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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

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Vocational Dormancy, Part 1

This 3-part blog series is aimed at encouraging and challenging readers who have found themselves in the midst of a “shut-down” period in fulfilling their life dreams, especially related to the connection between vocation and work. Although the topic of vocation is in itself worthy of a whole series devoted to rediscovering what vocation actually is (it’s far more than just “occupation”) this blog will address the specific experience of leaving a line of work or career that brought fulfillment, only to have it replaced by something less than fulfilling, and out of touch with one’s sense of life calling. I write from personal experience, and therefore, though I have what I believe to be valuable insights gained from the fires of my own life, there are many other stories out there (including yours), and some of them much deeper and richer than mine. This blog is in no way an exhaustive word of encouragement to those struggling with their life situation and career/calling advancement. But I do feel that it will help some people. Perhaps there will be readers who actually find new courage to give and live their all in the present situation, even if it’s not all they hoped it would be. I hope you enjoy part 1 (below), and come back again later when I post part 2.

My story

In 2009 I stepped away from a position as the pastor of a church that I led for almost 8 years. In that time my family and I had grown very close to many wonderful people. I poured my life into the ministry there, and felt that I generally thrived in the work. Most of the time my work was thrilling! I loved the people, and seeing lives changed, feeling God’s presence at work in and through me and directly related to my work, and being respected by so many people brought a tremendous amount of fulfillment. Towards the end of my time there, with the help of an amazing team of men, women, and families in the congregation, we re-launched the church (in the same location) into a new era of vision, mission, and identity. I had always believed that my call in that church was to lead the people into a major new beginning, though I did not expect such a radical outcome as it came to be. I felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction and thankfulness for what we were able to do together. But the process and journey getting there was extremely exhausting and painful. I was already at a very low point personally due to a series of outside circumstances that I had endured, and the pain of change in our church put me over the edge. I won’t go into all the details but let’s just say that not everyone agrees with radical change, including some of your dearest friends. My wife first noticed that I was not doing well. I looked fine when I was “on,” but at home and in private I was in bad shape, with unexplained and growing depression and anxiety that was starting to rob me of joy and peace, and of precious sleep. Through the loving and supportive counsel of my wife, along with the intervention of a highly trusted professional counselor, I was able to determine that #1. I had reached “mission accomplished” for my role in that church body and therefore should see myself as released from the mission there, and #2. I was in desperate need of a season of personal renewal and restoration requiring a detachment from the rigors of leadership, or else I would only grow worse. Putting the two together brought the realization that a sabbatical from pastoral leadership was not enough – I needed to move myself and my family away to begin an entirely new chapter of our lives.

Resigning from that church was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. We had to sell our wonderful little house and move away from wonderful people. It seemed for a time that the transitional season that followed was even worse than the experience of burnout I had faced prior to resigning. When we found a place to live I ended up taking a job that was not at all a match for my primary gift set. In a matter of just a few weeks I went from feeling firmly planted in my vocational calling, and generally fulfilled and satisfied with my life situation, to feeling misplaced, bored out of my mind, confused, and “vocationally depressed.” Gone were the familiar and fulfilling experiences of preaching and leading. Gone was the feeling of being a trusted counselor and confidant for so many people. These were replaced with bewildering anonymity, and an overall lack of direction and fulfillment with the new season I was in. My primary gifts were shut down, and my calling seemed cut off. For almost two years I wrestled with myself and with God. I wept, a lot. Sometimes I gained ground in hopefulness and appreciation of my present circumstances. At other times I became overwhelmed with frustration over my powerlessness to hurry the season to an end. But I believed that it was necessary and ultimately, a good thing.

Even when some significant opportunities came along early on, I had the sense that I was not done healing, and God was not done working in me through this shut-down season. So I kept my entry-level cubicle job in the city and fought off impulsive wants to ditch it and look for something more exciting. I knew I needed to wait, and I felt that I was “saving life energy” for a future season of growth that I simply could not yet see. Eventually, as I adjusted into acceptance and renewed faith in the midst of the situation, and then later into a phase of planning for future emergence, a sense of joy returned. I even found peace and thankfulness in my cubicle job. Before I knew it I was entering into a new season of growth and “fullness” again. But during the dark times I sometimes wondered if I had brought upon myself losses I might not ever be able to recover. I had fully entered into what I now call “vocational dormancy.”

Vocational Dormancy

I believe that God gives purpose to each and every life, and intends for us to bloom and blossom, bearing “fruit” through what is known as vocation. The Bible is full of insights on this, including the words of Jesus. We were made to grow and blossom and branch out unto fullness! But fruitfulness comes in seasons. The natural world gives us a beautiful picture of this experience of a fruitful life. The bareness and bleakness of the dormant winter landscape is a reminder that the glory of the last summer is now gone. Trees and plants look dead, and the lush green of the earth is buried in snow (or browned-out, for all my southern friends). Reason enough for some to hate winter. But the landscape is anything but dead in the winter. It is quietly resting above ground, and just below the frozen earth there is activity going on in preparation for a future growing season. Invisible growth is occurring as roots branch out and deepen in the cold soil. The long, quiet anonymity of dormancy is an important part of life on earth. Eventually, warmth will return and there will be an awakening. But there is a time and season for each.

I don’t particularly enjoy dormancy in nature. It’s boring, and cold. And I really don’t enjoy dormant seasons in my personal life and vocation. Vocational dormancy is the name I give to the difficult experience of being delayed, shut-down, and otherwise kept away from doing with your life what is in your heart to do. For most people it is an unpleasant, frustrating, and even depressing experience to have to wait for the arrival of realized potential and growth, while being stuck in unwanted situations (and often, jobs) in the present. Sure, there are things you must do to help emerge out of latency (and I’m writing partially with that purpose in mind), but sometimes what is needed is not simply robust willpower or strategy to break out of your present situation. Instead, there comes a need to learn how to endure periods of latency and waiting, even when it’s painful. The seasoned person knows that the less-desirable period of dormancy is an important part of preparing for future seasons of growth and fruitfulness. No one can handle a never-ending succession of intense growth and fruitfulness. Those that try pay big, and lose a lot in the long run. In the natural world, an “eternal summer” would mean certain death for plant life.

Dormancy in life and vocation isn’t all bad. Some of it is necessary. Some of it is even beautiful. If you are willing to reframe your perspective, it can become a time of re-alignment, rest, healing, and even a surprising rediscovery of your life calling.

In part 2 of this short blog series I will touch on the general experiences of those who enter into vocational dormancy. Some of you will be able to say, “Yeah, that’s me.” I will also offer practical suggestions for making the most of these (usually) unwanted seasons of shut-down, as well as insights for preparing for a future “reemergence.”

About Nathan

Soaking in The Presence for my 40th

I just returned Tues. eve from a last-minute retreat getaway and I thought writing a reflection on my trip would make a good start to this blog site. I had planned to make my first blog post on something much less “heavy” (!) or even so personal in nature, but the renewal I experienced during this trip is reason enough to jump right in. I am also aware that I’m writing here on things that may be strange and unfamiliar to some. Feel free to send me a note or ask for more info. I hope this simple little report provokes some of you to greater spiritual hunger, and maybe even inspires faith and openness if you have never experienced the kinds of things that I am writing about. The fact that I’m writing about some rather profound things in such short form gives me some discomfort, but I’d rather just be conversational here instead of heavily analytical.

I had originally planned to attend a group retreat at the nearby Abbey of the Genesee last weekend, which also happened to be my 40th birthday (2/16), but it needed to be cancelled. I still wanted to do something meaningful for the big 4-0, and I found out about a series of revival meetings in Baltimore, MD beginning on the same weekend and with a Christian ministry that I am familiar with. Something just sparked in my heart and mind. I’ve been growing increasingly hungry lately for a fresh encounter with God – not as some kind of quick fix, but in the biblical sense of encounter; to be filled with the Holy Spirit fresh and new, like I read about in the New Testament and like I have experienced at certain times in my life of faith.

What drew me was that these meetings in Baltimore were being led by a ministry that profoundly impacted my life in my early 20s – better to say that my life was transformed, so much so that what happened to me in those meetings when I was in my 20s was a turning point in my life. Too long of a story for this blog post but it’s worth saying that I learned what it means to feel and know the immediate presence of God in a very real way. The name of the ministry is Revival Ministries International, with Dr. Rodney Howard Browne. He is a pastor in Tampa, FL, and a world-traveling evangelist that is widely recognized as one of the greatest revivalists of our time due to the way that the effect of his ministry (and many others like him) has introduced millions of people around the world to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. I knew that attending meetings he leads means one will be confronted with sights and sounds not usually heard in church or Christian meetings – and that are themselves the subject of much controversy. This blog post is in no way an analysis of his ministry, but I can at least say that I do not feel it is necessary to agree with everything a minister says or does in order to be able to value the investment his/her ministry can make in people’s lives. I don’t agree with everything I’ve said or done in ministry! What mattered to me is that I’ve been feeling a need for spiritual renewal recently, and I believed that this would be a good place for it because I know the reputation of this ministry.

I was able to stay for four of the services, two on Sunday and two on Monday. From the very first service Sunday morning I could feel a tangible, explosive joy in the air of that place. This congregation was supercharged with joy and faith in the Lord, and you could tell they really loved each other. As the congregation sang I felt waves of joy and peace flooding my spirit and I openly wept. I don’t know exactly why, but when I am powerfully touched by God’s presence, even when it makes me unspeakably happy – I weep. As the personal prayer ministry time began later on in the service, many people were being dramatically effected – with shouts of joy and laughter, others openly weeping like myself, and plenty of others quietly reflecting as they took it all in. Some were physically shaken as they experienced renewal in the presence of the Lord. Other people were confessing sin and turning back to God. Broken hearts were being healed up. Some were being set free of deep spiritual problems. This same kind of thing continued in each of the services I attended. I felt like a sponge getting soaking wet with fresh joy and faith in the Lord. It’s probably important to mention that I value the non-dramatic moments as well. Altogether I spent hours quietly enjoying the prayerful environment of that place. But it was during the last meeting I attended on Monday evening, and then my waking moments Tues. morning in my hotel, when I received the greatest gifts of the whole trip. I’ll finish by sharing briefly on those two moments.

Late into the Mon. evening gathering the speaker was praying for a whole family, all of them standing about 10 ft. away from me. Suddenly an invisible wave of power swept over me – the only way to describe it is that it’s like electricity suddenly passing over you. The speaker, sensing that this had just happened to me and the group around me, turned to us and said, “The anointing of the Holy Spirit just came upon about 8 of you. Please stand and come here for prayer.” Again, I began weeping with joy as I realized that my quiet hunger for God was being met with a fresh touch of the Spirit’s power. When I was thinking about all of this later in the evening I remembered a moment recorded in the Bible when people were supernaturally healed by God’s power that was working through Paul, so much so that even cloth and clothing that touched Paul had power to heal! Sounds crazy still, even after reading that Scripture so many times (Acts 19:11-12, in the Bible). As strange as it sounds, I believe that it was my nearness to the prayer ministry going on that “swept” me into the activity of the Holy Spirit in that moment.

Some question the legitimacy or soundness of these things. That’s fine, I have no intention of trying to work all that out here. What I know is that I woke up Tues morning, and before I even moved in my bed, I felt the nearness of the presence of the Lord, and just the thought of spending time with Jesus and living my life for him that day warmed me all over. I felt a renewed love for God, and for people, and a fresh desire to live as a follower of Jesus. To me, this is proof enough of the goodness and value of all these things.

About Nathan