3 Ways to Help Students Discern Their Vocational Future

This is the first post in a new series about the importance of integrating faith and work conversations within our youth ministries and homes, including the how and why of talking to our kids about vocation and how it relates to our faith. If you missed the introduction, you can read it here. Or continue reading the second article here

“[T]omorrow, at the Choosing Ceremony, I will decide on a faction; I will decide the rest of my life” (1). In the opening pages of Divergent, a dystopian coming-of age novel, 16 year old Beatrice (Tris) Prior awaits the aptitude test that will determine her place in adult society.  Based on the results, she will choose either to remain in her faction or to join another. If she fails initiation into her chosen faction, she will be factionless — doomed to poverty and seemingly meaningless work.  This one choice nearly paralyzes her with anxiety.

Adolescents and emerging adults usually make several major life choices in the span of a few years — what college to attend, what major to choose, what career to pursue, where to live, and whom to marry. Many of these young people approach these decisions with dread because a single choice feels like it will determine their future.

Youth pastors notice their students struggling with these choices. One pastor shared the story of Anna, an accomplished young woman trying to “figure out what she is going to do with her life.” The pastor noted, “…facing the choice of a college major has her nearly catatonic. She is afraid that making the ‘wrong’ choice will somehow derail her life” (2). Another youth pastor hears the same from college-bound students: “[T]hey are nervous about ‘choosing the wrong [college]’— as if God has one secretly laid out for them that they must somehow figure out” (3).

I discovered this theme in my recent research among Christian college students. When considering career decisions, many wondered if their choice was right or wrong. For some, fear of being wrong completely inhibited their decision-making process. Persistent doubt nagged at others.  What is the perfect fit? What specifically does God want me to do? Will my choice disappoint my parents, disappoint God, or lead to a disappointing life? A junior elementary education major wondered “whether or not God’s will means that you have to follow a specific plan that he has in terms of career. I think we put too much pressure on ourselves, though, to figure out what we think he wants for us” (4).

Too much pressure. Fuller Youth Institute researchers use “pervasive stress” to describe the pressures young people face today (5). For some, this “pervasive stress” derives from perfectionism. Researchers have noted a rise in perfectionism among young people, and they attribute the rise to a competitive economy and merit-based society that “places a strong need to strive, perform, and achieve at the center of modern life” (6). Swept up in cultural and economic forces and afflicted by theological questions, Christian young people may struggle to navigate life decisions with confidence and peace.

A theology of calling could be the anchor that these young people need. Our primary call is to follow Christ. Yet each Christ-follower also has a unique, or specific, calling. The concept of a unique calling finds support in 1 Corinthians 12:7. In describing the distribution of spiritual gifts within the Christian community, Paul writes, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” In other words, God equips each Christian for particular works that benefits others. Yet we may never have a perfect picture of what those works will be (Eccl 7:14, 8:7, 11:5; Prov 16:9).

Gordon T. Smith defines unique calling as the particular way in which God has gifted and burdened someone to love both God and neighbor (7). A unique calling is not a particular job or career path, but rather “a thread, an underlying purpose and work, that represents the way God has invited us to make a difference in the world” (8). For example, if a young woman believes her unique calling is to teach, she could express that calling in many ways — as an after-school tutor, college professor, writer, diabetes educator, or mother.

How do we help young people discern their unique calling? In Kingdom Calling, Amy Sherman encourages movement toward our “vocational sweet spot”—“the place where our gifts and passions intersect with God’s priorities and the world’s needs”(10).

Sherman’s model offers a framework for guiding adolescents and young adults in this discernment process:

1. Teach students about God’s priorities. Remind students of the big story of Scripture, and help them envision themselves in that story. Help them imagine what shalom might look like in their homes, schools, and communities.

2. Raise students’ awareness of individual, community, and global needs. Take them on field trips; lead them on service projects; and frame work in terms of the needs it meets. Help them attend to the needs that burden them (11).

3. Aid students in self-discovery. Ask them questions about their joys and desires; encourage them to learn new skills; and give them space for self-reflection.

Vocational discernment is not an exact science with clear answers. Grounded in the gospel of grace, a theology of unique calling invites young people to a lifelong journey of vocational discernment in which they root their identities in Christ. Their accomplishments and life choices do not define them — faithfully following Jesus does. As young people root their identity in Christ, their secondary callings find their proper place within their vocational pursuits.


(1) Roth, Veronica. 2011. Divergent. New York: Katherine Tegen Books, 2.

(2) Response given to me in a non-scientific survey of youth pastors in March 2018.

(3) Response given to me in a non-scientific survey of youth pastors in March 2018.

(4) Respondent #60 from my unpublished research study exploring Christian college students’ career decision-making.

(5) Powell, Kara, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin.  2016.  Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 100.

(6) Curran, Thomas and Andrew P. Hill.  2017.  Perfectionism is Increasing over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences from 1989 to 2016.  Psychological Bulletin, 4.  Advanced online publication.  Accessed at http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-bul0000138.pdf on March 9, 2018.

(7) Smith, Gordon T.  1999.  Courage and Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential.  2nd Edition.  Downers Grove: IVP, 50.

(8) Ibid, p. 50.

(9) Sherman, Amy. 2011. Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good. Downers Grove: IVP.

(10) Ibid, 105.

(11) Smith, 65.

Topics: Calling and Career Choice, Students, Vocation

About the Author

Meryl Herr lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband and two sons.