Pastor, should you “change your life every decade”?

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Pastor, should you “change your life every decade”?

January 31, 2023 - Jim Denison, PhD

Seven white paper airplanes form a circle, but a single red paper airplane chooses its own path, flying up and to the left. © By Memed ÖZASLAN/stock.adobe.com

Seven white paper airplanes form a circle, but a single red paper airplane chooses its own path, flying up and to the left. © By Memed ÖZASLAN/stock.adobe.com

Seven white paper airplanes form a circle, but a single red paper airplane chooses its own path, flying up and to the left. © By Memed ÖZASLAN/stock.adobe.com

This article in Psychology Today caught my eye: “The Ten Year Rule: Change Your Life Every Decade.”

Nassir Ghaemi MD, MPH, is the author. However, the first source for his argument is Arthur Brooks, currently a Harvard professor, who “advocates for changing your line of work every decade,” according to Ghaemi. Brooks was a musician for a decade, then he taught economics as a college professor for fifteen years, then he headed the American Enterprise Institute for a decade. Now he is a Harvard professor focusing on happiness studies.

Brooks believes that each career change made him a more accomplished person and increased his overall influence.

Ghaemi then turns to David Sackett, a physician-researcher who believed that once you become an expert at something, you should quit. Ghaemi explains Sackett’s reasoning: “Experts often retard progress because they usually have produced their new ideas long before they became accepted as experts, and after their rise to expertise, they spend the rest of their lives defending their prior ideas.” Sackett added that those who have mastered a field should move on to another, which might prove even more important.

Ghaemi therefore advises: “You don’t need to be expert at the same thing forever. You’ll never know, in fact, if the next great thing might happen unless you stop doing the last great thing.

“In other words, the greatest obstacle to success is success” (my italics).

Our ultimate calling in life

I believe Ghaemi’s conclusion to be spot on for pastors, though not for the reasons he cites.

You and I believe that God called us into our ministries and that he then called us to the place and time where we are now fulfilling our calling. He can obviously change that calling: we all know pastors who became seminary professors or business professionals. But he has to do the changing—we don’t decide proactively to change our careers as Ghaemi suggests for the reasons he offers.

My response runs on a very different track.

I believe our ultimate calling in life is to know Christ and make Christ known. Each of us is called to “make Christ known” in our own unique ways that reflect our gifts, abilities, education, experience, and challenges. But unless and until we “know Christ,” we cannot truly make him known to others. I cannot give what I do not have or teach what I have not learned.

Here’s the problem: the world can see and measure the ways we “make Christ known,” but it obviously cannot see the ways we “know Christ.” People can listen to your sermon this Sunday, but they cannot know the times in private prayer and study that produced it. They can benefit from your pastoral ministry and leadership, but they do not know the study, experience, and prayer than enabled you to serve as you do.

This is a problem because a materialistic, consumeristic culture measures success by what it can measure and consume. We give very little thought to the chef in the kitchen who cooked our restaurant meal or the automotive technicians who built the car we drive. We measure success by whether we enjoyed what we ate and like what we drive.

As a result, over time, we can adopt the world’s measure of success as our own. We start measuring ourselves by our popularity with our leaders, by the number of people who come to hear us preach or to join our church, and by the “output” of our week.

But all of these ways we “make Christ known” depend on “knowing Christ.” If we lose our focus on the latter, over time we impoverish the former. And our ministries suffer along with our souls.

The temptation of vocational solipsism

Bishop George Berkeley (1685—1753) is known to philosophers for his assertion, esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” Taken to a logical extreme, this claim results in “solipsism,” the argument that the world exists only to the degree that it is perceived.

According to this worldview, your only “world” at this moment is the screen on which you are reading these words and the room in which you are reading them.

We can be vocational solipsists if we’re not careful, reducing our “world” to what we can see as the result of what we do. We become the work we perform and measure ourselves as others measure it.

This worldview will tempt us every day we live in a consumeristic, materialistic culture. This is precisely how the culture measures everyone else: doctors by patient outcomes, lawyers by legal wins and losses, business people by the products they produce and the money they make. It’s how we measure every other vocation with which we interact.

But it is dangerous for us and ultimately for those who consume what we produce. If we are speaking words about God but not from him because we are no longer making the necessary investment to “know Christ,” those who hear us are impoverished. They do not need our wisdom, but that of our Lord. They do not need our leadership, but that of the Spirit.

And vocational solipsism is dangerous for our souls as well. We were created for relationship with our Creator. Before he wants us to serve him, he wants us to know him. And he wants us to serve him because we know him and so others can know him.

“The world is filled with ‘ifs’”

Let’s close with this observation by Henri Nouwen:

As long as I keep running about asking “Do you love me? Do you really love me?” I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with “ifs.”

The world says: “Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.” There are endless “ifs” hidden in the world’s love. These “ifs” enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them.

The world’s love is and always will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain “hooked” to the world—trying, failing, and trying again. It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.

The deepest craving of our heart is to know Christ and, only then, to make him known.

Let’s keep the main thing the main thing, to the glory of God.

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