Maybe This is Just Not Us: 7 Strategies for Helping Youth Pursue Their Passion

Sep 26, 2017

NBC’s This is Us and our Crisis of Vocation: Written by Bart Patton

I’ll admit it—I’m hooked on NBC’s This is Us. Not just for the raw emotions and tortured relationships, but for something less dramatic but no less significant—jobs.

Randall quits his high-stress finance career. Kevin finds success in live acting after having quit his job in television. Jack gives up on his dream job to support his family. Rebecca resents putting her dream of being a singer on hold. William gives up writing and performing music to take care of his mother. Does Toby even have a job?

You may not have noticed, but this is a show about vocation. This is Us goes to the heart of the difference between a job and a vocation—the difference between making money and pursuing a dream, caring for family and living out a passion.

A job is something short-term performed for an end—usually money.

A vocation is something for which we are wired—a work we are gifted for and called to.

This is Us mirrors real life. And in real life, I first saw the difference between job and vocation in eighth grade, when Mrs. Gentry made me take a twenty-minute, multiple choice career test. She told me the job I should pursue: a chain hotel operator. I was fifteen. I was crestfallen. Earlier that year I told my parents that I wanted to either be an actor or a college English professor. I never dreamed of becoming a chain hotel operator, while it would have been more reliable than an actor.

To make matters worse, my helpful, banker father provided a cost-analysis budget worksheet for the career options—straight from Cliff Huxtable’s playbook—that scared me half to death. Why? Because the hotel chain operator was the dependable way to go.

Hotel Chain Operator, Actor, or Tweed-clad English Prof?

We need honest talk with our young people about jobs and vocations—paychecks and passions. They are barraged with the need to “compete for” and win the “best jobs,” instead of finding deep satisfaction in a vocation. We need to fly under the radar, to find safe spaces, and nurture their dreams to ignite their vocations. How do we have these conversations? How can our churches, groups, and ministries help young people in their vocational ideas and pursuits of God-given passions?

Here are seven strategies to engage youth in healthy conversations about vocation:

  1. Use your words. Ask them what they are passionate about. Ask them what they think they are good at. Affirm their answers.
  2. Use your ears. Listen to their responses. Especially to the tensions they feel. Listen, too, for what they don’t say—for what they are afraid to say. Lean into those spaces.
  3. Let them practice. Give them opportunities to practice their passions in your group. Specifically, give them the freedom, permission, and grace to lead—to try new things and fail.
  4. Invite some friends. Regularly invite adults to share with youth about the tensions and differences between a job and a vocation. Don’t just invite “successful” people. Let them tell their stories about how they came to find their vocation and how they see it as a fulfillment of God’s calling on their life.
  5. Let them explore. Create a long-term small group for High School youth to discuss the difference between a job and a vocation. I recommend using Ed Klodt’s The Jonah Factor[1].
  6. Connect to the Scriptures. Look at how jobs and vocations overlap in Biblical characters. Paul was a tent-maker, Moses a shepherd, Lydia a seller of purple cloth, Jesus a builder. But don’t look at just the obvious examples. In the book of Acts, people mourned the death of Dorcas by showing each other the garments she had woven for them. Want to see the connection between job and vocation? Look at people like Dorcas. A great resource for this kind of study is Robert Banks’ God the Worker[2].
  7. Challenge them. Challenge youth to discover who they are rather than what they do. Make them distinguish between identity and activity. John Wesley’s 22 Questions are a great resource for this, especially with Chris Wilterdink’s Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship with Youth.[3]

​- Bart Patton is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry Education at SMU Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. He has served the church as a preacher, teacher, youth minister, worship leader, writer, and pastor in Texas, Arkansas, and New York for 20 years. 

Get more practical wisdom for youth ministry this January at Perkins School of Youth Ministry.