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University students often face a challenging number of life-changing choices during their brief time on campus. I often joke with my incoming freshmen that during my time as a college student, I decided on which university I would attend (twice), what major I would pursue (again twice), where I would live (three times), where I would start my career (twice), and whom I would marry (mercifully, only once). One of the great privileges of serving in a Christian university is the opportunity to help students approach these difficult choices with prayer and spiritual guidance. It is in that context that many of us find ourselves advising students on how to identify and pursue their professional calling.

Some universities make significant investments in this process. Pepperdine University offers a comprehensive program to help students identify their calling1 and my home university has hard-wired a similar effort into its accreditor-required Quality Enhancement Plan. Discipling students in this context is one of the more valuable services we can render to them. There are, however, pitfalls for the unwary in this effort. If faculty and others giving guidance to students do not keep the relational center of Christianity at the forefront, we can steer students into a future where they find neither professional satisfaction nor Christian fulfillment.

There is no doubt that students need help shaping their futures. I am certainly not the only student to change majors or add new ones. College Aftermath reports that 80% of college students change majors for a variety of reasons.2 Some students experience a change of interests during their college years, discovering new areas of competence or curiosity. Others may continue to love their discipline but find the learning environment for that subject in their particular university to be a bad fit. The biggest reason may be that, during their time in college, students simply “grow up” and begin to think about their futures independently from their parents and others who influenced their early choice of major or career. It is a perfect opportunity for Christian faculty and staff, particularly those serving at Christian universities, to invite students to consider God’s will for their lives. Various Christian traditions can take different positions on the role God wants to play in a person choosing his or her vocation, but all of them would agree that a young person would do well to engage the Lord in that conversation.

The modern student’s challenge of discerning his or her vocational calling is a relatively new phenomenon. The New Testament concept of “calling” predominantly focuses on the call to Christian discipleship (Matthew 4:18–22; 2 Peter 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:11). The pre-reformation church generally limited the concept of calling to those in religious orders. Martin Luther and John Calvin extended the notion of calling to include any honest work performed by the Christian, but until the modern era, the choice of occupation for men was generally governed by the family trade and was even more limited for women.3

Mercifully for faculty seeking to assist students in the effort to identify their callings, there has been an explosion of research in the area and much of it has been encouraging. Dobrow and colleagues performed a meta study of the prevailing literature and found a sense of calling positively corelated with job satisfaction, self-efficacy, and engagement with one’s work.4 Associating calling with work has also been found to be widespread, at least in the US. White and colleagues found that 43% of their survey respondents agreed with the proposition that they were called to a particular kind of work.5

Christian faculty and staff can help students in their choice of vocation by encouraging them to reflect on how they have seen God engage their work in time past. Doug Koskela provides a helpful tripartite approach to the concept of calling by differentiating a student’s general calling (to discipleship), missional calling (to vocation), and direct calling (to a task or position).6 The missional calling, Koskela claims, can be informed by reflecting on how God has gifted a student and how He has used that student in the past.

The lurking problem for those trying to disciple students in their choice of vocation does not lie in the disciplers but in the disciples. Many students absolutely want to know God’s will for their lives, but they have lots of different reasons for wanting to know it. Some Christian students love the Lord and want to prioritize their relationship with him in all their choices, including their choice of vocation. They may be willing to take on majors and careers that they find less personally fulfilling or more challenging if they become convinced it is what God requires of them. Other students, however, may have more instrumental views on knowing God’s calling. Facing the firehose of life-shaping decisions pointed at them during their college years, many may just want to nail down a successful professional future, and deferring the decision to God sounds like the safest way to do it.

Sadly, the faith of many college students may look more like moralistic therapeutic deism7 than the biblical picture of Christianity described in Luke 9:23, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (NIV). For those students, God’s help may be welcome if it relieves some of their stress about the future but any demands God might place on them would be unwanted, and even outside their understanding of God. Many students with this kind of “faith” may be more interested in knowing God’s will than in knowing God. White et al., after all, found no difference in their respondents’ attitude towards a sense of calling based on any religious affiliation. When we apply Koskela’s recommendations or any of the techniques at our disposal to help students discern God’s will—without questioning whether they are prepared to obey that will—we put the cart before the horse in students’ discipleship. We may well take a student who is ignorant of God’s command on their lives—and unready for that command—and lead them to a place of responsibility for obedience to the divine will of God before they are prepared to make that commitment. In such cases, we can actually make them worse off than before we offered our help (2 Peter 2:21). Even Moses was seemingly ill-prepared to receive his calling at the burning bush, and he paid a price for his recalcitrance for the duration of his ministry (Exodus 4:13–16).

Frederick Buechner’s famous distillation, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” has become a popular approach to providing vocational guidance to college students. Buechner’s proposed approach to discerning one’s calling is valuable, but there are numerous biblical counterexamples to that kind of calling. Jonah, Moses, and Jeremiah did not relish their callings (Jonah 1:2–3; Exodus 3:4–11; Jeremiah 1:4–7). Isaiah’s calling was to an entire career of unproductivity and seemingly did not represent his great passion (Isaiah 6:8–13). Christians must sometimes accept a calling out of their passion for obedience to Christ, not out of any particular passion for the calling itself. Their priority must be remaining obedient to God’s will, not to some process of self-actualization captured in living out their vocational passions.

Christian faculty and staff wanting to help students identify their callings must be guided by the centrality of the relationship with God in the life of every Christian. Careers, family, and other aspects of modern adult living can contribute to the growth of that relationship, but the instrumentality should never run in reverse. Students are not called to instrumentalize their relationship with God to help relieve their angst about their future or to substitute any clarity He might provide in helping direct their careers for putting their faith in Him for that future, whatever it may hold. Their search for career guidance should always begin, and probably end, with seeking to deepen their relationship with God.

It would be a very negative outcome for a student to learn exactly what career God was calling him or her to pursue but then, having their question answered and anxiety alleviated, to ignore the God who rendered that calling on his or her life. If a professional calling on a Christian does not lead them into greater relationship with God, what ultimate utility does it hold? Whatever good may be rendered to others by that vocation, the Kingdom has ceased to come within that professional. What might that work experience be like for our former students, now separated from God? Any profession—even one for which a student was ill-prepared—that draws an individual into closer relationship with God would seem preferable to one in which we have a positive sense of calling but then continue ignoring Him. Christian faculty and staff should absolutely take up the challenge to minister to students seeking to know their calling from God. At the same time, faculty and staff in Christian universities who want to help lead students towards God’s will for their vocation should first lead those students towards God, Himself. Knowing God’s calling on all our lives must be understood as spiritual formation, not just professional development, and the privilege of helping students in their spiritual development must always take priority over any career advice we might render.


  1. “Pepperdine University. Introduction to the Pepperdine Voyage,” (2024). Program Introduction | The Pepperdine Voyage | Pepperdine University.
  2. College Aftermath. “How Many Times Do College Students Change Their Major?,” (2024). How Many Times Do College Students Change Their Major – College Aftermath.
  3. Dik, Brian J., “Understanding Work as a Calling: Contributions from Psychological Science,” Christian Scholar’s Review, (July 24, 2023). Understanding Work as a Calling: Contributions from Psychological Science – Christian Scholar’s Review (
  4. Dobrow, Shoshana R. et al., “Calling and the Good Life: A Meta-Analysis and Theoretical Extension,” Administrative Science Quarterly 68, 2 (June 2023).
  5. White, Micah J. et al., “Prevalence and Demographic Differences in Work as a Calling in the United States: Results from a Nationally Representative Sample,” Journal of Career Assessment 29, no. 4 (2021): 624-43,
  6. Koskela, Doug, Calling and Clarity: Discovering What God Wants for Your Life, (2015), Eerdman’s.
  7. Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, (2009). Oxford University Press.

Larry G. Locke

University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
Larry Locke is a Professor and Associate Dean of the McLane College of Business at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and a Research Fellow of LCC International University.