My second job after graduating from engineering school was working as a Reservoir Engineering Manager for a small upstream energy company. After five years, our parent corporation decided to sell the company after several years of low oil prices. I had finished my MBA and wanted to use my recently acquired business education. I took a position with Arthur D. Little, a management consultancy. Initially, I assisted my former company with the sale and then did some smaller consulting projects. The energy consulting work then slowed, and I was forced to search for new energy projects. During that first year, I realized that consulting work was not my passion.
I kicked myself for making a career mistake and was very unhappy. I had worked for almost ten years and saw my career going nowhere. I moped around in a funk and called friends seeking advice. The overwhelming advice was to pick myself up and find a better job. I decided that I wanted to work for a large energy corporation that valued both my technical and business skills. Through contacts, I learned that Shell Oil Company’s Supply Department was recruiting engineers with MBAs and I was hired. This melding of skills lasted 24 years until I retired in 2014. It took 10 years and three jobs before I found my career niche. Looking back, I saw my career journey as a windy narrow road that had both beautiful and obstructed vistas. I was driving but was not always in full control and there were many risky decisions to make along the way.
Dr. John A. Bernbaum, Vice-President of the Christian College Coalition, and Simon M. Steer, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, together published a book titled Why Work? Careers and Employment in Biblical Perspective (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1986). They describe a career misunderstanding:
“A confused understanding of calling is the implication that God has a plan for our lives, which we sometimes interpret to mean he has only one right choice for our careers. This can result in great anxiety (will I find the right career, the one God has chosen just for me!) or irresponsibility (I am waiting for God to find me a job!). In the latter case, career decision-making is seen as God’s responsibility, not ours. We therefore make excuses for not assessing our own abilities and interests. The process of choosing a career then becomes mysterious and irrational and we wind up full of anxiety and doubt because our basis for choosing a job is grounded on nothing but vague internal feelings.” (page 83)
Thinking back to this stressful period about 30 years ago, I realized that I lost my confidence and lacked faith, both in God’s providential care and my God-given gifts. During my formative years, I should have contemplated the connection of gifts with the common good. My focus was on my immediate employment situation rather than living a fully integrated life. I needed to expand my definition of vocation. “The New Testament never uses the word which we translate ‘vocation’ to mean an occupation or type of employment. The word is always used in a spiritual sense, in terms of our special calling to be children of God, to be citizens of God’s kingdom.” (page 82) God’s call to a faithful life is our primary calling. Everything else is secondary.
Vocation, which is a Latin-derived word for calling, encompasses all phases of life: family, friends, work, citizenship, leisure, and spiritual. “Our employment is only part of our larger calling in the same way that our worship and leisure activities are. If we belong to Christ, we must serve him in every area of our lives, including our work, our worship, and our recreation. The central issue is this: our jobs are not our vocation. We need to avoid that trap. Our vocation – to be conformed to the likeness of Christ – is much more significant and glorious than our jobs!” (page 83)
My mother had a way of putting life into perspective. When I told her about my unhappiness with energy consulting, she smiled and said, “Well, you have learned something useful: you don’t like working for a consulting firm.” She turned a negative situation into a positive learning experience! She also had over 30 more years of vocational wisdom than her second son. Perhaps I am in the same place today, hoping that future generations will discover the expansive meaning of vocation during their formative years.