I can’t tell you how disappointing it was when, at age 22, I finally made the decision to pursue a “secular” career instead of going into the ministry. Rather than embracing a bold confidence in the choice, I had this sinking feeling that I was somehow letting God down.
The pathetic part is, I prayed, fasted, and tried every which way to make myself want to work in ministry – but it just didn’t click. There was this nagging intuition telling me it wasn’t meant to be, despite the gravitational pull coming from a loyal and supportive circle of super-spiritual friends who shared my undying passion for setting the world on fire for Christ.
Unfortunately, I had very little exposure to what this so-called world might actually have to offer, aside from being set on fire. It was difficult to fathom the God I thought I knew ever slumming down his holy presence into the midst of those distasteful secular settings. As far as I knew, the world outside of ministry offered only, well, “worldly” career choices – choices that certainly would not meet God’s standards of approval.
The truth is, I had spent very little time investigating this premise, because these things were of absolutely no value to my Christian subculture bubble, with its over-emphasis on evangelism and missions and basically converting everyone to our 20th-century suburban white American middle-class version of the gospel.
So naturally, I was a bit off-balance after making that fateful decision to venture off into a secular profession, careening towards a career in the salacious world of consumers and competition and, I don’t know, whatever else those ungodly people did out there. I felt guilty, isolated, uncertain, and totally unprepared.
In my darkest moments, I imagined God floating around my head talking trash about me to his top-ranking angels, making vague scriptural references as to how I wasn’t measuring up. “That J.B. Wood, I had big plans for him. If only he had stayed in the good soil!” The angels nod knowingly, jotting something down in their legal pads.
Nonetheless, I instinctively knew it was right, even though I couldn’t envision where the arc of my career might take me. I just had to get started. Somewhere. It was a mustard seed of hope, a stubborn determination, as if God would eventually roll His eyes and let out a big sigh, saying, “Oh, alright! Sheesh!” I knew he’d help me figure it out along the way.
So off I went to the Big City, leaving behind my church, my family and my on-fire super-spiritual friends. Looking back, I would say this was one of the biggest acts of faith I had ever undertaken in the entirety of my small, sheltered life.
Fast forward 30 years. I discovered a rich, dynamic, creative career in business that I never would have imagined had I not ventured into the dreaded secular world. The varied work experiences also uncovered a wide range of skills and interests that might have otherwise been left dormant, untapped and invisible. I also crossed paths with many big-hearted men and women who guided and mentored me along the way. Most importantly, I began to appreciate the significance of work in its contribution to God’s kingdom here on earth.
It took a couple of decades, but I eventually reconciled my career aspirations with my theology of work. Rather than tapping his fingers on the table with a critical glare, I now see God swooping to my side in the conference calls, the sales meetings, the Board presentations, flashing an enthusiastic thumbs-up and a wink. “Keep bein’ awesome!” he says.
For years I was stuck in a mindset that placed an irrationally high value on ministry while under-appreciating God’s interest in using my talents, skills and interests to pursue His kingdom in a variety of alternate forms.
God has created a pretty big world out there, but many of us Christians have a tunnel-vision tendency to block out a huge portion of it. We lose sight of the sacredness of work, the benefits of education, the spiritual value of a career, the impact of our potential influence in the marketplace.
Here are five of the most entrenched mistakes that can tangle up your career path.
1. Over-spiritualizing your career situation. There’s nothing wrong with praying for direction when it comes to your job, but don’t get into the annoying habit of expecting God to do everything for you. This leads to a victimized, passive stance, waiting around for a sign instead of getting yourself mobilized. You can pray and fast and hang out the fleece all day long, but understand this: God is not going to hand over your life-long career path on a flaming silver platter. You have to pay your dues, fight for your life, and figure it out as you go, just like everyone else. Ironically, your spiritual growth will come mostly through the struggle in this process.
3. Being afraid of the big bad secular world. For years, I was surrounded with a sub-culture which had this notion that “secular humanism” was infiltrating the world, threatening our Christian sensibilities. Its evil shadow fell not just over corporate life, but also suspect were prestigious universities, art galleries, music venues, and pretty much any secular expression that wasn’t dunked in a certain theological soup. This shunning of higher learning and culture creates a Christian ghetto filled with fearful and judgmental souls who will never learn to navigate, much less infiltrate, the world. Want to change culture? Be part of it. Want to be an influencer? Get a decent education. Want to impact the world? Be engaged in it. This is salt, and this is light.
4. Using your job as a stomping grounds for evangelism. Look, I know you want to spread the Good News everywhere you go, but your place of employment is not just a raw mission field. Sure, you can reach others at your workplace, but I am firmly in the camp that says doing a good job is pleasing to God in and of itself. There’s no need to artificially load layers of mission and outreach on top of it. You are plenty glorifying God by doing excellent work. Oh, and by the way, this is probably the best path to building credibility among the folks on the job so they’ll even want to listen to you.
5. Underestimating your own power and potential. In Jim Collin’s book, “Good to Great,” he describes the most effective CEOs as “Level 5 Leaders,” possessing a paradoxical combination of humility and fierce resolve. As Christians, we’d like to rally around the humility and servitude part, knowing that Jesus would heartily approve. But assertive leadership requires a tad more than that. There’s no need to feel guilty for being ambitious, visionary, or intensely focused on a goal or outcome. Embrace your inner drive, because you can be both humble and fiercely resolved at the same time. Otherwise, how is God going to accomplish anything through you?
Christians are notoriously confused about the spiritual value of work. I believe we need role models, young and old, supporting each other as the voice of God himself, shouting out words of hope and encouragement to those called to work outside of ministry. It’s all good! If only we had faith enough to believe it.