The tree pictured may look rather common and boring to you, but if you’ve seen it in part 1 and part 2 of this blog series, this picture is anything but boring! As the glory of summer sets in, the rich green foliage is energizing the whole plant system as it soaks up the sun’s rays, and the roots are drawing water and nutrients at a rapid rate. Words like thriving and robust come to mind. But just a couple of months ago this tree was bare and asleep in winter dormancy. We generally don’t like dormancy very much. We long for the warmth and brightness of summer in the natural world, and similarly, we long for fruitful, fulfilling, and productive seasons in our professional lives of vocation and work.
When the Creator designed trees, they weren’t made to peak out at dormancy, that’s for sure! They were made for fullness and productivity, bringing forth beauty and enrichment to the earth. This is true of people, too. We were made to fulfill our divinely-given vocation, bringing forth the good things that grow from our giftedness and calling in work and relationships. But just like the seasons outside, there are times in our lives when we will find that we have lost the glory and fullness of certain expressions of our vocational calling; most often felt when we step away from a job or career (or period of life) that was highly fulfilling, and find ourselves doing something that is far less than the robustness we once knew. This is what I call vocational dormancy. I introduced the topic and told a bit of my own struggle in part 1, and offered helpful insights and hidden opportunities during such a season in part 2.
The good news is that “off” seasons don’t last forever. If you are in a period of vocational dormancy, you need to know that it is only a matter of time until your personal efforts, responses to the situation, and acceptance of divine appointment will once again lead you into a new season of fruitfulness. You were made for a purpose. With time, alignment between your work and vocation can come. But even as you await a brighter and more productive season there are some things that need to begin emerging in your life right now, to get you moving.
Things that helped me begin breaking from dormancy: One of the most important things I learned (by listening to the advice of others) was that I needed to act now, even though I didn’t know what the end of the shut-down period would look like. Here are some of the most helpful things I did:
1. Explore new horizons. Reframe your down time as an opportunity to explore new horizons, and maybe even reinvent yourself professionally. The quiet anonymity experienced by leaders who step out of the lead provides a rare opportunity for exploring, and re-exploring, the desires in your heart, what you feel called to, and what may have been forgotten or put aside in a previous season of busyness. It is likely that there are certain things about your life story and calling that need to be recaptured, and a dormant season is a perfect time to make the connection. For some this means finishing or going back to school. The opportunity to do so may never come back again. This is what happened to me. As I was sensing that the time for change was coming (I originally hoped it would be one year, but it was almost two), I remembered that I had once believed the time would come for me to get a doctoral degree. With the full backing of my wife I enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at Northeastern Seminary, and I have been floored by the experience of having my eyes opened to a much larger world of Christian faith and practice as compared to what I had previously known. This is just one part of my new openness to exploring new avenues for the things I believe I am called to do.
Maybe it’s time to let go of past successes and fulfillment. One of the biggest and most important questions I was asked during my shut-down was “Will you return to pastoring?” I can hardly overstate the attachment I had to that title – years of fulfilling, challenging work as the spiritual leader of a Christian congregation became deeply written into my whole life story and sense of purpose. I had a hard time imagining myself finding that same level of fulfillment doing something else. But the question needed to be asked, and I believe even more importantly, I needed to be willing to accept that divine appointment in my life could very well mean something different in my future. In short, I had to arrive at a place of being willing to say “no” to what previously marked my life and had given me purpose.
The process of letting go of attachment was much harder than I expected. It required some serious “deep diving” in contemplation and prayer. The question that needs to be asked is, “What else might I be called to do with my life?” The answer to that scary question could be the key that unlocks a whole series of events leading to your new season of fruitfulness. Are you willing to let go of what you are known for? I expect that for some of you, the whole of your next season hinges on your willingness to be open to separating away from familiar pathways of work and career. I remain open to the possibility that I will one day pastor or plant a church, but this idea does not have a hold on me like it once did.
Do you have big dreams yet unfulfilled? Do you want to reach a certain kind of people, in a certain place, or start a certain kind of organization, that you were previously unable to even begin exploring? Maybe you have wanted to start a business, but your present job kept you from the freedoms you needed, until you lost the job. This special time of openness could offer the opportunity for you to make a new beginning. Seize the moment!
2. Ask yourself “The 30-yr Question,” and maybe do it on a personal retreat. If the stuff you just read makes you a little nervous (like it made me when I was there) then I need to let you know that I’m about to add even more uncertainty to your dormant season. You need to be asking yourself big questions like “What do I want to do with my professional life for the next 30 years?” For you it may be only 10 or 20, or maybe it’s 40. The turning points that happen after dormant seasons can entirely redirect lives, and there is hardly a more critical time to get in touch with long-term vision for your future – including your life, family, and work, than when you are in a shutdown season. You don’t want to miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that may be sitting right in front of you, hidden under all of the stress and process of your current season.
I think that many do miss it. The kind of contemplative “deep diving” required to go there calls for specialness of time and space, where you can focus in and listen to yourself, and to God. This is where a retreat may be a huge help.
One of the highlights of my exploration of how-to-maximize-now and what-to-do-next came when I took a personal retreat at a guest house on the campus of a nearby monastery for Trappist monks. No, I wasn’t considering celibacy or living permanently in an enclosure; I was looking for a quiet and restful place to get away for at least one night, so I could ask myself those big questions, pray, think, rest, and write down on paper where I was at. I needed (and wanted, sort of) silence and solitude. I had previously taken a group of men on a retreat in the same guest house and knew that I would be able to find the space I needed there.
Obviously, there are many great places to take a retreat. I suggest choosing a location without a TV or computer, and refraining from taking any electronic devices except perhaps your phone, but even that can become an all-consuming distraction unless you are disciplined and willing to turn the thing off. The silence and solitude of a retreat without technology was one of my best moments during my two-year struggle. I sat alone and thought, wrote, and prayed. I took long walks. I read. I took a nap. I ate meals slowly and read Scripture at the table. I took a notepad and wrote down anything that seemed to bring clarity to my situation or ponderings, and whatever I sensed as a whisper from heaven in my Scripture reading and prayer. That was almost two years ago, and I can still vividly remember some of the clear discoveries and insights that came to me!
Whether or not you take a retreat (or many other things I suggest doing), you should aim to be able to write down (or type out) clear and concise answers to at least the following questions:
- What do I really want/feel called to do with the rest of my working years?
- What can I do right now to take practical steps in that direction?
- Who do I need to meet with to talk about my goals?
3. Talk to people who are doing what you think you want to do. Even if you are not 100% certain that what you have in mind is what you’ll be doing in the future, talk to those who are doing it. I spent a significant amount of time (and money) one summer traveling to various cities in the U.S. to spend time with a world renowned ministry that was doing the kinds of things I thought I should pursue doing. Boy was I in for a surprise. Though I greatly enjoyed many of the “ministry moments” in those venues, the behind-the-scenes struggles, bothers of travel, and surface-only nature of relationality entailed with a blow-in/blow-out organizational profile helped me to realize that even though I was open to doing that kind of ministry work, I wasn’t going to be in a hurry to make it happen, and I was suddenly more fond of the local church. But my sense of call remained, and I continued exploring and experimenting with new paths, and meeting with leaders who “knew the stuff.” Though I never intended to become a pastor (and actually told people that I wasn’t called to it), I eventually began to realize that I truly believed God had called me to the pastorate I held for almost 8 years. Many years later, a new season of exploration led me into teaching at Elim Bible Institute (part-time at the time of this writing), even though I had previously told people that I didn’t think I would ever be a Bible school teacher! I continue to hold onto a whole list of desires and interests and sense of calling to additional things, and I know that a process of exploring these interests with other seasoned leaders will be necessary in the future.
4. Bud & bloom where you’re planted. Stuck in a less-than-wanted job? Even if your current situation is not what you want for the long term, it is possible to focus on the positive, and turn your attitude and outlook around by maximizing the moment you are currently in. Make it your goal to be the most positive person in the whole place. Seek to be successful at what you do, even if you’re not that excited about what you’re doing. This kind of thinking brought dramatic changes into my situation. After a few months of settling into the job I had to take after my resignation from the pastorate, I caught myself framing almost everything about my situation through a lens of negativity and lack. Were there negative things about the situation? Sure! But I was letting them dominate my mind and thinking, and it was dragging me down.
I began to prayerfully address my attitude, and I confessed my attitude problem to a friend. I started focusing on the positive things, even when they seemed few (they were many but I couldn’t see them at the time). In my job I was answering continual phone calls from frustrated customers (and sometimes, foul-mouthed!), and I decided that I was going to be “the man for the job,” even when my thoughts kept turning towards wanting to get out. I treated customers like gold, and I treated my co-workers sitting next to me (and throughout the building) as if they were God’s own treasures. (And if you really understand how God feels about people, you know they are!) It paid off. I started making friends in the cubicles around me. We laughed together and enjoyed conversations almost every day. I won happy customer awards for making customers on the phone so happy. I tacked up the awards in my cubicle and I arranged decorations and family pictures as though I was sitting in my own private office. I became more open to the gifts and blessings of the day, and I gradually slipped from disoriented and discouraged to attentive and appreciative.
I became so positive that a grumpy lady in a cubicle near mine burst out loudly one day about how ridiculous it was that I could have such a positive attitude in such a boring, stressful job. I smiled, and gently said something about the role of faith in my outlook on life. Things were taking a turn. I started sleeping better. I was soon able to wean off of the medication I was taking for depression (I share more about my experience of depression in part 2). But the funny thing is that I was still stuck in the same job and situation! The difference between the first and second year at that job was like night and day, and it was almost entirely due to attitude.
5. Make a big deal of small beginnings. When an opportunity to do something you actually want to do comes, and after evaluation you feel it’s a go – go for it. Even if it is small, and doesn’t seem to hold the promise of a connection to the things you long for, tell that negative voice to shut up, and pour yourself into the work. It is a common error to always believe that the desired future awaiting you is held in an open job slot that is “out there somewhere.” Although this will be the case for some, many will need to find small ways to make a new beginning and do what they want to do, but those opportunities will not be found in a newspaper, or behind someone’s desk. Perhaps it starts with volunteering. Or maybe a new product or side-job. Maybe it’s an outreach to people with a certain kind of need that stirs you. For me it began with teaching a single class, for which I was given the opportunity, after I had met with several key leaders, simply because the former teacher moved on to other things, and I was judged to be a right fit. Put pride aside, accept the seemingly insignificant thing that is in front of you, and make it your mission to pray over it and passionately pursue it. Little things can turn out very large one day.
For all my readers who have been willing to grunt (or weep) their way through one of these tough transitions from fulfillment into a state of actively employed “unfulfillment” (translation: you took a job you didn’t want to take), I say, “Well done!” It’s not easy, but it doesn’t have to be a miserable experience forever. And it won’t last forever. So while you make the best of now, try some of the things I have suggested in this post, and keep your eyes on the horizon. I hope this brief collection of ideas for reemergence will help you make a break into a new season of fruitfulness and fullness in your life, work, or ministry.
Thanks for reading. Please consider sharing this series with someone you know who is struggling in these areas.
Other posts in this series: