Wrestling Through “I-Used-to-Be”

Published December 19, 2016


CallingLeading Yourself

I had just finished preaching my final service at my church.

I was gathered with a few close friends for lunch at a nearby restaurant, and we were enjoying a meal together to mark the end of my season with them. As our server refilled drinks, he stopped in the middle of his task and focused directly on me, asking, “Aren’t you a pastor at that church here in town?”

I paused. Despite having just walked out of the church 30 minutes ago, I had to answer honestly: “I used to be.”

I used to be.

Whether you’re a pastor, engineer, manager, business owner or a leader in another field, each of us will wrestle with an “I used to be” at some point in our career.

In my field, I’ve watched pastors faithfully serve a community for 20, 30 or even 40 years, and then transition out. Oftentimes these individuals — usually steady and consistent people — walk through a tumultuous season of identity questions. Who am I when a staff team no longer reports to me? What do I do with myself, my experiences, my aspirations when no one “needs” me anymore?

Though my journey as a pastor in our community lasted less than 10 years, I have been through my fair share of searching and it’s left me with a growing compassion for anyone who “used to be” someone else.

When I heard T.D. Jakes’ session at the 2016 Global Leadership Summit, something clicked. He said, “We get trapped by titles. We buy into how they describe us, and stop seeking.”

While I had always pictured a calling as a fixed, stationary thing, his words about “seeking” sparked a different kind of clarity in me. If we allow our sense of calling to truly guide our choice of profession or field, then perhaps we haven’t “found” our calling as much as we are exploring it.

For example, in my new role with the Church Relations Field Team at the Willow Creek Association, I’m no longer directly “pastoring” a congregation of people. Instead, I travel around the country, meeting and working with pastors and church staff teams (as well as a variety of marketplace leaders) to bring the Global Leadership Summit to their respective communities. While I no longer play the same role, I am continuing to explore the same calling to lead in the local church, albeit from a different angle and position on the field.

Exploration is constant uncovering, learning and adapting. If we are indeed following the “true north” of our calling, or as Bishop Jakes put it, “finding the common denominator,” then each transition from one position with an organization to another is simply a new chapter in the exploration of our calling.

In that case, while we may miss the culture, friends and environment of the last role we had (a true grieving point), we need not fear the loss of our identity. What we used to do may be gone, but who we are remains a ripe field for exploration.

If you’re up for a little exploring, I offer a few steps that I’ve either consciously or unwittingly taken in recent months. Maybe you can give them a try or invent some of your own:

Drill Down to the Core: If the organization you are currently in folded tomorrow, what would you be looking for next? What’s the essence of what motivates and energizes you, regardless of title, position or even organization? Like Bishop Jakes referred to in his message, what’s the “common denominator” to who you are, not just what you currently do?

Sidestep the Title Trap: What practices are currently “unbecoming” of your title? Associating with certain employees? Spending time doing “menial” activities? Divesting yourself of the window or corner office? There are perks of your role that become “trappings” – meaning, they trap you into a certain way of thinking about yourself. The substance of your calling isn’t found in the furnishings of your title – get outside of them, experiment with them. You may not “discover your calling” immediately, but you will discard flimsy limitations by acting independently of what status dictates you “ought” to do.

Have Fun Failing: Is there an activity or subject you can pour yourself into and fail at miserably – but rather than experiencing frustration, you find yourself inspired to dig in deeper, to learn how to course correct, and continue trying with genuine joy? Perhaps it’s something completely unrelated to your current role or job, but whatever it is, it’s tapping into a source of authentic humility and tenacious joy. If the challenge doesn’t deflate you, but calls you forward – whether it’s cooking, writing, athletics, music, karate or karaoke – don’t dismiss it as trivial. It may not be your actual calling, but it’s touching a deep part of you that is connected to it.

Beware Wanderlust: There’s a difference between exploring your calling and escaping it. Sometimes the road is rough and the hill is steep, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to find a way out by “finding yourself.” Do the work with God and with honest people in your life to make sure you’re not just bored, tired, hurt or dissatisfied for reasons that can be resolved through wise self-leadership.

Steward the Now: The unknown future and untapped potential ahead of you doesn’t give you license to shirk your current leadership responsibilities. Often it’s our faithfulness with our current station that affords us the opportunity to diversify into new areas or pursue a passion. Don’t be lulled into thinking “this is all there is,” but honor your people enough to “give it all you have.”

Whatever steps you choose – never quit exploring.

Discovering “how much is in you” is a unique challenge entrusted to you by God – no one else will do it for you.

Others may see glimpses and point you in the right direction, circumstances may offer you new opportunities, the titles you wear will come and go, but the true expedition of your calling – that is up to you.

About the Author(s)
Justin serves as the North Campus Pastor at Gateway Community Church in Austin, Texas.

Justin McCarty

North Campus Pastor

Gateway Community Church

Justin has been involved in leadership development in a variety of ways over the last 15 years—in pastoral ministry at Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, and Quest Community Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Additionally, he was on staff at the Global Leadership Network as a Field Team Director where he worked closely with hundreds of senior pastors, church staff and organizational executives to grow the impact of the Global Leadership Summit in their communities. He now leads civic leadership development with young professionals and corporations as the Director of Learning and Engagement at Leadership Austin. He and his wife, Courtney, along with their three boys, call Leander, Texas their home.