Work Meditations - Series Title Image

Growing Into Our Careers

bird's-eye view of someone working on a laptop next to a potted plant

A Poem for Gardeners

Tending the soil is such slow work.
You can build faster with bricks
Than seeds. It takes time to weed
Without uprooting. But the latent,
Blooming things are different: they live.

What Does a Career Mean to You?

There’s more than one way to be a careerist.

In high school, I wanted to be a pastor when I grew up. One day, a group of students did a video project interviewing classmates and asking what their ambitions were. I joked that I wanted to lead “the biggest megachurch ever.” After the shoot, my friend Michael said, “Chris, you’re really more of a small church guy, aren’t you?”

“Yeah I am,” I admitted. Even in the ministry world, I knew there was a kind of “climbing the ladder,” certain roles that garnered attention and gave an impression of corporate-style success. But that wasn’t what I was after.

[This week we continue our series of Work Meditations. Check out our other posts on faith and work for more resources on living an integrated Christian life. Subscribe to get the next post in the series in your inbox.]

At the same time, I was no stranger to ambition. Sometimes imagining “my future church” took a turn toward the grandiose.

I didn’t imagine success in terms of the corporate trappings or the attendance numbers of a megachurch. But I did fantasize about how well everything would go if I was in charge. All the things that annoyed me about the pastors I knew—those wouldn’t be true at my church!

In my brand of ambition, I was drawn toward church-planting. If I’m being honest, some of the draw was the promise of not having to “fix someone else’s mess,” which is what I believed inheriting a pastorate would feel like.

To me, the ministry career I imagined meant the freedom to build something the way that only I could build it.

What a Career Gives Back to You

Freedom to build something without fixing someone else’s mess. Crass, but clear: That’s what an entrepreneur gets out of their work.

Contrast that with the lot of the corporate ladder-climber. Since high school, I’ve tracked the upward momentum of a few different classmates, some because we’ve stayed friends, others by snooping around LinkedIn every once in a while.

The co-president of our business club who said it was his aim to make it to the “highest level of decision-making” seems right on track for the C suite at a large media consulting firm. What does he get out of his career?

He doesn’t get freedom from other people’s messes. In corporate life, I’m sure he has to navigate teammates’ strengths and weaknesses all the time. What he gets as he climbs the ladder is the chance to influence things at scale, to make a dent in the world. 

Then there are the homebodies. (I use this term with affection; I’m a homebody myself.) These folks are more likely to switch industries to stay in the same school district than to uproot their families for the sake of a promotion. Their career might involve what looks like hop-scotching on paper, but really what it gives them is stability: the chance to stay rooted, to prioritize long-term commitments outside the job.

Even though their approach to work might look different, the entrepreneur, the ladder-climber, and the homebody are all striking a deal with their careers. They’re giving it something, and they expect it to give something back. Whether it’s freedom, or influence, or stability, there’s a kind of compensation beyond the compensation package that matters deeply to each of them.

The Stakes of Career Twists and Turns

When a career swerves unexpectedly in a new direction, it’s the deal you’ve struck with work that determines what’s at stake.

If you’re an entrepreneur, the worst case scenario isn’t losing your job; it’s losing your shirt and having to go back to the daily grind under someone else’s command.

If you’re a ladder-climber, getting locked out of the next promotion stings like nothing else. 

If you’re a homebody, losing the job that has financially anchored your family’s life can feel like being unmoored at sea.

Sometimes, of course, the change isn’t so dramatic. It can simply feel like your career has stalled out. You’ve got the money and benefits you need, you’re meeting or even exceeding expectations on your team, but you’re not being given more responsibility over time. The deal you’ve struck hasn’t been broken, but if feels like you’re giving more than you’re getting. You’re not growing.

Growing Something on the Inside

Growth is a tricky concept. At one level, “career growth” can simply be code for “making more money.” But at another level, it strikes at the real stakes we face in our careers.

An entrepreneur is growing when they’re learning how to build something that really works.

A ladder-climber is growing when they’re learning how to lead other people toward a common goal.

A homebody is growing when they’re learning how to integrate their job responsibilities with their love for their family and their community.

None of these growth tracks is mutually exclusive either. Even if we lean more strongly toward one or the other, we probably could all stand to grow in all of these ways as occasion arises.

There’s another kind of growth, too, that happens in a hidden way, underneath or even inside of these other types of growth: The kind of human being we’re growing into over time as we do our work.

Are we doing our work with kindness? Are we facing challenges with courage? Are we doing what we do with an aim to serve other people, not just looking out for ourselves?

We’re all growing something on the inside all along the way, in the midst of our ups and downs on the outside. The funny thing about this inward growth is that it is sometimes the most substantial when the other forms of growth are stalled.

We learn patience when we’re waiting, not when we get what we want immediately.

We learn forgiveness when we’ve been hurt or sidelined or locked out.

We learn courage when the things that brought security vanish from sight.

We learn faith when we have to depend on God to meet our needs, instead of the deal we’ve struck with our career.

What We Give Through Our Careers

Regardless of whether your career path has been direct or circuitous, steady or stagnant, the thing that’s in common among all of your jobs is you. You are the common thread.

That means that out of all the things we get back from our careers, the most significant is ourselves. We get the person we’re becoming back from the work that helps make us who we are.

When we strike a deal with our careers, it’s easy to focus on what we’re getting back. Is our compensation—the freedom, the influence, the stability—commensurate with what we’re putting in?

But there’s another way to frame it. Our careers are one of the most important ways we give ourselves to the world. The person who you are becoming serves and blesses and knows and loves other people in the midst of your daily work. The person who you are becoming is made known in your work. The person who you are becoming is alive and real in your work. The person who you are becoming is being shaped by the work you do and how you do it.

When we look back on our careers, there will be a story there of what we gave to other people through our work.

No matter how fragile or stalled or fearful your career looks right now, that’s a story you can keep living in one day at a time. If you do your work to the best of your ability, to serve others, to love God, there will always be a you who is a gift in the work that you do.

In that light, our careers are not so much campaigns to strategize or ladders to climb or projects to build or anchors to fix in place.

None of those things is so bad in and of itself.

But our career is always more than that. It’s something we are growing up into, something that God is giving to the world, misshapen and meandering though it may be.

So keep giving the you that you are becoming today. You’re making a career of it.

Reflect and Practice

Do any of the three approaches to work fit your way of doing things?

  • The entrepreneur
  • The ladder-climber
  • The homebody

How would you name what’s at stake for you in your career?

What do you want your career to give back to you?

How is God shaping who you are becoming through this moment in your career?

What do you want God to do in your career?

Consider memorizing this verse and praying with it about your career plans:

The human mind may devise many plans,

    but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.

Proverbs 19:21 NRSVue

Series photo by Unseen Studio on Unsplash.
Post photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.
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