The myth of a clearly-defined role

I had my first SIL annual review yesterday. I’d had these before with my “regular” job back in the US. My annual review with SIL was much the same – a chance for a check-up, to give feedback, to assess roles and achievements, to express what is needed to more successfully reach goals. This annual review was more comprehensive than just my work, though. We also touched on my physical, spiritual and emotional wellness, balance of “work” and “home life,” my relationships and support network.

I was so grateful to feel SIL’s support through this process, and to have encouraging people above and around me in the organization.

It struck me to go through a process with which I’d become familiar in a “regular” job setting in the current setting in which I find myself. In previous annual reviews, my job title drove the assessment. In previous jobs, what I did at work stemmed from this job title. However, the last year was a world with no job title, at least not in the sense that guided my day-to-day work. It’s a world where having a clearly-defined role is mostly a myth. I knew this coming into it. I expected nothing else. What I didn’t expect was how purposeless it would make me feel, how long it would last, and what I’d learn thanks to the lack of definition.

Oh, I did my best to create purpose and definition. I tried on plenty of roles that I saw others filling, plenty of visions for work here that others offered me. I looked for someone more experienced that I could shadow. I visited several places where the point to it all seemed obvious; “maybe I could just come here where something good is happening and a role would eventually find me,” I’d think to myself. But each of these ideas just turned out to be a false lead, a trail that would dead end. It would become clear that I didn’t belong there.

Our means of drawing self-worth and enjoyment are so often tied to our culture, our home country, and the people who create our support network. When these things are stripped away, we are that much more tempted to draw our self-worth from what we do. But when that is nothing but a big question mark – that is when one’s calling is truly refined, sifted. Looking back, I think the Lord was at each dead end, saying “No, not here. I don’t want you to latch on to this; I don’t want you to find your worth and calling here. I want you to find it in Me alone.”

In doing the annual review and looking back over my “job performance” of the past year, I can say that I’m grateful for a year with no clearly-defined role and a year of what felt like false leads. How can I be grateful for the purposelessness?

Because of what I can honestly say I found in the midst of it: joy and peace.

Since I had no job title and little idea of what I was doing here, I decided to throw myself into the only thing that I could confidently say would not be a waste of time: learning Wolof. My motivation was in large part pragmatic; Wolof has helped me get around this country confidently (something that arguably is a necessity if I hope to “accomplish” anything here!). I found peace in this growing confidence. But I also rediscovered the innate joy which I find in learning and speaking a new language. It is part of how God made me; it is part of the purposes He has for me. Feeling this as I’ve learned Wolof, in the midst of the larger purposelessness, has brought me joy.

Learning Wolof then led me to live with a local family. I wanted to be immersed. I wanted to live in an environment where I couldn’t resort to my French. Again, I was largely driven by pragmatics – living with a family in order to learn their language. In the process I experinced the joy of being part of a family with whom one has little in common yet where one feels comfortable. This added to my joy and peace in the purposelessness.

It was sometime during purposeless month #10 that I began making a realization: the joy and peace I was experiencing in learning Wolof and living with a local family gave me a sense of purpose. Yet, nothing had changed! I still had no job title or clearly-defined role. I was seeing that I could put up with less-than-ideal “work responsibilities” if I still had time to devote to progressing in Wolof and if I was going home to a local family that I enjoyed. By this time, I’d also seen many colleagues whose role or job title changed, evolved, sometimes disappeared altogether. I was learning what a trap it can be to draw one’s purpose from the role one fills.

And so, not long after, when SIL leadership asked me to join the “Basic Wolof Phase 1” team, admitting that they couldn’t tell me what my role or the team’s goals would be, I could honestly respond that it was okay (our first order of business as a new team is in fact to explore and negotiate what the team’s goals and individual team member’s roles should be… but this is a process). I accepted. Now, a couple months later, I can still say that it’s okay, despite the continuing lack of definition. I’ve learned that a clearly-defined role is a myth and that waiting for one is a trap.

Yet I feel a sense of purpose, I should say of God’s purposes here for me, as I continue to learn and use Wolof, as I search for another local family among whom I can be both myself and a member of their family. My work with the Basic Wolof Phase 1 team is not what gets me out of bed each morning, but I’m hopefully filling a need that my leadership has asked me to fill, doing it with joy and peace and purpose.

I’m grateful for “check-ups” like annual reviews; they give us cause to reflect and look back at what we’ve learned. And this annual review was more significant than ones I’ve done with past jobs, because it offered important perspective over the past year, often muddled and foggy for me. I would sometimes say to myself, “Just take one day at a time. And one day, maybe the fog will lift a bit and you’ll see the reason, the purpose.”

There are still plenty of foggy days, when my purpose for being here isn’t obvious. But I can say that the God who has purposes for me has drawn me closer to Himself, which is better than any job title achieved.


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