How To Choose a Career: Advice From a Puritan Pastor

Jeff Haanen

“What am I called to?” That’s the question it seems most of us are asking. My friend Nathan is a pastor of young adults, and without a doubt, nearly everybody he knows hates their jobs. The question “What am I called to?” is often followed by “It can’t be this!”The fact that 70% of Americans are disengaged from their work should be cause for concern. But it should also cause us ask better questions – and seek better answers. History can help. Richard Baxter, a 17th century Puritan pastor, answered just such questions about calling from his flock. But he didn’t answer them the way we would. To wrestle down some answers, he first outlined what can’t be a calling, and then gave some plain advice on how to choose a career.

What Can’t Be a Calling

1. Sinful or unlawful work can’t be a calling. “Think not that a calling can be lawful, when the work of it is sin; nor that you, or your labor, or your gain in an unlawful calling shall be blest.” This may seem obvious, that any form of institutionalized cheating, stealing or oppressing can’t be a response to God’s call. But it’s worth mentioning. What about industries that are legal but morally questionable?  Gambling? For Coloradoans, selling pot? Tobacco? Or at what point have certain industries systematized greed – the accumulation of more – or consumerism – the desire not to have, but simply to purchase? However specific cultures answer these questions, when considering a calling, let’s try to avoid overt sin.2. Just because a job is legal doesn’t mean it can be a calling.“Think not that because a work is lawful, that therefore it is lawful to make a calling of it.”Interestingly enough, Baxter illustrates this point by writing, “It is lawful to jest in time and measure, but not lawful to be a jester as a trade of life.” Well, I think I disagree about his view of comedians, but his point is well taken: just because there’s a market for a particular line of work doesn’t mean we should do it for a career. The question Baxter makes us ask is strange for modern ears: is this job honorable? More to be said about that below…3. Don’t choose a job that drains your soul. “It is not enough that the work of your calling be lawful, nor that it be necessary, but you must take special care also that it be safe, and not very dangerous to your souls.”

Baxter illustrates his point with beer sellers; he says their calling is “lawful and needful” yet depends on people drinking to excess to make significant profit. I live in Colorado, and I’m under 35, which means I’m more likely to agree with Benjamin Franklin most days: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” But again, he’s got a point. Some industries have deep temptations embedded in their nature: high finance can be lured by greed, fashion by vanity, and politics, power. We shouldn’t necessarily avoid these lines of work, but we should ask, “Will the temptations in this job be more than I can handle?”

How to Choose a Career

1. Choose a career that contributes to the public good.“The principal thing to be intended in the choice of a trade or calling for yourselves or children, is the service of God, and the public good, and therefore (other things being equal) that calling which most conduceth to the public good is to be preferred.”Interesting first qualification, isn’t it? It’s not about your college major, your resume, your Meyers-Briggs, a personality profile, or even the hot job opportunities bubbling up on LinkedIn. Find a need, and meet it. Baxter is even willing to name names: pastors, teachers, layers, shepherds, graziers, ploughmen, clothiers, booksellers, tailors, and others employed in work “most necessary to mankind” are to be preferred. I think this list is rather narrow for folks living four hundred years later, but again, point taken. What, then, careers are to be avoided? “Lace-sellers, feather-makers, periwigmakers” and careers that are “a prison and constant calamity to be tied to spend one’s life in doing little good to others, though he should grow rich by it himself.” I take issue with his deprecation of lace-makers (especially those nice laces on doyles), but those dastardly periwigmakers – be rid of them!But seriously, if you’re looking for a career, don’t first think about yourself or your personal dreams! Think about what the world needs and the good of your community. And most of all, think how you can best serve God, and so enjoy a life of great satisfaction employed in doing the greatest good you can with the time you’ve been given.2. If two careers both contribute to the public good, pick spiritual benefit over cash bonuses. “When two callings equally conduce to the public good, and one of them hath the advantage of riches, and the other more advantageous to your souls, the latter must be preferred, and next to the public good, the soul’s advantage must guide your choice.”There’s nothing wrong with earning a good living, but at least first ask the question: which career choice has a better chance of restoring both body and soul in God’s kingdom? Different people will answer this differently, but ask deep, hard questions about the job before you: what does this do to your own soul? Others? And ultimately, which career can I do more good in?3. Choose a career that won’t crush your Sabbath rest. “If it be possible, choose a calling which so exercises the body as not to overwhelm you with cares and labors and deprive you of all leisure for the holy and noble employments of the mind, and which so exercises your mind as to allow you some exercise for the body also.”You need to rest. You need to worship. You need to exercise. You may even need to read a book on a lawn chair with a cup of lemonade here and there. But certain careers by their very nature tend to crush Sabbath. Indeed, some professions make such outrageous claims of time and mental energy on their slaves (I mean, employees) that working 80,90 or 100 hours per week is normal. This just in: God did not design work to function like this! Six days work, one day rest. Choose a career where this rhythm can be observed – at a bare minimum.I agree that at times jobs will make big demands on people. Fair enough. But if careers regularly run people into the ground, then we need to step back and ask ourselves: What really is the vision of a good life I’m pursuing? Some John Coltrane, walks by the river and a slow, home-cooked evening meal ought to be a part of such a vision.Before accepting a job, ask yourself the question: What good is it for a man to gain the whole world but lose his very own soul?4. It’s fine to make a decent salary; choose a job with a reasonable wage.“It is lawful and meet to look at the commodity of your calling in the third place (that is, after the public good, and after your personal good of soul and bodily health).”There’s no sense in getting paid well below market rates or claiming you’re more noble than others because you work for a nonprofit. It’s fine to make a profit, and it’s fine to choose a career where you can support your family and even righteous to have something to share with others. And if we believe the parable of the talents in any literal sense, then we ought to double our money by the time our master returns. Of course, if you make riches your chief goal, you’ve made it an idol. But if they’re #3 on the list or lower, you’re probably on the right track.5. Ask a veteran in that field or company before making a final decision. “Choose no calling (especially if it be of public consequence) without the advice of some judicious, faithful persons of that calling.”Good, commonsense advice. Check the temperature of the water before jumping in by asking somebody who’s already in the pool.So, if you’re looking to make a career change in 2014, take this list to heart as you choose how to spend your most precious resource: your time.

A Summary of Richard Baxter’s Advice on Choosing a Career

What Can’t Be a Calling1. Sinful or unlawful work can’t be a calling.2. Just because a job is legal doesn’t mean it can be a calling.3. Don’t choose a job that drains your soul.

How To Choose a Career

1. Choose a career that contributes to the public good.2. If two careers both contribute to the public good, pick spiritual benefit over cash bonuses.3. Choose a career that won’t crush your Sabbath rest.4. Yes, it’s fine to make a decent salary. Choose a job with a reasonable wage.5. Ask a veteran in that field or company before making a final decision.


Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.


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