For Katherine Leary Alsdorf—founder of the Center for Faith & Work at Redeemer Church in New York City and co-writer with Timothy Keller of Every Good Endeavor—work was not always her favorite topic. In fact, it was a struggle in her twenties and thirties. She had a few great jobs, and a lot of experience, but she was far from feeling fulfilled. Single and driven, she changed jobs and changed industries time and again but never quite found her “sweet spot.” That’s what directed her, she says, to a crisis that led her to faith: What’s life and work all about? What’s the meaning of life? What’s the meaning of this work we do?
At first she didn’t know she was seeking the Christian faith, but she knew she was seeking more than she had. It was ultimately the message that a fulfilling life doesn’t come from having and getting—it comes from giving—that caught her attention. The idea that God actually cared about what she did with her career—that her work mattered to God—helped draw her into faith. Now, Katherine is sitting down with TCW to advise those of us who may be in the middle of our own career crisis.
What would you say to someone who is having a hard time identifying what it is that she should be doing professionally?
The pain of deciding on a job or a career or a vocation itself is felt by people all over. The Christian faith has a lot to offer in that area. But it’s certainly not a magic bullet. It’s not like, All right, I pray and God’s going to show me exactly what he wants me to do. It requires a lot more knowledge of who God is and who he made us to be than one simple answer.
So first, spend a lot of time with God in prayerful discernment. You need to learn listening prayer. You need to be able to understand the promptings of your heart as God leads you from one thing to another. Typically those happen when you’re trying to decide between two things. If you’re sitting there with a blank slate, it’s pretty hard to have discernment and to go in a particular direction. Cultivate options, and then listen to God.
Finding what you are good at takes work, just like understanding yourself takes work. What we can do as a Christian community is ask others to hold a mirror up to us and give us feedback as to what our strengths are and where we might need to grow in different skills, attitude, or motivational areas. We need to be encouragers, sharing with other people when we see something that they’re doing well or seems to light them up. We need more feedback so that we can have a better sense of who we are by the time we’re 22 and looking for that job.
The good news is that God cares about every aspect of the world. There’s no dearth of things God would have us do to make the world a better place. It’s limitless.
What about people who felt a specific vocational calling for a long time but no longer feel a passion for it?
God can call us to any number of things. It’s as much about what the world needs as it is about who we’re made to be. Yes, our natural gifting and experience have some bearings on whether we’re happy in a kind of work. But I actually think that I would have never been able to do the job that I got to do in starting and leading the Center for Faith & Work if I hadn’t persevered through 25 years of things that were very hard for me to do in my business career.
You write in Every Good Endeavor about asking ourselves, How, with my existing abilities and opportunities, can I be the greatest service to people? How can someone reconcile this idea with a job that may seem not to be meeting any needs—perhaps one that’s very isolated?
It’s important to look at why you are staying in your particular job. Sometimes the dilemma is about making less money or losing prestige and status. So in those cases it’s fairly clear that it’s a tradeoff. Are you valuing money over having the enjoyment of working with other people in your job? Maybe you’re working 70 hours a week and you hate it and you want to be able to have time to do other things—be with your family—but it will cost you an exorbitant amount in pay.
Other times people don’t have a choice. Plenty of people are miserable in their job, but they truly would not be able to support their families or pay off their college loans if they weren’t working there. There would be serious ramifications. Then I don’t think you’re as free to make that choice and give it up, unless you find something that would enable you to still fulfill your responsibilities.
So then your challenge is, How do I grow in perseverance? How do I overcome the suffering that’s in this job? Can I reengineer the job? If people are in that situation they really should spend some time with a counselor or a coach.
If you’re truly stuck, it still helps to name what’s broken. But you can’t stay there, because to live in the Fall and not wrestle with, What does redemption have to do with this? is an unnecessarily depressing spot to rest. You have to say, “All right, God, help me see the hope the gospel is supposed to be giving me now. I’m not letting you go, like Jacob, until you let me know what the hope is in my circumstance. How can I have it, and how can I be part of it?” Your theology matters. That’s the biggest thing.
I encourage younger people to equally value the growth in character and perseverance that God might be building in them as they’re valuing whether they feel satisfied or fulfilled at that particular moment in time. Work is broken. Our calling is into that brokenness. Perseverance and hope are probably our greatest strengths as people of the gospel, because, by definition, work is going to be hard.
When I look back on my twenties, if I could have spent the time I devoted to feeling anxious about how to get out of my job instead digging deeper into what God has to say about life, I probably would have been better off in the long run. By definition, partnering with God in bringing hope into a broken world is going to be hard and disappointing and challenging and exhausting—and sometimes feel meaningful. But it’s worth it.
Ashley Grace Emmert is a writer, editor, and TCW regular contributor who lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her sweet Southern husband and their small scrappy dog. Find her at AshleyGraceEmmert.blogspot.com or on Twitter at @ashgemmert.