What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? Beyond Career Counseling to Vocational Discernment

October 10th, 2009


After a month or so on the job, I finally started looking through the youth ministry budget. This was a young church and had a very small youth group, so I was surprised to find such a large amount designated to young people—but even more surprised to find that over half of it was specifically marked for “career counseling.”

Further analysis revealed that this church had historically paid more than $500 per 11th grader to spend an intensive weekend with a consultancy firm specializing in Christian career counseling.

This was the kind of community parents moved into because of the quality of the school system—one of the best in the country. Most of them embodied the stereotypical suburban busyness, and they were quite interested in making sure their kids had all of the opportunities they could possibly grant them to succeed academically, socially, and economically.

Most of the parents at the church wanted their kids to follow God’s calling in their lives, but they weren’t willing to trust the emotional gut responses young people might have about where they were being led without some guided critical reflection. They wanted to provide their kids with as many options as possible so that they’d make their decisions in intentional ways, rather than the haphazard way so many young people make choices (or have choices made for them).

This was the culture when I arrived, and I quickly began to appreciate this desire to help guide young people through this critical decision-making time rather than allowing the voices from school and the culture at large to be the only factors in the process.

Once I’d been there two years, a lot more kids were showing up than ever before, especially in the senior high. And the consultants we’d used were raising their prices. These two factors influenced our decision to find a new way to accomplish the task of career counseling.

So I set out to learn everything I could about the industry of career counseling— in the secular arena and in the Christian market (with which I was less impressed, actually)—and I found a variety of things in common. Many of these I incorporated into our new system that next year, experimenting with most of them over the next several years. Our program was popular enough that we were asked to go into other churches and do similar workshops for their young people, even running some modified ones for adults. What follows are the principles that framed our programs.

Created in God’s Image

I believe the most important function we perform as ministers to young people is to help them fully embrace their identities as beloved children of God. How we do that can vary widely due to context, but that we do it is critical. So our first task was to take what they’d traditionally called career counseling, with an emphasis on what kids should do, and reframe it within a broader context—what I call vocational discernment, which creates a new starting point for the discussion.

It’s important for kids to know they’re all created in God’s image—all of them. Without that as a foundational conviction, they’ll continually compare themselves to other people who seem to have it all together—and they won’t measure up. And because, at every turn, this comparative practice is reinforced by our society (especially in advertising, but also in schools and families) we must make it a priority of our youth ministries to consistently remind one another of our true identities in Christ, adult and youth alike.

Kids also need to know that, as beings created in the image of God, they’ve been endowed with creativity, vision, purpose, ability, passion, and power. Most kids don’t feel full of those things, nor do we typically spend a lot of energy helping young people use them in God-honoring ways.

Spiritual Gifts

I’ve seen churches use spiritual gifts inventories to frame their career counseling activities. And though that’s probably better than not having any career counseling at all, I don’t think that’s the best way to go. The spiritual gifts discussed in 1 Corinthians 12 (also Romans 12 and Ephesians 4) refer to edification of the Body of Christ, so using spiritual gifts inventories to help a person clarify how she might be called to serve within a particular faith community can be extremely helpful. Certainly, God calls some people to use some of their spiritual gifts in their professions, as well. But to automatically assume that, because a person is gifted in teaching, he must be a teacher by trade, constitutes an inappropriate application of those passages.

Certainly, part of a Christian approach to career counseling can, and should, include roles found only in the church. Beware of the tendency, though, to assume that a “call to full-time Christian service”(a category we’ve inappropriately constructed for “truly”committed Christians) is the only legitimate call of God upon a young person’s life. The fact is that we’re all called to fulltime Christian service, though not all of us are employed by churches or parachurch ministries. Many young people will be called to make a living in the secular world, and we need to help them understand how that can be lived out—perhaps a challenge for some who’ve never worked outside a ministry context—but not impossible.

Beliefs and Attitudes

Our beliefs and attitudes drive our behavior. If the belief that I’m God’s beloved child is woven into the fabric of my self-image, that impacts every decision I make—for the better, I’d argue. Similarly, the beliefs I hold about the importance of a college education or a steady job will dictate the choices I make about the world of work.

The Krumboltz & Levin Career Beliefs Inventoryi is a good place to start. Many of the arguments parents get into with their teenagers surrounding decisions about college and career choices stem from differing beliefs about the world of work (e.g., how long a person should stay in a job, how much time should be spent at work vs. with family, the need to specialize in a field, etc.).

This instrument provides a backdrop for discussing the attitudes young people are bringing with them into the conversation, and the results can provide especially useful discussion fodder—especially if there’s friction between parents and their kids over any of these issues.

Interests and Passions

Perhaps the most fickle part of discerning college majors or career choices centers around the notion of interest, yet I think it’s the one that gets the most attention from young people. From the time children are tiny, well-intentioned people ask questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?”And of course, they don’t really mean “What do you want to be”but “What do you want to do for a living?”

So kids are enculturated to define themselves by their jobs, then encouraged to choose a career based on what they want to do. At best, questions like the above can be helpful in allowing kids to dream about a variety of different possible occupations. At worst, the questions provide the wrong kind of framework in which to consider what God might be calling them to rather than just what they want to do.

Interests are important to consider, though. It’s just that, more often than not, few of us spend any real time meditating on them in a disciplined way. The Strong Interest Inventory is the most common standardized assessment tool of its type and has some fabulous cross-referential material with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to provide some very concrete suggestions. Another good tool is the Guilford-Zimmerman Interest Inventory, which can be scored by hand (The SII requires computerized scoring).

Goals and Dreams

The best benefits of these inventories is that they can provide structure to the distillation of one’s interests and provide specific college majors and/or career choices that fit those categories. The downside is that they can discourage creatively considering avenues that don’t neatly fit into categories. So I’d strongly suggest some right-brained creative activity to make the exploration more robust.

My favorite exercise is having kids intentionally daydream about what their lives will look like in 10, 20, and 40 years. I spend about 45 minutes leading them through guided imagery (basically asking guided questions while they visualize their answers with their eyes closed). I ask them to think of an ideal regular work week and place all of the important people (spouse, children, friends, etc.) and lifestyle choices (style of home, work environment, hobbies, etc.) around it and think through all the ways they use their time, talents, and money: What time are you waking up? Naturally, or to an alarm? Do you wake up next to someone, or are you single? Do you have children? What’s the first thing you do to get ready for the morning? Do you work from home, or do you leave home to go to an office, factory, shop, or someplace else? If you stay home, what is your first task? If you leave, how long does it take you to get there if you leave?

I continue to ask questions about environment, time, recreational activity, family, civic interests, money, and religious activity until they have a good, solid grasp on a dream for their future. Following this guided meditation activity, they journal or draw something to help crystallize their thoughts. It’s amazing what kids come up with in these types of processes. We all daydream, but few of us think the daydream all the way through.

God has placed desires within us, and they’re often the most powerful motivating forces in our lives. We’ll likely spend a majority of our energy doing those things we desire the most, yet we want to control them rather than allowing them to control us. If we want our lives to reflect God’s desires for us, we must be intentional about illuminating the desires of our hearts and critically examining them. Only then can we hope for our desires and God’s desires for us to align more closely.

The Body with Many Members

Perhaps the most used (and misused) social science assessment instrument in recent history has been the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Psychologist Carl Jung theorized that all human beings prefer certain ways of perceiving and judging the world, which then plays out in their ideas, beliefs, and actions. The MBTI codes people based on these preferences along four axes: extroversion- introversion, sensing-intuition, thinking- feeling, and judgment-perception. These preferences then fall into 16 basic personality types that think and act quite differently from one another.

Proper use of this instrument helps participants name some of their strengths, offering them a sense of how they’ve been uniquely gifted by God. It also helps them identify some of their blind spots so that they recognize their need for reliance upon God and one another. It can even help widen a person’s perspective beyond his or her own temperament and perhaps reduce some judgmentalism toward those whose strengths and weaknesses lie in very different areas.

Immediately available are scores of college majors and occupations that align well with each of the 16 personality types. And when cross-tabulated with the Strong Interest Inventory, even more resources are available. Several books offer all sorts of charts and lists that suggest not only career paths but also college majors, study habits, and living conditions that typically best suit particular styles based on these two instruments. The benefits are especially noticeable when a student is forced to make decisions, yet she truly has no idea where to begin. Here a student can feel like her personality and interests can be purposeful. My biggest caution would be to encourage students to think of these categories as useful starting points rather than characteristics meant to define them for eternity.


Most of the secular time-management and effective-business gurus would agree that when we spend most of our time involved in activities and people that line up with our highest values, we’re a lot happier and more productive. So even in the secular world, companies are trying to see how they can help line up people’s passions with functions that’ll also further the goals of the company (and ultimately, make more money).

Of course, we’ve known that for a long time: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”(Matthew 6:21). For most of us, time is our most precious commodity. So we can see where our hearts really are by where we spend our time.

All of us bear the image of God, though, which means there are even deeper, godly yearnings within us that cry out for expression. When our hearts line up with these longings, we find ourselves quite happy indeed. When our hearts are out of sync with these yearnings, an irritable discontent is the best we can hope for.

One inventory that provides language about the current state of one’s heart is the Super & Nevill Values Scale. As with all assessment instruments, when participants answer the questions honestly they can learn a lot about themselves. This is the area in which most parents became frustrated in my courses. They often find that the values their kids hold dear are different from those the parents hoped they’d instilled. Not that these are different values from the parents, mind you—just different from ones they hoped to pass on to their kids.

Now, there are all sorts of ways this kind of inventory could be used. The one I’m most scared of in youth ministry lies within our tendency toward fixing kids. This isn’t meant to define their values so that we can find what’s wrong and correct them; in fact, to utilize any of these assessment instruments in that way is a horrible distortion of their intent. They’re helpful to simply illuminate and articulate what is, not what should be. We need to remember that it’s God’s job, not ours, to convince our kids of their shortcomings and offer redemption from them.

Life as a Journey

It’s God’s business where kids are being led. The best we can do is offer some pointers along the way from our limited perspective. Simply knowing that our perspective is limited is a great help—it can offer a much-needed degree of humility in the guidance process. Similarly, we do well to help students know that their perspectives are also limited. Parents are often most frustrated with their kids’ choices when those choices seem to be made on the basis of short-term thinking. Adults have the benefit of a few more years experience, so we want to help kids overcome at least some of their vantage point limitations by offering our wisdom. This is especially evident when we encourage kids to do things for which they don’t see a benefit, but which will open up doors for them later in life.

Certainly, part of responsible vocational counseling includes helping kids develop a willingness to develop some knowledge and skills for which they don’t see immediate need, along with helping young people lean on the wisdom of adult influences even when they don’t foresee the wisdom in the advice.

I think it’s also okay to have a sense of “this is what I’m called to for now.”When I’m honest about my own past (and present, for that matter), that’s all I’ve really ever been able to say: I believe I’m called to this function in this place at this time…and it may be very different tomorrow.

None of us know what our futures hold, and that’s okay. In fact, that’s what makes it so exciting! We know (or at least trust in) the ultimate outcome, but all of the details are unknown. And my experience is that most young people are much more okay with this than their parents’ generation. So sensitivity to parents’ issues in this area is highly recommended.

Godly Worldview

All of the above instruments are utilized in secular environments all over the place, and to great ends. People are able to find where their natural giftedness and interests can serve a useful societal function for which they can be compensated. They sometimes even find where their greatest passions and the world’s greatest needs intersect, which author Frederick Buechner feels is a pretty strong indication of a calling from God.

What elevates solid college and career counseling from the public high school guidance counselor to true vocational discernment is helping kids examine themselves (and their test results) through a theological framework. Realizing there are intersections between our passions and the world’s needs is a necessary starting point, because it’s not just about us being happy. It’s about us intently listening for God’s invitation to passionately contribute to the betterment of creation.

Our lives aren’t ours to live any way we see fit, as our culture tells us. We’re stewards of our time, talents, money, bodies, indeed our very lives—for they all do, in fact, belong to God. When we place ourselves within this biblical framework, we find that still, small voice whispering, inviting us to join in the adventure God has in store for creation—and we get to be a part of it! As a byproduct we find our own happiness, and that’s what we need to pass on to our young people.

Prayer and Community

As with any other endeavor, Christian vocational discernment should have prayer as a central component. Recently many evangelical authors and speakers have begun encouraging kids to pray for their future spouses—for character development in the spouse and in themselves, so that they’ll be ready to be good partners in life and love. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to encourage similar prayer activity surrounding colleges and jobs. We need to pray about our students’ vocations not only alone, but together with the students. And they need to pray about them, too—for their own willingness to listen and act when led and also for the wisdom of the “cloud of witnesses”(Hebrews 12:1) in their lives.

Emotions are part of the discernment process, too, but most students aren’t going to have to worry too much about actively ensuring this piece is present. We need to help them systematically employ spiritual and intellectual processes like the ones in this article; emotions will creep in automatically.

In most communities of faith, discernment of any type is a communal process, not an individual one. Alone, it’s easy to be unduly influenced by emotions, whims, and squeaky wheels; and often Christians simply use spiritual jargon to describe their gut feelings. When it comes to students deciding what they want to do for a living, we need to offer more than lip service and churchy language to the process.

Helping students find their ways in the world is part of our sacred trust, part of our calling as youth workers. God is the one calling, not us. But we have the tremendous opportunity to accompany young people as they discover their true passions, the world’s great needs, and God’s invitation to them in the intersection.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.