The party invitations, regalia rentals, and diploma frames all point to one thing: graduation season. The transition from college to the workforce can be a startling time for many recent graduates.
It’s a transition that brings up questions about purpose, calling, employment, and direction. And while students have sat through hours of lectures and countless exams, many Christians have only a partial understanding of work and its purpose in God’s plan. We wanted to add our voice to countless commencement speakers offering advice to this year’s college graduates.
As you pack up your college apartment and update your resume, here are seven points of encouragement about the next chapter of your story.
People often believe that work is a result of sin and part of God’s punishment of Adam and Eve in the garden. This creates a pessimistic view of work that can lead to dissatisfaction and a lack of purpose.
But a closer look at scripture shows that work was part of God’s design from the beginning (Gen 2:7-15). Work is our opportunity to create and cultivate culture, to reflect the image of God as Creator, and to serve the greater good. While toil in our work can lead to frustration, burnout, broken relationships and setbacks, work is the primary place where we most fully live out our calling.
Throughout your career, you’ll undoubtedly face points of discouragement and places of doubt, along with great successes as you reach professional milestones. It is right and appropriate to take pride in what you do, but it can also be tempting to let your vocation or job or career define your identity.
As Christians, our identity is in Christ, not in our employability or our employer. My move to Colorado several years ago started a long and discouraging season on the job hunt. I found myself in a new city with few professional connections who could speak to my competencies or credentials. I had worked for almost ten years at an organization I loved with a team I enjoyed doing work I was proud of. In those months looking for work, I realized I had placed too much of my identity in what I could accomplish in the eyes of others, instead of who I was as a child of God. Professional successes are the gateway drug to a misplaced identity.
It is easy to fall into the habit of seeing work as a means to an end – it’s how we pay our bills, provide for our families, and spend our time between weekends. But it’s also more than that. From a biblical perspective, work is an act of worship. When God tasked Adam with cultivating and keeping the garden in Genesis 2, the Hebrew word for cultivate, “avodah”, is also translated as “worship,” in addition to to “work,” “service,” or “craftsmanship.”
As Tom Nelson explains, “The various usages of this Hebrew work found first in Genesis 2:15 tell us that God’s original design and desire [was] that our work and our worship would be a seamless way of living. Properly understood, our work is to be thoughtfully woven into the integral fabric of Christian vocation, for God designed and intended our work, our vocational calling, to be an act of God-honoring worship.”
While millennials in the workforce are often maligned (and misunderstood), there are a few positive aspects to this generational shift. More than any previous generation, you likely want to use your skills and abilities for a cause you believe in as part of your career; according to one recent survey, this could be as high as 94% of millennial workers.
There are benefits to this mindset, but it can also lead to passing over opportunities that don’t have an obvious social good component. But if we shift our thinking on work (see #1 and #3 above), every opportunity can be seen as a chance to serve, learn, and grow. And if you struggle to find a greater purpose or social good in your day-to-day role, there are countless ministries, nonprofit organizations, and professional associations that can use your enthusiasm and expertise.
It’s easy to idolize your first professional job out of college, but if trends are any indication, this is just the first step in a (hopefully) long and fulfilling career that will include a variety of employers and job titles. Today, employees spend an average of four years at a job, and will have an average of 12 jobs before they retire. Most of us have a horror story or two about our first job out of college, including some combination of terrible hours, unruly coworkers, or disgruntled customers. Look at these early career stops as learning opportunities that make you grateful for even better jobs down the road. Even in-between or less-than-thrilling jobs have a purpose, and God can use them to shape us and the people around us.
You may have agonized over which course of study to choose, but only about 27% of college graduates work in a job related to their major. Perhaps you’re among the group that knew exactly how you wanted to spend your working years when you started college, but that’s not the case for most of us. Few of us are equipped to choose a career in our late teens or early twenties (especially when you consider that we often get bad advice).
So give yourself some grace if you soon realize that the bachelor’s degree in English was a better idea in college than in the working world (no offense, English majors).
There’s a reason the ceremony is called commencement, marking “a beginning or a start.” Graduation may signal the formal completion of your studies, but learning should be a lifelong endeavor. As you begin to establish yourself in a field or a career, find individuals more senior than you and ask them good questions, network with leaders who have lessons to share, and make reading a priority.
It's certainly appropriate (and expected!) to take some time to celebrate and reflect on the work you’ve accomplished, especially since you join a third of the U.S. population with a bachelor’s degree. But celebration can quickly lead to complacency, so don’t let those habits of learning you’ve developed over the past 16+ get too stale.
Congratulations to all those celebrating this graduation season! We hope that the path ahead is full, fun, reassuring, and exciting. And if the workforce isn’t quite what you expected, there’s always graduate school.
Know a recent graduate who could use this advice? Share this post with them at the links below! If they’re in the Denver area, we’d love to see them at one of our upcoming events.
Dustin previously served as the director of communications for Denver Institute of Faith & Work, with prior communications and marketing experience at the University of Colorado Boulder and Wycliffe Bible Translators. He holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Colorado Denver and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Florida. He and his family attend Storyline Church in Arvada.