Pastors should celebrate when their members break free of the muddled idea that some jobs are sacred while others are secular. To say that there is no sacred/secular divide is not the same thing as saying that all secular pursuits are equally worthy.
Some jobs, we know, are morally out-of-bounds. No preacher worth his salt is going to encourage his congregants to start a brothel, take a job at an “adult” bookstore, or enroll as a mercenary soldier. Hopefully, few Christians need specific instructions to avoid such career paths, but some may need to be challenged about degrees of good—to be encouraged to ask whether the way they are investing their work time (typically 40 hours or more a week) reflects what really matters in light of God’s priorities and the world’s needs.
Church leaders should inspire their congregants to choose jobs that, to the greatest extent possible, offer them the best opportunities for directing their creative talents toward the end of advancing shalom for the common good. Some secular organizations and companies are engaged in putting creativity to work in directions that are substantive for human flourishing; for example, in innovations that advance health or environmental stewardship. However, other secular companies invest their creative energies in ways that simply produce more needless things and new consumer waste. Again, in some companies, creative talent is directed toward the end of finding answers to critical problems in our broken world. In others, creative talent is directed toward providing answers to “problems” that are not really problems (consider the efforts that go into cosmetic changes in packaging or to the creation of new colors of lipstick).
Not All Pursuits Are Equally Worthy
Working for a company that directs the bulk of its creative energy in those kinds of directions isn’t morally wrong. But pastors should ask their parishioners, “Why, as a follower of Christ, would you choose to give your creative talents to these sorts of exercises, when you could employ them instead to businesses or organizations that are meeting genuine needs?” In a world as broken and needy as ours—and with all the talent, privileges, and opportunities that God has granted us in middle- and upper-class America—church leaders should question the validity of believers giving 50 years of their working life toward creating new flavors of dog food or $1,500 sterling silver canisters for tennis balls or gold-plated staples. It’s time to admit that some things are just trivial, and if we can avoid them, we should.
Unlike the bottom billion of the world’s poor, who do the jobs their ancestors before them did in order simply to survive, many believers in middle- and upper-class America have been given the precious gift of vocational choices. They need to be encouraged to choose wisely when they have more than one option. Some believers in today’s downturned economy may not have as many occupational choices as they might have in more prosperous times. Other believers continue to be privileged with multiple job options. The latter do well to remember that “to whom much has been given, of him much will be required” (Luke 14:28).
Vocational Sweet Spot
The “vocational sweet spot” is that place where our gifts and passions intersect with God’s priorities and the world’s needs. To the greatest extent possible, Christians should seek to work there.
I encourage church leaders to invite people to find and live in their vocational sweet spot because of the joy it brings to the worker, the hope it brings to those served, and the glory it brings to God. Simultaneously, in their encouragement, leaders should employ “caveat” language—suggesting that people to the greatest extent possible seek that sweet spot. Such language is imperative because not every congregant can in fact work in their vocational sweet spot, and some who are able to do so may be able only for a limited season of life.
Right now, for example, it’s not hard to imagine that some Christian dad is working in the dog food industry because the salary and benefits are excellent. He needs that job to care well for his family, since it includes a severely handicapped daughter. The dog food company is in the same town as his in-laws, who provide his wife with much-needed respite care. The family relies on his salary alone because mom has her hands full caring for their daughter—as well as their three healthy boys. This couple has no idea what they would have done without the dog food company’s good health insurance policy, which has paid the bulk of expenses for their daughter’s 13 surgeries. Dad may wish he could find work in his vocational sweet spot, but that’s just not realistic now, given his other commitments.
Or consider Sally, another fictional character. She has her eyes resolutely set on her vocational sweet spot: being a family court judge. It’s a terrific career goal from a kingdom perspective. Such judges have enormous opportunity to do good. They have significant influence on the lives of abused children, kids in foster care, and the like. Sally’s aspirations are laudable—but she will not spend her entire career as a family court judge. It’s going to take some time to get there. She’ll likely spend a season as a law student, then as a law clerk, and then perhaps as an attorney in a practice related to family law. She might not reach her vocational sweet spot until she’s 45 or 50 years old, if then.
Understand the Seasons
It’s important to remember that we live our lives in seasons, and that our lives are about more than just work. Right now, some people in your congregation may not be working in jobs or careers that, in an ideal world, make the best use of their God-given talents. Perhaps, for example, the job works for the individual in terms of balancing family and career. Or perhaps the job is located where the individual needs to be so he can take care of his elderly parents. Perhaps the individual’s physical or emotional health has been compromised for a season, and this job is a good fit. Or perhaps he just can’t find the job he really wants in today’s downturned economy.
In situations like these—and others we could imagine—working within the vocational sweet spot is not a given. So pastors must be careful not to make parishioners feel guilty when, for any number of legitimate reasons, they are not able to be in that sweet spot.