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.
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.”
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.”