School made so much sense to me. I went to first grade. I did well. I went on to second grade. When I did well there, I went to third grade. For me, the staircase of education kept things clear. The goal was before me, and I knew what I had to do to get there.
I believed my calling would operate the same way. I would get a job. I would do well. The next job would unfold like magic. I’d get promoted. Within a couple years I would be a “YBP” (young black professional) whose path just appeared (like it did in school).
Then I became an adult.
My vocational calling has been more circles than staircases: a dizzying array of decisions, disappointments, and dreams come true—sort of.
Here’s what I’ve learned in my first ten years of adulthood.
1. Vocational Calling Is Constantly Unfolding
In her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, author Zora Neale Hurston writes, “There are years that ask questions and there are years that answer.” Though Hurston’s character Janie was grappling with ideas of love and marriage, I am finding the truthfulness of her words stretches easily into this space of vocational calling.
My husband and I just experienced a year of answers. We were living in Chicago where my career was thriving. I was doing work I love with people I love. Nonetheless, it was time for me and my husband to move to Michigan, where he is licensed, so his career could thrive too. We had a lot of questions determining how to make that transition, but 2014 was our year of answers. We relocated to Grand Rapids, where both of our careers are finding an anchor.
While I am grateful for this season, I am fully aware that being a resident director isn’t going to last forever. In a couple years, I will be right back in a year of questions determining what my vocational calling looks like after living among college students.
I am learning to enjoy the unfolding. It’s easy for me to become bored with the years that answer, yearning for questions, the seed of adventure. When the questions come, I long for the security of answers. Realizing that calling unfolds slowly gives me greater confidence to dream greater dreams in the question years and to dig deeper into the answer years.
2. I Believe in “Side Hustles”
Legal ones, of course, but side hustles nonetheless. I wanted desperately to believe my vocational calling would also be my full-time job. Though my parents regularly encouraged me to “have a job that pays the bills and volunteer time to my vocation,” I, quite frankly, rebelled. I love doing volunteer work, but I wanted my calling to come with a paycheck that pays the bills. Now I am finding the middle ground. I do greatly enjoy my full-time job (and paying bills), but giving myself permission to have a side hustle has been liberating.
Owning my side hustle means connection, expression, and exploration. It means ever evolving creativity. It means pushing myself into unexplored territory, putting my name on my work. It means not hiding. And, yes, it means getting paid for work that is well done. It also sometimes means rejection, but I live to fight another day. My side hustles are as much my calling as my full-time job, which leads me to number three.
3. I Need to Start Using the Plural: Vocational Callings
For a long time I assumed there was just one thing for me to do in the world. It was my job to find a way to fit all the pieces of my calling into one magnificent job. For me that meant figuring out how to offer spiritual guidance to young people, write and speak regularly, and participate in the work of racial justice. For years I agonized over the fact that no job seemed to fit all of these at once. I worked with young people, but I had no time to write, so I doubted I was called to write. I led workshops on racial justice, but there was not a single young person in my life, so I doubted my calling to young people. Now, rather than trying to fit it all into one perfect job, I am learning to weave all of my callings into my life. Sometimes working with students is the main thread, and during other seasons focusing on racial justice is dominant. The doubt I used to indulge has become the energy I use to create a tapestry of opportunities that feel right for me.
4. My Path Doesn't Have to Be Traditional to Be Successful
I felt called to ministry at the age of 14. When I graduated from college, I earned a business management degree. My jobs have included working at a shelter, secretarial work, marketing and fundraising, event planning, short-term missions, curriculum development, teaching, and college ministry. I have lived in Metro Detroit, Chicago (twice), and now Grand Rapids in the space of five years. Do you see a clear thread? For a long time I thought there was no possible way I could end up being successful at anything because my path was so unusual.
If we were to sit down over a large cup of coffee, I could probably explain the connections between them all. But mostly that’s because there are some other callings I haven’t mentioned—like being called to my family or to a neighborhood or to a specific population. Even though only I could explain how each job is connected to my calling, the beauty is I no longer feel the need to justify my journey. I made the best decisions I knew to make at the time. I believe God has honored every one of them. And I am pretty sure God has more loops in my future. At least, I hope so.
5. I Need to Prepare for My Vocational Calling
When I felt called to be a minister, my pastor made me go through four years of old-school, trial-by-fire apprenticeship training, followed by a summer of intensive study and writing, before he would license and ordain me.
I have always felt called to justice work. After working with shelters, group homes, and mentorship programs, I realized my passion needed to be met with education. I needed a formalized learning process before I could truly fulfill my calling the way I envisioned. So I earned a master’s degree in social justice. (And, yes, many people thought I was crazy! No job description asks for a social justice degree. If you find one, please forward!) But I knew it was the program I needed to set me up to live out my calling.
Currently, I am obsessed with writing conferences and books on writing because I want to become a better writer. Practicing certainly helps, but I recognize I need to know more about the process so that my practice is directed.
As much as I want my passion alone to be strong enough to propel me into my vocational callings right away, more often than not, I first go through a season of preparation.
6. Calling and Community Are Intricately Connected
I would like to believe my vocational callings have everything to do with the work I am putting into the world, the ways I will leave the world a better place. But the truth is I am more convinced than ever that vocational calling has a lot more to do with collectivity than individuality. There are very few good things in the world that I’ve created alone. Every fantastic event was done because of a great partnership. Every great class I’ve led was because of a fantastic team. Every good piece of writing I put into the world is the result of a deep conversation. There is little doubt my calling would fall flat if not for the community that helps me create it.
Just a few months ago, I celebrated my 30th birthday, and, after much kicking and screaming, I have settled into the adventure of not knowing. I’ve decided I would much rather be on a journey through the world than have the restricted staircase I imagined. Turns out God’s dream for me was more than I could have imagined, and I’d take that plan—even with all the tears, worry, and doubt—every time. I have no idea what God has planned next, but if history is any indication, getting there will be quite the adventure.
Austin Channing Brown is a TCW regular contributor. A resident director and multicultural liaison at Calvin College, Austin is passionate about racial reconciliation—and has a slight obsession with books. When she’s not reading, you’ll find Austin watching HGTV or updating her blog AustinChanning.com.