by Angie Ward
For many years as a female leader, I wrestled with what it looked like to balance multiple areas of calling on my life. I had been called to vocational ministry when I was a single young adult. Then I went to seminary, got married, and had kids. At our church at that time, many well-meaning people told me that my calling to my family automatically replaced other areas of calling, but I had an inner sense that their advice didn’t fit. My call to vocational ministry was just as strong. God had not released me from it. Instead, he had added areas of responsibility and calling: not just marriage and family, but now also doctoral studies. Each felt just as important to me.
However, in the male-dominated ministry world I was familiar with, I had only seen one model of following your calling. In this model, your life was dedicated to a single track, a single pathway. You figured out the right track, and then throughout your life, you would just stay on that track. And if you got off that track, you weren’t able to get back on it, or to make up for lost time or progress. But I didn’t know how I could possibly stay “on track” with all the passions, gifts, and callings before me.
I desperately wanted someone who could show me what it looked like to be a woman pursuing vocational ministry while also being fully engaged as a wife and mother. I prayed every day for over a year for God to give me a mentor who modeled this diversity.
Then, one weekend at the wedding of some friends, a woman sat down next to me and introduced herself. “I’ve heard so much about you,” she said, “I’d love to hear your story.” As we chatted excitedly it was as if God slowed things down and drowned out all the rest of the noise around us and spoke directly to me: This is the person you have been praying for for the past year. I got chills.
At the end of a weekend filled with conversation, I asked her if she’d be willing to mentor me long distance. We began what she called an “intergenerational friendship” where we emailed regularly and talked about leadership, family, ministry, women’s roles and more. She was just ahead of me in lifestage and I soaked up every piece of wisdom from the stories she shared.
So often, mentoring is as simple (and profound) as being willing to share our stories with those who come after us.
In one email, she shared a metaphor that one of her mentors had shared with her years before:
Don’t think of your calling like climbing a ladder; think of it as tending a garden.
Her words immediately struck a chord: I could visualize my studies as one part of a garden, my young kids as another, my marriage as another, and vocational ministry as yet another. When I thought of my life as a corporate ladder to climb or a track to pursue, I’d worried that tending to my family meant I would get “off track” professionally and miss my opportunities, or that choosing ministry would mean neglecting my family. But reframing my life as a garden meant I could allow some things to lie fallow or grow quietly while I tended to other things, and then come back to them later.
Having a mentor name these tensions brought relief I hadn’t known I’d needed. Andy Stanley wisely distinguished between things in life that are problems to solve versus tensions to manage. The complexities of my life and leadership were better seen as tensions, not problems. And they didn’t need fixing, they needed wise tending.
Even with the “garden” analogy, the fear that I’d gone off course was still real. As my children got closer to graduating from high school, I found myself wondering if there was any life left in the scrubby, dehydrated plant of my career, or had I missed my chance? I felt like I was in the darkness. But as I sat with my spiritual director during that time I sensed God saying, “Why are you trying to push through this darkness? I have given you this time as a gift so you can rest and prepare for what’s next.” The darkness that I first felt to be discouraging and disorienting was actually the darkness before dawn.
God has proved to me once again the truth of Ephesians 3:20, that he provides abundantly more than we can ask or even imagine. The plants in my garden that I thought were dead had only been dormant. As my kids moved out of the nest, I have been able to cultivate other areas of the garden, and God has even provided some new seedlings that are now taking root.
There is a season for everything, and he will make everything beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:1,11).
My calling as a leader, mother, minister and wife is to faithfully tend the areas of the garden which need attention now, and trust the Master Gardener to bring the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7).
Angie Ward is a ministry and leadership author, teacher, learner, and thinker. She currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Denver Seminary, and is the author of I am a Leader: When Women Discover the Joy of Your Calling.