Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Do you have what it takes to find a professional calling?: Lessons from zookeepers and shepherds

When Stuart and I were studying zookeepers’ sense of calling, one thing they told us really struck me. We had a standard interview question: “What would be grounds for divorce from the zoo?” Most zookeepers answered something like, “There is nothing that would cause me to leave this place.” That was a new kind of response for us organizational researchers!

So we started following up by asking: “What if the zoo started neglecting or mistreating the animals? Would that cause you to leave?” The responses to that question stunned me. Here’s one typical answer: “If there was any gross misconduct or animal mistreatment or anything like that, I wouldn’t… leave the zoo because of that. In fact it would make me try and work harder to solve the problem.”

For zookeepers, animals are not their job, but their stewardship. Even if the zoo was grossly negligent, they would stay in their jobs because it is up to them to protect their animals. I don’t think we can really understand what it means to have a calling until we understand stewardship.

I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between shepherds and “hirelings,” as described in the Bible. Ancient shepherds were devoted to each of their individual sheep, even if there were hundreds in the flock. A good shepherd gave each sheep a name, and cared for it so lovingly that it would come immediately when called. The tenderness of that relationship is one of the reasons that Jesus was called the Good Shepherd to His followers. 

But then you have the hireling, which Job describes as a sheepherder that “looketh for the reward of his work” (Job 7:2). In other words, hirelings are in it for the money. They wouldn’t bother to form an intimate relationship with the flock. Instead of beckoning sheep by name, they would rely on their dogs to nip at the heels of the sheep to keep them moving. 

And what happens when the chips are down? Jesus described the hireling’s response to a wolf attack on the herd: “But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep” (John 10:12-14).

Maybe one of the reasons a lot of people feel stymied in their quest for a personal calling is that they aren’t prepared to make the sort of sacrifice and commitment that only a shepherd can understand. Do we see our work as a stewardship – as a "flock" to be lovingly tended? Are we willing to stand up and fight for our stewardship, even at personal peril? Are we willing to forego comfort, convenience, and convention to invest what it takes to be a shepherd?

Callings don’t come cheap! And you don’t get to experience the transcendent fulfillment of the zookeeper or the shepherd until you are ready to give almost everything for your stewardship. 

1 comment:

  1. What appears altruistic in the work of committed individuals (and makes them startlingly successful) really does amount to an alteration of the self. Aaron Miller has a theory that altruism (or a commitment to protect others that sometimes comes at the expense of the self) is really just self-interest (explaining the success of altruistic endeavors in competitive economies). His explanation is that altruism is a choice to extend the boundaries of the self to include others. I believe he has discovered a crucial life truth. I think this is less difficult that we imagine, this stewardship. It's merely a matter of being grateful, which opens our eyes and slows our pace and sharpens our perceptions. We then see the myriad connections of our own particular universes with greater clarity and the boundary of our self naturally expands. Stewardship is one of the 4 basic principles of the poverty alleviation effort I've spent the last year refining. I'm a believer. Stewardship alters us. I'm so glad you write.