In my fifties, I looked for a job for the first time in twenty-five years, and it was sobering. I had joined an organization that offered training in building a résumé, networking, and LinkedIn, and in the first meeting as participants introduced themselves and told of their accomplishments, I felt increasingly unaccomplished. Volunteering as a Bible teacher didn’t have the same gravitas as years as a systems analyst or a woman qualified for a VP position or a man with loads of marketing experience. When it was my turn, I gulped and made the best of it. Thankfully, my fellow job seekers were gracious.
“How did we get here?” my husband and I asked ourselves, shaking our heads. Unlike our friends who at this stage of life are approaching retirement after fruitful careers, we left our professional careers long ago. I admit to a little envy. What is it like to feel satisfied with years of growth in a field that you understood was right for you? We continue to wonder.
My husband and I both started working in solid careers; Dan was an electrical engineer, and I was an IT project leader. Most people would have progressed through those careers, learned through successes and failures, grown, and eventually retired. That would have been the expected route for us to take, but one decision at a time, we charted a different course.
When we were in our early thirties, both working and doing our best to juggle jobs and three preschoolers, it became too much. I decided to quit working for a while, and we’d live on my husband’s income alone. We had planned for that option and had bought a house and lived a lifestyle that would work on one income.
Instead of going back to work after a few years, which was my plan, I got involved in a large Bible study that kept my mind sharp and my spirit growing. I was studying the Bible, thoroughly enjoying teaching, and was learning to communicate biblical truth to large groups of participants. I was happy.
Dan, however, wasn’t. He was successful at work, no question, but he enjoyed it less and less. As he rose in management, he felt removed from what he enjoyed doing and disliked corporate politics. Our son once said when Dan was frustrated, “Dad needs something to fix.” He understood that Dan needed to do something useful. Working the politics was wearing on him. Fortunately, the company Dan worked for had done very well and his stock options meant that he could leave his job, and we would be financially solid for quite a while. We thanked the Lord for giving us this option and happily took it.
Those were the glory years. No financial worries, plenty of time to devote to our children, church, community, and it was a pleasure to give generously when there was a need.
I decided to get a master’s degree in Communication and Culture one class at a time. I realized that I loved to learn, I grew spiritually, and I was happily teaching the truth of the Bible. Dan worked for a mission organization for a couple of years, volunteered in several areas, and after prayer and encouragement from many, decided to invest several years toward a Master of Divinity degree. Dan is successful at everything he does, and seminary was no exception. We were both being educated, doing work we enjoyed, and we turned our focus toward new careers in ministry.
Then everything changed.
Leaving Security Behind
In 2008, while we were both in graduate school and had a couple of kids in college, the recession happened. Unfortunate timing. It was unsettling, to say the least, to watch our investments shrink.
Dan wisely encouraged me to face the reality and to trust God. We decided to continue pursuing our master’s degrees, trusting God to provide for us financially and give us opportunities to use our new skills for his glory.
By the grace of God, Dan and I received our graduate degrees and our kids finished college. We got through it, and it was time to get serious about our new careers. We both endured the work of seeking work, which was a new and humbling experience.
Dan looked for a ministry position for two years, with no success. I found it shocking that churches would not invest in a man with the depth of experience and education that Dan offered. I had fifteen years of Bible teaching under my belt, but volunteering doesn’t get much attention. Besides, I am a woman. We broadened our search to non-ministry positions.
Finally, Dan was offered a job as director of operations and finance at World Relief, a non-profit that resettles refugees and serves immigrants, and I took a part-time job at a local high school as a career advisor. God has a sense of humor.
We ask ourselves what that was all about. Were we naïve? Possibly. Did we wait too long? Probably. Ageism is a reality. Did we misunderstand God’s leading? I don’t believe we did. Is it possible that God intended for us to experience this career frustration? Yes, it’s possible.
Dan’s job at World Relief has taught us much about the lives of refugees. Refugees have fled dangerous situations in their home countries and the vast majority of them live in refugee camps hoping that they will eventually be welcomed into a new country. If or when they are, they face tremendous adjustments in learning the language, getting a job, and assimilating into the culture.
My husband and I did something like that with our careers. We are career refugees.
Many refugees are highly educated and left well-established careers behind. Accountants, doctors, engineers, teachers, attorneys, and others must get jobs in their new countries, and often the only jobs available to them offer minimum wage positions for which they are ridiculously overqualified. Some with the language skills go on to further education, while others work their way up from entry-level positions or become entrepreneurs. Refugees have no choice but to build new lives that they never imagined.
As career refugees, we have grown academically, professionally, and spiritually in distinctive ways we may have missed if we had remained in our original professions. We were forced to depend on God financially and for career opportunities, which pounded pride and honed humility. Our lives have broadened, just like refugees’ lives expand as they adapt to a new culture.
But it hasn’t been easy. Deep disappointments that once felt like open wounds have left scars, and we’ve had to deal honestly and prayerfully with our frustration and discouragement. In this fallen world of warped work and broken individuals, millions of families exist in refugee camps and millions more cannot find satisfying work. Perhaps most of us qualify as career refugees in that sense.
Our adventure is not over, and we will continue to adapt, learn, and grow into our new lives. It is still our prayer that we will routinely wake up to days alive with possibilities, and we wait patiently—or not so patiently—for that day to arrive. Refugees’ sagas are not over either, and as they courageously step forth each day in pursuit of new skills, they are a daily demonstration of hope.
The Future of Work
The Bible is subtle yet clear that we will have satisfying work to do for eternity. God gave Adam and Eve the work of caring for the garden before sin spoiled the concept, and when God makes all things new, sin will no longer cause frustration, injustice, lack of ability, laziness, physical issues, or any other reasons that work is difficult in this world.
This raises a question: As we work, will we continue to grow and learn for all eternity? I believe we will and that our careers in this life are simply the starting line. How amazing is our God that we may grow for all eternity and still not reach his majesty?
Ultimately, this world is not the end of our stories. Through Jesus Christ, refugees will one day be home, no matter how long they lived in refugee camps, and career refugees will one day enjoy the work they were created to do.
In the here and now, however, we wait, continue to seek the Lord, and do our finest work even if it’s not what we saw ourselves doing at this stage of life. We look forward to eternity with him who created good works for us to do, in this world and the next.