The View from 40 years in campus ministry, Part 2 of 5: The Heart of Your Calling

Rick Mattson Devotion, Leadership 6 Comments

(Part 1, “The Heart of the Minister,” is here.)

Photo by Edurne Tx on Unsplash

Finding your niche inside your chosen field shouldn’t be that hard, but it often is.

My colleague Paul Tokunaga serves as a leadership coach. His advice is:

  • In your 20s, experiment. Try everything available to you at work.
  • In your 30s, narrow the field. Focus on the two or three things you do well and that bring you joy.
  • The rest of your career, stay with your strengths and build on them. Don’t get distracted by opportunities or work-responsibilities outside your strengths (if possible).

I didn’t exactly follow Paul’s advice . . .

I began my InterVarsity career as a front-line staff at St. Cloud State University, then dabbled in management for five years before returning to campus, where I thrived for a decade at Hamline University and Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.

By now I was in my 30s, supposedly narrowing the field and focusing on my strengths.

When the opportunity to serve as Regional Director for three states came up, I took it.

I was OK as an RD. But RDs tend to be very practical thinkers, whereas I’m one to walk around with my head in the clouds most of the time. You can’t really lead from there.

And I was missing my first loves of theology, evangelism, philosophy, abstract thinking . . . debating atheists.

I lasted 8.5 years in the RD slot.

Then, in 2009, a major turning point. InterVarsity invested in me by hiring a professional consultant, Bill Tiffan, to put me through a battery of tests. I was already in my early 50s and hadn’t quite yet “narrowed the field,” professionally.

Mr. Tiffan made his recommendation to InterVarsity: Go ahead and grant Rick Mattson his request of becoming a traveling evangelist/apologist to campuses around the country.

There was only one problem. I had no invitations to “campuses around the country.”

At the Urbana Missions Convention in 2009 I ran into some students from Sonoma State University. We got talking. I told them I was an itinerate apologist, and they said, “Maybe you should come to our campus.” Yes, maybe I should . . .

Six weeks later I flew into San Francisco and met my ride out to the college, which is 70 minutes north. Suddenly I was in wine country. When I walked on campus I was taken to an evangelistic meeting that was being held in a small auditorium.

I sat down behind a woman who was listening intently to the message up front. She was responding to the invitation to receive Christ as her Savior, but also seemed a bit confused. I invited her to the back of the room for a chat, and it was there she came to understand the gospel more completely, and became a follower of Jesus.

First gig. First student. A conversion to Christ. Not a bad start to the new job.

Since then I’ve worked at 80+ different campuses (many repeatedly) as evangelist/apologist/trainer, and even returned part-time at Macalester for a few years for a second tour of duty.

Looking back on four decades, I’ve come to believe two things:

  1. Serve where needed: Sometimes you serve in a slot that is not ideal, and that is OK. You may have to gut it out. It may become a labor of love. God has you there for a reason, and there is no guarantee or entitlement that you’ll land in your perfect vocational or ministry niche.
  2. Eventually, find your slot. Having said #1, don’t get stuck, if possible. Move to your ordained slot in the kingdom of God. Work in your areas of strength. Do what gives you joy — if God gives you that privilege.

Myself, only 20 years late to “narrowing the field” to my sweet spot in ministry. Better late than never!

Next week, 40 years in campus ministry Part 3: The Heart of Road Work.

Comments 6

  1. Hey Rick – #1 above is very hard. Especially when someone is open to finding out why God has them in a place (or in my case, a certain job). But when the reason hits you on the head and you actually affect a life, it is well worth it. Those moments provide true joy.

    1. Post

      That’s a good point, Craig. Even if you’re not in your perfect slot, God can use you, and the testimonies of those affected can be quite encouraging.

      I keep thinking of churches in countries of persecution, where not every Christian enjoys the luxury of finding their perfect sweet spot in ministry. You just serve wherever you can. Sometimes I think the call to “find your perfect niche” is a bit of an Americanism — America, where we easily feel a spiritual entitlement to land in the ideal job. Many of us have done just that, which is wonderful. I’m thankful to be one of them. I just want to stop short, however, of making this a presumption before the Lord.

  2. Our professional lives rarely follow a predictable path. Often we select from options that arrive, serving wherever we are. When we are restless, we look for ways to realign to the familiar, if we can. Or remake ourselves (if we can).

    I find a cyclical frame of renewal about our life and professional journey more useful than a linear progressionistic frame, like the one you begin with. Sometimes when we hold a linear progression of ‘how things ‘ought to be’, that mental map become a kind of trap for us. For example, a tool of our inner critic to chatter in our heads about how we aren’t doing things the “right” way.

    I suspect you were right where you were to be all along the way, Rick. And, observing you all 40 years, impacted the Kingdom for good at every step.

    1. Post

      Hey thanks, Mike. I never mentioned anything about remaking yourselves, which you helpfully point out. I remember doing a “remake” as I entered leadership of a wide territory. In that case it worked OK but I noticed most of my new work practices were “learned” behaviors, not necessarily native to my main abilities and motivations. Still, those were useful skills I picked up. I’m just so glad I finally ended up in theology and evangelism, which feel so natural — like a great golf swing (I’m still working on that!).

      And your thought about a cyclical framework does seem freeing, where we eventually return to our roots after a few hopefully helpful detours. I found those self-critical voices quite active in my head as I cast about to find the right ministry lane.

      And thanks for the good word!

  3. Hey Rick, I am re-reading all your posts in this 5-part 40-year retrospective piece. And I find this one, on the heart of your calling on the need/desire to find the “sweet spot” most helpful. I totally agree with Mike above, as I find myself cycling through various stages of discernment in landing the next gig, even in my 70’s. For example, I “experimented” at being a regular, Sunday to Sunday preacher when I said yes to an intermin ministry call to pastor two empty-pulipt churches in rural Wisconsin. I lasted 2+ years until we all agreed it was not a good fit anymore. Therein, I gutted it out, doing things I was not good at, but I learned that their need is not your “calling.” in this regard, I lean on Frederich Buechner. A good way to think about calling, Buechner suggests, is as the intersection between your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger. According to Buechner, calling involves both a look inward and a look outward. And I am still exploring that, looking both inward and outword.

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      Thanks, Dietrich. You’re a bit ahead of me in age, and I’ve wondered what I’ll do in retirement someday. I’ve been polling my retired friends and getting a variety of responses, from “stay active” to “don’t retire from something, retire TO something,” to “just rest — you’ve earned it,” to “save your money . . . ”

      I’m not there yet but the topic of calling is boomeranging on me as I look to the future. Will I find my “retirement calling” (sweet spot), someday? Thanks for sharing your journey.

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