Graduation Advice from an Elder Millennial

I graduated college in 2005. That means by the time I was a senior I had already experienced the Columbine school shooting as a high schooler, 9/11 as a freshman in college, and one of my brothers was killed right before my 22nd birthday while serving in Iraq. I limped out of college into my first job, after three years of which I felt called into grad school and campus ministry. So I started a new job working for the CCO, which meant fundraising my salary, in the summer of 2008. That’s right, I entered a career that depended on raising financial support and then the market immediately crashed.  Not the rosy future I had envisioned for myself.

We always ask graduating seniors “do you know what you’re doing next?” We assume that they should know the answer and we rarely warn them that one’s early-mid 20s are often extremely tumultuous and unpredictable. That is only heightened for those who are graduating this year in the midst of a global pandemic and likely recession. As someone who can relate, here is what helped me survive and grow in challenging times.

Say yes to random opportunities

I had an entry-level job in Student Affairs after I graduated. It did not pay a lot, it was not glamorous, and I could have done the minimum requirements for it. But whenever additional opportunities came along, I took them. I volunteered as a faculty/staff advisor for the women’s club rugby team. I attended our annual professional conference and the second year presented a workshop on supporting students in trauma. I collaborated with other offices across campus to offer campus-wide events. When my church gave me opportunities to lead and serve, I jumped in. When a friend and coworker invited me to the CCO’s annual Jubilee Conference, I said yes. All of these experiences helped me grow personally and professionally, made me more competitive for grad schools, and eventually led to my next step. Whatever job you get, even if it does not seem impressive, make the most out of it. And if you cannot find a job, look for involvements in your community. The need for service and support is significant right now. Invest in your area and you never know what networks and connections you will make in the process.

Invest in a church family

I was an emotional wreck after college. I was processing the trauma of losing my brother, I was trying to adjust to a new town and new job, I was lonely and depressed. I bounced around to different churches for about a year, and then landed at a small Anglican church plant nearby. That church became my home for the next 7 years. They invited me to join the leadership team after a year. I did not know how to help lead a church plant but I was committed so I said yes. I had the chance to be a lay delegate multiple times at our annual church network conference. It meant sitting through a long day of Robert’s Rules and not understanding half of what was going on, but it shaped me to see myself as an active agent in my local congregation and in our global denomination. Beyond interesting leadership experiences, the church gave me a family. We were in a small college town which means I had very few peers to hang out with, but I had older couples that took an interest in me, and young families that invited me over. I did not have many other young professional friends but I was far from alone. Those people loved me and supported me and cheered me on during an otherwise untethered season in my life. It can be hard to find a church. It takes time to build relationships and to open up. But it is the best investment you will make.

Cultivate your mental/emotional health

I think a lot of us feel like a train wreck after college. Whether you go to college or not, our 20’s are a time when we are working through family dynamics and past hurt. We are continuing to discern who we are and what we are supposed to do next. It is often a lonely time with a lot of transition in friendships and community. And it is a time to lay a healthy foundation that we can build on for the rest of our lives. Investing in our mental/emotional health during this season is an investment in a stable future. It will be stressful at first. To face past trauma, to confront unhealthy patterns, to address areas of sin/idolatry in our hearts is never easy or quick. But ignoring those struggles does not mean they go away; it only means their presence in our lives is prolonged. Now is the time to grit your teeth and go to counseling. Find a mentor who can encourage and guide you. Meet regularly with a pastor or trusted spiritual guide. That may have to be online for the foreseeable future, but do not let that stop you. It will get so much better and getting to a place of greater inner stability is invaluable.

Ask for and accept help

I had no idea what I was doing in my 20’s, and that is ok. I think actually most people have no idea what they are doing most of the time. I had SO many people that gave me needed advice, who answered my ignorant questions, who shared their life experience, who were patient with me. There is no shame in needing help and needing to ask questions. Some of my most frequent advice for anyone starting a new job is to ask lots of questions. It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of proactivity. Do not let embarrassment of pride get in the way of allowing others to walk with you and give you any support that you need.

Be patient with yourself and the process

When we graduate we think everyone is expecting us to have it all together and find our one true path that we will pursue forever. Especially in our age of technology where we see our peers with viral YouTube channels, or creating apps, or being social media influencers, we think we have to be an immediate success when we are young. But Maya Angelou was 41 when she wrote her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Betty Friedan was 42 when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. C. S. Lewis was 52 when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was published. Jesus was 30 when He started His public ministry. Do not compare yourself and your timing to everyone else. You are not “behind” where you think you are supposed to be. Focus on being faithful to each opportunity and each relationship in front of you.

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” (Luke 16:10)

This is not a time when you have to achieve huge success, this is a perfect time to learn faithfulness in small things. And that foundation of small-scale faithfulness, small-scale trustworthiness, will eventually be honored by the Lord in increasingly impactful ways. Be patient, stay faithful, stay hopeful. As a wise friend of mine told me, “The way we make decisions in current circumstances is how we are likely to make decisions in the future. A ‘yes’ to God today increases the likelihood of a ‘yes’ to God tomorrow.” Say yes to God today, and trust that He will provide the next yes and the ones after that.

Transitioning to a life of service

In just a few short weeks, millions of brand new college graduates will be hitting the “real world.” So in our ministry it has been difficult to avoid the onslaught of anxieties that accompany this tremendous life transition. We have started a conversation about what the church can offer a transitioning college graduate. Our hope is that these words supply comfort and hope that, amidst the chaos of change, a loving sanctuary awaits. However, solely envisioning what the church can offer you might be a tad short-sighted. So on top of the consistency and community the church provides it also has a call for you as you head into post-college life. I’ll give you a hint: it may not involve weeks or maybe months of binging Netflix. So let’s look ahead and wonder what is it that you, as young adults, can offer the church?

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If you are not moving far away from home (which many won’t) or immediately beginning gainful employment (which many don’t), post-college life can be the first time in a long time that you don’t have project groups to meet with, papers due, or textbooks to read. This is an incredible opportunity to explore longer term missions work!

You probably aren’t strangers to the weekend blitz builds or alternative spring breaks that were offered in college, but now could be the best time to go exploring God’s creation and God’s calling on your life with longer missions engagements. For the last two years, a student we met at one of our campus ministry summer projects has been abroad serving in a country they’d never been to. They had done mission trips in college but wanted to find out more about their personal calling as well as get a taste of what it’s like to be grounded and committed to serving a place. God calls us not only to vocations but to places and the hope is that, wherever you go, even if it’s a new place, you will be a blessing.

For our church, as supporters of this student’s mission, this means our arms are now lovingly extended and wrapped around the people in that country this young person is serving! All of a sudden our global missions reach has increased by leaps and bounds. There are hundreds of quality missions organizations out there. Do some Googling and be open to a world of possibilities!

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Questions

If you are on the verge of graduation, I have no doubt that you have been bombarded with questions like, “What are you going to do with that major?” or “What do you think the next five years holds?” I can already sense your heart rate going up. Well it’s time to fire back some questions of your own. One beautiful thing about young adult Christians, especially those who became Christians during college, is that you do not have it all figured out. What exactly does The Bible mean when it talks about God’s glory? How does having “Christ in me” change my life? How do I actively engage in a ministry of reconciliation?

Chances are there are wonderful people in your church that have well-thought out answers to questions like these that are the product of years of wrestling and praying with God. Sometimes though, those answers and insights lay stagnant. Paul constantly writes reminders of the Gospel in his letters. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Preach the Gospel to yourself every day.”? People need to be reminded of what they believe! Inviting your church community to enter into these big questions with you is an invitation for them to be reminded of God’s goodness, purposes, mercy, grace, etc. Go to adult Sunday school classes, Bible studies, and small groups and bring your questions, your church will thank you!

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Vision for the future

I have mixed feelings about calling our young adults “The Future of the Church.” In many ways, you are that. Literally, you will probably out live many of the people older than you in the church. In the future, you will be the church. However, you are the church right now!

God’s house is multigenerational and God wants collaboration amongst generations. You have the distinct benefit of a lack of experience. You haven’t been to years of vision conferences and church board meetings. You haven’t seen brilliant ideas be employed poorly or seen God transform not-so-brilliant ideas into fruitful ministries. Your dreams for your church may not be new. You may have an idea that has been presented years ago when it wasn’t the right time to employ it, but this could be the perfect time for it to work! Sometimes ignorance comes with courage and with fresh eyes can come creativity, ingenuity, and innovation! I wonder what unique perspective you can offer your community? Seek out venues where you can have a voice. Solicit responsibilities in the church. You do not have to wait to be a culture maker!

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Seeing the church through the lens of transition

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As a student, you have faced a changing cultural climate in higher education. New apartment-style residence halls create an isolating venue that inhibits social interaction. Student loan debt and a difficult job market make it less financially viable to embark out into the world completely on your own after graduation. Students are spending more and more time in college changing majors, adding minors, taking time off, etc. So this life season, when students used to be truly discovering who they are, is spent raising more questions than answers. A space that is meant to unwrap what you will do with the rest of your life is now a space to prepare for a consistent flood of life changes. The sage words of my old high school chemistry teacher still ring in my ears, “I’ve had this job for 30 years, your generation simply won’t experience that. You’ll be lucky to hold a job for more than one or two years at a time.”

As you are faced with a transition out of college, carrying these heavy burdens, where can you look for comfort and guidance? Let me offer you some practical functions of the church that comforted me during the most nomadic seasons of my life.

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Church as a home base

I was in a unique situation leaving college. Not only was I wadding through what life post-graduation meant, I was also still dealing with the recent death of my father. This changed the entire dynamic of my family. In addition to financial concerns, it made sense for me to move back home and live with my mom for her as well as my emotional support. For better or for worse, I was home for the foreseeable future. I decided if I was going to be here, I was going to attend worship service every Sunday and find out what it is like to be committed to a home church. I did it, and started reading my Bible. I began forming relationships with the pastor and other church members. I was establishing stability and strength during a season where constant change made that rare.

Having any form of consistency was beneficial, but creating it through a loving body of Christ that was always willing to serve me was transformational. And not just for me. My mom started noticing that I had a happiness and wholeness that she was struggling to find through her season of grief. She soon started coming with me to church and found that same strength and consistency through a community of her own. She also found her savior and accepted Jesus into her heart.

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Church as a mirror

This stability and consistency I found in church also provided space for me to put some more flesh on my self-identity. Being with other believers and being disciplined with my study of scripture brought me closer to God and gave me a better picture of God as creator. I still had questions after college about who I was and what I was supposed to be doing with my life, and while I didn’t find many specific answers (you can spend your whole life looking for those) I did find a deeper understanding of the ways God created and gifted me. My new found lack of school work post graduation freed me up to study scripture, the nature of God, and myself. The church encouraged me to be faithful in that journey.

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Church as a social network

Isolation is not just socially and emotionally harmful; it can also be vocationally harmful. One thing I learned about college students while in my communication major (one that relies heavily on relationship building) is that the majority of us are bad at networking. We are bad at forming supportive, beneficial relationships. While in graduate school my church and campus fellowship not only supplied the consistency and self discovery I mentioned before, but it supplied contacts in the ministry and communication fields that led to internships and eventually my current job.

God designed us to be in community, and that community can be a blessing to us and, ultimately, can be a blessing to the nations. The church is filled with believers in all walks of life and all areas of vocation. Just imagine the area of creation God is sending you out into! God created the church to bring flourishing to our lives. So as you “pass the peace” this Sunday, don’t be afraid to receive it as well.