The Poisonous Myth of Finding the “Highest Calling” In Ministry and Life

April 23, 2014

When I was in seminary, I was surrounded by guys who thought that they were embarking on the “hightest calling.”

That is, they were training to be pastors. And all of the seminary culture reinforced this belief – that being a pastor, i.e. leading a church was the absolute most important thing we could do. Of all the “good” choices of occupation, this was the best.

Now that I’m a teacher, I find myself commonly among people who consider their profession the “highest calling.”

“Strange,” I thought. Didn’t these people get the memo that pastors had the highest calling? But there they are, in all of their audacity, believing that educating the next generation is the most important thing.

And then there are some parents, perhaps who I find myself in the company of, or whose blogs and Facebook posts I read. And wouldn’t you know it, a good deal of parents think that parenting is the highest calling. How could there be anything more important than raising the next generation? And like teachers and pastors, there are plenty of other parents who reinforce that belief.

The thing that I’ve learned is that the language of “highest calling,” contrary to building everyone up, is actually, positively poisonous to everyone, no matter what vocation or life stage we find ourselves in.

This is why.

An Office Full of Martyrs

I’m pretty sure that just about any place you go, you can find people who think that what they are doing is most important.

From doctors, to teachers to pastors or parents, a good number of us like to believe that what we are doing is the most important thing. There are probably trash men who have the same belief about their job as any other occupation. After all, what would happen without trash men?

And what happens when you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, doing the most important job?

You become a martyr.

Soon, we start believing that no one works harder than we do, that no one is more underappreciated than we are, that no one is more deserving of a raise than we are. We are the hardest working, most put upon people on the whole Earth. And that attitude is prideful poison. It forces us to look down on everyone else who is not as “important” as we are, while we boast about how we are saving the world.

Being a martyr is a trap.

Tenure…Or Life Sentence?

Besides puffing ourselves up, believing our own hype can become really dangerous.

Let’s say you are in an occupation. Any occupation, really. And you believe, and it has been reinforced in your mind for years that what you are doing is the most important thing and there will never be anything else that gives you life as much meaning or significance as this…

But, let’s say, deep down in secret, you’ve started to hate your very important occupation.

If you believe that what you are doing is so important, that anything else you could do would be a step down or beneath you, then how are you ever able to quit? Is it any coincidence that the ministry, one of the so-called “highest callings” has such a terrible rate of burnout among pastors? Burnout is such a major problem in ministry, partly because young guys are tricked into taking on jobs that are called “ministry,” but are not their calling, but they don’t think they can quit with honor and purpose before God. So they hang on for dear life, putting themselves and their families through hell before they finally break.

Quitting is a big problem for me, meaning I am terrified to quit anything. Some people quit too easily, and a few people know how to quit when it is appropriate. The pride that puffs us up can eventually chain us to a job we hate. Or it can prevent struggling parents from seeking help.

After all, what mom wants to admit that she’s depressed and doesn’t much enjoy parenting these days? How can you not enjoy the most important thing in life?

You Can Find Your Highest Calling

Here is the truth, moms.

Here is the truth, teachers.

Here is the truth, doctors, pastors and garbage collectors.

What you are doing is important. We need you to do it very well.  In fact, what you are doing could be the most important thing you can do. Being a mom or a doctor or a teacher or a pastor could be the highest calling.

But only if God has called you to do that thing.

If God has called you to be a mom, then being a mom is your highest calling. If God has called you to lead a church, then that’s your highest calling.

But callings change. No one gets to raise kids forever, no matter how important it is. Kids grow up. And our other callings evolve too. God uses all of the circumstances of life to direct us. We can’t get out of college and assume that God has called us to one thing forever. 

Do what God has called you to do today, and do it well.

What do you think? Have you ever felt trapped by a calling that wasn’t yours? Have you been trapped by the “highest calling” mentality?

6 responses to The Poisonous Myth of Finding the “Highest Calling” In Ministry and Life

  1. I needed this today. I’ve been wanting to step down from our church’s children’s ministry for months because, well I hate it. You’ve captured a lot of the struggle I’ve been experiencing. Another huge aspect of quitting something that makes it a struggle is the worry about how others will perceive us. I’m worried people will think I’m just being selfish or that i hate kids or …. And I know that is just pride getting in the way again.

  2. If one hates something that they are doing for their church…they certainly ought quit doing it.

    We are FREE in Christ.

    To do…or to not do. That’s freedom.
    theoldadam recently posted..The nuclear explosion that was ‘The Reformation’

  3. It is also a problem because it keeps us from feeling like we can’t be social with pastors and their families. They often end up feeling very isolated within their own church because people get oddly intimidated by their “higher calling”, or because others try to latch on to it.
    Also, when they quit, people assume that they’ve done something wrong and had to leave. No one ever assumes that about people who quit working in a cubicle. Although, I do question Ken Jeong for quitting his day job as a doctor to become an actor (Community, The Hangover…) That’s just odd.
    Rixie recently posted..Egg Hunt Husbands

  4. Thanks for this – I am intrigued by the idea that callings can change. I used to think I would want to do the work I’m doing forever but recently I have decided I don’t want to do this anymore. I have been confused -why would I be tired of my calling? But maybe it’s changed? I can still carry out my calling it just might be something else. Hope this makes some sense.

  5. As a former youth pastor of seven years finishing up his MA in theology and thinking through what comes next (vacillating between a PhD and an MFT) this is great and timely.

    “Callings change.”

  6. Very well said. As someone who has struggled under the weight of “calling” and great expectations for most of my life, I completely related to this. Thanks for your thoughts.