Some time ago, a friend in "a world city" told me that some of the people in their church who have the hardest time, vocationally speaking, are "28-year-old"s working in big corporations. They are no longer novices. They are set on a career, but they don't really have any significant institutional power yet. They are caught in middle positions where they work very hard, but they must conform very closely to institutional expectations if they want to keep their jobs and build their careers. They have limited opportunities to offer leadership or take initiative . . . and their dreams of changing the world—of making a difference—are turning a little stale.
That conversation inspired us to pull together a symposium of encouragement and advice for "28-year-old"s who believe that they are called to live in the city—and who are doing so, but who are discouraged and confused by the challenges they and their cohort are experiencing—in corporate life, city administration or politics, education, film and other media, the arts, or whatever their areas of work.
Today, Comment concludes its series Finding our way to great work with a broad array of advice for our young adult readers, trying to live and work in the city.
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Being salt and light in big organizations and big cities comes with all the challenges of climbing a mid-size mountain. You need a good community of close friends with you to help you make the climb. Who are the trusted ones you want by your side who can challenge you, work through the hard questions with you, and help you live your convictions even when it hurts?
I sought out wise spiritual voices and "holy companions" to share life with who help me develop and practice a spirituality for "a long obedience in the same direction." These close friends, nearby and across the miles, are committed to living a shared way of life and longing for "Kingdom come" in the face of frustrations and broken systems. With these kindred spirits I can taste the life that is really life at work, at home, and in the world.
Although sometimes such a person is hard to find, it is also essential to find a good mentor who knows your field and its challenges. More than just a friend, your mentor can help you discern which professional norms to accept and which to question and work to reform as you gain experience and competence over the years.
Director, Civitas Programs for Leadership in Faith and Public Affairs
Center for Public Justice
In my late 20's, when I was experiencing frustration that my work (as a software engineer) was self-serving and seemed disconnected from my faith, a friend recommended a book which launched me onto a long journey towards vocational integration. That book was Your Work Matters to God by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks. It taught me that the workplace need not be merely a platform for evangelism, or for proving that Christians can be just as good workers as the next person, nor a means of earning money to do real kingdom work. God does not more highly esteem those in "full-time Christian work." Rather, there is inherent value in all good work.
It has taken me a long time to realize that I didn't have to make a dramatic change in the world for my work to be worth doing. All I needed to do was improve the life of one person. I am reminded of the parable of the child tossing starfish into the ocean one after the other. An adult comes along and says, "What are you doing? There are thousands of starfish that die on the beach. There is no way you can throw them all back into the sea." The child replies, " I might not be able to make much difference, but for this one, it makes all the difference in the world." I also remember hearing a story that has forever changed my attitude towards work: The furniture-makers in a certain region (which I cannot recall) are fine craftsmen. They carve and inlay the wood beautifully. But the amazing thing is that the back of an armoire which lies up against the wall is just as artistically finished as the front, even though nobody will ever see it. The artisans know that God will see it, so they put all their skill and pride into it. You might feel like the tiniest cog in the wheel at a big company, someone whose job is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but your work matters to God and to at least one customer or co-worker made in his image. Do it to the best of your ability, because for that one, it will make all the difference in the world.
Writer, teacher, photographer and computer consultant
Consider yourself to be in a time of training and preparation: Life has many seasons, and it is important to grow in each one of them. As my grandfather explained it to me, "Live today. Don't wish your life away." There are some wonderful opportunities to thrive where you are, and build a base for future growth. If you are in middle management, for instance, you have a more direct line to the end customer, which makes you the best liaison between what the organization does and what the customer needs. When middle managers get a reputation as a company person or bureaucrat (in the worst sense of the word), it is because they do not understand this fact.
You are also in an ideal time of life to learn "followership," although our fallen nature seems to cause us to fight this. Great leaders know how to follow well, and know the value of submitting to authority. I argue that if you have never been able to follow well, you will never learn to lead well. Being a good follower means watching the culture of your organization and learning from its patterns, but it also means that you must never, never, never compromise your values or your faith. Be alert to the things going on around you, and ask yourself key questions, such as How did our ingrained practices come about in the first place? What forces drove us to take on certain behaviours, or even our place in the broader market? How does meaningful change get implemented here, even in small ways? What lies behind the decisions of upper level leadership? (Hope? Fear? Protection? Ethics? Greed? Justice?) Try to make sense of all that is going on around you, and help others make sense of things as well.
Seek out—and pray for—likeminded people who share your vision for transformation in your workplace. Church is important, yes, but if God is really in the business of redeeming all of creation, then you need a cadre of loyal yokefellows to join you in your journey. Finally, be patient and choose to build character over accomplishment. It has been my experience that if you are open to God's leading and the lessons he wants to teach you now, you will be ready to lead and serve when he calls you in the future.
—L. J. "Sam" Helgerson
Writer and consultant
Great Ridge Group, Inc.
As a culture, we are quite fixated on the concept of career. Often, career is connected to "making a difference"—leaving our marks however small, through our work leaving the world a better place. For many of us, career means being a desk jockey, working toward someone else's agenda, or for another's profit. Even in the smallest company, with the most nurturing culture, we are cogs, and easily replaceable at that.
I joined the fun rather late, at age twenty-seven, after spending the years after college running a small rock-climbing gym in Pittsburgh. My wife and I had already made the decision to stay put (her family was a recent transplant, and mine had roots several generations deep). The work at the gym had grown stale—I had done what I could, and it was time to move on. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up a copy of Programming Perl and learned the craft of computer programming (I have degrees in philosophy and writing, and I was computer illiterate for much of college). A few months later I was fortunate enough to find another self-taught programmer willing to take me on as an apprentice of sorts. Eight years later, I am a senior developer at a local company.
Over those years, I have struggled to remain in the city, not as a resident, but as a worker. I have turned down positions and opportunities because they would require that I give up my bicycle for a car. Most recently, an employer moved well outside the city, and after trying the forty-mile, round-trip commute on my bike, I left, finding work in the city only a few miles from our house. Along the way I have put aside certain delusions of grandeur—it is unlikely I will change the world with a computer program (and often I wonder if I am simply making things worse). This isn't to say I can't glorify God in my work, or that I see my craft as drudgery, but I have accepted that it is not through my work that I necessarily wish to be remembered. I am, first and foremost, a husband and father, a neighbour, and a friend. These things mark more decisively who I am, and how I wish to be remembered.
Gideon Strauss (editor of this journal) has a motto on his website that includes these sentences: "Enabling whole-hearted work. Equipping worldchanging organizations." For some, these two are one in the same. But for most of us, especially those in the corporate sector, they are two distinct tasks. Yes, our work matters, but we can change the world right where we are—in our homes, our neighbourhoods, our churches. Wendell Berry, the poet of Kentucky, recently said as much in a recent speech at Bellarmine University:
And so you must refuse to accept the common delusion that a career is an adequate context for a life. The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it. But I can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. I can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighbourhood, a community, an ecosystem, a watershed, a place, meeting your responsibilities to all those things to which you belong.
Though Berry was speaking to college graduates, his advice can (and should) be heeded by all of us.
I think three of the things that have been sustaining me through what has been called 'the quarterlife crisis' most significantly have been, taking Sabbath seriously, being rooted in a neighbourhood and cultivating a diverse but kindred community that consists of people of all ages. I mean "Sabbath" in a broader sense of activity—finding the things that rejuvenate and delight us and doing them regularly—as well as in the particular sense of taking one day and setting it aside as a day of rest for the Lord. In this practice, I gain perspective on the significance (and insignificance) of my work in the Kingdom and simply remember how to be.
As far as being rooted in a place, I always think of Steven Garber's advice to choose a neighbourhood first, and then choose a job. When we work, play, live, and worship all in different places that require driving, our lives feel fragmented, we abuse the environment and we feel exhausted from trying to piece together a sense of complete community in our lives. Being rooted in neighbourhood might require sacrifice—moving closer to church or work, for example, or even shopping at a less desirable grocery store—but it can also be richly rewarding to discover the gifts of a particular geographical location in people and places and practices. There's much to surprise and inspire us when we look (and live) closely.
And finally, belonging to a multi-generational community is not something I valued until it naturally occurred to me. Having younger friends has helped to sustain my enthusiasm for visionary change and attentiveness to play, while having older friends has contributed great wisdom and hope to that enthusiasm. I am constantly reminded both to dream big and to start small, both to speak criticism into the broken systems of the world and to grow tomatoes on my back porch in radical hope and protest.
—Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma
At age twenty-eight—or thirty-three—one can't expect to be in a position of great power and influence. Yes, there are a few fields, such as mathematics or music, where prodigies might be at the world-class level by age twenty-eight, or even well before that age. One even occasionally hears of the budding young economist who has already come up with stunning insights in his twenties. But for most of us—whether we work for a business, law firm, non-profit organization, government, academia, or what-not—our twenties and thirties are usually a time for paying one's dues.
This can be a bit dispiriting. Perhaps you've just come out of a university setting where you studied the works and thoughts of great minds, and you aspire to produce something on the same level. Or perhaps you see those people in the business world who are in positions of great power and influence, and you think, "If only I were in their shoes, what good I could do."
But there are few shortcuts in life. If you aspire to be a leader in your field when you're in your fifties and sixties, you need to do a good job at the tasks that you are given now—however menial they might seem. Only when you prove yourself worthy in small things will people in your field trust you with great things.
At the same time, don't spend too much time worrying about whether you will ever do "great" things. Think of the unknown artists who spent untold amounts of time carving pieces of wood that would be placed high in a balcony in a cathedral—where very few people would ever see—and yet they did their level best. Did they achieve great fame and glory for themselves? No. But they still produced good work. I find that inspiring. Do a good job in whatever task comes your way, and you may have glorified God, even if no one but God ever knows.
I think the hardest part being gifted and ambitious for God and His world is the phase of life that I call: "talent waiting for character development to catch up." This is difficult, because we don't recognize our own character development needs until well after we're passed them. There is deep value in the season of what we might deem low-level service, and invisibility. Sometimes we experience that stage of life as a season of purposelessness, but in my view, it is an "in due season, they bear fruit" stage. Things are growing, being nourished and ripened that only time in the trenches can produce. Our younger years are also seasons of growing new family life. Foundations for marriage and children can only be laid once; there are decades ahead to finish the steps up toward the circle of influence. That being said, I would recommend that while you're in the trenches, work and dress daily for the job you want, not the job you have. Value education, relationships networking, excellence, punctuality, and being the person who finds solutions, not problems. Your worth and character will shine above the crowd.
Executive Producer, Listen Up! TV
Commentary writer, The Globe and Mail
Advice to a "28-year-old" Christian in business? First, enjoy being twenty-eight—it won't last forever! Joking aside, my advice is to be wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. Work at discerning which are issues you fight for—maybe even resign over; which issues you debate but on which you accept compromise; and the issues you choose not to fight over and live with quietly. There are a lot of unfair and bad things in the world; you cannot conquer or fix every one of them. Pick your fights wisely. To get good at this, find an older Christian mentor outside your firm, and develop a circle of Christian friends (also outside your firm) with whom you can openly discuss these difficult decisions. Make sure you are becoming the person God wants you to be, and not the person the world wants you to be.
—David W. Miller
Executive Director, Yale Center for Faith & Culture
Assistant Professor (Adjunct) Business Ethics, Yale University
In earlier years when I had positions that had little latitude for formative influence, I can recall the encouragement I took from Paul's admonition in Ephesians 6:7 to "serve wholeheartedly as if you are serving the Lord, not men." This was, of course, written to slaves, and I felt somewhat like one at times. But it reminded me that positive, wholehearted service, even if not on my terms, was nevertheless my Christian duty and something that God would bless. So my attitude became: "Be faithful in the little things, and the Lord will bring the bigger things in his time." And I have found that confidence and respect earned over time provides room, carefully discerned, to offer constructive, alternative suggestions even on small matters. It provides the interpersonal context within which latitude for greater obedience becomes possible. Perhaps this is the essence of Christian historical action, moving toward the more normative rather than seeking some kind of ahistorical transformation. May the Lord grant patience and wisdom.
President, Redeemer University College
When I was twenty-eight, I became addicted to ESPN fantasy baseball, the internet, and video games like Quake and Duke Nukem. I stayed up late watching cable sometimes till two or three in the morning. I started seeing a therapist, but it didn't help because the problem was deeper than either of us suspected. A realization was beginning to set in that my youthful dreams of being a cultural revolutionary weren't going to come true—or rather, whether they came true or not, every day would still be simply another day. Each accomplishment would be part of the fabric of my normal life, and once I'd achieved it, it would seem like something ordinary, expected. I remember having a long feature essay published in the local independent newspaper and being paid $500 for it, which was a lot for me at the time. Heck, it's a lot now. But when I saw the piece in print in a beautiful graphic treatment, I felt no pride. I was still happy with the piece, in theory; my mind was happy but my heart was bleak. I think that was when I became an adult. My zeal for what I was doing began to collapse, and it took several years for me to regain a vision for my work and life.
But it is a different kind of vision now, a more practical, feasible thing. I work more systematically and I am less romantic. I think it's a good thing—a necessary thing—to lose one's romantic vision of life. You don't have to become pessimistic. Just stop looking for ecstasy or fame or even the satisfaction of having made a difference. You'll find those things on this earth, if in smaller portions than you expect, and in the end you will have made a difference, even if it isn't the one you'd planned to make. For now just be sure to return phone calls and emails promptly. Be responsible. Don't drink too much, don't do drugs, and don't sleep with your coworkers. The future will arrive one day at a time.
Department of English, Saint Louis University
I am twenty-eight years old, and I resigned from my position as a Business Analyst of a large Canadian corporation after working there for 4 ½ years. It wasn't for lack of responsibility, recognition, respect, freedom or leadership opportunities. It wasn't to pursue status, wealth or stability. God was calling me out of the comfort of a great job with wonderful co-workers and friends to serve Him in a new way. I'm not entirely sure what this service looks like but my husband and I are heading to Ghana, Africa for the next four months. We are leaving our home, our family, our friends, our church and most things that are familiar behind to follow Him, and we're excited.
We've met many people who say they wish they were able to do something similar. Upon hearing their desire, I always want to ask, "What's stopping you?" There are many excuses that I could have used to convince myself that working for a corporation was where I should be. We have a mortgage to pay; we need a stable income because my husband is self-employed, and it would be too difficult to tell parents, friends and co-workers that I wanted to trade my well-paying and stable job for a life that will require trust, faith and obedience more than I've allowed or experienced in the past. I wrestled with taking a leave of absence. Wasn't I still showing faith by leaving my position and facing uncertainty upon my return to work? Not if I wanted to be obedient to God. I don't know what will happen when we return from Africa but I am confident and excited about how God will provide for us and transform us.
One of the challenges of becoming established in a large corporate setting within a large city setting, as you have identified, is the loss of the opportunities that may well have been available had the candidate chosen a smaller institutional setting in a smaller urban or even a rural setting. We suggest, though, that living with a small town ethic may well provide the solution to the dilemma in which your young urban adults find themselves.
Frustrated, young, urban, corporately-embedded adults might spend some time imaging the institutions and organizations that would have captured their time and attention had they chosen to immerse themselves in a rural setting at this point in their lives. Well-educated, energetic, caring, young adults with a vision for local renewal who chose to live in a rural or small town setting may experience profound vocational success, yet they will find that not all of their contributions or opportunities for displaying initiative or leadership will be employment related.
The small-town in rural Ontario in which my husband and I lived and worked when we were in our late twenties—he as a consultant for a business advocacy think tank and I as a secondary school teacher at the local public school—warmly embraced our contributions. Vocationally we experienced sound career opportunities because of our willingness to live in a small setting but our leadership and initiative were given full expression not in our jobs but rather in the ways in which we immersed ourselves in community organizations, service clubs, and political forums. Our fellow townspeople elected my husband as a municipal counselor, young as he was, in part, because of the initiative, care, and leadership we demonstrated in local activities. These ranged from late nights with the local firefighters flooding an outdoor ice rink in mid-winter to springtime tree plantings along the main street with local municipal employees, and from arranging a summer kite festival to organizing exciting autumn church programs—all of which captured the enthusiasm of children and adults alike.
With an eye to the small, the practical, and the local, no matter where they are positioned vocationally young adults can find meaningful, even life-changing, fulfillment and opportunity that will offer a forum for leadership, initiative, and satisfaction. Not only will such small, practical, and local community achievements satisfy current cravings but living as a young urban adult with a small town ethic will profoundly and positively inform commitments and possibilities in later vocational stages.
It was a huge decision, but once I got started I found out that I was pretty good at it and the business began to grow. The part I enjoyed the most was determining my own schedule, developing the self-discipline and personal responsibility to stick with it, and the blessing of creating more time to raise our family.
Twenty odd years later at the age of fifty I was able to walk away from the empire I'd built to pursue the work of evangelistic missions. With my confidence shifting from my own ability to God's ability, the past few years have been more exciting and challenging than I can tell you in one short paragraph.
Along the way, I've learned you have to pursue your dreams of making a difference with all the passion and commitment you can find. Wait on God, hear His call, and be obedient to follow Him—it's never too late, you can do it!
Executive Director, MissionFest
The trouble with life is that we understand it backwards, but we must live it forward. That's especially true in relationship of our careers and our families. We start out expecting to change things in the Big World, and most of us have some sort of plan to get established, rise quickly in our professions, and make a name for ourselves. We accumulate spouses, children and friends almost absent-mindedly. Yet, in the last half of our lives—the years after forty being just as long as those prior—children and grandchildren become increasingly important, eventually the only thing important. It's a sad irony that the Rising Stars of youth set themselves up for misery in their forties, fifties and ever after, when their long-neglected families fall apart. Fortunately for most of us, the disillusionments of our twenties and thirties leave us more balanced, more appreciative of our gifts, and even more productive in our jobs.
Writer, former Editor, Calgary Herald
I know a gifted 28-year-old Christian woman with a Ph.D. who went to work in a corporation headquarters office with intent to reform its cut-throat business ethic from the inside. Headway did not seem possible among the entrenched male hierarchy; so after some time she asked and received an assignment to one of its African subsidiary offices, hoping to alter its global practices locally somewhere. Because of the danger outside the corporation's African compound, it was almost like being imprisoned in a Western satellite world. Because of increased rioting and civil war in the nation there, she was eventually forced after a time to return to Western Europe. Impasse.
I know a gifted 30-year-old deep-pressure physicist who did research for a big engineering company and secured important patents for them. He kept personal copies of all his investigations and successes, so he could take that knowledge with him if and when the company became unbearable or found him expendable. He ended up as a professor in a large American university where there was a little more room for him to breathe non-commercialized air.
And I know a gifted 50-year-old architect who has worked many years in a fairly normative worldwide name architectural firm. Sometime ago he began to get together in a pick-up Bible study with a couple of his other colleagues in the firm. The bi-monthly gathering is interdenominational, discussional, and mixed together with multiethnic lunch food, and has measurably cheered the "atmosphere" in the collegial floors of the skyscraper where they all work.
Since I have never had to work in a hard-boiled, army-like, regimented corporate setup, my counsel cannot be firsthand and experiential. (To live and work in small-time "Christian" organizations is not necessarily any less liable to the stymieing meanness of sin.)
My thought would be for a bright, young, educated person with a mid-level position in a successful Western corporation in a large city:
If you have the gift to be an investigative reporter, keep notes and bide your time patiently, doing honest work in a sprawling organization, not to be just a "whistle blower," but to speak out to the public about injustice or just-doing at a cost, with savvy, from the inside, when there is an opportunity to be heard.
If you have the gift to make sound policy decisions, despite the cut-throat world, give away your wisdom where it can regenerate a more normative direction in sales or design or management, and await God's surprises of blessing.
If you are not strong enough to withstand being in Babel-Babylon, leave by a side door and join forces with Habitat for Humanity, World Vision, or an NGO with a conscience for lifting up the poor and the outcasts hunkered down in the city you inhabit somewhere in God's world.
Professor Emeritus in Aesthetics, Institute for Christian Studies
To the kind of person you describe, I would say the following: God has positioned you to be a salting salt in our culture, even though you may think that you presently have little scope for making a difference for his kingdom. Be faithful, and settle in for the long haul. In the mean time, seek out contact with other believers in a similar situation to yours for mutual encouragement and inspiration. Use your church connections to form a group that meets regularly to discuss the challenges and opportunities which face you in your line of work. Read books together; listen to speakers together; pray together; eat together. Be intentional about this, and be alert to doors that God may be opening for you and those in your group. In short, be part of a revolutionary cell—well, anti-revolutionary, actually—for the sake of the kingdom. If one doesn't exist, help to form one; if you don't have that kind of gift, seek out someone who does. Apply the parable of the minas (Luke 19) to yourself and others like you.
Professor of Religion & Theology, Redeemer University College and author of Creation Regained
"They also serve who only stand and wait." John Milton penned these words back in the 17th century to end his poetic meditation on the blindness that has struck him in his forties. Imagine the frustrations of an accomplished writer, poet, public and political figure who, at the height of his career, was reduced to the disabled list. My own personal frustrations have never come close to that. Yet, Milton did not allow his frustrations in life and career to get the better of him. He concluded his poem with the vision that every kind of service rendered to God is meaningful, even if it is merely standing and waiting. A few lines before in the poem, Milton also surmised that "who best bear [God's] mild yoke, they serve him best." Although I am not sure if I would have called blindness a "mild yoke," I have tried to live by these wise words myself.
Facing frustrations and challenges in our lives—our mild yokes—is still part of our living before the face of God, and part of our service to him with all our lives. It might seem insignificant, it might seem unproductive, and it might seem that positive change is so very far away, yet these times are not without their purpose in the big scheme of things under God's providence. Worthy of note is that Milton only found the time to write his great Paradise Lost (for which he is more famous than his political writings) during his blindness. Seemingly unproductive situations could be opportunities for a different kind of fruitfulness. Take time to look for them.
Christian Reformed Campus Minister, York University
How to persevere and live faithfully in a culture marked by a neopagan mindset and life style? The first thing always to keep in mind is that the Triune God who made the world and everything in it will not allow the Evil One to destroy his creation. His Kingdom of righteousness and justice has come and is coming despite all the forces arrayed against it. Meanwhile, in the ongoing battle between the kingdom of light and darkness, all Christ-followers are called to put on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6). Though things sometimes appear dark and hopeless, we are moving toward the future in which all things in heaven and on earth will be made new.
In contemplating our place and task in the world here and now, we need to guard against two extremes: an overzealous, triumphalist outlook that is bound to end in disillusionment, as well as a cynical, world-weary sense of futility. Two practical things must be foremost in our minds and efforts. One, to combat our sense of powerlessness, we must ask God to fill us with his spirit of power and wisdom so that we do not rely on our own strength and abilities. Two, to overcome our sense of loneliness and discouragement, we must seek the fellowship of other Christians, not only in a church setting but also in our professions and other non-church activities. Always remember the words of the teacher:
Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
don't try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God's voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
he's the one who will keep you on track.
—Proverbs 3: 5-6, The Message
Founder, Comment Magazine
Keep this in mind: God wants His people in business. If He is sovereign (and He is), then it cannot be a mistake that the majority of God's people spend the overwhelming majority of their time doing business. It is, when properly viewed, a redemptive institution. Business, if it is to succeed, must serve others. It must, in the technical sense of the word, do ministry. Every day remember that business—more than any social institution—makes the world safer, healthier, smarter, and more fulfilled. Doing business therefore is how you love your neighbor (not merely at the office)—by providing a product that improves their lives; by providing jobs that create wealth (business, not non-profits, are the only hope for the poor); by creating new markets that provide even greater opportunities, by using God-given talents in the service of others (colleagues, suppliers, and customers), and by providing a forum where others can use theirs.
Keep a biblical view of money—and by extension, profits. Recognize that money fuels growth, which expands your wherewithal to serve. Remember this, too: when the kingdom comes, man's work in the world will continue. Work will not disappear, but the sin that plagues it will. Make it your aim then, to bring the kingdom—to do business without sin, to work without greed, selfish ambition, or envy. View business as an instrument of the kingdom, and see if your work doesn't become more fulfilling—at every level within the corporation.
Editor, byFaith Magazine