The faith community I was raised in spent a significant amount of time emphasizing the importance of finding and fulfilling God’s call for our lives. There were hundreds of sermons, Bible studies, and even entire retreats focused on how to discover God’s purpose for my life. Although we were occasionally reminded that “there are many parts to the body and it takes all of the parts for the body to work,” it still felt like some callings were more noble than others. Missionaries seemed to be at the top of this unwritten list, followed by clergy, and then everybody else fell into some other sort of important parts of the body of Christ; perhaps the pinky toes of the body.
It was this idea that I needed to be doing good, important work, along with society’s pressure to make a certain salary and climb the ladder in my field that recently made it difficult for me to leave a toxic job. But eventually, after eight years in the virtuous nonprofit sector, just as I was poised to become the “big boss” who made the “big bucks,” I walked away.
In my early 20s, after receiving a graduate degree, I started working in the nonprofit organizations. It was the sort of good, noble work I had come to value in my youth. After a few years, I was offered a job as the associate executive director at the oldest and largest domestic violence agency in my state. I felt like I had finally stepped right into my calling, the one God had for me. Every year, our agency helped thousands of people flee violence, find justice, and start new lives.
Despite the obvious good that I was helping facilitate, it also became clear to me pretty quickly that I could not stay on this path forever. The environment I was working in was toxic — my boss was demeaning, the staff was burnt out and unreliable, our clients were demanding, and the job was emotionally taxing. I spent myself so dry at work that my family got an exhausted and emotionally drained version of me at home. For so many reasons, it was not for me. Yet, I stayed in that job for three years, pursuing what I thought was a calling.
When my boss announced her resignation and offered me her position heading up the agency, I was speechless — not because it was the moment I had dreamed of, but because the thought of continuing in that role seemed like it might cost me my health, mental well-being, and relationships. I felt stuck. I wondered what it might look like for me to walk away now, after years of investing in this path. I worried that it would seem selfish to prioritize my own needs over the very many obvious needs of our staff and clients. And then, I left.
The day that I handed my keys to my boss and walked out the front door was simultaneously the hardest and most liberating day of my working life. I have never been a “quitter” and walking away, leaving the agency still in such a mess, felt like quitting. I knew that I was leaving behind good staff members that would drown in my absence. I knew that our clients needed everyone there to give it their all, sometimes in literally life or death situations, and I worried if the gap I was creating would impact the agency’s ability to serve them. And most of all, I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a new job lined up, I just knew that I needed to go.
After a few months of freelancing, piecing together an income here and there, and reflecting on what was most important to me in a new job, I applied for a position at a church. I knew I needed a job that would allow me greater flexibility and more time with my family. I knew I wanted to work for an organization that was doing some good in the community, helping people improve their lives, but with less urgency. I hoped for a boss that spent more time emphasizing a staff person’s strengths and valuing their humanity than demeaning them for their weaknesses.
When I met the team of people who were tasked with interviewing me, I knew it was exactly where I wanted to be. I work among a community of kind and thoughtful people, and although there are moments when I know I could be making more money or I worry that I am not using my skills to do enough critical “good” in the world, I know I am exactly where I need to be in this season of my life. Every time I am able to go to a program at my son’s school, every morning that I look forward to going to work, every evening I get to spend with my husband without being emotionally drained, and every day I can recognize the good I am doing in my life by being a kind person, I am reminded that money and urgency are not the most important things in life.
I realize now that I was searching for my purpose in my work rather than finding it in God. I know now that my call to love people and serve my family are just as noble callings as anything else I could ever do. My time spent in previous jobs was not time wasted; it was time spent preparing me for where I am right now. It can be really destabilizing when the things you’ve believed and worked hard for come into question, but there is something beautiful in letting go and forging a new path.
Originally published on March 23, 2018.