“So, here’s the deal,” my young friend, Martin, leaned towards me over the small table. His voice was soft, but his tone urgent. “It’s been almost a year and I’m still working here. Are you kidding me? I’m folding clothes, serving irritating teenaged girls and working the cash register at GAP. I’m a UVa grad, for Pete’s sake.  This is so not my calling; it can’t be. Really. Come on!!” Frustration. Anger. Fear. Doubt.

Hmmm. I did believe him, because I’ve been “stuck” in some jobs like that too. The frustration, the doubt, the anger, and the fear that I would not be able to move out of it were paralyzing. I could not understand how this could be important to my path but, hey, I badly needed the work and it was what was offered at the time. The work wasn’t wrong, per se; it wasn’t illegal, immoral or unsafe in any way. In fact, it was good work, but it was just so not “me.”  It seemed as if, in spite of my prayer and effort, my work was out of sync with my calling, as best as I could see it at the time.

“Not that I’m all that sure of what my calling is, mind you,” Martin continued, “but I’m sure it’s not this.”

Yeah. That’s the thing. We hear so much in our Christian circles about finding our calling and working in it with joy. That elusive joy. Don’t we wish?

Finding our calling usually involves a process of elimination. For Martin, it could well include a season of folding sweaters at the mall. There are lessons to be learned in a job like that, not least of which could be “Note to self: not this.”

Yes, I remember that same thought. In my own stuck job I was in a place of paltry workings-out of a measly mission with a very unappreciative employer. It felt bad. And it did not get better with time. The fact that it felt so bad was very good information, and that kept me looking, even as I held onto the work because I needed the money.

It turned out that the experience was really quite valuable. And, what did I learn, exactly?

  • That my own ego and entitlement tendencies were a problem. This was big and important news.
  • That I held hidden biases (towards the “ungrateful public” for instance) that needed to be brought into the light.
  • That I had previously-undiscovered skill sets and, likewise, hidden (or denied) gaps in my knowledge base.

I needed all of these lessons and especially a final one of being grateful to be employed at all.

So what about you? Have you ever found yourself in a job that was (or at least felt like) a disconnect? I can hear the whining (because it has been my own), “Lord, please! What are You thinking here?” Maybe you wondered if perhaps you’d misread a message from God or simply missed a signal entirely. And yet, there you were in the job. The rent needed to be paid, obligations met.  So you stayed.  These days, with vast numbers of people affected so painfully by the economy, we are generally thankful to have a job at all. Me, too. Martin, too. But it grates when it doesn’t feel like a fit.

So, what to do? How do we handle those waiting and wondering times? Well, first, we can ask a few questions: Could it be that we are just where God wants us? Of course it could be. But let’s dig a little deeper.

First on the negative side: Is there anything about this work that is unlawful, immoral or unsafe? Is there anything about how the organization is run that “smells fishy?” You get the idea. Work is complicated, and we don’t always know our own hearts. You may need to get the counsel of a trusted friend or mentor because an objective outsider can see things through a different, clearer lens and help you examine yourself. Ask yourself, “Is there anything about how I came to this work that is questionable? For instance, did I misrepresent myself at all during the interview?” Look back carefully at the process and be very honest. Is it possible that somewhere in the application process you skirted a significant issue? Left out or added something? We step outside of God’s will every day with our sin, so look carefully. If you find (or admit) that there’s a problem on this score, you will likely need to take corrective action. This could involve a sharp change, but if you are off God’s path because of a misstep of this nature, a turnaround may be the only effective return route. This sounds simple but rarely is. Don’t be afraid. God’s in it.

And now for the positive side: if the work isn’t bad per se, and your path to it was sound, ask yourself these questions: “Can I find the good in this work, either in the immediate sense or from the long term perspective of God’s kingdom? Is it a small part of a much greater cause that I might feel more passionate about if I were positioned closer to it?  If so, is there anything that I can change about the situation that might move me closer to that cause?”

You should also ask, “Might I be placed with these particular colleagues for a particular spiritual reason?” Sometimes the divine appointment has more to do with the people than the work itself. You may have a mission here that you’d not considered before or have something to learn from these particular people. Think about it.

And finally, are you using enough imagination in the work? If the problem is that you are bored for lack of a satisfying assignment (which is often the case for newer employees), is there a project that you could design for yourself? Something on the side (that you would do in addition to your assigned work) that could improve the overall function of the organization and help you gain traction and some satisfaction at the same time? Look carefully and think creatively. Tangents in a new direction within a workplace can lead to fulfilling work and surprising joy. (Note: this is good material for personal prayer. God knows and cares about every detail of your work and may bring new ideas to your mind. Ask.)

Taking a second look at the work from both the positive and negative viewpoints might not resolve the feeling of the bad fit, but it could increase your capacity to continue, if only to realize the lessons that God has for you.

Here’s a story of an apparent poor fit that had redemptive purpose. I remember John, a young friend, who could find nothing good about his work in an accounting firm. He’d promised to stay for two years, and he was chafing after one. He was poring over spreadsheets and contingency plans all day, responding to the requests of his higher-ups for complicated financial formulae and not liking them (neither the leadership nor the formulae nor the projects). It seemed very far from kingdom work, really. And even though he excelled at the work, he could muster no passion for it. He was quite certain that it was not his calling.

But as a mentor and friend with an outside view of his situation, I could definitely see the value of it, kingdom-wise. God loves order and accountability in our lives and often draws people to Himself through it. Scripture teaches that the smallest details of life matter to Him. Contributing to that order, even in a small, obscure way (performing a tiny function in the grinding processes of a large accounting firm) reflects God’s glory.

I expect John learned a great deal from his two years in the accounting firm, but he never did enjoy the work.  John left the firm after fulfilling his commitment and headed to seminary and then into youth ministry, the work he’d held some years before, at which he’d been brilliant. But that wasn’t the end of it either. At that time he and I both had the impression that “full-time Christian work” was a higher calling than poring over secular spreadsheets. Now I think not. “Full-time Christian work” is no higher in God’s eyes than “full-time street-sweeper work” if the street-sweeper is working toward the mission of God.

Interestingly enough, as John’s life has unfolded over the ten years since then, he’s not a youth minister.  He has moved into the work of counseling families in his church, particularly in regards to their finances. He also writes for the local paper (not a Christian newsletter, mind you) on financial issues, and through both of these avenues he guides real people of any faith through bafflingly real times toward real financial maturity. This is his full-time work, and it’s full-time ministry. It’s good work and he loves it.

Yet the years at the accounting firm were not without value.  John learned important life lessons during his stint there. He knows what it’s like to work hard in the marketplace, day in day out, perhaps even at a job one doesn’t enjoy (maybe assigned to a single project with colleagues whose views of the world deeply contradict one’s own). He understands well the nuances of office life. If he’d gone straight to seminary, he might never have experienced the baffling combination of ego-buffeting and ego-stroking work that God provides in the world’s marketplace.  He’d not have been able to serve his clients as compassionately if he’d missed the experience of being away from the familiar foundations of the Christian view of life. Today, John’s calling includes financial service blended with education, writing and family ministry, for Christians and non-Christians alike. He discovered that calling only from the perspective of hindsight.

As Martin continues with his process of discerning his calling (and since I’ve not fully settled into a single calling of my own, I’ll include myself here), I hope that he’ll take full advantage of the lessons to be found in unlikely or ill-fitting jobs. I believe relatively few people recognize their callings early in life. The rest of us search and sometimes approach a consistent call, but feel frustrated by the unknowing. Now think about this: even though it is uncomfortable, we are thus freed by that unknowing to explore, eliminate or develop our calling through the years of work. These callings emerge and shift emphases over time. We’re more likely to pick up on the thematic nature of them only as we look backwards for the patterns and evidence of God’s guidance.

In God’s economy not a single experience is wasted. He’s the one that brings the work to us. He’s the one that equips us for it. Everything counts. Trust that God is at work in every single aspect of your life, because He is. In the waiting and wondering times, continue in the disciplines that you’ve been taught: reading Scripture and prayerfully considering the implications, worshiping, and finding a mentor and/or others in your line of work with whom you can talk things over, giving them opportunity to speak truth into your life. Stay wide open to what God might be doing next. It could be that you discover your calling only in retrospect.

If you find yourself in a similar place to Martin, do not be afraid or concerned that you’ve missed God’s call. The Lord is attentive to every move, and His eye is upon us in love as we serve out our waiting times. In the jobs that don’t seem right, that feel too small, that appear disconnected from our search for our calling, we can still know that His plan for us is not lost, not even sidetracked.

Happy hunting, and don’t fret if it takes time and patience, waiting and wondering. God will use every step.

Anne Cregger is a former Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute, a member of the US Navigator Staff, Metro Mission, and she was the founding Director of The Falls Church Fellows Program.