This essay of mine first appeared on Donald Miller’s Storylineblog on June 4, 2015.
When one has a literature degree and no plans for graduate school or a career in teaching, and no real sense of what the word “vocation” means, there are few options. This was the situation I faced after I graduated from college.
Maybe you can relate. You’ve got a degree but you aren’t sure what to do with it.
Anyway, so I did what everyone with no marketable skills seems to do in my situation.
I went to work for a church.
Kidding! I really did go work for a church, but I was kidding about the people with no marketable skills part. It’s just that I had no marketable skills. And this church hired me.
The church had a heart for urban ministry. Sort of. It owned a coffee house in the city where musicians, dramatists, and other artsy people would perform on a regular basis. People came in from the streets to hear the music and, hopefully, a good news message.
Some of the musicians and actors who came through are still touring and are now very famous.
Most, mercifully, have found other means of employment.
In addition to my assignment as manager of this coffee house, I was in charge of the youth group of the church that owned it. The thinking was that, as people came off the street into the coffee house, they would want to become part of the church. It was a good theory, but it never happened.
I did this for three years.
I knew I wasn’t good at what I was doing, but I felt that God had led me to this place. And I felt like there was no way out. It wasn’t the first time I asked God, “What were you thinking?” but when I asked it this time, the stakes were higher. I was newly married, and I was dragging my wife through this vocational crisis with me.
My wife’s uncle sat me down one day and asked me how long I planned on doing this coffee house/church gig. Those weren’t his exact words. He was a biblical scholar who had many leather-lined books in his study.
We talked about my job and my future. And finally he asked me a question no one else had ever asked me:
“What do you know how to do?”
I thought for a while, and finally said, “I can write.”
“Then let’s figure out a way to get you developed as a writer,” he said. We brainstormed some ideas, and finally arrived at the field of journalism.
What my wife’s uncle did was, as Parker Palmer describes, surround me with a force field that made me want to grow from the inside out – “a force field that is safe enough to take the risks and endure the failures that growth requires.”
Within months I was in journalism school.
I was fulfilling Palmer’s definition of vocation:
“This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself, but that are nonetheless compelling.”
I needed that uncle’s voice in my head. I needed someone to take an interest in me. I needed him to ask the hard question and set me on the path to my true vocation. I think we all need that.
With his questions and encouragement, my vocation has grown.
I still want to be a great journalist and exercise the gifts given to me.
But who I really want to be is that uncle. So let me be that for you.
What are you really good at? What do you feel you can’t not do, for reasons you are unable to explain and don’t fully understand yourself?
Maybe, if you can answer that question yourself, you’ll find a vocation, like I have, that brings you lots of contentment and joy—in addition to a paycheck.