One of my favorite scenes from Shrek is where Shrek and Donkey are walking through a farm and Shrek explains that ogres are like onions. And Donkey tries to convince Shrek to go for a more delicious alternative. Cakes! Parfaits! Mmm… now I’m craving some cheesecake parfait from La Madeleine.
I believe that each of our callings are similar in that they have layers.
On the surface, a calling may manifest itself as a job in youth ministry. Or as a volunteer, or as a pastor, or as a businessman or homemaker. But these surface callings are all dependent on the context. Let’s say that American culture collapses into anarchy and our context shifts dramatically. Are we still called to the same surface callings? Probably not.
Because beneath our surface callings is a deeper calling, a heavenly one, that doesn’t change from context to context.
The Core: Calling
I believe that at the heart of our identity, our calling, is the Gospel, the work of Christ on the cross and God’s initiation of a relationship with us. It’s not about our passion, our burden, or our beliefs, but our redemption. In Christ, God has “called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9, ESV). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began…” (2 Timothy 2:9, ESV).
A few years ago I felt compelled to meditate on finding the Gospel in my life. I had spend so much time ministering to others, I had forgotten to stop and let God minister to me. I needed to slow down and identify the saving work of Jesus in my own life.
Our calling isn’t to a job, or to a ministry, or even to a passion, but to a person, Jesus. If everything were to be stripped away from our lives, the one thing that would remain would be God’s call on our lives, saved because he loved us, chosen to be his people, his royal priesthood, his family.
Out of our identity and our calling flows our purpose.
The Inner Layer: Purpose
I believe that God has given a purpose to everyone. This purpose flows out of our calling, but it differs from person to person.
In the past few years, finally out of school and working in ministry, I’ve wrestled with finding a purpose for my life. For the longest time, my purpose was simply finishing school or getting good grades. But with no quantitative evaluation system like grades, it’s been tough to evaluate how I spend my time.
I’m rediscovering my life’s purpose statement. For a while it’s been to challenge and encourage people in their fathwalk, and to help others discover their God-given passion. While I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with these two statements, they are very externally focused. They don’t say anything about Jesus in my life.
The statement that’s been floating around in my head recently actually came from a presentation Tim Ferriss gave at a WordPress conference in 2009, though I just stumbled across it. He said his life purpose was to love, to be loved, and to never stop learning. For whatever reason, this resonated with me. While I can’t speak for Tim’s heart, I do not get the impression that he is a Christian. But the spiritual implications of his statement connected with me. To love as Jesus loved, to be loved by God and by others, and to never stop learning about the world that God has created. What I like about this statement is it shifts the emphasis from what I do to who I am, even if the points in the statement are verbs.
Dave Kraft, in his book Leaders Who Last, offers these practical steps to identifying your purpose:
- Record Bible passages God has applied to your life.
- Reflect on how God has used you in the past.
- Determine what you are passionate about.
- Listen to your known gifts and strengths.
- Delineate what you have excelled at in your work experience.
- Define what action words best describe what you like to do.
- Write down what you enjoy doing in your free time.
- Reread all your answers.
- Take note of common themes.
- Write down key words or ideas that repeat.
- Summarize those key words in a short, energizing statement about yourself.
From a purpose statement, we can then determine our priorities.
The Outer Layer: Priorities
When I was little I didn’t like crust on my sandwiches, so I’d ask my mom to cut off the edges of the sandwiches. (Don’t get me wrong, I love the crust now.) Managing priorities is like cutting off the crust, the things in our lives that demand our time, our attention, and our energy.
Here’s what I’ve learned about priorities: If you don’t make priorities for yourself, someone else will. I can’t imagine how many hours I’ve wasted trying to please other people or fulfill other people’s priorities for my life and in ministry. But I believe that we all need to identify our own priorities and learn to say, “No,” to the things that do not fit on our list. You have to figure out the tasks God has called you to focus on.
One of the most touted principles I see everywhere in leadership circles is the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Principle. In regards to productivity, the Pareto Principle says that 20% of our actions will produce 80% of the outcome.
The challenge is determining which of our actions are the top producers.
Here are some tips on creating and ordering your list of priorities:
- First, list all of your priorities: Things you do, people you care for, etc.
- Which items best honor God’s calling on my life?
- Which items best reflect my purpose statement?
- If I had to reduce this list by 50%, what would still be on it?
- If I had to reduce this list by ANOTHER 50%, what would still be on it? (This gets us down to 25% of our original list, pretty close to the Pareto 20%)
- Which of the items on my to-do list produce little outcome? (Remove or delegate these items.)
By the way, these items are not just work items, but life items as well.
One you’ve identified your priorities, put them on a list and post them somewhere so that you will see them every day. Let your daily to-do list be filtered through this list of priorities. What is most deserving of your time and attention? What will most honor God’s call on your life?
Can you think of a friend …
… who has a job but doesn’t seem to have a life purpose? Maybe your friend is a church worker who’s so focused on their job they forget that their calling should flow out of God’s work in their life. Or maybe your friend is in a corporate setting who doesn’t believe that they can have an impact for Jesus because they’re not in church work. If you think this post would be helpful to them, would you mind sharing it?
What About You?
Do you have a life purpose statement? Or do you have another system you use to determine your priorities? How do you decide what’s important and worth your time?