A vocational tale of woe and jubilation

Bridge picture from Curious Photos
I began thinking about life direction when a middle school drafting teacher showed appreciation for my drawings. I was an average student but I liked the work well enough that perhaps I heard more praise than was actually there. In high school, I took every architectural and engineering Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) class available. With three or four of those under my belt, and a few miniaturized balsa wood structures glued and tested with satisfying results, I finally decided I would be an architect.

I was a junior and relatively clueless.

During my senior year, I turned down an opportunity to work part-time in a real drafting firm, opting for more CAD classes instead. College quickly approached, and because I really had no idea what being an architect meant, I agreed to try civil engineering (Okay, so the school didn't offer architecture). Besides, I was promised we would make bridges in class - just like in high school! Perhaps this desire to simply extend high school, as well as my refusal to take the drafting firm job, were early yet unrecognized clues that I didn't want to be either an architect or an engineer. I just liked the fun parts.

Discovery in the library

By the second year of college, I knew clearly that I should surrender this now thread of a career dream. Feeling suddenly directionless and pressed for time, I scanned the library shelves for a book on careers. I found a thick volume containing every job known to employees, with accompanying descriptions and average expected pay. In one hour I made my decision. I would become a Spanish teacher.

I told some of the Spanish teacher story in On Earth as It is in Advertising, and I've shared it with many audiences, so suffice it to say that as much as I enjoyed and continue to enjoy the language, I initially chose the profession simply because I liked my 10th-grade Spanish teacher.

That's it.

Superficial reasons for decisions along the way embarrass me to some degree now, though I don't feel alone in this. Having worked with college students for the past 13 years, I see similar patterns over and over again.

Quitting on the kids

I graduated in 1996 with a BS in Spanish Education and entered the public school system for three years. And now I get to my biggest regret to date: I had no idea that faith ought to inform vocation. There I was, a white high school teacher with no white students in perhaps the toughest school in Pittsburgh, and I saw absolutely no connection between a) what the kids really needed and b) vocabulary lists for soccer, beaches and international travel. With no vision (or even awareness that there was vision to be had), I left.

Ironically/Providentially, I landed in the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) where they specialize in helping college students think about faith and vocation. Funny thing is, it took nearly seven years working in the CCO before I thought one bit about this topic as it applies to my former inner city teaching job.

Jubilee epiphany

He was a German teacher from Michigan. It was my seventh Jubilee, a conference on work and faith hosted by the CCO, and for the first time, there was a breakout session for foreign language majors. I decided to attend. The German teacher wasn't riveting, nor particularly ingenious. But after seven years of preaching the importance of faith informing work in chemistry labs, cadaver classes, Work and Faith conferences, articles and countless other venues, here I sat, listening, with rapt attention, to what the Christian faith had to say about teaching foreign language.

I know, I know. Obvious, right? But it wasn't. That afternoon, I began to panic. Regret over missed opportunities flooded my brain. I questioned whether I could continue with the job I loved in the CCO. Visions of burning those out-of-context Spanish textbooks entered my imagination and I saw myself in the old job marching into the Board of Education building, calling for change.

That Jubilee afternoon with the German teacher was the day I really "got it." Everything I had experienced and learned suddenly connected and, though I didn't really have all the answers and still don't, I gained a specific passion that day to help others connect what they do with why they do it; to help students study their faith as much as they study their major; to help employees integrate faith and work in a way that is biblically and theologically sound.

I stuck with the CCO. It took mentors I admire to calm me down and show me that God has timing I cannot trump. There was no way to go back and I had to come to terms with that reality.

I'll be heading back to Jubilee for my 12th year on February 18-20, and while I can't promise that anything miraculous will happen to you if you go, I can assure you that whether you're a student or a seasoned professional, you'll be inspired to renew your vocation.

Read more about Jubilee here, or find an invitation here at The High Calling - a site about life, work and God.   


Anonymous,  January 18, 2011 at 9:12 PM  

cool photo.

made the mistake of clicking on curious photos...it was an instant party.

speaking of party, that is what most of the college kids were doing at SIU carbondale when i was there in the 70's.

wow, your 12th year at jubilee. i wonder what you will learn this year? :-)

Karyn January 18, 2011 at 9:16 PM  

Sam, it is so cool to hear that story and to be encouraged that God's timing with His involvement, at just the right time, is what matters. Thanks for sharing.

Sam Van Eman January 18, 2011 at 9:19 PM  

Oh, I hope the instant party wasn't distasteful. I never did click around. Got a bridge photo link from Google and left. Let me know and I'll change it.

What will I learn this year? No idea. Every year I connect differently. Have you ever sat through a sermon when a line is spoken that freezes your ability to pay any more attention? When you spend the remainder of the service contemplating that one thought?

Something similar happens to me at Jubilee. A theme emerges and I find myself dwelling on it, developing it in me and in community over the course of the weekend. Funny how the Spirit moves like that.

Sam Van Eman January 18, 2011 at 9:30 PM  

Something powerful in the telling of our stories, Karyn. No doubt that's why God had the people remember.

Thanks for reading.

David Rupert January 19, 2011 at 4:43 PM  

Sadly, for most of us, we never gave 'vocation' a second thought when it came to career choice. We just stumbled, bumbled into life -- and still, God finds a way to bless us

Sam Van Eman January 19, 2011 at 5:04 PM  

Stumbled and bumbled is a good way to put it, David. I'll probably look back on today (when I think I'm thinking clearly) and see it as just more of the same stumbling and bumbling.

By the grace of God!

LivewithFlair January 22, 2011 at 6:41 PM  

I was torn between Teach For America and going to graduate school to be an English professor. A wise woman called and told me that anyone could teach for TFA but only a few people could get into graduate school and earn the Ph.D. She challenged me to use the gifts God gave me and consider "what I alone could do." I went to grad school. That concept still governs how I make choices in my career. I ask myself: Am I uniquely gifted for this?

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