Dear Mentor: Is this all there is?

Dear Mentor,

I finished grad school in 2010, having loved school. However, my masters isn't in the most applicable field, so I worked in a related medical field for over two years until I was let go. It took six months of job searching to find a job — and it is not something I want to be doing.

I'm scared. I feel like I need to make money, which I'm not really doing in this job yet (although supposedly that will change). I feel as though I received this amazing education and I'm doing something I don't love, which doesn't really pay the bills. I'm newly married and I feel pressure to contribute financially (and thought I would have options with my degree) or at least truly love what I do — ideally both — but I don't. I've been praying desperately for guidance. I just am at a loss. I'm upset, feeling down, and it's getting difficult to come in every day and work as if working for the Lord. 

I love Bronwyn’s writing and her work has appeared at The Well before. When I saw this “Dear Bronwyn” question and her response here on her blog, I asked if we could re-purpose it for The Well’s Dear Mentor column. It is fitting, I believe, for many in our audience.  Thank you, Bronwyn! — Marcia

from guest mentor Bronwyn Lea

Yep: you are in a tough spot. It is a very, very hard thing to feel that you worked so hard to do something that would make a difference, and to be someone who would shine and sparkle — and yet to find yourself with a very mundane ordinary.

How does one make peace with that? I often wondered that of the many refugees I met in South Africa: men who had been surgeons and accountants in their home country, but who had had to flee for their lives, and were now working as unofficial car guards at night in South Africa — hoping for a dollar here, a dollar there. I still wonder similar things about myself: why did I go to law school, and then step it up a notch with another graduate degree in theology...only to find myself a stay-at-home mom who cannot stay on top of her house, doesn't homeschool, but who has ninja-like mom-skills like speed-diapering (oooh!), or parallel-parking a mini-van on a dime (aaah!). Go ahead. Feel free to marvel at my accomplishments.

It is so easy to feel like a failure. So easy to feel undervalued, or unseen, or that your education wasn't worth it, or (its insidious sneaky corollary,) that you aren't worth it. It is hard to feel you really contribute when your contribution isn't in cash. I get that.

When I took a job in vocational ministry and was making less than half of the starter job I had been offered out of law school, it was a little easier to justify the cut in salary because I still felt like ministry was "noble" and "worth it.” The pay cut from that to zero as a mom was much harder. And sometimes, I still struggle with the money side of things — but in truth, I struggle with the "is my contribution in life significant?" issue far more. For some reason, a salary feels like a good validation that your work is worthwhile.

That whole "a worker is worth his wages" verse is a double-edged sword. We use it to justify why people in ministry should be paid, and paid better than they are (because they are worth it!) But the flip side is this: when we are paid low/little wages, we feel like low-worth workers. 

For me, this has been a journey in figuring out what it is that God has called me to. Over the years, I am realizing that he has not called me to be Successful: an Optimizer of all my gifts and opportunities. He has called me to be Faithful: a Steward of all my gifts and opportunities. In truth, so many more of my opportunities are quiet, and unlauded — and the more I find myself in the humble places of life (wiping bottoms, doing laundry, tending fevers in the wee hours of the morning), the more I am noticing how many quiet, unlauded people there are in Scripture, and how God meets people there. He is, as Hagar-the-forgotten learned in Genesis, the God who Sees

I'm in a phase of life where nobody sees most of my day. But God does. And his calling to me, I believe, is to be faithful with what he's given me right now. I"m begging him to teach me what Paul talks about in Philippians: learning the secret of being content.

From your letter, it seems like God is already pointing out two things which maybe you've got misaligned. The idea that "being financially successful" or "loving what you do" are the rewards for following God's will for your life are red herrings. It may be true that you become financially successful (but sometimes it won't be). And it may be true that you love what you do (but sometimes you might not). Also, you may find you are really good at something you don't love doing. (For me, this is administrative tasks. Bleuch. But I can get it done if I have to.) Or you love doing something that you're not particularly skilled at (think of all those garage-bands). How we all long for the sweet spot where all those things coalesce. 

I am a sucker for a good Venn diagram. (I just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars, and my favorite part was the Venn diagram). And so, when I saw this blog post from my writer friend Katherine Wills Pershey with its beautiful Venn diagram, of course I had to click on it — because it depicts truth so beautifully.

(Originally posted at Daily Reflections and Snippets of Life.)

We want the bliss spot in the middle, don't we??

But, as Katherine says, following Jesus is so often an unsexy road, even though we believe with all our hearts it is the most worthwhile path.

So what do you do now? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. It might be worth talking to a career counselor. There might be more career options out there with the combination of skills you have than you are aware of. The longer I live, the more I learn about the nuanced and specific careers which are out there — perhaps jobs you are well suited for that you haven't even heard of! Maybe a career counselor could give you a fresh set of eyes to look at your skill set and make some helpful suggestions
  2. Be honest with your spouse about your feelings about your financial contribution. Don't let guilt or coulda shoulda woulda's on money get between you.
  3. Remember that God takes a very long view on life. You may not see any immediate fruit from some of the paths he's had you on, but there may be seasons in the years to come when you get glimpses on why you worked that particular job, or had to search for so long, or were in that particular frustrating relationship or situation. He will redeem ALL of your story in due time. None of this time is wasted, and as far as I know, God does not "optimize" all our talents all at once. The overused Christian cliche of "seasons" is useful here: maybe there will be a "season" where you use your undergrad degree more, another where you use the skills you learned in random college internship B, another season where you find yourself counseling someone who’s out of work and desperate.
  4. Don't give up on begging God to teach you the lessons he wants you to learn right now: ask him for wisdom (more important than for answers). Ask him for contentment (more important than a new job). Ask him to give you a glimpse on how he's showing you what's important to him right now... because of one thing I'm sure — his purpose through all of this is to bless you by drawing you closer to himself. It always is.
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