April 24, 2023 • Article, Third Third, Third Third Journal
This is the fourth article in a series on “Clarifying Your Purpose in the Third Third of Life.” In the first article, I observed that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to discovering your purpose. Some people receive their purpose when God speaks to them through a burning bush. (Well, okay, not some people, but one person, namely Moses.) Others clarify their purpose through a series of experiments, learning as they go what they ought to do in life. There are truly dozens if not hundreds of paths that can lead to a clear sense of purpose for the third third of life.
Yet, having read dozens of articles on third third purpose and having listened to the stories of dozens of third third people, I’m convinced that there are several things you can do if you want to clarify your purpose. You don’t have to do all of them. Some will be more helpful to you than others. Yet I believe that these activities will, indeed, help you to know with confidence your purpose for the season of life in which you find yourself.
So far, I have offered five suggestions to help you clarify your purpose in your third third:
Suggestion 1: Be committed to God’s purpose for all things, including your life.
Suggestion 2: Seek the Lord in prayer and surrender to God’s will.
Suggestion 3: Pay attention to how God has made and gifted you.
Suggestion 4: Pay attention to what God is putting on your heart.
Suggestion 5: Pay attention to where you are bearing fruit.
In this article, I will offer one additional suggestion.
Suggestion 6: Look for continuity, but be open to surprises.
Your third third purpose (or purposes) will likely be, at least to an extent, continuous with what you have done before in life. For example, if in your career you were a leader of people, you will likely continue to lead in your third third, perhaps in a nonprofit, a church group, or even a new business start-up. In a previous article, I cited the example of my grandfather, who had a long career as a civil engineer. In retirement, he continued to do engineering for a variety of non-profit organizations, but he also invested more of his life in relationships, such as with his grandchildren (including me!).
Often people discover a new sense of purpose as they get older. Remember, at 80 years of age Moses wasn’t exactly planning on leading the Israelites out of Egypt when God called him through the burning bush (Exod 7:7). In the New Testament, Elizabeth was “getting on in years” according to her husband, Zechariah. She was not expecting that she’d soon be expecting a baby, the person we know as John the Baptist (Luke 1:18). Sometimes, as we get older, God calls us to something we never anticipated.
You may recall that in a previous article in this series, I shared that I had never envisioned my professional life as focusing on ministry to third third people and their churches. Six years ago, this work wasn’t even on my radar. Four years ago, I knew it was vitally important work, but I had no desire to take it upon myself. I was committed to other things at the time. Yet, as God worked on my heart, I began to see that I was being called to invest a good bit of my third third self to third third work.
To be sure, this work is in some ways different from what I have done before. It deals with new issues and serves a distinctive constituency. But in some ways, my third third work is continuous with what I’ve done in the past. Throughout my professional life as a pastor, nonprofit leader, and writer, I have sought to serve people of all ages. Serving people is central to my life’s purpose. One of the main ways I fulfill this purpose is by drawing from the riches of Scripture, teaching biblical truth in a way that helps people grow in Christ and live each day as his disciples. That very endeavor is essential to my third third work, though now I focus on particular issues (related to aging) while seeking to serve people in a particular age bracket (55 years and up).
In leading the De Pree Center’s Third Third Initiative, I also get to be strategic. “Strategic” is my #1 strength according to CliftonStrengths (formerly StrengthsFinder). But I’m not just a visionary and a strategist. I also love to make things happen, to get things done, and to build things that make a difference to people. My #2 strength is “Achiever.” Thus, I would not be satisfied merely to come up with great plans or write helpful articles. I want to execute them or lead a team to accomplish them. Thus, what I’m doing in the Third Third Initiative is in many ways similar to what I did for years as a pastor, retreat director, digital media leader, and author.
When I consider how I envisioned my life a few years ago, I am genuinely surprised to be doing third third work. I am also surprised to find it so energizing and meaningful. It is certainly not what I had expected to be doing in this season of life. Yet, at the same time, the work I’m doing now is consistent with what I’ve done in the past. I’m using many of the same strengths and gifts that I have employed for fifty years.
Sometimes people choose to go in a very different direction when they retire. A friend of mine, I’ll call her Belle, worked in a job that required a myriad of meetings. She once estimated that she’d been in more than 30,000 meetings throughout her career. When Belle retired, her pastor approached her about joining the elder board at church. That would certainly have been continuous with what Belle had done in the past. But her response to her pastor was surprisingly clear, “Thank you for asking me to serve on the board. I am honored that you would ask. But I’ve been in thousands of meetings throughout my life. My goal in retirement is never to attend another meeting. Never!”
As far as I know, Belle followed through on her commitment to a “never-meetings” life. But she didn’t just play in retirement. She kept quite busy in a variety of relationships. She spent lots of time with her grandchildren. She mentored younger leaders. She hung out at her local coffee shop as a kind of guru. People in the neighborhood would come to her with a variety of questions and concerns. In this context, Belle was able to share her faith in Christ. She even ended up leading a weekly Bible study for all-comers at Starbucks. It was a regular commitment, but Belle adamantly denied that it was a meeting.
I expect you know people in retirement who are doing things in continuity with what they did in the past. And you probably know others who are doing new things, exploring new possibilities. How all of this works out in your life will fit your particular situation and story. My recommendation is simple: Look for continuity, but be open to surprises.
In the next article in this series, I’ll explore yet another suggestion for how you can clarify your purpose in the third third of life.
Banner image by Dunamis Church on Unsplash.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.
“Belle” is right. There is a very important difference between meetings and gatherings. Her Starbucks gathering is a wonderful example.