Henri Nouwen, a priest and teacher who moved in the exalted circles of Harvard and Yale and Notre Dame, came to believe that those settings did not – for him – call forth the person God intended him to be. So this famous writer spent the last decade of his life caring for physically and mentally challenged residents of a small community called L’Arche.
This quotation is taken from John Ortberg’s ‘The Me I want to Be’. It’s got me thinking. Not so much in the context in which Ortberg uses it – what’s interesting me more is the concept that those settings which allow us to use our gifts and passions most fully for God may not always have an additional effect of transforming us and thus may not, if they are the only ingredient in our work/ministry, represent God’s best for us.
I started to vocalise this thought with a friend. For those of us living in a Western context, we may have a reasonable hope of getting to a point in our lives where we can focus on the things which match our giftings and passions. And, in one sense, that is great. We start to experience a sense of what J. Robert Clinton (‘The Making of a Leader’) calls convergence, a sense that we are in the ‘ministry flow’ in a way that we have never experienced before.
Yet I am struck that Nouwen, who must surely have felt this way in connection with his writing and thinking outputs, still chose to set them aside. It appears that he believed that to become all that God intended him to be, he needed to move out of that place where it was about ‘his’ ministry, ‘his’ gifts, ‘his’ fulfilment, ‘his’ joy in experiencing convergence. His chosen destination was a place of pure service, a minstry option where it was truly not about him, his gifts or his passions, at all. As he became nothing, as he set himself only to serving others, that was when he believed that God was making him into the best version of himself.
I find that interesting and challenging. I wouldn’t want to extrapolate that we should all therefore seek to spend our lives doing something which does not necessarily fit our gifts, which does not fill us with a sense of purpose and of fulfilment. And, whilst I’m setting out the qualifications to what I am saying(!), I bet Nouwen found joy at L’Arche. It’s not about limiting our opportunity for joy in what we do!
But the question remains. If most of my day job is about ‘my’ ministry, ‘my’ gifts, ‘my’ fulfilment, ‘my’ joy in experiencing convergence, then it risks being all about me. And when we have a God who came to serve and to suffer rather than to be fulfilled, I probably need to avoid that quite strenuously!
So, I’m thinking that in my leadership role, I need to look for more and more ways to make what I do all about others. I’ll look for ways to serve them, to lift them up. It might mean I do a lot of the difficult or thankless tasks so they don’t have to. But the reward is that God will be doing the transformative work which he can only do when it’s not all about me!
And I’m also wondering whether, given the immense privilege I have to be a portfolio worker (rather than a seventy hour a week one job person), maybe I need to look to spend a couple of hours a week doing something which is apparently random – not especially congruent with my gifts or passions, indeed not about me at all - just to be sure that, by taking my eyes off me, I might thereby become the me God wants me to be!
Do you ever worry that in fulfilling your gifts and passions you teeter dangerously towards becoming the star of your own show? What kind of mechanisms can you put in place to protect against this?