities, interests, ambitions, limitations, and their causes; (2) a knowledge of the requirements, conditions of success, advantages and disadvantages, compensation, opportunities, and prospects in different lines of work; and (3) true reasoning on the relations of these two groups of facts.
The “true reasoning” is where the rubber hits the road. The point is that this “person-environment fit” principle is exactly what Paul described when writing about gifts in the church.
This “diversity and unity in gifts” or person-environment fit notion has been tested in research too. Industrial-organizational psychologist Amy Kristof-Brown led a team that gathered every published study that had ever examined some aspect of person-environment fit—172 in all—to answer the question: does working in a role that fits a person’s gifts predict positive outcomes? Sure enough, the researchers found that the greater the fit, the better the outcome—a pattern that held across multiple levels of fit (e.g., fit to occupation, fit to job, fit to organization, fit to one’s work team, fit to a supervisor).
Half-Truth #2: “To discern my calling, I should pray and wait for God’s direction.”
Christians sometimes approach the task of discerning a calling by praying wholeheartedly for a divine revelation and expecting to receive one quickly and directly. If an answer does not follow, a common response is to pray harder and wait longer.
Like all the half-truths in this article, this approach gets it partly right. Christians should definitely pray over matters like this. And research consistently finds that praying is good for us. The problem is not with the prayer. It is with the waiting—or rather, with the passive approach to waiting. Imagine a detective investigating a crime by asking God to directly reveal who had committed it, without looking at the evidence. Obviously, God could reveal the perpetrator directly. But all the detective’s forensic and investigative training, plus the legal requirements of building a case, demands that someone get to work.
Making career choices is like detective work. It requires gathering good information (e.g., about one’s gifts and about various career paths), envisioning different possibilities, and consulting with trusted advisers to identify possible blind spots. It involves looking for consistencies that converge across multiple data sources. It takes patience and persistence, effort and wisdom.
Half-Truth #3: “If I’m not careful, I might miss my calling.”
Some Christians desire a clear answer to the calling question because they worry they might choose the wrong career and become trapped in a chronically dissatisfying situation.
Is it possible to approach your career decision-making in good faith, practice careful discernment, and end up completely missing the boat? Is it possible there is some latent ability buried so deep within that you risk limping through life without knowing it is there, going to your grave without ever realizing the incredible accomplishments you could have achieved had you only been privy to that talent? A related question: is there a single, specific path that God expects you to pursue, requiring that you identify it in detail before you ever set out to do anything?
The answer to all of these questions is no.
The fact that God seldom reveals a direct answer to our questions about what to do at each crossroads in our lives suggests that he grants us the freedom to make our own choices. That doesn’t mean God is indifferent, or that any choice is a good choice. Throwing a dart at the classified ads or a college catalog is still a bad way to choose a career. But since we know God has a plan for our lives, our approach should be to make choices with wisdom. For most of us, there is more than one right answer.
Research suggests that people’s unique profiles of work-related attributes (like interests, values, and personality)—their gifts—seem to prepare them well for success and satisfaction within particular clusters of occupations, rather than only within a narrow job title. Instead of feeling paralyzed by the fear of getting it wrong, you can feel energized by the freedom that comes from having multiple ways to get it right.
Discerning and living a calling represent an ongoing process, not a once-and-for-all event. If you can expect anything from making career choices, it is that whatever you choose will change. The average adult in the United States holds nearly a dozen jobs between ages 18 and 50. One might see that statistic and assume that people cannot seem to get it right, so they keep changing jobs until they do. But this is not usually the case. Many people who have had long, satisfying careers will tell you their callings have evolved—that what was an excellent fit at one point in time led to new opportunities that became an even better fit at another point in time, which in turn fostered new skills that eventually led to other new pathways.
Living a calling is an entire lifestyle of serving faithfully while also listening to the Spirit’s promptings, often communicated through new skills and new opportunities for service.
Half-Truth #4: “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.”
I suspect we all feel intimidated at times by a daunting set of work-related responsibilities. Christians are good at offering encouragement in this scenario with that well-trodden line: “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.” Some Christians say this with the same confidence they have when quoting Scripture. (I wonder, in fact, if some believe they are quoting Scripture, but you won’t find this sentence in the Bible.) Let’s be clear: God does equip the called. God’s strength shines in people who own up to their weaknesses. When we recognize our shortcomings, we depend less on our own talent and more on God’s desire to work through us.
Still, to say that “God doesn’t call the equipped” overlooks overwhelming biblical evidence to the contrary. Think of David, the little shepherd boy God summoned to kill Goliath, the Philistine giant-warrior who sent fear down the spines of the Israelite army. David was a little boy, wasn’t he? Just about every children’s Bible storybook in my house depicts him that way, as a wide-eyed, baby-faced eight-year-old.
Goliath sized David up as “little more than a boy” (1 Samuel 17:42), but that boy had already killed at least two of the fiercest wild animals who walked the earth and did so by grabbing their fur and beating them to death (1 Samuel 17:34b–37). Most likely, David had also developed lethal aim with his sling. He would soon go on to become a high-ranking army official, earning recognition for slaying “tens of thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7). And while David defeated Goliath because David invited God to work through him, there is no indication that God superseded David’s gifts as he did so; as far as we can tell, God worked through them.
God equips the called, and He also calls the equipped. That doesn’t mean God deserves any less credit for the work He does through our gifts, because where do our gifts come from? All the good we do can be attributed to God. God desires to accomplish more through us than we may think is possible. But most likely, he will leverage the unique gifts He granted to us when he does so.