I was unemployed and bored. My husband and I had moved to a new town, and I desperately sought work, blitzing my resume to whoever would look at it. I applied to be a math teacher, freshman comp instructor, legal studies online coordinator, technical writer, Sunday school curriculum writer, and the editor of an ecology periodical. Fern at the local temp agency finally found me a position.
It took only two days of cold-calling Southern Illinois businesses to sell ads for a local veteran’s organization I knew nothing about for me to realize I hadn’t been desperate for just any job. A “Multi-Careering” guide put out by the Barna Group notes: “People demand jobs that mean something, that change the world, that fulfill them, and that they’re passionate about.” That was me. Trying to find a job that met all of those qualifications left me clamoring for something meaningful to do with my trainings and passions.
One of my Old Testament professors in seminary, Richard Averbeck, put scrambling in theological perspective for me. He described a “biblical psychopathology” for how people deal with sin, the last stage being scrambling—people “scurrying about trying desperately to handle themselves, each other, God, and the world.” Now I’m not ready to classify vocational scrambling as sin—perhaps, in some cases, it is—but, as I reflect back, scrambling describes precisely what I was doing: vocational scrambling. Like trying to catch a fish with my bare hands, I tried to grasp any job that I could. It didn’t matter how much I had to manipulate my image on a resume to do it.
So many of my friends had gone through similar periods of searching. One quit her job in healthcare after spending a few weeks wondering whether it was the right fit for her. Over the next few months, she mused over a range of options, from starting a baking business (something she enjoys) to becoming a real estate agent (something that pays well).
In today’s economy, the notion of a singular career path or trajectory is increasingly rare. A woman with a law degree may teach your yoga class. Your favorite Etsy seller may have been working a 9-to-5 office job a year ago. As Fast Companywrites:
If a new opportunity comes along, the mind-set is this: "If I don’t like what I’m doing; if I’m not being paid well for my skill set; if I’m not in a job that’s utilizing my training and education, why would I stay?"
Our willingness to move between disjointed occupations and to consider such significant career changes reflects our need to consider deeper questions about vocation. For Christians, this term relates to calling, the way God uniquely invites and enables us to participate in his work within our spheres of influence.
In a video for Propel Women, Roxanne Stone notes how Christians tend to “conflate vocation with occupation” instead of seeing vocation as this “long-term life motivation” that can be carried out in a wide variety of roles. Gordon T. Smith writes in Courage and Calling that “we must not allow a singular career or occupation to eclipse our personal identity and sense of vocation.”
When I think about my friend who considered bouncing from healthcare to baking or real estate, I wonder if there’s a common thread, a sense of vocation, between those seemingly disconnected jobs. Or, did other factors draw her to them?
An AARP publication on recareering suggests that stress, workload, flexible schedules, personal fulfillment, and work conditions factor into our decisions to change jobs. In my experience, stay-at-home moms are particularly vulnerable to these pressures that can trigger to vocational scrambling. My Facebook feed often has posts advertising ways for me to make money from home: blogging, starting a small business, becoming a multi-level marketing consultant, or participating in focus groups, to name a few. As wonderful as these opportunities may seem, we must recognize that they are work that take time and energy and may not align with our calling.
When we can articulate our sense of vocation, or calling, it becomes easier to give up the scrambling and recognize a sense of purpose in our work. Without such vocational discernment, we may blame the economy or a particular job for not fulfilling our needs.
That’s precisely what I did a few years back. I felt ashamed that I had graduated seminary and completed a pastoral fellowship without any clear sense of calling. I thought I needed to have paid employment in order to pad our lifestyle and fuel my pride. Moving to a small city in a largely agrarian community during at the height of the recession made it challenging for me to find work that would be meaningful to me and, at the same time, allow me to steward my gifts, experience, and education.
Engaging in vocational discernment catapulted me out of my scrambling. I began to pay attention to my identity and gifts—not as pulling me in different directions or existing in conflict with one another—but as elements God might use together for redemption. Within the context of Christian community, we can prayerfully look for the intersection of our gifts, skills, and passions with God’s priorities in the world.
Reading David Benner’s The Gift of Being Yourself and completing a strengths assessment helped me understand myself a bit more and influenced the opportunities I say “yes to.” Vocational discernment also helped me identify the perceived unfulfilled needs that contributed to my scrambling.
Over time, I realized that I did need some work, but in our family’s current situation, I did not need paid work. We could live comfortably on my husband’s salary. I began volunteering at a local women’s shelter and serving in our church. Still craving intellectual stimulation, I made the decision to also pursue doctoral studies.Sometimes financial pressures or family customs dictate the jobs we choose; vocational choice is a privilege. With such privilege comes responsibility to steward well—that means not squandering our time, talent, and treasures through vocational scrambling.
From time to time, even though I have a fairly good idea of the type of work God has created me to do, I can still scramble. When money has been tight, I’ve been known to scour online job postings and even apply for a position or two before even petitioning my faithful Father in Heaven to “give us this day our daily bread.” I have the tendency to translate financial pressure into financial need, when I could instead adjust my lifestyle and ask God to increase my faith.
With vocational scrambling, we try to make our work work for us before asking whether or not it works for God. The Apostle Paul presents us with a picture of flourishing when he describes a life filled with the Spirit. He instructs, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). Let’s petition the Spirit to show us who God has created us to be and how he invites us to participate in his redemptive work in the world.
Meryl Herr lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where she navigates life as a mom, consultant, and writer. She earned her M.Div. and Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and wrote her dissertation on vocational discipleship.