“Follow Your Bliss” and Other Myths about Call

These days I know a startling number of pastors and seminary graduates who cannot find jobs in the church. Some are geographically limited by spouses—many of whom are pursuing their “dream job” while the wife (and in virtually every case it’s the wife) languishes in under- or unemployment. Some of my friends are quirky, or young, or gay, or they lack the pedigree to get a second look from churches who’ve realized that they can afford to be choosy, what with this glut of talent out there.

It’s very frustrating. It’s frustrating for me as their friend, because these are incredibly talented people who’ve been seminary trained, tested, pushed and prodded, folded and spindled through the call process. But my frustration is only a fraction of what they must feel. Plus, they need to eat.

Add in the people who are in ministry calls that don’t really “fit,” but whose options are limited for various reasons, and I wonder if aspects of our theology of call has outlived its fruitfulness.

When I was in the call process, it was all about the Frederick Buechner quote: Your vocation is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. This was practically tattooed on people’s foreheads as we all bustled our way toward paid ministry in the church. So what do we do with people who’ve discerned a call to parish ministry, but there are no jobs available? Were they just wrong? I can see how people would feel like their gladness and the world’s need do not intersect, but rather run parallel to each other.

Even my current favorite quote can be problematic. Howard Thurman:


Sometimes, it isn’t possible to pull and Thurman and “go and do” what makes us come alive. Sometimes we need to find a way to come alive in the exact place where we do not feel called to be.

A friend recently said she felt stuck in a less-than-ideal situation. The extrovert in me blurted out without thinking, “Maybe it’s not that you’re stuck. Maybe you’re being held in this place until you’ve learned what you need to know in order to move to the next thing.” I kicked myself later, because it’s presumptuous of me to lay that on someone else. Sometimes the situation is just bad and we need to get out, call or no call.

So let me put it in an “I” statement: I have sometimes felt stuck, and in hindsight, many of those stuck places gave me precisely the structure and boundaries I needed to work on some things to be ready to move on.

The Danas are big fans of Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame. He wrote a wise piece for Forbes some years ago about traditional career advice in relation to the chicken sexers, lamb castraters and spider-venom collectors he meets on his show:

In the long history of inspirational pabulum, “follow your passion” has got to be the worst. Even if this drivel were confined to the borders of the cheap plastic frames that typically surround it, I’d condemn the whole sentiment as dangerous, not because it’s cliché, but because so many people believe it. Over and over, people love to talk about the passion that guided them to happiness. When I left high school–confused and unsure of everything–my guidance counselor assured me that it would all work out, if I could just muster the courage to follow my dreams. My Scoutmaster said to trust my gut. And my pastor advised me to listen to my heart. What a crock.

Why do we do this? Why do we tell our kids–and ourselves–that following some form of desire is the key to job satisfaction? If I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a “true purpose.” In fact, the happiest people I’ve met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all–they have instead brought it with them.

I realize that follow your passion isn’t exactly the same as Buechner’s deep gladness and Thurman’s coming alive. But I think they’re related.

My husband has had a very fruitful career in IT, doing a number of different things over his twenty years in that field. Not all of his jobs have been awesome. Yet he’s content with the path he’s taken. And aside from a brief stint with a career counselor, he doesn’t put that much thought into The Next Step or how a specific move will “set him up” for the move after that. And there’s no five or ten year plan. He’s simply done the next right thing as it’s presented itself.

The whole thing drives me a little crazy because I’m a big goal-setter and plan-maker. It feels reactive to do it his way. But I can’t argue with what I see, which is a man who’s pretty content with where he is, and who somehow ends up with satisfying work that puts food on the table.

It sounds a bit like the “yes-and” of improv, eh?

20 thoughts on ““Follow Your Bliss” and Other Myths about Call

  1. Sarah Erickson

    The next right thing – Wayne Muller follows that thread in A Life of Being, Having and Doing Enough. And indeed the “yes-and” of improve. I’m between a planning and a next-right-thing person, so connect at many levels with this post. Good words, MAMD. Thanks.

  2. Deborah Lewis

    This is really good – thanks. As a person who struggled with call for a lonnnnng time and who really wanted my call, vocation, and paid work to be the same thing or have significant overlap, those quotes were both inspiring and maddening. As I continue to think about this and work with college students who are right in the thick of the “what do I do with my life?” questions, I see so much wisdom in Rowe’s comments. I think part of our theological problem is that we still conflate vocation and job, even when we say we don’t. There are a lot of ways to follow your passion/bliss/call and some of the most important ones (being a parent, for example) do not pay. But, like you say, we still have to eat.

  3. Cameron Smith

    One of my mom’s favorite sayings was, “Well, if work was always fun, they would call it ‘fun’ instead of ‘work’ and you wouldn’t get paid.” It may not be the most uplifting message, but it’s a good reminder on those days when your work is frustrating and demanding.

    1. Bob Braxton

      My father died in 1988 at age 72, leaving me with numerous sayings. I worked alongside him as a carpenter building NC houses 1960 until my college graduation in 1966. He would always say “have fun” (a favorite expression of mine as I approach his age when he died) – not without a degree of irony (these days they even have a computer program now – an App, excuse me — that can detect irony in Tweets – and presumably blog posts and comments as well). Another saying of his cannot be repeated word-for-word in “polite company” but the follow-up can be stated: “if you are going to Work like a Horse, you ought to Look like one (a horse)” – something a veterinarian would know about: Excalibur Sheath Cleaner For Horses – This treatment applies to the following species:
      Horses – of a certain gender (assumptions in the sixties and earlier).

  4. Robert Braxton

    the “other” Robert whose career (such as it was, beginning close to age 30) was Information Technology and who, also with three years in theological seminary 1966-1969, has subsequently anchored home-based support for a life partner not a “man-pastor” — as the writer expresses it – my experience (personal, not that of the Pastor) has been – that I “bring my passions with me.” I think of myself in this context as little Bo Peep – Leave them alone – and (then, subsequently, eventually) they’ll come home (wagging their tails behind them). This sort of life takes the patience of a gardener – do not tug on the green beans – they grow (up) in their own good time – and it does not usually work too well to try to Push (a vehicle) using a rope. In fact, I notice in Africa (Kenya) that the herder is not Followed by the sheep but rather goes behind the goats and sheep. In the case of our passions, though, perhaps it works best to “leave them alone” – and rather than “follow” them, to let them find their way home.

  5. Diane Roth

    several years ago a good article came out in a Lutheran theological magazine which paired feminist theology and Lutheran ‘theology of the cross’ with vocation. While I love the two quotes above, I found that the article tweaked those ideas in helpful ways to get at some of the things you are talking about. If I find that article again, I’ll bring up a couple of quotes from it.

      1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

        Diane found the article and posted it to FB. Here is the link:


        And here’s the pertinent bit. This is great!
        As Gail McGrew Eifrig, English professor at Valparaiso University, says,
        Buechner’s wonderful sentence is poetically satisfying, but it fails to provide any lasting nourishment. Who would not want to be where “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”? But most people spend most of their time working at jobs that keep them alive, and for most of them, being a source of blessing in your work seems scarcely relevant, may even be a joke.10
        Eifrig’s critique points to Luther’s strength, that work does not have to be satisfying or joyful or even chosen in order to be vocation. Not that God wills drudgery or that oppressive working conditions are acceptable. But the reality of life is that its deep gladness is fleetingly glimpsed. The holy beauty of the newborn gives way to the poopy screamer every time. To affirm fully the holy in creation, to participate in that holiness through our vocation, calls for an embrace of the screamers, the struggles, and the boredom. Heaven knows, the zillions of ditsy duties that go along with parenting do not demand the best use of personal gifts. Sometimes our work is simply sacrificial. Perhaps the assurance that picking Cheerios off the floor really is a holy task – keeping chaos at bay – can shore up maternal mental health. A comic spirituality of the absurd, perhaps, but as a hedge against maternal depression, it works just fine.

  6. Kris

    Wonderful and thought-provoking post. I am currently in a call that is a poor fit, it’s making me nuts and and I’m working to leave and at the same time I know that I have learned SO MUCH in the last year working through the painful stuff. Do I think it MUST be that way? Not at all. It’s sort of like theodicy, isn’t it? God doesn’t make the bad stuff happen but God certainly works redemptively through it all. My amazing parish secretary keeps telling me that God is preparing me for the next big thing….we’ll see.

    As for the passion part, it feels both/and to me. I need to bring my passion with me, but that is far easier to do if I am doing work I feel is important and not say, scrubbing floors. And yet my daughter found work where her passions are and it totally burned her out. She advises my youngest son whose passion is music (and he knows that will never be a career for him) to look for work that will earn him a paycheck and be passionate in his off time. I’ve been lucky enough to follow my passion twice, first becoming a prof and then a priest and I know that in neither case is it all roses and sunshine. The quote above that deep gladness is fleetingly glimpsed is right on. So how do we open ourselves to experiencing that deep gladness whenever and wherever we find it? And how do we prepare ourselves for the disappointment we might feel when we discover that sometimes it is not there where we’ve expected it to be?

  7. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

    Such great commentary here….

    Also saw this comment on the NEXT Church FB page. (PIF is personal information form–clergy resume in the PCUSA)

    “I think it is interesting, so called new and improved PIF, falls exactly into the trap Landon describes. “What is your preferred ministry setting?”!!! I am not called to a “setting”! I am called to lead people into a lived experience of God that can transform their lives and equip them to be agents of transformation in the world, i.e. bear witness to the gift of grace they have received.”

    It’s helpful to know your ideal ministry setting I suppose, but on another level it’s completely irrelevant to one’s ability to thrive in a setting that’s anything but ideal.

    I think “fit” is somewhat overrated.

    1. Kris

      None of us is likely to ever work in our “ideal ministry setting.”

      I, too, believe I am called to lead people into a lived experience of God. The rub comes in when the gifts I can put to use to do that are not valued in the community in which I serve, and when my leadership is undermined by those who cannot accept me for who I am. That is a bad fit. Fit certainly CAN be overrated but it does matter. Would my church have issues if I were a conservative male pastor? Surely they would. Would they be played out in such a destructive and unhealthy way? Probably not.

      Can I thrive in this setting? I’m not sure that I can. What I can do and am trying to do is to remember that its really not about me, and look for each and every moment in which I know that God is still at work in all our lives. And do the best I can with what I’ve got.

      Sorry if I’ve made this whole thing too personal….but this is where I’m living these days, trying to figure out what God might be up to.

      1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

        This stuff is personal!

        And you’re right about fit. We can’t throw it out completely. It’s helpful in terms of discerning a *bad* fit. But the difference between decent fit and good fit is negligible and can be overcome by a variety of factors.

        It’s kind of like being a good-enough mother. The goal sometimes is a good-enough fit.

        And I hope you find a good situation very soon.

  8. Rachel Heslin

    This is very similar to what I’ve been alternately musing on and struggling with. I’ve surrounded myself with so many people who are striving to align their “life purpose” with their livelihoods, and I know that, as much as I enjoy website design, it is most definitely not the Be All and End All of my existence. But I’ve been finding myself going down your Robert’s path: breathing, becoming still, and asking for Guidance as to the next step in my journey. It’s not perfect, and I still suffer attacks of the Over-Thinking What Ifs, but I’m working on having faith that all will be well.

  9. Pingback: Following Your Call: Building on Buechner | MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *