Youth ministry isn’t easy. At times, our sense of calling or vocation is the only thing keeping us going. But what happens when it feels like that calling slips away? How do we rediscover it, or worse, keep going when the job becomes just ‘a job’? The Girls’ Brigade’s Dr Claire Rush shares her story
Eighteen months ago, I found myself in floods of tears. I was staring at a photo of myself in my mum’s house, taken at my graduation five years before. I didn’t recognise that bold woman in her colourful PhD gown filled with hopes, optimism and an unshakeable calling and faith to serve God wherever he would lead.
I always believed that I was a leader and an influencer. I never really questioned it but committed to use those skills to serve God and follow his calling for my life. Through years of prayerful exploration, I realised that this calling is to help girls and women unlock their God-given potential as influencers and transformers for Jesus. Over the years since, God has placed me in a number of local, national and international leadership roles in different Christian organisations – both as a volunteer and a paid employee. I firmly believed that I was living out my God-given purpose, until 18 months ago that is… It was at this point that I found my confidence in my calling and in my God-given gifts spiralling out of control in a vortex of fear, anxiety, doubt, shame and a deep sense of failure. I was facing spiritual burnout. I was living a joyless existence and was barely surviving, rather than thriving, in any of my leadership roles.
Worst of all, the seeds of doubt were flourishing wildly in my mind: are you really a leader, Claire? Are you really where God wants you to be right now? It turns out that I wasn’t alone. When I asked for advice about writing about a loss of calling, a number of people got in touch, expressing that they too were struggling with their sense of calling. The Fuller Theological Seminary estimates that around 70 per cent of leaders will not ‘finish well’; they’ll drop out of the race before it’s finished.
Perhaps due to falling numbers in your youth group you’re feeling a sense of failure? Or maybe your sense of calling in youth work is being shaken by the obstacle after obstacle you’re being confronted with. It’s a lonely place, but remember you’re not alone. In fact you’re in the presence of spiritual giants - Moses, Gideon and Esther struggled. Even Jesus struggled in Gethsemane with what God was calling him to do. So if you’re second guessing God’s word to you, what do you do next?
First of all, give yourself space to just be. Breathe God in deeply. Space for silence and solitude, intentional disciplines that Jesus practiced, are not easy to come by in today’s frenetic life. In fact, those disciplines are counter-cultural. As I became increasingly overwhelmed, I had to retreat and carve out space to just be with God. This meant stepping back from responsibilities for a while, a difficult but beneficial thing to do. As Henri Nouwen recognised: “Silence and solitude are the furnace where transformation takes place.”
Being present in the moment is important. Don’t numb or avoid your emotions, however painful they may be. If you need it, seek medical and professional support. At the very least, share your struggle with trusted people so you are warding off shame; shame loves hiding in the darkness. Giving yourself permission to breathe and to be helped by others is important before you can take the next step forward.
Explore your calling (again)
Are you living out God’s purpose for your life? Are you where God wants you to be right now? These questions are valid and fruitful questions when explored in a helpful manner. In many ways, the concept of calling can be quite scary and overwhelming. Calling goes much deeper than any one aspect of life – it is holistic. It encompasses our whole being. We find our calling by bringing together our passions (what we love doing), the needs we see around us (what God breaks our heart for) and our gifts (what God has equipped us to do).
Perhaps the root cause of your doubts and discomfort is because you’re not where God wants you to be right now. He might be asking you to kick the dust off your feet and move on. For you, the next step may be relinquishing a role, creating time for reflection and moving into a new season of your life. Our calling is not static; it can shift and change through different seasons of our lives.
For me, re-examining my calling gave me the space that I needed, in order to know that I was exactly where God wanted me to be. I received this affirmation through reading the Bible, reading other books, praying and chatting with trusted Christian leaders who knew me. But I needed to make the time to do this.
Fear, anxiety and shame seek to distort our God-identity and make us waver in our calling
Understand the root causes of your doubts and sense of failure
So, feeling affirmed that I was in the place where God wanted me to be, I then had to explore this question: why was I experiencing these crushing and paralysing doubts? Unsurprisingly a distorted God-identity and lack of self-worth are root causes of unjustified doubts and a wavering in our calling. In the world we live in, it’s quite easy to discover that our self-worth is built on a foundation of sand especially if we judge it through the world’s definition of success and achievements. As Fil Anderson asks in Running on empty: “Are we unable to distinguish between activity and identity, so our activity determines our identity?” We may need to re-discover who we are in Christ by asking some fundamental questions:
Do you need to redefine what success and failure looks like in your ministry? Our success-driven world fuels us to compare each other, pursue unrealistic expectations and drives us to strive for perfectionism (which, at its very nature, is self-destructive and addictive). Brené Brown in Daring greatly recognises that: “Perfectionism is not the path that leads us to our gifts and to our sense of purpose. It’s a hazardous detour.”
Are you tuned into the voice of God or the critical voice of others? One of my favourite movies of the year so far is Eddie the Eagle. Based on the life and journey of Eddie Edwards, it tells the story of a young boy whose dream is to represent Great Britain in the Olympics. Eddie is kicked off any team he joins. Even his father and coach (initially) believe that he has no chance. The odds are against him. He’s a joke, yet Eddie’s determination and belief in himself never falter. And guess what? In the end, he does achieve his dream. Sometimes other people can be highly critical and negative of us for their own agenda and reasons. But, in fact, we can be our own worst critic. It’s important that we are intentionally taking our thoughts captive and focussing them on God who ultimately has control.
Are you really relying on God? Philippians 4:13 is one of the most quoted Bible verses. But many of us are guilty of giving God lip-service and continuing to do everything in our own strength. I am inspired by Helen Roseveare, a missionary doctor who lived in the Congo for most of her life. In her memoir Give me this mountain, she reminds us that negative experiences can actually draw us closer to God. Only in our own insufficiency, do we truly experience his sufficiency.
Once I had taken some time to breathe, pray and heal, I understood that I was right where God wanted me to be in that moment. I didn’t doubt God’s calling on my life; instead I doubted my ability to fulfil his calling. The reality is that I can’t complete my unique contribution to God’s mission of restoration on earth unless I’m solely relying on him.
Unsurprisingly I was primarily responsible for the field full of doubts that had been allowed to flower in my head. Fear, anxiety and shame seek to distort our God-identity and make us waver in our calling. These three identity thieves make us focus our attention on ourselves when we should be lifting our eyes up to him who is able and strong. If I was really going to live out God’s calling on my life, it was clear that I had to implement certain rhythms in my life to prevent further spiritual burnout and enable me to draw my strength from him.
Pausing to recharge
Last year, I got to visit the most beautiful place on the planet (in my opinion) – Iceland – and watch a geyser explode right in front of my eyes. It was fascinating. After the initial pillar of water propels itself into the air, the base of the geyser drains of all the water for a few minutes. Eighteen months ago, I was the human equivalent of a drained geyser: I was running on empty. I had developed what John Ortberg defines as soul fatigue – when our busyness turns into hurriedness.
A wise mentor asked me: you’re so busy giving out, what are you replenishing yourself with? We need to recognise that our passion and enthusiasm for God’s ministry can be the same energy that causes us to ignore own needs and deplete ourselves. Just like our mobile phones, we have a finite capacity. We need to ensure that we’re recharging and plugging ourselves into our ultimate power source: God. Maybe it’s time for us to stop being God’s PA and start being with him?
Practical steps: how are you plugging into God every day? Do you need to carve out more space to do so?
Amid all the striving that causes us to seek perfection, it is powerful, counter-cultural and biblical to pause and remember: “I am enough”. Imagine if we all extended God’s grace to ourselves when we suffer or feel inadequate.
70 per cent of leaders will not ‘finish well’; they’ll drop out of the race before it’s finished
Some may perceive self-care as selfish but Alli Worthington in Breaking busy reminds us that: “Self-care is one of the most other-centred choices you can make in your life. That’s because you can’t live the life God created you for, with space to be aware of his leading, if you don’t take care of yourself.” Doing things that give us joy – reading, spending time with friends, sports – are integral, not marginal to the “life to the full” that Jesus talks about in John 10:10.
For me, self-compassion is ensuring that I don’t just have a Sabbath on a Sunday but have a Sabbath hour every day: 60 minutes of doing something that lights up my soul. This could be reading for pleasure, a walk around my local pond or playing with my niece. The last year has been a journey of extending God’s grace to myself, savouring slowness and cultivating it in my life by placing boundaries on my time in simple but effective ways such as not looking at any emails at the weekend. Sabbath isn’t just a religious concept; God biologically designed us to need it. Our circaseptan cycle – heartbeat and blood pressure – rises and falls in seven day cycles. Our bodies and brains need rest on a weekly basis. A regular Sabbath reminds us who we are and puts things in perspective – after all, we’re much more than just our leadership roles.
Practical steps: how are you looking after your soul? What does Sabbath look like for you?
The Bible demonstrates through the example of Jesus, David and Mary (and many others) that following God’s calling is going to lead us into challenging and difficult situations. After all, one important component of our calling is our God-given passion, or as Bill Hybels says “our holy discontent”. Many of us throw the word passionate around so flippantly in our conversations. We’re passionate about everything – including chocolate, sunsets, Eastenders and good food. But the word passion comes from the Latin word ‘passio’ (to suffer). And here’s a difficult truth to swallow: our true passion should cause us to suffer. Our calling should lead us to the frontline of the spiritual battle. After all, we need to get close to the darkness when we’re trying to punch holes in it. In many ways, obstacles are evidence of God powerfully working through us.
It’s easy to write that we should expect and embrace obstacles in our ministry, isn’t it? I’m humbled (and intimidated) by the words of Caleb in Joshua 14:12. Faced with huge obstacles including a fortified city and a superior army, Caleb confidently asserted: “Give me this mountain.” He embraced the challenge, assured that God would be the ultimate victor. Developing spiritual resilience through self-compassion and frequent refuelling helps us approach challenges through God’s eyes. For example, facing obstacles can be fruitful and cause us to grow. Experiences we may perceive as negative, or even as a failure, can reveal positive truth such as reminding us of our own dangers of pride and God’s ultimate sufficiency.
Resilience also helps us reject fear, one of the greatest weapons in spiritual warfare. Fear can often knock on our door and prevent us from stepping out and being all that we’re created to be. It’s no coincidence that “Fear not” is one of the most frequent commandments in the Bible. God doesn’t want us to live under a blanket of destructive fear. Resilience can help us face fear head-on and expose its lies with words of truth.
Often we can waver about our calling because we don’t have spiritual resilience – the capacity and understanding to deal with, overcome, learn from or even be transformed from the inevitable obstacles we encounter. Low resilience can cause us to doubt, ask the wrong questions and even reject our true calling.
Practical steps: how are you cultivating resilience in your ministry and leadership?
I’m still on the journey of healing with God. I’m not ‘fixed’. Sometimes, the field of fears and anxieties about my calling and my ability can threaten to bloom in my head again. I’m human. As I write this, I’m reminding myself of what God has whispered to me over the last 18 months. I’m remembering to breathe, focus my eyes on him and extend his grace towards myself. Ultimately it’s my calling – refined by the tough times, the questions and the doubts – which is helping me face obstacles head on. I want to be able to stand confidently like Caleb and say: “Give me this mountain, Lord.”