The Trouble with Moving On, Pt. 2: The Pains of Transition

This post is part 2 in a series on navigating life transitions. In the first post of this series, I shared insights to help you process decisions about ending something big in your life (like a job or relationship) before you make the decision to end it. In this post, I am sharing thoughts on the painful struggle that often follows a significant personal or professional change. My writing on the topic comes out of some of my recent ministry and research aimed at helping Christian leaders experiencing a difficult transition. Though the needs and experiences of leaders are unique in certain ways, I have found that much of what I have prepared touches on the personal experiences of others who are navigating a difficult life transition, regardless of background or profession.

The process of moving on after a big change is what we call transition. Nearly everyone one of us will eventually encounter a serious struggle during a life transition in our career, health, or family. The hard thing about transition is that is usually involves experiences of personal pain, especially if the change affects something meaningful to us. Sometimes, the “pains” are multiple and long-lasting, and amount to what I refer to as a transitional crisis.

I like to compare the experiences of a major life transition to what some of my friends and I went through when we climbed Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks many years ago. To this day, it remains in my memory as the most exciting and rewarding outdoor adventure I have ever had. But it wasn’t a wonderful adventure the whole time. The hike up was a rush of adrenaline and excitement as we climbed higher and higher up the highest peak in NY State. It was also a lot of intense work. We enjoyed the team effort, and the feeling of sharing in something so amazing made the physical strain of the climb seem like nothing. During the long journey upward, we had only one thing in mind: reaching the top. Finally reaching the peak was exhilarating, and the views were incredibly beautiful. Talk about a “nature high!” When we started down however, the experience turned into three hours of painful, jarring knee-banging and slamming as we traversed around boulders and drops. My muscles took such a beating that I started to lose feeling in my legs. I became completely exhausted and I couldn’t wait to get it over with!

HikingDownhill4Major transitions in life are like this. They are often a bumpy, rocky, knee (and head) banging descent from a period of personal fulfillment. Most of the time, we’re only thinking about the work of the climb to reach a destination, and not the necessary (and difficult) process of coming down from it. Eventually, we all must come down.

Gaining more clarity about the pains of transition can help someone in a difficult spot move forward more confidently and intentionally. It helps to know that others have experienced similar pains while in transition because it means that we aren’t alone in our difficulty. It also helps to more clearly recognize the symptoms of our struggles, so we can more effectively care for our needs. I hope the following descriptions of transitional pain bring some of this clarity and confidence for your next step forward.

Common Pains of Transition

  1. Fleeting Euphoria. When someone begins a transition there is often an initial wave of euphoria. This is especially true when transition brings a sense of liberation from a problematic situation. In most cases however, euphoric feelings of freedom and relief from previous responsibility or commitment turn out to be short-lived, and hollow. Soon, the reality of what has taken place sets in, and relief can quickly turn to worry and distress. If you’re experiencing an emotional roller coaster ride after a big change has taken place, you haven’t lost your mind- you’re completely normal. Emotional highs and lows will likely begin to level off as soon as you start settling into a new routine of work and relationships. Of course, that takes time.
  2. The Pain of Loss. If I were to use one word to describe the pains of a transitional crisis, it would be the word “loss.” The losses a person experiences when moving on from a position, relationship, or other significant thing in life can be huge. There is a real grieving process over transitional losses that needs to be expressed with honesty and realness. Just because the loss did not involve the death of a loved one does not mean that it doesn’t mark you, or that it is somehow unfitting to struggle with bouts of depression or anxiety over it. These too are normal experiences of people struggling with the losses of a transition.

Here are some of the things that are commonly lost (and grieved) during a transition:

  • Financial stability. This is perhaps the most obvious upset that can occur in significant transitions, and usually the first on people’s minds. Life must be financed, and a transition that brings an end to a source of income is unsettling to our life situations and puts feelings of uncertainty out in front of us.
  • Close relationships. Whether its career related, or a major change in a family, transition usually means a break in close relationships. Some of these may have involved deep bonds built over many years. In some cases, it may mean losing the only close relationships a person (or family) has. Loneliness often dominates the feelings of leaders who have recently been in a transition, as leadership already tends to be isolating, and stepping away from a leadership role usually means the loss of the few (local) confidants a leader has.
  • Home – both a building and a location. This is almost always the case in career changes that involve a move. Moving means we become a fish out of water, for a time. Moving for a homeowner also means leaving behind the most important material possession most people will ever own, a house. Sure, a new house can be bought or built, but the feeling of being “home” takes a long time to rebuild in a new location.
  • Platform. Transition often means stepping away from a place of influence in people’s lives, gained through years of hard work, and the trust people give over time. This is especially painful for ministry leaders as stepping away from a role means the loss of the place where ministry giftedness (spiritual gifts, leadership gifts, etc.) was expressed on a regular basis. Unless the transition involves moving directly into a similar position, having no “automatic” outlet for a person’s gifts and talents means the person is going to feel frustrated and bored, and maybe even find himself or herself in an identity crisis. I’ve been there! Occupational “unfulfillment” is tough!
  • Going from “Somebody” to “Nobody.” A person who lives, works, and serves others in a particular location or role begins to carry “weight,” or influence, in the lives of people, and in the organizations that he or she serves in. The more weight that is added to a person’s influence, the more he or she can move things, make things happen, and lead the charge! Leaving that place or position means leaving much of the influence and renown. Suddenly, it feels as though life purpose has been stripped away. I think this one alone (and maybe the “platform” issue too) are reasons that some people who actually need to leave a place or position resist doing so, because of the fear of losing one’s sense of meaning and purpose in the world. It’s scary to let go, and no one wants to become a “has been.” But let go we must, or we risk failing to open up and embrace new and changed influence elsewhere.

Things you can do if you’re feeling some of these pains:

1) Embrace the letting-go process. Easier said (and written) than done. The internal work of letting go of things we’ve already lost is an integral part of the healing process in grief. It’s also a requirement of readying ourselves for moving on to new things. Embracing the letting-go process means embracing the pain of a loss, this is why it’s so hard. Acknowledge the hurts you feel about your losses and the struggle you are in to release what once was. You must let go before you can truly move on.

2) Talk to someone. I make this suggestion in various forms whenever I try to encourage people who have found themselves in a tough situation. A caring and listening ear is a precious gift that prevents us from being totally alone in our struggles. You were made to live in community, and community can be a lifesaver.

3) Write about it. Writing about our problems is a helpful and healing way to process difficult times. This is true for the letting-go process as well. Buy a journal, or make a computer file folder where you can make entries about the things you’re feeling. Write a couple of paragraphs early in the morning or perhaps just before bed. Writing about problems is like letting an anxious bird out of its cage- it brings moments of freedom. If you’re like me, things have to get really bad before you’re willing to listen to this suggestion and actually take the time to do it. I wish I wouldn’t have waited so long before I started expressing my struggles in writing. Once I started, it seemed that the fog began to lift.

4) Talk to God about it. Something that has repeatedly brought me to a place of awareness of my need for God, and for his love and power in my life, has been experiences of personal pain. Being a Christian, and more specifically inviting God into the most personal areas of my life, has changed everything. I have found that bringing personal weakness to God through prayer and Scriptural reflection has led me to places of new and greater strength. The problem is that I have sometimes caught myself feeling ashamed for being in a place of brokenness before God. But the more I have learned to fully believe in God’s all-encompassing love for those who belong to him in Jesus, the more I have been released to walk with God by faith, with honesty and transparency.

Here are a couple of suggestions for taking spiritual steps during your struggle.

  • Consider that God is mysteriously working things out in your life to accomplish good purposes for you, though for a time it all seems so unclear. Try meditating on Psalm 16:5-11 for a number of days (linked here). It’s my favorite Scripture passage for re-firing my faith in the loving sovereignty of God over our situations.
  • Pray with complete honesty about the way you feel. Be specific about the situation, and allow yourself to “be yourself” in the place of prayer. Let it all out! The Book of Psalms, which is like the prayer book of the Bible, is filled with gut-wrenching honesty and expressions of distress. It’s also filled with declarations of faith and hope in God, who carries his children through times of trouble. An outstanding example of this and a great one for reading and reflecting is Psalm 42.

If you are experiencing a crisis of transition, let your struggle translate into an invitation to draw nearer to the One who has good plans for your future. God wants to use everything in our lives, including the unwanted losses, pressures, and delays of transition, to shape and mold us into people who have learned to orient all of life completely around him.

In Christ’s love, Nathan

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About Nathan

Part 1 of the series, “Before You Jump Ship”


High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, p/c John Compton


The Trouble with Moving On, Pt. 1: Before you jump ship

Last week I had the privilege of speaking to a group of returning overseas missionaries on the subject of transitioning after the end of a ministry role. Thanks to the organization that sent them overseas, instead of “jumping ship” they were entering into a healthy process of a planned preparation for change. They were beginning a major transition from an intense time of ministry and life in a foreign country, back to a stateside life. I was there to help prepare them for both the struggles and opportunities that come whenever we step away from something that once took up a big part of our lives.

The topic of ministry transitions (and caring for ministry leaders during them) is one that has occupied much of my personal and professional life in recent years. I experienced an extended period of “transitional distress” after I resigned from a fulfilling role as the pastor of a church that I led for almost eight years. I needed a lot of encouragement and input during that time. Later, I started noticing that other ministry leaders were experiencing the same kinds of trouble after an ending, and I became burdened for them. I decided to make the topic of Christian leaders in transition the focus of my culminating doctoral project, which led to an immersion in related literature as well as a period of practical application with leaders who were currently experiencing a difficult transition. All of these experiences have given me an understanding of the common kinds of crises people can experience when they enter into a major life transition, as well as ways to navigate them.

Ministry transitions certainly aren’t the only kind of difficult life transition. You might be reading this because you are facing a different kind of career or life transition. Transitional distress, which includes a whole spectrum of personal and situational problems, is common after significant changes in work, family, health, and even age, just to name a few. The late Dr. William Bridges wrote, “Change is an event, transition is a process.” Change is what sparks transition. It’s the part that follows change that gets most people. I like to say that the struggles of transition aren’t something you simply need to try and “get over.” Instead, transition is something you “get through.” Transition is or will be a huge part of all of our stories, regardless of our background or career. It’s the unavoidable process of moving on from something big that once marked our lives but has now come to an end.

Some endings that lead to a major transition happen outside of our control, and we are required to respond whether we want to or not. As I mentioned before, the missionaries I was with were experiencing a transition that was pre-planned and healthy. Supportive structures were in place to assist them in their journey home. Many of you reading this blog post will experience a significant transition of some other kind in a less caring or structured environment. Someone may have already made a decision to end something for you, and you have no choice but to figure out how to move on. Or perhaps there has been a crisis that has led to your need to make an ending. Others of us will experience a significant transition because of change that we initiated, of our own will and volition.

When you sense that a big change is needed

Eventually, it happens. You realize that your heart is moving away from something you once felt in tune with, called to, even blessed with. Perhaps this change of heart comes mysteriously and foggily, but you begin sensing that a major shift needs to take place, somehow or in some way. That “something” was heretofore a big part of your life story, but now it seems to be in the way of something else, yet you’re not quite sure of what, or how. When this happens, one of the questions we naturally begin asking ourselves is if these feelings are signals that we need to put that something behind us. Should I quit the position (or resign)? Do I need to end or change a relationship I have with someone? Should I move? Should I leave the group I once felt so at home with?

Before you act:

We’re all going to find ourselves in spots where either the urgency of our situation or a growing discontentedness in our hearts compels us to act in some way. Before you say or do something big, I recommend doing the following:

1) Consider whether or not your decision to make an ending is a good one.

When you have a say in the matter, I suggest that it’s crucial to step back and carefully examine the situation as objectively as possible. Give careful consideration to the outcomes, the risks, and the possibility of wrong motives or misperceptions you might have about the situation. It is important to carefully examine what’s happening inside of you because even good endings, done with right motives and supported by the counsel of others, have significant after-effects not only in our personal lives but also in the lives of others around us. Sometimes, the after-effects bring losses and upheavals that are hard to recover from.

Deciding whether or not to put something big behind us is one of the hardest choices we will ever face. The following questions need to be asked- and eventually answered with clarity.

  • Is it the right timing?
  • Am I ending/resigning/leaving for good reasons?
  • What are the consequences, and risks?
  • Am I going about the process in the best and healthiest way I know how?

2) Don’t make the decision alone. Ask for input from others you trust.

Usually, we cannot sort through our deep inner longings, fears, and decision processes on our own. Resist the temptation to think that you can make the right decision on your own. Whenever I am sensing the need to make a significant personal or professional change, I ask for help from wise, trusted people who can offer caring but also careful and objective counsel, even if it’s not what I want to hear. More than 20 years of adulthood, leadership, parenting, marriage, and ministry have taught me that there are times when I am going to need to listen to the perspectives of others who weigh in on my situation. When I was pastoring, there were several occasions where I experienced intense feelings of wanting to move on to a different ministry. I sought counsel from people who had a proven track record of navigating the challenges I was facing. Each time, I decided to stay the course. Some of my biggest breakthroughs as a leader came on the other side of those tough seasons. Conversely, just before I resigned, I was struggling to understand why I was beginning to sense that my time at the church was done while at the same time attempting to uphold a commitment and loyalty that would prevent me from leaving. It was a confusing and emotional time, and a pastoral counselor helped me to see the situation more clearly as well as the rightness of the timing for my resignation.

You WON’T regret doing the following:

  • Pick two or three people you believe would offer you well-informed, experienced counsel.
  • If you are feeling hard pressed, call or email them TODAY. If they aren’t available right away, let them know what you’re facing and ask when they can meet.
  • Consult a family pastor or other church leader known for his or her wisdom and care with people and families. (If you can’t think of one, one of your Christian friends will likely have suggestions.) Christian leaders usually have lots of experience with helping people navigate difficult choices.

The Bible has a lot to say about choices. Here are just a few of its insights:

Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed. Proverbs 15:22 (NIV)

For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers. Proverbs 11:14 (NIV)

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalm 37:4 (NIV)

I am convinced (from experience!) that God is at work in people who seek him. He can shape and mold your desires and make them more of a reflection of his, and his are always best. And thankfully, our desires are not always wrong, nor are our needs ignored. Those who seek the counsel of the Lord can expect help and rewards along the way.

Ultimately it is you that must decide, but you will do yourself (and many others) a great disservice if you make high-cost, high-risk choices based solely on the impulses and drive of your own heart. Certainly, I believe that our feelings and desires are important elements in our decisions, yet I also firmly believe we cannot trust them alone. Sometimes, we need to be protected from our own selves. Wise people who can speak into our lives are nothing short of divine gifts waiting for us if we have the courage to look for them, and make room in our hearts (and our pride) to trust and receive them. When an ending is necessary, this kind of help can go a long way towards an ending that is as healthy as possible for all instead of a “jumping ship” scenario.

Jumping Ship

3) Be willing to delay your decision.

Emotions are powerful forces, and when we’re feeling driven by them, we might want to hurry a decision just to get it over with. It’s better to delay major decisions, if even only for a little while when the situation allows for it (and many do). Wait long enough to 1) step back and consider all of your options, 2) get the counsel you need (including godly counsel), and 3) see how things pan out with a little time. It’s amazing what a few days of delay can bring as far as new perspectives. To help stave off feelings of anxiety about a major decision in front of me, I go to my calendar and schedule a day and time (or multiple times on different days) when I will sit down to look things over, and maybe jot down thoughts and ideas.

4) Remember that you process best when you’re feeling rested and refreshed.

Many years ago I heard someone say something that I always try to keep in mind when I am approaching a major decision: Never make a big decision when you’re overtired or discouraged. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, don’t trust the feelings and perspectives you have in that exhausted, negative-minded state! Wait until you’re having a good day, and see how you feel about it then. Write down your thoughts and perspectives when you have a sense of grounded positivity about your situation. You’ll be surprised at your new clarity, and hopefully, your willingness to listen to the input of others.

COMING SOON: Pt. 2: “The Pains of Transition,” where I will help you put words to some of the common struggles, or pains, you may be feeling if you are in the midst of a difficult transitional season in your life.

If this post has helped you in some way, or if you have something to add, I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below. Thank you for reading.

In the boundless love of Jesus, Nathan

About Nathan


Vocational Dormancy, Part 3 – Reemergence

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. 

About Nathan

Other posts in this series:

Vocational Dormancy – Part 1

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


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


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