7 Things Pastors Should Know About Millennials and Work

Reprinted from Made to Flourish.  

Trinity Presbyterian in Charlottesville, Virginia, has hosted a Fellows Program for nearly 15 years. It’s an opportunity for recent college graduates to come to our city, live in congregants’ homes, serve in our church and community, take seminary courses, and work part-time in marketplace jobs suited to their career interests. Dennis Doran has directed Trinity’s program since its beginning. Through an interview with him and Kelly Madden from the Boston Fellows program, and through reading several articles about millennials in the workplace, I came to several conclusions that might help you better understand the millennials in your congregation. Here’s what I learned.

1. Millennials want to make a difference

Doran reports that the phrase “I want to make a difference in the world” has become “almost an obsession” with millennials. He loves and affirms their passion, but notes how it’s sometimes accompanied by two tensions. First, many want that “difference-making” job right now. Some are reluctant to pay their dues in the lowly, less responsible positions; they want leadership roles. Others over-analyze — to the point of paralysis — various job opportunities. They’re afraid of making a wrong choice and somehow missing out on that difference-making job.

Second, some want a big salary to accompany their world-changing job. But those two things don’t always go together. Pastors can affirm young adults for their fervor for making the world a better place. They can also remind young people about what their role is, and what God’s role is. And they can bring a dose of reality to the conversation by telling stories of Christians who worked over the long haul, often for modest remuneration, to bring about needed societal change.

2. Millennials can romanticize the nonprofit sector

“I find myself often having to tell the fellows that God can show up on Wall Street and not just the nonprofit sector,” Doran said. “God is in Excel spreadsheets. He’s in places of power. He’s in the places you might not expect.”

Madden has seen this phenomenon of valuing the nonprofit over the for-profit sector with his fellows, too. When I was in Boston to address his group, he specifically requested I tell several stories of young professionals working for kingdom good in spheres other than the nonprofit world.

Pastors can help young professionals gain a more balanced view by being careful to affirm congregants who are making the community a better place through their businesses.

3. Millennials need to be reminded of Luke 16:10

Doran says he spends time instilling into his 20-somethings that it is faithfulness in the small things that leads to the opportunity to be faithful in the big things. “Sometimes millennials want to skip that step,” he said. “They want to be in charge of ‘much’ right now. Some are reluctant to accept that you’ve got to pay your dues first. They often come into a company with technological skills that are more advanced than those of the older workers,” Doran continues. “But those skills don’t equate to the kinds of managerial and judgment skills that call for grey-haired wisdom.” He estimates that about 40 percent of the fellows he’s known have required some heart change here. “I’ve had to come alongside of some young people and gently try to let them know, ‘Hey, you might not be ready yet for that level of leadership or authority.’”

4. Millennials want to hear from the pulpit about faith at work

David Kinnaman from Barna research group argues that one of the most important reasons why young adults ages 18-29 drop out of church is because they do not find a connection between Sunday and Monday. “One of the most recurring themes” in his research with dropouts, Kinnaman reports in his book, You Lost Me,

is the idea that [the Christianity they’ve been taught] does not have much, if anything, to say about their chosen profession or field….It is a modern tragedy. Despite years of church-based experiences and countless hours of Bible-centered teaching, millions of next generation Christians have no idea that their faith connects to their life’s work.

5. Millennials want their work affirmed

Millennials want their marketplace vocations affirmed, Kinnaman adds, but instead they hear theologically misguided teaching that “spiritual” work is superior to secular labor. Millennials desire guidance and equipping on what it means to bring their faith to work, and how to renew culture through it. Instead, inside their congregations they have faced suspicion for their choice to work in fields like science, fashion, or film. Coddled by overprotective parents and churches, they’ve also been warned to eschew the world and deploy their artistic talents only inside the church, where things are safe. But, Kinnaman notes, these young adults “want to be culture-makers, not culture avoiders.”Their churches have dismayed them with simplistic black-and-white answers that don’t match the complexity they sense in their world.

Kinnaman quotes a gal named Kellie, who pleads with church leaders to avoid being condescending:

I am misunderstood by my Christian community because I am young and because I am a woman. People often assume that my international development work is just a “phase,” done for my own fulfillment, as if I do it for the thrill or for the snapshots I bring home. I would like my community to see my work for what it really is: the best thing I can do to act out the heart of Christ. It’s not a phase, but an important part of who Christ made me to be. Our work doesn’t look like a traditional Christian ministry.  The name of Jesus isn’t in our title, and evangelism isn’t the primary focus of our daily activities. But we are working for God’s kingdom and believe this is the way God would have us reach people for his purposes. God has placed a dream and calling within us, and we ask that the church, rather than seeing us as young and idealistic, would see us as warriors of God who are acting as the arm of Christ, reaching the world with love, hope, and empowerment.

6. Millennials are distracted

The theme of millennials’ over-consumption of media and constant use of social media platforms emerged in my conversations with both Doran and Madden. Both of them deliberately take their fellows on a silent retreat during one weekend. Madden says, “They struggle at first with being away from the internet and social media, but then they start to feel a relief from being freed from their smart phones. We’re trying to get them to be truly present to one another and to God.” Doran agrees. “I’m trying to get them to be wholly present. We can’t live out Colossians 3:23 and do our work ‘as unto the Lord’ if we’re constantly distracted by our smartphones.”

Doran and I discussed a recent article from Harvard Business Review titled, Millennials Are Actually Workaholics, According to Research. It described a study that found millennials are more likely than workers of other generations to forego taking their paid vacation time. That might be true, Doran responded, but he didn’t think millennials are necessarily workaholics. “They may be in the office for long hours,” he says, “but while they’re on the job they’re often interacting on social media.” He thinks it’s entirely possible that the 10-12 hours they appear to be at work may, in fact, add up to just 6 or 7 when you factor that in.

Doran is complimentary of the skills and talents possessed by the young people he’s had the privilege of shepherding. He worries that for some of them, though, over-consumption of media is hurting the quality of their work. “It may look — and be — technologically impressive, but it can lack the depth and substance that these smart young ladies and men are capable of because they’ve spent the night before up too late watching Netflix.”

Of course, it’s not only millennials who are distracted; other generations also struggle to find silence and contemplative space in our noisy, always “plugged-in” society. Pastors help when they teach on the Sabbath; when they remind believers that attentiveness and being present is one of the highest forms of love; and when they encourage parishioners to hold one accountable for how they’re using (or frittering away) their time.

7. Millennials need help asking different questions

Doran recommended I read Robert Dickie’s article, The Most Important Questions Millennials Aren’t Asking. Dickie counsels young adults to

  • Avoid rash decisions: be sure to ask what the cost of a certain path or choice might be (Luke 14:28);
  • Find out why an existing system is in place before seeking to change it;
  • Branch out from homogeneous peer groups and pursue relationships with people from other walks of life, so as to broaden their perspective; and
  • Seek clarity on what their role is, and what God’s role is, in a given situation.

On the last point, Dickie explains that seemingly all millennials are asking the question, “What should I do with my life?” but that some are sitting around waiting for God to open a door. It’s like the paralysis Doran mentioned earlier. Both Dickie and Doran counsel young adults to step in, to go ahead and make a move. “To make our paths straight, God expects us to be taking action and walking,” Dickie writes. He can’t make our paths straight if we are sitting down waiting on him.” Doran agrees. “We don’t usually get the whole big picture. We move by faith a couple steps at a time and then God provides mentors who meet us and help show us the next thing.”

Dr. Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP). Featured image: BuroMillennial

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