At Work & Theology 101

Should Your Passion Determine Your Profession?

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Should you follow your passion in choosing a profession? According to conventional wisdom, this is the right approach. But Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, surprisingly argues that this is bad advice:

Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about?  Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end?

More importantly, you can be passionate about something that doesn’t meet a real need in society. This possibility should carry weight for all believers who are committed to the ideal of seeking the common good, which involves, as Dr. Steven Garber has put it, knowing the world and still loving it.

Not only that, when we perform our professional duties with excellence, God is glorified because our actions enable us to serve as agents of grace in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike. To the degree that people are made aware of this supernatural component, it provides the occasion for them to express gratitude for God’s providential care for his creation.

The Usual Advice

Although I’m still happy with my decision to pursue a career in higher education, and I’m very satisfied with my current position, I also recognize that I luckily stumbled upon a career that complimented my personality, and, in the midst of an ongoing economic recession, that I’m extremely fortunate to be gainfully employed.

But more to the point: during a pivotal time in my life, while trying to discover my career path, I was given virtually no guidance for making this momentous decision.

As an undergraduate studying at a large state university, I was involved in a dynamic campus ministry, staffed by leaders who taught me how to read the Bible effectively, share the gospel with unbelievers, and live a holy life. And for all of that, I will always be grateful.

But the career advice I received from these individuals was, unfortunately, myopic at best.

During my sophomore year, in particular, I felt God was calling me to professional ministry. At no point, upon announcing this decision, did a single person take me aside and ask me to justify this calling.

If anything, the implicit message was: “If you’re passionate about the things of God, then become a pastor or a missionary.”  But as Rowe explains, albeit in a different context:

When it comes to earning a living and being a productive member of society – I don’t think people should limit their options to those vocations they feel passionate towards. I met a lot of people on Dirty Jobs who really loved their work. But very few of them dreamed of having the career they ultimately chose.

There are probably lots of explanations for this phenomenon, such as the simple fact that our passions change over time, but also because sometimes our passions, though laudable, are just not very practical, given the state of the world.

Young people are continually encouraged to follow their passions, as if doing so will necessarily enable them to achieve all their dreams.

It’s my conviction that this message, though obviously well intended, has proven harmful to generations of people who have been encouraged to pursue career paths out of sync with their actual gifts and the current needs of society.

Although it’s true that God is sovereign and can work in the midst of sub-optimal circumstances, we still have a responsibility, especially as Christians, to be good stewards of our resources.

Prayer Is Key to Calling

As such, every Christian should prayerfully discover his or her calling (or vocation), whether it ends up being selling life insurance, teaching inner city youth, or designing web sites.

  • Above all, pray that God would give you the wisdom to realize the unique temperament, skills, and gifts that he’s blessed you with. Notice that I’m not promising that God will reveal these qualities to you. It might actually take effort on your part, through a process of reflection, dialogue, and discernment, to figure out how God has wired you.
  • Then ask God for clarity in discovering the path that will most effectively allow you to employ those qualities, in light of current societal trends, and with a view to serving others. This will require both vision and creativity on your part.
  • Next, pray for courage and perseverance as you seek to be faithful to God’s calling in your life. It might not be easy, as it might require great sacrifice and hardship.
  • Finally, however he’s designed you and to whatever station he’s called you, pray that you would receive God’s blessing with gratitude, knowing that it’s for your joy and his glory. In other words, although in one sense it’s about you, insofar as God wants you to be fulfilled, in another sense it most certainly isn’t about you, since God’s ultimate goal is to achieve his purposes.

The reality is that not everyone is called to be a pastor or missionary. I eventually learned this lesson. But everyone still has a vocation.

Whether you’re a full-time student or a stay-at-home parent, God has called you to use your vocation to serve others, to promote the common good, thereby acting as a vessel of his grace in a fallen world. That is certainly an ideal that we can all be passionate about, regardless of its practical outworking.

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  • L Klajbor

    While I completely agree with the process of discernment through prayer, I take issue with the notion of not “following up” with a passion. I was an English major because I loved to read and write – an Education graduate because I love kids. I NEVER used these in the strictest professional sense, but still feel that education was worth all of the money and all of the sacrifice. Here are my issues:
    – getting paid for something doesn’t give it value – only in the secular world. I got an education and my kids are being educated because God gave us a brain and expects us to use it. The skills I took away from my majors in college translate to MANY areas in my life as a mother, wife, catechist, friend, youth minister and former legal analyst for investment companies. Yes, I went from college to work in finance – I knew nothing about stock. I COULD, however, write a decent letter and hold an intelligent conversation.
    – anything worth knowing is worth knowing WELL – this is what I told my kids. And I stand by it. Few people are thinkers today – I believe that agnostics and atheists claim to be so because they so often settle for the pat answer, the cultural Koolaid that says, “stay on the surface of things; its safer there”. We need to challenge our kids to go deeper and broader than the rest of their society – these are the issues that God is concerned with.
    – Mission will appear in whatever field a believer enters – God will use it to reach those He chooses and puts in their path.
    – This sounds like a sort of lack of trust in Providence. I am not sure about this, but choosing a career because it will pay the bills (not that this is bad, mind you, but subordinate) says that the Lord will not make a way, therefore I must do the thinking and planning for Him.
    – It becomes apparent to the student that their gifts do not line up with an area of study fairly rapidly in college – hence, the massive shifts in focus in the junior year.
    We don’t need to force this.
    Yes, prayer prayer prayer – and then listen, listen, listen. But we step out in faith BEFORE God gives us the neon sign that says this is the right way sometimes – He will use all for good, even if its a mistake. We learn our greatest lessons that way.

    • Thanks for the comment! Like Mike Rowe, I think it’s fine to be passionate about something. But again, the key issue is: for how long, and to what end? If you wanted to pursue a degree in English because you were passionate about it, while perhaps recognizing that you wouldn’t necessarily make a career out of it, I see no inherent problem with that. There would only be a problem if you felt that *because* you were passionate about English, that therefore you should pursue a career in it. That’s the assumption that my post is addressing.

  • If we’re lining our lives up with Psalms 37:1-7, I think we can and should pursue our desires, if not it can be dangerous.

    • I agree it can be a good thing to pursue our passions. But context is key. Some passions, if pursued in the wrong way, might even hurt those around us. Suppose I’m passionate about politics. It might be that pursuing public office isn’t good for my family, or it might be that I won’t make a very good politician. All I’m saying is that other important factors should be considered, beyond what we’re passionate about. Does that make sense?

  • You hit a hot spot for me big time! I serve people in their twenties and thirties that are overwhelmed or unsatisfied in their careers. I have yet to meet ONE person that felt properly guided by their schools and churches (which, are meant to be guides to a person to help them discern a proper fit). The school system preps people for traditional work. Most pastors, have no idea how to serve someone in career burnout or job dissatisfaction. I agree that passion should not be the only reason to pursue a certain career- the talent needs to be there too. On the other side of that, being gifted and having the ability to do something shouldn’t be a reason to stay in or choose a certain career path. I have the ability and talent to do many things, yet I’m not necessarily passionate about them. Your vocation will have all three things present: passion, gifts/talents, and abilities/skills.

  • Sid in Missouri

    I agree that most kids today–me included back in the 1990s when I was in high school and college–get little to no real advice on how to align our skills, temperaments, and abilities with a career that can provide a living. I see the author’s point, which unfortunately some of the other respondents seem to miss. It cannot be ONLY your passion that dictates what you study. Sometimes other factors come into play, such as available time, talent, location, start-up funding, and whether or not the market is currently saturated with people doing what you want to do.

    For example, I once got my real estate license because I wanted to sell real estate for a living. It was touted as a great way to limitless income potential while working with people, helping them find a home they like and fits their budget, and networking with lots of people. Seemed like a perfect fit to what I wanted to do in life.

    But what I learned is that it’s a no-man’s land for the first 2-3 years as you compete with every other bored person who wants to try their hand at selling houses. It’s pretty fast, easy, and cheap in my state to get a license, which means there are LOTS of other newbie agents who are competing with you for listings. Most of them ended up like I did and wash out after the first 2 years.

    You pretty much starve during those initial years while trying to build up your business. Also, it’s not at all exaggerating to say 20% of the agents make 80% of the money. There were some awesome, intelligent, go-getters I met during those years who barely scraped by. Even out of that highly talented, PASSIONATE group of people, only 2 in 10 were getting by on what we’d expect a moderately successful business person would need to live. Most (80%) were making less than $25,000 a year take home pay after expenses, taxes, etc.

    I quickly learned that it wasn’t going to work out. I had a young family at the time and needed something more stable and more immediate income to pay the bills.

    I’ve always been taught God answers prayers in one of three ways: “Yes, No, and Wait.” Clearly God was saying, “Wait a bit…this career isn’t the place for you right now.”

    I still keep that dream tucked in my back pocket and hope to return some day. Right now, I stay involved in real estate through rental property investment and doing some rehabs, but my full time job is as a computer programmer. It’s not my dream job, but I do okay at it and my family is prospering. This way, I can earn a living, indulge my “hobby career”, and perhaps one day return once I have the necessary skills and resources to be successful in it.

    As the poet once said, “Sometime moving up involved a few moves to the side.”

    I think the indicators are pretty clear when God’s ready for you to truly follow your passion in the way events unfold in your life. God isn’t telling me to lead my family out to starve on the street so I can pursue a career as a real estate salesman. Nor, do I believe, would he be pleased if I charged up a bunch of debt to start myself off. Proverbs clearly says, “The borrower is slave to the lenders.” And Romans clearly says, “Let no debt remain outstanding except the debt to love on another.” Therefore, it’s obvious that the resources available for my success will follow God’s ways, not the world’s ways.

    Someday my house will be paid off, my kids thru college, and my retirement account well-funded and I’ll have 6 months of cash in the bank, I may give real estate sales another try then, knowing full well that all the tools are there. Or I may not. As the author says, passions change. In 5 years, I may not care to work the long, odd hours that salesmen work. We’ll see how it is in 5 years.

    So I think everyone should follow their passion: as a career if the exterior signs indicate it’s working out (i.e. sufficient income, daily drive stays strong), but otherwise there’s no shame pursuing it as a hobby or just learning more about it until the time is right.

  • A K

    i really appreciate this article and the perspective it provides to the discussion about work/calling. It is a timely issue for our family with one child preparing to go to college and the adults both out of work, looking for jobs. Thanks a lot.

  • Jason Mitchell

    Dr. Leonard, thank you for this thoughtful and encouraging article. I love seeing people delighting in how God made them and putting their individual uniqueness to work. Passion can be tricky — I think primarily because we are characteristically not very good at knowing ourselves and how God made us. Passion is also emotional. As our emotions and feelings of enthusiasm can ebb and flow, our passion(s) may seem hard to pin down or understand. I am a strong believer that God designs each person intricately, wonderfully, and one of a kind. If this is true, it has profound implications for our life and how we put our unique gifts to work. We also serve a God who calls us. We also converse with a God who has prepared works for us to do. We can be encouraged, I think, that the one who designed us is the same one who calls us is the same one who prepared works for us. And, as this God is a God who reveals himself, it doesn’t have to be a guessing game. We can actually be students of this God, His design of us, and the works He has prepared and called us to carry out. Passion, then, could be educated too. God designed our desires, our gifts, our minds, our bodies, our will; if we steward this design well the result can be a joyful overflow out of our uniqueness that truly serves the needs of others.

    • Thanks everyone, for the kind words. I’m glad you found my article helpful. Cheers! 🙂

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