“Does God speak clearly when it comes to big life decisions? Sometimes… and sometimes not.”
Candler’s Director of Career Services Sarah Carlson knows this is true, even—sometimes especially—in seminary. As part of Candler’s Office of Student Programming staff, Carlson meets one-on-one with students, holds weekly professional development office hours, and trains Candler Writing Center tutors to review students’ resumes and cover letters. She also develops and offers a wide variety of vocational resources—her presentations this year have included “Networking for People of Faith” and “What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Graduate”—and frequently serves as a guest lecturer in Candler classes to help students connect their coursework to their vocational goals.
Carlson has personal experience with the struggle for vocational clarity. “In terms of professional development, I took the long road and initially pursued a professional path that wasn’t right for me.” A graduate of Harvard Law School, Carlson joined a New York City law firm, but soon realized that she was seeking something more “wholehearted” than the life of a Wall Street attorney. She ultimately “went from Jimmy Choos to Tevas,” and left to help rebuild Haiti after the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake.
Working as an international volunteer helped spur what Carlson calls “my ministry of vocational development.” When she returned to the U.S., she became a career coach and a professor at Emory Law School, where she guided students and created coursework to help them identify their professional strengths, interests, and values. Carlson then launched her own company to work with a wider audience, guiding them to advocate for themselves professionally and to find work that they love. For the last year, she has been building this framework of professional development at Candler.
“My goal in this role is to empower and equip students to effectively discern and answer the calls that brought them to Candler, whatever those may be,” she says. “I help students connect the dots between what they experience in seminary and how that translates into the professional world.”
Carlson’s work is not only directed toward the internal Candler community; she’s also creating a program called Legacy of Light to build relationships with potential employers and increase the opportunities available to Candler students and graduates.
“An MDiv and other degrees at Candler are truly multipurpose. People finish seminary and become ministers, chaplains, spiritual directors, nonprofit leaders, teachers, artists, activists, writers, higher ed administrators, and more. The question really is: Where might you like to go?”
Those multipurpose paths are becoming more common, says Assistant Dean of Student Life and Spiritual Formation Ellen Echols Purdum—and that ultimate question perhaps harder to answer. “What we know is that more and more students are seeking a theological education in hopes of living out their faith commitments in ways that may look different from traditional ministerial paths. These shifts are very exciting, but navigating them requires creative and practical help. Sarah offers both, with empathy and clear-eyed counsel.”
This year, Carlson has expanded her counsel into the classroom. She’s begun teaching courses that strengthen students’ skills in “self-advocacy”—their ability to identify and communicate their unique value to employers and to purposefully direct their careers. It’s an innovative model for professional development that’s not often emphasized in theological education.
“Much of this work is new in seminaries, especially the approach of including courses related to professional development in the curriculum. My hope is that these offerings will show students who are seeking guidance on their vocational journeys that this support is available at every point in their Candler experience.”
In the fall of 2019, Carlson taught a six-session Vocation Design workshop; this semester, she’ll expand that content into a one-credit course called Professional Narrative. “Through the art of professional narrative, students will learn how to get jobs, but also how to increase their understanding, articulation, and purposeful formation of their own vocational futures,” she says.
It’s clear that opportunities like these are already having an effect at Candler. When asked what they took away from Carlson’s fall workshop, one Vocation Design student wrote, “I like redefining self-promotion away from narcissism to claiming and living out who we are as children of God.” Another said, “I feel more prepared to advocate for myself, especially as it relates to jobs I may not feel qualified for.” A third shared, “I just always feel so relieved with these sessions. It’s a good reminder that you really will figure your stuff out in due time.”
That reminder resonates with Carlson, especially in a seminary setting. “We often put the pressure of God’s nebulous approval on our decisions,” she says. “‘Does God want me to do this?’ I don’t believe it necessarily works that way.”
She recalls a scene from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book The Preaching Life, as Taylor struggles to decide whether or not she should be ordained. “For the first time in her life, Taylor heard God say clearly: ‘Do anything that pleases you… and belong to me.’ I think we can all learn a lot from that.”
Top photo: Sarah Carlson speaks with Candler students during a recent workshop.