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