Changing Careers: A (Former) Pastor's Perspective from the Valley

They told me not to confuse job with vocation with calling with identity.  It is a treacherous slope on which many ambitious souls slip.  And despite the well-intentioned warnings, the lines between these categories are blurry.  From the valley, they are often shrouded in fog.

In my communication theory college courses, I learned what everyone supposedly already knows: that we humans are storytelling creatures.  My vocational mentors have echoed this truth, advising that telling "my story" is of paramount importance in "selling myself" for a new profession.  So, for those of you who care to read beyond or behind bullet points, numbers and catch phrases on a resume, here's a brief account of who I am, where I've been and where I'm headed.

I was born to a Navy family (my grandfather, father and uncles all served and one uncle is now a high-ranking Navy pilot), but I settled onto a large farm/ranch in central Missouri around age five when my parents parted ways.  Raised on the farm in my small Midwestern town, I learned a certain work ethic—one that emphasized grit, a business-before-pleasure mindset and personal responsibility.  And yet the entire time, I felt like a fish out of water.  Let's just say I was more the aesthetic type than the rugged farmer type!  I loved reading, drawing, music, nature (exploring rather than exploiting) and using my imagination.

Despite this fundamental incompatibility, I did assimilate much of the farmer's work ethic, which has proven useful for me throughout my life.  While many of my classmates gave half-hearted efforts in their studies, investing their energies in self-indulgent and social capital building activities instead, I invested in a lifestyle of learning which I believed would pay much higher dividends in the end.  Not surprisingly, I was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" among my fellow male senior classmates and graduated Valedictorian overall.

Earning a full-ride to the private university I chose to attend, I continued to study hard—for the love of learning and the conviction that this stuff really did matter in life—and applied this passion to the field of communication.  Few outside the field really understand what a general Communication Arts degree program entails, but suffice it to say that it covers a broader range of disciplines than is typically imagined (e.g., sociology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, political science, history, rhetoric/persuasion, debate, public speaking, public relations, mass media, small group dynamics, interpersonal and intercultural relations), providing an excellent platform for further study or training in a more specialized field.

Having my sights set on a career in academia, I applied and was accepted to a Master's program in communication.  However, realizing what an uphill battle I would have to climb (a PhD at minimum, with several years of impoverished living, just as I was starting a family, all the while competing against a glut of social science PhDs for relatively few tenured professorships), I opted to try the job market for a start.  My first two "real" (full-time, salaried) jobs were in social services and non-profit work, which provided great entry-level experience in the "human services" sector.

A couple years into this, however, I sensed a "call" to pursue theological education in preparation for the pastorate.  My wife, daughter and I moved to Chicagoland so that I could pursue a Master's degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, one of the most highly regarded biblical-theological research institutions in the world.  In three years, I completed the 94-hour MDiv program and set out to employ my training in the service of God and the world via the local church.

In October of 2010, I was hired as Bethel Church's Associate Pastor.  It was an astonishing privilege to be able to earn a living doing work that concerned matters of eternal import.  Likewise, the breadth of skills required by the position closely paralleled my breadth of expertise and interests.  It was almost too good to be true—and pretty quickly, I'd realize that it was.  There are so many factors that make for a successful vocational fit.  Unfortunately for me, enough of these were out of alignment that I knew I wouldn't be able to sustain a high level of performance without losing my soul. (Yes, pastors are held to performance standards, just like everyone else.)  I would say that I simply bit off more than I could chew (collectively, the scope of responsibilities proved broader than a person of my temperament could realistically handle), but reality is always more complex than meets the eye. After significant soul-searching, in conference with my Senior Pastor, Elder Board, wife and other close advisers, I decided that it would be best if I chose a different vocational path.

So here I am, in the thick of the forest, hacking a path toward a career in Not Ministry.  As I evaluate the skills I've accumulated and refined through seven years of higher academic study and writing, plus three-and-a-half years working in not-for-profit organizations, I've narrowed my focus to three potential career paths: Human Resources, Marketing and Technical Writing/Editing.  My diverse skill set would enable me to excel in each of these fields.  Now it's simply a matter of convincing a hiring manager that I'm an ideal fit for their particular position in their particular company.


Unfortunately, a recent and growing trend in HR suggests that those, like me, who are seeking to board a new vocational train will find opportunities to tell their "story" increasingly rare.  As several perceptive commenters on the above-linked article noted, the increasing mechanization of job applicant screening removes the human element from the process altogether.  Ironically, in our higher-and-higher tech world, human beings as human (not mere conglomerations of skills and competencies) are becoming as irrelevant to the marketplace as last year's (last month's?) Next Big Thing.

Where is the vision of creating an interdependent, symbiotic society in which the enrichment of each other's lives is a preeminent goal?  Since when did the production of goods and services itself eclipse the enrichment of actual human lives that give these purpose in the first place?  Now is not the time for offering a grand theory of societal wellness (the Bible provides a pretty good manual for starters).  But it is worth pausing to consider what sort of world we wish to continue creating for ourselves and future generations.  After all, it is we who make the world what it is.  We are the "culture makers."  We control the social norms and the tools for implementing those norms.  Let's resolve to make the best of the opportunities provided us, however significant or insignificant they may seem to be.

In the meantime, I will resume hacking away at the foliage.

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