ORLANDO, Florida (Mennonite Mission Network) – How should an aunt respond when her 13-year-old niece laments, "I don't know what to do with my life?"
That encounter stunned Tonia Martin, personnel counselor for Mennonite Mission Network, she said during her youth seminar, "Let Your Life Speak," at Mennonite Church USA's July convention.
Martin said she realized her niece's desperation was sparked by a culture that defines success by what one does, rather than who one is. This definition is even encroaching upon Anabaptist faith communities who encourage their youth to share Christ's hospitality through service. As a result, the numbers of young adults participating in Mission Network-sponsored service programs are dropping, Martin said.
She proposed that if you define success from a biblical perspective, most any job could lead to a successful life. "It doesn't matter as much what job you do," Martin said. "What's important is how you do that job and how you live your life outside of your work."
"Following God's call in our lives," she said, "doesn't necessarily mean that there is a narrow, already planned path for you, and if you make a 'wrong' choice about what college to go to or what mission trip to be part of, you have messed it all up. I just don't believe God works that way. I believe God walks alongside us and often directs our paths so that one opportunity leads to another."
To illustrate her belief, she shared Echo Shantz's story. Shantz mows lawns for her day job and does mission and service during vacation time.
"Echo graduated from Hesston College with a degree in early childhood education," Martin said. "But after she graduated, she didn't know where she wanted to be, so she went back home and took a job mowing lawns to give her time to discover God's calling in her field."
"While she waited for more discernment, she taught Sunday school to work with kids. And then she had an opportunity to go to Arizona to work with missionaries' children. That opportunity led to another opportunity for going overseas to work with missionary kids whose parents were going on retreat. As she looks back now, she can see that mowing lawns was not just something to do while waiting for God's call; it was a part of her purpose."
"See ... following God's call," Martin said, "is not really about 'what we do,' but about 'who we are.' Our ultimate calling is to be in relationship with God; it is not necessarily a call to a particular kind of work, but to become a particular kind of person."
Martin told another story, this time about Jackson Service Adventure unit leader, Megan Campbell, who graduated from college with a social work degree. Since she had family roots in Ireland, she flew there in May after commencement. She got a job in a retail shop and lived in a community house.
"She really loved her situation, but started to worry about what she would do when she returned home in September," Martin said. "She cried out her anxiety to God after going to bed one night."
"Early the next morning, she discovered she had received an e-mail from her pastor. He invited her to consider becoming a Service Adventure leader. But to do so, she would have to return home in July rather than in September as she had originally planned."
After some struggle, she accepted the invitation. She realized her sadness over a cramped dream was no match for the joy she felt in being where God wanted her to be.
Martin offers three practical ways to better discern God's call:
- Live your life faithfully today in your current circumstances; find ways to love God and love your neighbor.
- Identify and develop your gifts and talents:
1. Think about who you want to be, who you are becoming, and how you want to live.
2. Listen to wise counsel.
3. Take a gap year between high school and college.
4. Take seriously what you love, and uncover what you are good at, rather than focusing on what you or others think you should be doing.
- Listen for God's call for how to use your gifts and talents, even if it interrupts your own life plans. Learn more about who God created you to be and then live into that purpose.
Martin's thoughts resonated with many of the 75 or so seminar participants, including Justin Burkholder, of Dublin, Pennsylvania, who will be a college freshman this fall. "I have not been sure what I am going to do, so it was good to hear I don't have to know, that I can keep searching."
Erika Stutzman, who will be a high school senior in Hydro, Oklahoma, said, "This seminar has helped lessen some of my stress about my future. … I am glad to know that if I make a mistake, it doesn't mean that it is going to ruin God's whole plan for me."