I tried to avoid it. I desperately did not want to go there. I dreaded this frustrating stage of life. But it seems it was unavoidable. I have seen multiple friends of mine graduate from academic programs and enter the next phase of life, and the phase looked pretty similar for each of them. It was not the hoped-for and often expected transition of launching from a degree straight into a satisfying career or exciting ministry field. No, there is no simple mechanical process where you plug your degree into one part of a machine and watch the path to fulfillment and success come rolling out of the other side. On the contrary, it seems pretty standard to have a post-graduation lull.
I observed this lull phase in people’s lives while still working on my master’s degree. It usually involves either looking for a job (with little success) or working a job that does not really tap into your ability and potential (or degree qualifications). It often involves spending time with the family you grew up with or investing in a new marriage. This is a phase that lacks the excitement of the dreams discussed in your college dorm late at night, calls into question the ideas about the future that inspired you through the challenging and wearying bevy of academic assignments, and challenges the expectations built by watching the careers and ministries of the role models that inspired you. It’s a time of waiting, knowing that you have prepared to use your abilities in an influential, effective and satisfying way, but not knowing when the opportunity to do so will open up. It’s a sharp Bible-college grad working for the in-laws’ family business. It’s a gifted and driven business finance honors student waiting tables at Olive Garden. It’s a trained urban missionary caring for a dying grandmother in rural Ohio. It’s a a gifted seminary grad who’s Ph.D. material, painting houses.
I was going to outsmart this season of life. A year ahead of graduation, I started making plans. I was going to launch straight into my dream of serving the poor in Africa, and I wanted to leave the month after I graduated. No time in the doldrums for me! Then the Lord brought a welcome interruption to my plans, and I decided that I was more excited to marry her than to go rushing off to Africa on my own. And following the advice of experienced missionaries, we agreed that making a cross cultural move before our one year anniversary would compound the challenge of both adjustments, so we should stay put for the first year.
I didn’t think this would require me to experience the post-graduation lull, however. Immediately after we got back from our honeymoon, I launched into teaching a class at a bible college nearby, while still working in an academic program for at-risk youth. There was lots of activity, lots of productivity, and things were proceeding according to my normal, busy expectation. Then the bible class ended, and it was my final class for the academic year. Two weeks later I was informed that I couldn’t keep my education job any longer, because I had to be enrolled as a student to qualify for employment. Shortly afterward, we decided it was time to change churches, and we were in an in-between phase of local church involvement as we sought the best fit for us. What was I to do with my time? My version of the lull had settled onto me.
My lull has been far from inactive – it’s included working part-time in two different tutoring programs, training for a half-marathon, taking a Perspectives course, and cooking lots of dinners for my wife (seasoned with garlic, onions, cilantro, and lots of love). But by comparison with other phases of my life, it’s been a lull, and it has taught me deeply important lessons. It’s been difficult to pay bills pay bills each month and notice the big difference in my wife’s income compared to mine. I’ve often consoled myself in the past that I was making investments in ministry, which had far greater value than the dollar amounts on a paycheck. But some of my previous ministry opportunities have been absent for a time (i.e., because of the church transition), and my direction in ministry is shifting, though I’m still watching to see exactly how it shapes up.
I was forced to look inside and ask myself: when I don’t have a list of accomplishments at the end of the week, or a great ministry story to tell, or a respectable dollar amount on a pay stub, or ample recognition for my activity and service, where do I place my confidence? Where do I ground my identity? If I only feel I can relate to God well when I am doing and accomplishing a lot to serve him, then I have not rightly understood grace. I serve because of grace. I discover who he is and how he works through service, yes, but my identity is not in what I do, or in what I accomplish. I have been challenged to preach the gospel to myself again and again, remembering that my value, my identity, the inspiration and strength for all that I may accomplish, is in Jesus Christ. When I am tempted to self-pity because I think my circumstances should be different, I must remember that being part of Christ’s body, having been purchased with his blood, is enough. His joy is enough. His grace is enough. His peace is enough. When I am thoroughly broken of my need to accomplish things for my own sake, my own pride, my own sense of self-worth, then I can serve with sincere gospel motives. When I am able to trust the one who sovereignly and wisely guides my circumstances without protesting, complaining, and arguing as if I know better, then I am ready to accept his plan for my life. Someday I will be called to praise him in the storm. For now, I will sing to him in the lull.
Father, let your Holy Spirit dwell in me that I may reflect the image of your Son with joy, peace and trust as you work out what’s next.
“We think in terms of apostolic journeys. God dares to put his greatest ambassadors in chains.”
- Watchman Nee