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July 26, 2022

Aligning our abilities with God’s purposes

By David L. Odom

David L. Odom joined Duke Divinity School in August 2007 to launch Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and now oversees all of its programs and publications, including Faith & Leadership. He regularly teaches and facilitates events and both writes and solicits content for Faith & Leadership. In addition, Odom develops and supervises select initiatives at Duke Divinity School, where he serves as an associate dean. Before coming to Duke, Odom was the founder and president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C., which supported healthy communities of faith through consultation, leadership development, interim ministry training and vocational discernment. Odom, who was an adjunct professor at Wake Forest Divinity School, has extensive experience in program development and evaluation, staff and adjunct faculty development, and strategic organizational management. He also plays a leadership role in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary.

iStock / VCandy

Understanding how we make a difference in the world can be crucial to hearing our call, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

How do you make a difference in people’s lives? What are the contributions that you make over and over across circumstances and situations?

In a world reshaped by COVID-19 and the ongoing unjust treatment of so many, articulating those contributions can be crucial to navigating the turmoil. Describing your difference can engage an internal compass that guides vocational discernment.

Many people had to slow down in the midst of responding to the viral pandemic. For some, the change of pace provided a chance to reflect on what they were accomplishing and what it required of them. Such reflection has prompted three of the six directors with whom I work to resign their jobs over the last 18 months. Each is starting something new — personally, professionally or both.

According to data gathered by the Pew Research Center, most of the people who quit in the “great resignation” of 2021 were responding to difficult conditions in their jobs. They cited factors like low pay, no opportunities for advancement and feeling disrespected.

Whether motivated primarily to start something or to leave something, many people are changing jobs and adjusting lifestyles to pursue a safer and more fulfilling life. These decisions in turn affect those of us who don’t resign, as we figure out how to get the work done, which positions to replace and which to let go. We are all compelled to ponder how best we might allocate our limited time. In other words, all of us are in a process of reinvention.

Even if no one is leaving our organization, the ways we work are shifting. The function of physical offices is unsettled by questions about ongoing remote work. Inflation and supply disruptions are causing all of us to adjust and readjust. We have all learned to respond to continual change.

This doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. A white male in the U.S. typically has protection from precarity that a Black female does not. Some immigrants might feel threatened to the point of constant vigilance. For the most vulnerable, the experience of incessant instability and feelings of powerlessness can last a lifetime.

Yet even in the midst of this disruption and injustice, there are truths we can count on, grounded in God’s love for us and our work in God’s world.

We are each and all created in the image of God. Humans fail to recognize the inherent value of some, but God sees the value of all. We are all called to seek the justice that the Creator intends.

We would do well to study Jesus’ encounters with people. Over and over again, Jesus sees the possibility for restoration. He knows the value of a child’s packed lunch and the gift of perfume. He also confronts those who work their wealth or piety to their own advantage.

When viewing every person as a manifestation of God’s image and recipient of God’s gift of redemption, I find myself focusing more and more on the difference that I see others making. I recognize acts of kindness, words of wisdom and thoughtful critique as part of a pattern of engagement that defines a person’s contributions.

The difference a person makes is distinct from a specific profession or career trajectory. Most jobs include such a mix of responsibilities that few do every aspect well. This is particularly true when leading people is involved. There are no perfect leaders.

Yet I observe all sorts of people in all sorts of jobs making a difference. Some are very good at getting work done. Given a clearly defined role and sufficient resources, they complete the task at hand. Others are excellent at encouraging others. They lift the spirits of everyone they meet — co-workers, participants, service providers and more. Some are strategic. They see the implications of plans. They are two or three steps ahead in anticipating the effects.

One of my gifts is breaking big problems into small, achievable steps. I collaborate well with visionaries that have a need to make progress on significant challenges. This is not so much a job as a way of working.

I believe that each of us has a calling, an urging from God, a way through life in which we participate in what God is doing in the world. For most of us, that calling is related to this notion of the role we can fill. A calling is God’s invitation to align our abilities with God’s purposes.

As a teenager, I experienced what my church knew as a “call to ministry.” Both the church and I understood this to be a call to be a pastor. As I grew up, I prepared for this service in school and in congregations. I learned that being a pastor to a congregation is so complex. As with many leadership roles, no one masters all its aspects.

I have learned over a lifetime that my calling is tied to the life of the church but is not tied to a specific job. I am good at some aspects of being a pastor and mediocre at others. I have learned that the difference I most frequently make is accompanying people in discerning their vocation and its related calling.

I have had the privilege of such accompaniment in all my various jobs, from pastor to consultant to supervisor to advisor and teacher. My contribution across roles is related to being able to break big questions into those actionable steps.

In a season of much organizational chaos, I realize that any job that includes the chance to accompany people is a good opportunity for me to live out the calling I first articulated as a teenager. In this moment, I have to look underneath the position to the work that is required. How might I make a difference in that work?

What is the difference that you make? What compliments and affirmations do you receive? How do these contributions align with the opportunities (and work) before you? How do they express the fruit of the spirit identified by the writer of Galatians — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? Discerning the answers to these questions can help you decide which of the multiple challenges before you to take up.

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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.