Last week, I wrote about the wonder of losing yourself in something every once in a while, and the beauty of being all-in. Sometimes. So I wanted to take a moment and talk about the other side of the coin, of how sometimes that total devotion even to the things of God can lead us away from the life God would have for us.
When I left my full-time ministry role last August, and people asked about my plans, one of the things I was most excited to tell them was that I was looking forward to a season where my entire life wasn’t defined by my job.
I loved working in full-time vocational ministry. It was fulfilling, creative, challenging, and fun – and it very quickly became the entire locus of my identity. I was on top of the world when things went well, but when things were challenging, or an event didn’t go well, I lost sleep over it; I felt like a failure.
These feelings probably sound pretty familiar to pastors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. The work is so important, so sacred, and emerges from such a deep part of ourselves that it seems only natural that we would dedicate every inch of ourselves to it. That we would stake our sense of self in the work.
I felt like because God was calling me to this work, it deserved every inch of myself, every ounce of effort I could muster. The job would take as much of me, my time, my love, and my energy that I would give it, so I gave it everything. And that was good, for a while, fun even.
Then there was a pandemic. All my beloved programs were canceled, and the kids I invested in now only appeared on screens. No amount of work could will us out of an unprecedented (didn’t miss that word, did you?) disaster. It became obvious that in my pursuit of following God’s call, I had gotten off track, that the anchor I had built my life on couldn’t hold.
To find my footing in faith again, I had to leave my job in the church. This sense of losing yourself, of attaching your identity to your success in work, can hinder not only your relationships and sense of well-being in the world but, ironically, your work as well. It’s self-evident that being solely devoted to work would get in the way of having healthy relationships, could impede personal growth, and affect self-esteem, but what’s less apparent is that it negatively affects your work as well.
If your sense of identity is connected to your work, you can be prone to procrastination to avoid feedback; you can be inappropriately risk-averse or overly blinded to the risks of continuing to pursue a failing enterprise. Being emotionally intertwined with your work can limit the creativity that comes from cross-pollination and cause you to bring unnecessary anxiety to the normal ebbs and flows of work.
Those of us following careers that we feel called to by God can feel like it’s our obligation to be single-minded in our focus, but we have to remember that we are called with the same call Jesus offered,
Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.Matthew 4:19
Yes, the disciples were called to the work, but they were called first to the following. The thing we are called to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to is the pursuit of Christ, not the building of a ministry. It is the following of Jesus that commands all of us. The vocation that may or may not come as part of that is only a small portion of the call.
The actual call is just as all-encompassing, if not more so. The actual call shapes the kind of partner, parent, and person you are; it calls you to be devoted to your spiritual disciplines, faithful in your relationships, and joyful in your work. It reminds you, as Jesus does in his call of the brothers, that it is God that makes us fishers of men, not our own effort. We are called to be completely devoted, yes, but devoted to the whole life God calls us to, not just the jobs we take as part of that path.
This week, think about what it is you’ve devoted yourself to and give yourself the permission to be defined by the Christ you follow, not the institutions you’ve built to do so.