In 2012, I was no longer satisfied with my career path. I wanted something different, but I didn’t know what. After a decade in college ministry working for a national Christian non-profit, I felt like I could no longer express myself authentically without fear of being misunderstood by some of my colleagues and superiors. I had spent ten years in the work of faith formation for college students, teaching them how to read, understand, and apply Biblical principles to their lives. However, I started to notice the limitations our program had on the translation of adaptable life skills after graduation. I tracked down dozens and eventually hundreds of alumni to learn about their life experiences post-college and learned firsthand that most of them were lost, lonely, and discouraged—despite having foundational Biblical knowledge and defined faith principles. I began to feel drawn to connect with students outside of our faith community and engage in conversations about career discovery without talking about the Bible with them. I felt constrained in a box of cultural expectations—priorities and values of the organizational culture no longer meshed with my own. It might sound silly to read this, but at the time, it felt like these were radical ideas to me and dangerous to express. As I shared my observations and inklings with colleagues, some of them questioned me and my motivations. One even directly challenged me, saying, “Scott, life’s too short not to teach the gospel. Why would you consider doing anything else?”
I have to admit, their doubts about my new leanings disoriented me for months. I felt scared to go outside the boundaries of permission from my primary community and adult family. I had spent over ten years of my life forming relationships and working with people for a common cause, and now I was on the fringes of what felt like getting shunned.
The pressure to conform can be profoundly strong for most people. Especially emerging adults, who have an innate developmental need for acceptance by peers. They’re literally leaving one family to form another, and passing the approval tests is the prerequisite for survival. Rarely are these cultural norms and permissions stated in an obvious way. Rather, you figure them out by trial and error. You learn them by getting too close to the edges.
Nobody wants to experience rejection. But, at the same time, everyone wants to discover their authentic selves and live autonomously.
That’s why it’s critical to be aware of your cultural norms. Take the time to reflect on what your community deems to be permissible or unacceptable.
What’s more important to the people in your community and the ones you aspire to belong to? Here are a few different areas to consider:
To be in charge or to go with the flow?
To create something new or join something?
To live adventurously or to anticipate more structure and predictability?
Is it better to be a rebel or to get approval?
Is it preferable to rest and relax or charge hard?
It’s important to understand the boundaries of acceptability by your community so you don’t unconsciously go with a flow that isn’t consistent with who you really are or who you’re becoming.
If you find yourself as a mismatch between your authentic self and the people around you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t belong or have to go running. Well, it might. But it also might mean you learn how to communicate better what’s important to you and the reasons behind it. All of the people who discouraged me from branching out from college ministry eventually became believers (pun intended) in my new cause. Some became partners, too.
The bottom line is to learn to be aware of the voices that you listen to, even the quiet and subconscious ones.
For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.
They're uncommon sense ideas, really.
Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).