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Vocational Dormancy, Part 2 – Don’t Go It Alone

Bored, stalled, stuck, frozen, hindered – do any of these words describe your feelings about the season of life you’re in? You just might be in a period of what I call “vocational dormancy.” It’s my way of naming the difficult experience of people who have found themselves in a period of life where they are unhappy with their present work and career situation, and especially those who are now in such a season after having once been in a happier and more fulfilling place. The angle on the experience I am coming from has to do with stepping away from fulfilling leadership and ministry positions, but the essence of the experience – losing a sense of vocational fulfillment and replacing it with something less than fulfilling, is common to people in all walks of life. For instance, it is a common experience of business owners after the sale of the company, of mothers who leave the workplace for child-rearing or find themselves with an empty nest, and of course, retirees.

I introduced the issue and told some of my own story in part 1. In part 2 of this blog I am hoping to connect with you on finding ways to take the edge off of your situation, and hopefully get you to a place where you are more ready to adjust to your “new normal.” I am confident that acting upon the four suggestions I offer below will allow you to begin building hope for a fuller and more meaningful sense of life now, even when you may not see any desired changes to your actual circumstances on the horizon. Yet. At the end of this post I will list some books that really helped me. Maybe some of the good reads there will be just what you need.

As I did in part 1 of Vocational Dormancy, I again write from personal experience, mixed with observations and memories of others in similar circumstances. This means that my input, though hopefully helpful, is limited in its scope and abbreviated for a series of blog posts. Your story teaches you valuable insights. Please feel free to share the way you have found help during a time of vocational uncertainty, or just downright frustration with your job situation.

Don’t go it alone (the main theme of all of part 2)

1. Get support. If you are struggling over your current career situation and vocation, seek the input of trusted voices. Call it what you like, counsel, advice, input, etc. – it really helps. I suggest developing your very own “transition team,” as I did (unknowingly), to offer an outside perspective along with good doses of practical wisdom for your situation. When I was in the midst of my own struggle I began meeting occasionally with our new pastor, who graciously listened as I poured out my heart and struggles. His prayers and faith-born positivity about my future became a source of powerful encouragement, and helped me to walk through the transition with hope. I also began meeting with other leaders and friends who brought their unique perspectives and encouragement. I found that the encouragement was sometimes mutual, and I enjoyed knowing that my transparency with my struggles was somehow encouraging them in their own.  More than anything else I would encourage someone in this kind of situation to seek out the help of a well-respected pastoral leader of a Christian church or organization (more on the faith bit later). In addition to this, there are people who work professionally for these very things, offering coaching sessions to help you navigate your life situation. It’s worth the small expense.

I am reminded of the words in Ecclesiastes 4:9-10:

Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.

2. Get healthy. We have a tendency to neglect the care of our own well-being, even as we tend to the needs of our families and finances, and if you’re a leader, to the people and organization you lead. If you are experiencing some down time (even if it’s unwanted) in your own vocational goals and direction, now is the perfect time to take care of some health-related things you may have previously left unattended. This could be either physical or emotional health needs, maybe both.

Consider seeing a counselor. The counselor I saw almost immediately diagnosed depression, something that I had never felt I struggled with before, and the counselor’s awareness put words and understanding to the discouragement I couldn’t seem to overcome. It was humbling, but the counselor’s perspective also helped me to see how a series of highly stressful circumstances in my life, lasting for more than three years, had wiped me out in every way, and taken away my ability to rebound as I always had before. I was able to make sense of my troubles. I finally accepted that I was in need of counsel and medication for a season. Looking back, the decision to listen to professionals regarding my needs was critical in getting me through that first year. To be honest, at first I refused to accept that I was depressed, probably because of being depressed (!) and because of what I now believe to be problematic religiosity that was intertwined with my personal convictions and faith. It was my wife’s own concern and action that led me to begin accepting that I needed help, at least for a while. When Christian leaders avoid medicine because of their convictions (like I did), I would say that what often ends up happening is that they find ways to self-medicate, without the care and oversight of a qualified professional. This can quickly lead to addictive behaviors and dependency. More often, it just means people don’t get the help they need. I am thankful that I finally quit trying to be a lone hero survivor. I hope you do, too. Worried about people’s opinions of you if they find out you saw a counselor or took medication for a while? The kinds of people that would judge you for those things aren’t really worth keeping in your circles anyway, and you might as well find out now.

Maybe you have some physical health problems that have piled up – don’t put it off for a day when you are feeling more positive about your life. See a doctor now. My dad put off having a small spot on his side checked out until it was too late, and a few years later the cancer took his life. Get help and go see a doctor with whom you can lay it all out there. Part of the reason for the depression I experienced was due to a long battle with the effects and aftercare of a life-threatening infection I came down with in 2007. At the time I was in the best shape of my life since my teens, and suddenly, I was in need of more doctor’s visits than I could keep track of, spread out in various offices all over our area. I slowly got into an emotional slump because health had become such an issue in my life. But during that time of humbling care (maybe better to say – humiliation, and oh, do I have stories), I realized that personal health needed to become a top priority in my life. I am healthier now and weigh less than I did when I was pastoring, and am doing better with my sense of encouragement, much more so than I was when trying to handle my health needs all by myself. I learned the hard way. You don’t have to. If seeing a doctor and opening up about your needs transparently could mean adding a decade of fruitful service, leadership, creativity, etc. to your life, then please do it.

3. Relearn Rest. Learn how to rest again. The shutdown of a major career transition is a great time to reprioritize your life and schedule. If you were closely connected to leadership responsibilities, chances are that your previous season “on” took over your ability to rest properly, and I don’t mean just vacations. Take at least a full day off EVERY week, whenever possible. Rediscover the beautiful provision for rest taught in the Bible that is sometimes called “Sabbath spirituality” (not a specific day, but a way of life that utilizes a day of rest). Develop healthy rhythms of work and rest, so you can avoid burning out prematurely and getting robbed of the joy of your work. One top-leader I highly respect told me during a coaching session on handling high-stress responsibilities that whenever he has to work through what should have been a day off, he goes to his calendar and schedules an “R-Off” day, (R for Replacement) to ensure that he is getting the rest he needs. Not everyone can do this with their schedules, but pastors, leaders, business owners, and many others with flexible schedules should take note. One of the things I changed after resigning from the pastorate was my rhythms of rest and work. I rarely ever rested enough when I was pastoring. I changed my value systems (exhaustion will do that to you) and have since enjoyed consistent off time almost weekly with my family, with myself, and with God.

4. Discover (or rediscover) connection with God: The dreams and desires pent up inside of you are not an accident. I believe that life dreams can be and often are planted inside of us by our Maker. Yes, I mean God. You aren’t the uniquely gifted individual that you are for no reason. You were made for a purpose, and that purpose has been hidden inside of all of us, like latent buds of a branch waiting to burst forth into the warmth of spring. It helps to know that what you’re doing now is not necessarily what you’ll be doing later. The levels you have reached now are not the cap on the levels you can reach later. But if we base our understanding of our purpose only on future aspirations, we will fail to realize the purpose and significance of the now season in our lives. Here now is one of my favorite subjects to share on. The burning desire inside of you for more, for joy and fulfillment, for peace and significance; ALL of these things are placed there by God, I believe. I am writing this to draw your attention to this aspect of life.

Let these inner drives drive you into a pursuit of God. And not just the positive dreams and aspirations. Let the pain of transition, the losses, the confusion and tears – let all of this drive you deeper into a place of recognizing your need for connection with your Maker. Truly and in every way, more than any other action or undertaking I entered into during my transition, it was through burying myself in places of prayer and seeking God that the pain in my heart, and the pent up desires for more, seemed to meld together into a part of my story as it is being written between God and me. Peace, joy, and thankfulness came more powerfully through prayer and Christian worship than through any other thing I did, or can do now. I understand that some of my readers will have wide ranges of beliefs about God and spirituality, and I do not write this with any kind of religious hammer in mind. I humbly share with you that Christian spirituality, based upon the teachings of the Bible, and interconnected with the life of a worshiping congregation, have been for me a lifeline of spiritual power and personal freedom in all of my life, not just in struggles regarding vocation.

Perhaps the greatest help I found through letting my dormant struggle become a part of my story in God was the way that I became empowered to express my God-given vocation right in the middle of a job I didn’t particularly want. I began pastoring and leading others, almost always unofficially and without any title as such, during my shifts at work, and then outside of work as I connected with new friends I was making there. Some of those friendships – and ongoing ministry and care, continue now, even after nearly three years gone from that place. Vocation is more than a job or line of career. Vocation has to do with divine design in your life – you are uniquely gifted, and uniquely called, to express your divine call through all areas of your life, including your work. As you take care of yourself and seek help socially, physically, and spiritually, you may just find yourself being “you” right where you’re at.

Part 3 of this blog series is titled “Reemergence,”  and speaks to the issue of coming out of dormancy, especially related to “budding and blooming” where you’re planted, and maximizing your moment to prepare yourself for a soon coming season of fullness in your vocational calling. You can access it by clicking here. Please feel free to add your thoughts, questions, and suggestions below.

About Nathan

*Great reading for someone in a dormant season:

On seasons of hiddenness and “shut down”:

Anonymous: Jesus’ Hidden Years, and Yours, by Alicia Britt Chole

On Vocation and Calling:

Courage and Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential, by Gordon Smith

On self-identity and self-understanding:

The Search for Significance: Seeing Your True Worth Through God’s Eyes, by Robert S. McGee

Free To Be You, by Dr. Fred Antonelli

On rest, health, and well-being:

Adrenaline and Stress, by Archibald Hart

Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest, by Lynne Baab

10 thoughts on “Vocational Dormancy, Part 2 – Don’t Go It Alone

  1. This is really good stuff Nathan! I see this all the time. Part of what is going on may be God lead and a phenomenon known as Isolation Processing, but the other side of it is just as you said when people just get stuck and need to work through things. Either way God always offers a plan!!

    • Thanks Cindy I received the greatest benefit from Isolation Processing (great name for that 🙂 thanks) once I began to embrace the experience. It was a difficult but wonderful teacher.

      • Just one more thought on this Nathan – There is a good book out, though rather obscure, by Shelley Trebesch called “Isolation, A place of transformation in the life of a leader” that really helped me and could be a key for people in that place.

      • Wonderful thank you. One of the books I listed, Anonymous, is also obscure and I ‘just happened’ to win it at a Christmas party right when I was beginning to experience the pain of transition. That book was like a window to heaven’s voice for me. I expect Trebesch’s will be the same for people.

  2. This is so wonderful & very timely. The 1st paragraph under “Discover connection with God” really confirmed a message I’ve been getting about learning to embrace the here & now and seeing what I DO have instead of letting unfulfilled dreams and future goals pre-disappoint me today. I’m grateful for your honesty and I’m looking forward to your next post!

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