Leading Our Kids Into Calling

How do I help my kids find their calling? Part 2

Photo by Ike Hire.

This is the second of a 2-part series on calling that reflects on Fuller President Mark Labberton’s new book entitled Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today. Mark draws on scripture to give parents a helpful framework for developing our kids’—and our own—sense of calling.

Read Part 1 Here

“'For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

I’ve probably heard these words from Jeremiah 29:11 a thousand times, almost never in context. Usually we invoke this verse as a promise that God is going to give someone a job, help them out of a difficult situation, or make their college scholarship package line up perfectly so they can attend the school of their dreams.

And then there’s the aftermath.

When our dreams don’t seem to pan out in alignment with the plans God has—or not in the ways or timing we imagined—the results can be crushing for our faith. I have sat with many high school and college students in the fallout after these experiences, wondering what’s next, and wondering when God will show up to reveal those grand plans spoken of in Jeremiah.

As it turns out, the verses are written to give hope to a people in exile, encouraging them to stay right where they are, living in the land and seeking the peace of the city where they find themselves. In short, their calling is to wait and serve faithfully where they are planted. And while God does offer each of us a “hope and a future,” the co-opting of that phrase has perhaps done more harm than good in church culture.

After exploring what it means to reframe and relocate “calling” with our kids in Part 1 of this series, now we move to a few practical steps we can take.

Three paths forward: Leading our kids into calling

It’s one thing to tell our kids to live out their calling. It’s quite another to walk with them as they figure it out. Mark Labberton suggests three paths we might take:

1. The Path of the Beloved

“The love of God is the start and the finish of our vocation.”[1]

Before all else, we are created and invited into the love of God. This part of our vocation is a pure gift. One of the truths I pray over my children every night is that they are God’s deeply-loved children above all else. Whatever labels, adjectives, or titles the world may bestow upon them, this identity is core. It’s also the core of our calling to “love God, love others” (Matthew 22:37-39). Without knowing we are loved by God, being asked to love in return can feel like something we do to earn God’s favor.

You might want to pray a passage like Ephesians 3:16-19 for your children regularly:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Belovedness is something we have to live out with our kids. This means praying for them, yes, and also paying attention to how we place value on their performance and their behavior. When they fail, or when they succeed, they need us to remind them that their value doesn’t lie in either performance or behavior, but has already been determined by God.

2. The Path of Suffering

This love doesn’t always mean protection. Responding to the call as God’s beloved inevitably leads us down roads of suffering. This is both a mystery and an affront to the “Promised Land” vision of what we may have thought following Jesus might mean. As parents, none of us want our kids to suffer. But that’s the catch. Suffering is part of the path of discipleship, as Jesus makes painfully clear over and over (see Matt 16:21-26, Phil 2:5-11). Living in exile, suffering will be part of our story until Jesus comes to make all things new.

Paul prays, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11). I remember memorizing this verse in college, praying it over and over, and being struck by how unnatural it was to pray to identify with Christ’s sufferings during a season of life where I was supposed to be preparing for success in career and adulthood. How could suffering be linked to success? There is, of course, the narrative of “paying our dues” in working our way to the top of a particular career field. But that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus has in mind.

Labberton wonders, “What if our call is really one of deeply entering and loving a world full of suffering?”[2] As our kids encounter the suffering of others, wrestle with injustice, and serve among the marginalized, these experiences will indelibly shape their call, whatever line of work they may enter.

Megan was a girl in our youth ministry who is now in her 30’s. A mom of two biological children, along with her husband she sensed a call to explore interracial adoption. Living out this call has been anything from easy, as their family has now welcomed a son born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and, several years later, a daughter came to them through a disrupted adoption. Between attachment issues, physical and emotional struggles, and becoming a “blended” family on several levels, I imagine Megan and her husband never would have dreamed the suffering this would involve. But at the same time, this suffering has brought deep joy, fulfillment, and a far deeper understanding of family to all six members of their household. I asked Megan about this, and she shared:

When we aren't willing to take on the suffering and hurts of one another, we often don't realize the hurt and suffering we further inflict by that rejection. I think as humans and especially as parents, our job in discipling our children often includes being willing to sit in their hurt and suffer with them—not take that suffering away from them. I find that when I talk to most of my friends, their goal is to take away hurt or protect their child from everything. Having our adopted children has really turned this notion on its head for me. Their biggest hurts and losses happened before I ever even knew them and I couldn't protect them. I think one of the best ways that I can lead my children toward greater connection with us as their family and ultimately with Jesus, is to continue to be present; acknowledging their hurts and sufferings and not always trying to fix it, but to just BE with them through it while they feel it. Sharing and helping to carry the burdens of my hurting children is one of the hardest seasons of suffering I've ever been through, but finding a way to build connection in that suffering is the greatest joy of my heart. There is something so healing for them when I say, "I'm here. I'm sorry that happened to you. I love you." It is not what we expected, and I don't think that my children's pasts is ever what Jesus wanted for them, but seeing redemption come from such hurt and loss is one of the best ways that he has shown me how to "know him in his death and resurrection." 

3. The Path of Wisdom

The third most important pathway our kids need to walk in order to discern call is the path of wisdom. Wisdom and its pursuit are the topics of a number of psalms and of course the entire book of Proverbs. This wisdom tradition sometimes feels foreign to us when we read these passages, in particular because our culture is so focused on the pursuit of knowledge (and possessions) rather than wisdom. Wisdom is something we grow into rather than grasp. And it’s part of the way our calling is shaped.

Labberton defines wisdom as “God’s truth and character lived in context.”[3] Jesus embodies wisdom by living out God’s will in action in his everyday encounters with people around him. So Jesus is what wisdom looks like. Sometimes he chose to act, sometimes to wait. Sometimes to speak, other times to speak through silence. We can invite our kids to be discipled by Jesus and by wise adult Jesus-followers who can help them grow in discernment in the little and big encounters of life.

This week my daughter announced that she wanted to speak out at a local school board meeting about an issue. In fact, she and a friend had already decided that they were going to do so. She also had a history test that would require study time, and the window of the meeting overlapped with her available time to study. As we wrestled with whether to stop her from attending the meeting or let her follow this passion to speak out, we decided that learning to use her voice in advocacy was probably more important than a history test. I’m not yet sure how the test turned out, but I am sure she won’t soon forget her experience at the board meeting. 

Labberton asserts that “wisdom leads people to acts of courage in places of need.[4] Whether that’s a local school board meeting, a global response to injustice, or befriending a classmate who is disabled, growing courage to act in response to need is part of discerning call. And allowing our kids room to experiment can create space for the opportunities that may ignite something deeper within them.

So What Does God Call Me to Do?

In a way these generalities about calling can feel like a cop-out. They don’t seem to answer the question of my specific calling very tangibly.

In response, Labberton suggests a helpful framework of “first things” and “next things” that I think can work well in conversations with our kids as they grow into an understanding of calling.

First things are what we already know from what’s revealed in scripture and most clearly through the life of Jesus. They are “normative for those who follow as disciples.”[5] Loving God and neighbor, growing in the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), and serving the poor are all part of the call for anyone who follows Jesus. Helping our kids learn to work questions or scenarios through “first things” lenses rather than simply “right or wrong” can build discernment over time.

Next things are tied to first things, but go beyond them into specific expressions. And sometimes these next things are clearer than others. This is where we might respond to a specific sense of call to work, ministry, marriage or singleness, advocacy, education, and service. Scripture is very passionate about the first things of loving God and neighbor, and often more vague about how that works out in next things. Labberton assures us, “We live out the extraordinary call of following Jesus (first things) right in the midst of the ordinary actions of daily life (next things).”[6] In that sense, our calling is always tied to today. Calling may be long-term, but it’s always lived out in what is presented to us today, by what and who are in front of us this day.

Look for Sparks

I often say my nine year-old has a natural gift for teaching. When she was a preschooler she would come home, line up her stuffed animals, and begin teaching them. She could reproduce the teacher’s voice and actions so much that it was clear she spent her class time absorbing her teacher’s every move. When she later learned to ride a bike without training wheels, her very first words were “Now I can teach Sylvia!” (one of our neighbors). Teaching is part of her DNA. Researchers at the Search Institute would call this a “spark,”[7] an activity or interest that helps a kid be their best.

Parents and other adults play critical roles in helping point out and foster sparks in kids. Our recent research behind the Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family explored how real-life families do this, and the biggest theme from those interviews was that parents keep showing up in their kids’ worlds, paying attention to their interests, and letting their sparks lead rather than forcing parental expectations on them.[8]

But here’s where it gets complex. Sparks don’t always lead to jobs, success, or even ways to use them every day. “God isn’t required to use our gifts in a constant or predictable way.”[9] Inventories that help us understand our personalities, strengths, and the ways we work with others are helpful, but they also have limits. Our kids need our help to learn to let these natural abilities play alongside the work they find before them and the context in which God has placed them.

The truth is, not everyone gets to choose their work. Sometimes we work to sustain life. Sometimes we are forced to do work. Sometimes our social situation, education, background, or skin color prevent access to the jobs in which we might find fulfillment. While that may not be a reality for most of those who are reading this article, it’s an inconsistency our kids need to know, because it’s reality for a majority of their global—and many local—neighbors.

At the end of the day, call is more about discipleship than about results. Labberton shares, “Call isn’t measured by outcomes—how much we achieve or accomplish—but through the process of following Jesus in and through it all. In the end, call is about continuous formation into the likeness of Jesus Christ far more than it is about finding direction or getting a job.”[10] We’re invited by the Apostle Paul, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). That’s a good verse to memorize with our kids as they sort out work and calling.

Fuller’s new Vice President for Vocation and Formation, Tod Bolsinger, asserts that vocation is something that is formed more than found. By that he means that we discover our vocation as we are shaped in a process of discovery and practice. Every Fuller student now wrestles with what we call the “central integration question” over and over throughout their study here. It’s not a bad question to begin with our own kids, even as we ponder it ourselves:

“At this point in your journey, how do you envision your call to God’s mission in the world?”

Wrapped up in the images of pilgrimage and vision, this question draws on our faithfulness to “first things” and invites us to articulate “next things.” But it’s always next things for now, at this point in the road. As we navigate these paths with our own kids, we’re invited to a similar faithfulness.

Because after all, our kids are part of our response to that question right now, at this point in our own journeys. 

Action Points

  • When you read about the paths of belovedness, suffering, and wisdom, which do you think you foster most intuitively already in your family? Which path represents a growth area in the way you help your kids develop a sense of call?
     
  • How could the “first things” and “next things” paradigm help your conversations with your kids (especially teenagers) about calling and vocation? Experiment this week in a conversation over a meal or a coffee date. Brainstorm together some people who might be mentors in particular areas of spark or skill that could help in the “next things” discernment journey.
     
  • On your own or with your spouse or a small group, read and discuss Mark Labberton’s Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today. Consider your own journey of discerning calling, and think about what parts of your story might be helpful for your kids to hear.
 

[1] Mark Labberton, Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2014), 103.

[2] Labberton, 125.

[3] Labberton, 117.

[4] Labberton, 119.

[5] Labberton, 87.

[6] Labberton, 89.

[7] See http://www.search-institute.org/sparks and Peter L. Benson, Sparks: How Parents Can Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).

[8] See chapter 5, “Connecting: Finding Ways to Relate to Your Teenager” for more practical ideas from our interviews with 50 families. Kara E. Powell, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family: Over 100 Practical and Tested ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).

[9] Labberton, 144.

[10] Labberton, 135.