June 3, 2022 • De Pree Journal
Addressing Our Collective Crisis of Calling: A Reflection on CityGate’s Spring Labs
Michaela O’Donnell and Lisa Slayton
In January of 2022, Lisa Slayton called me with an idea. Her pitch was this: while a lot of people were talking about the Great Resignation, not enough people were talking about how it related to the whole idea of vocation. In her observation, the Big Quit had a lot to do with a collective crisis of calling.  Because of this, conversations around employee satisfaction and workplace wellbeing (think balance, burnout, and remote work) were only going to get us so far. So, we decided that Lisa would convene four experts on vocation — myself, Patrick Reyes, Nicholas Pearce, and Steven Garber — with the hope that our collective voices would help us arrive at a wider, but also deeper, sense of what it means for our work that we are called by God.
Lisa invited each of us to speak out of our particular context and expertise while she held the task of drawing connections throughout the series. She did this by asking us all the following three questions:
- What is calling?
- What implications does calling have for the Big Quit?
- What are the next steps in this moment of collective transition?
Together, Lisa and I have synthesized what we heard across all four labs.
What is Calling?
First, calling is one of those theological concepts that is hard to summarize in words. For some, calling is an attractive concept — one that conjures up images of how God speaks to us and helps us know what is ours to do. But for others, calling is an idea that has more baggage — a theological word that has been misused to signal privilege or spiritual specialness. In order to untangle some of this toward the goal of understanding our response to the Great Resignation, Lisa started by asking each of the panelists: What is calling? Here’s what we heard:
- We have one Caller. Any conversation on calling must start with the recognition that we have a Caller. Our sense of calling comes from somewhere, from someone, and that is found in God. We heard this loud and clear in all four conversations, but Dr. Nicholas Pearce explained that if we are called by One, made as one, then we inevitably have one calling, even if that calling is expressed in a variety of contexts and assignments.
- Calling is contextual. Though we are called singularly by God, our sense of calling takes shape in context, among and with the community that has formed us. Dr. Patrick Reyes describes that because we are formed by and with others, calling is always contextual, autobiographical, and communal. And, because context varies widely, so do our perceptions about what and who we’re called to. Importantly, the goal is to listen deeply to our experiences and treat our context as the formative textbook it is, trusting that God speaks to us through it.
- Calling is layered, but not fragmented. God calls us to particular people, places, and roles, yes. But any particular callings are contexts in which deeper layers of calling can be answered. Dr. Michaela O’Donnell used the image of nesting dolls to help us visualize how these layers of calling — e.g., the call to belong to God, the call to create, and the call to participate in redemption — layer together to make a whole life lived in response to God.
- Our response is multifaceted but also integrated. “Vocation is integral, not incidental to the mission of God,” has been a central thesis to the work of Dr. Steven Garber. He encourages us as Christians to truly believe that the good work we contribute to the world through our varied contexts is essential for God’s mission rather than second-tier work that funds the “real” mission work. From the plumber to the ophthalmologist to the at-home parent, our work matters to God and is part of what God is doing in the world. In this, our calling is multifaceted, but also integrated as people within a larger body of believers who seek to serve the common good.
What Implications Does Calling Have for the Big Quit?
As we begin to think about the implications that calling has on the Big Quit, it is important to note that since we started this series in January, the collective conversation has shifted. Popping up are new hashtags like #thegreatregret (1 in 5 people regrets choosing to quit when they did) and #thegreatreshuffle (workers are still quitting their jobs in record numbers but are finding jobs in new fields or industries). This shift continues to suggest that people are leaving one place with the hope for something better — and perhaps something more meaningful or fulfilling.
It’s probably not shocking if we tell you that we think we’re in the midst of a sea of change, a time of dramatic change where things are transforming in profound ways. And yes, the shifts have profound implications for workplaces and leaders who must rethink or double down on the “humanness” of their organizational cultures, working to create conditions where team members can bring their best and be truly valued and appreciated. We don’t think that this is going to cease, at least not anytime soon.
Acknowledging that it will take time for these kinds of organizational shifts to manifest in their deepest forms, we also wonder about the implications for calling as Christians looking to navigate our workplaces, considering shifts, or doing the work of leadership that this sea of change requires.
As we worked to synthesize this section, what we started to realize is that, collectively, we’re longing for something akin to #thebigpause or #thegreatsabbatical — time and space to make sense of what’s happened and is happening all around us. A snapshot of what this looks like from our conversations:
- Lean into listening. We cannot hear the voice of God when we are not listening for it. This means that calling is a matter of stewardship and obedience, and this great moment of change requires that we listen. Drs. O’Donnell and Pearce helped us to see that in our journey of discernment we must do the inner work of connecting first and foremost with the voice of God. Of course, there is no greater evidence of this than in the life of Jesus whose patterns and rhythms were to listen and attend to the voice of his Father. Take for example when he’s being questioned in Jerusalem about his claim as Messiah and he responds by saying: I do nothing apart from the Father. I am not here on my own authority, but he who sent me is true (John 7:28)
- Have the courage to step back. If calling is discerned in the quiet and not detectable apart from self-reflection (which happens both alone and with others), this requires real courage. It’s hard to step back, to create space, and to sit with unsettling questions about what God might want us to do amid the pressures of daily living. But creating space for this effort, often done with support from a community of trusted guides, is essential.
- Steward your context. Each of us is called, but our starting points differ widely. Some of our starting points make discerning calling feel like an elitist concept. And, for some of us our context may limit our ability to fully see our value and worth — how can we when we are so busy surviving? Dr. Reyes reminds us that calling is for everyone, not just a chosen few. We are all loved by God. Creating space and opportunity for each image bearer to step into their calling is a vital part of building an equitable future for all.
- Start right where you are. It is easy to get caught up in the pursuit of significance, so much so that we think something “out there” will surely give us what we crave. But, if we take seriously that we are already loved, and that our lives and our work are integral to God’s work in the world, then there is much more freedom to get started right where we are. With how we treat our coworkers, the way we thank the grocery store clerk, the way we speak up when we witness a microaggression. We are called to be implicated in God’s work in the world, and we can start on that regardless of whether we change jobs or not.
What Are the Next Steps in This Moment of Collective Transition?
There is a well-known phrase in business that goes something like this: what you measure is what you get. Whether a team uses a balanced scorecard or an Objective and Key Results system, Key Performance Indicators, or something else entirely, good business tracks progress against goals.
Drawing on the wisdom of Dr. Pearce, what if as Christians we had a different kind of scorecard? What if we had a scorecard that helped us think about our purpose and calling? This kind of scorecard might help us attune to and be guided by God’s calling, especially in the midst of widespread and disruptive change. Drawing on some of the wisdom from these CityGate labs, a Calling Scorecard might look something like this:
Objective: Lean into Listening
KR 1: Ask people from a variety of spheres of life (work, family, church, friends, etc.) what they perceive to be the places where I am most energized.
KR 2: Ask coworkers how I might best partner or work more effectively with them.
Objective: Have the Courage to Step Back
KR 1: Every month, say no to one thing to spend an extended scripture/prayer time with God, where I journal my questions about calling/vocation or make my way through one of the calling stories in the Bible.
KR 2: Sabbath every week from work and technology.
Objective: Steward My Context
KR 1: Spend time every week with people who know me well and let those times fuel my “why.”
KR 2: Consider all the domains in which I invest (e.g., volunteer, parenting, friendships, work, church, etc.). Name and evaluate how God is calling me to be the same person across these contexts.
Objective: Start Where I Am
KR 1: Regardless of job satisfaction, name what you are looking for in a work environment. Decide on two small ways you can help to turn your current context into the place you seek.
KR 2: Take inventory of the different domains of your life. Consider where you see truth, beauty, justice, and goodness. How God might be inviting you to participate in one of these spaces?
If nothing else, be courageous in slowing down. Seas of change require pause. For those of us who are organizational leaders, we likely recognize that the workplace is “not returning to normal” or some romanticized pre-pandemic world. The shift has happened. By leaning into listening, having the courage to step back, stewarding our context, and starting where we are, we can do our part to discern organizational calling as well as individual calling.
If these labs have left us with anything, it is the hope that we can create and participate in work environments where individuals can bring their best and be valued and appreciated for their contributions.
About the Authors
Dr. Michaela O’Donnell is the Executive Director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership where she oversees the center’s vision, strategy, program, and team, all with the goal of helping leaders like you respond faithfully to God in all seasons of your life and leadership.
Michaela is the author of Make Work Matter: Your Guide to Meaningful Work in a Changing World. It’s gotten rave reviews from folks such as Dave Evans, Mark Labberton, Missy Wallace, Luke Bobo, Dee Ann Tuner, Kara Powell, and more. This book is a reflection of Michaela’s heart as both an entrepreneur and a practical theologian. Drawn to the real-life working out of big issues, it is a how-to for anyone walking the road of calling in a changing world. Click here to view Michaela’s profile.
Lisa Slayton is the Founding Partner and CEO of Tamim Partners, LLC and CityGate Director. Previously Lisa served at the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation for 13 years, the last 6 as President and Chief Executive Officer. While at PLF, Lisa has designed and launched the Leaders Collaborative and delivered organizational development consulting, training, and executive coaching services to a wide variety of organizations.