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Through the years, I have had hundreds of LDS women talk to me about feeling lost—lost in terms of their direction in life. Most have testimonies of the Gospel and serve faithfully in Church callings, but many of these sisters are going through transitions in life and feel a “void” that they often struggle to describe. For example, some have transitioned into first marriages and others into second marriages. Some are navigating the transition of becoming stay-at-home mothers after the birth of a child, while others have recently experienced their youngest child entering first grade, middle school, or high school. Some sisters have recently become empty nesters and have never experienced being home in such a “quiet house.” Many women have worked part-time for years and are transitioning into full-time work, while others are considering going “back to work” part-time or full-time after being homemakers. In addition, many Utah women struggle as they return to college after a significant break, to deal with the complexity around divorce, or to cope with the illness or death of a spouse. I’ve also met sisters who are retiring after a lifetime of both raising family and having paid employment. And a few of them have told me they now have little interest in cooking, doing crafts, and cleaning house all day.

Sisters in all stages of life and in any type of transition seem to be searching and yearning for some type of worthwhile work (paid and unpaid) that motivates and inspires them to learn, grow, love, and contribute. Women want to thrive but doing so is more complex than onlookers often assume. I’m finding more and more faithful, contributing sisters in the Church who yearn to use their heads, hearts, and hands in new, meaningful ways. Yet, many women struggle to find that path. They ask questions such as: Should I drop out of college when I have my first child? Is it bad to have desires to get a master’s degree while I have children still at home? Can I go back to college with elementary school-aged children and still be viewed as a “good Mormon mother”? Should I wait to engage in the community or workplace until all my children are raised? Why am I feeling depressed now that I’m staying home full-time with my children? Why am I feeling restless now that I have retired? How can I use my education and voice in my phase of life to make a stronger difference in the world? Overall, many women are asking how they can find more peace, meaning, and purpose in their lives.


My Experience

In my local and statewide work, I have found that nearly all LDS women I meet strongly believe that “mothering” (defined most often as raising and nurturing children) is the greatest and most important calling they can have in life. I wholeheartedly believe this myself. However, it has become apparent to me that many sisters believe it is their only calling in life. (As you may have discerned, we are talking about “life” callings, not Church callings.) Unfortunately, I have discovered that, for some sisters, this perspective leads to restlessness, perfectionism, rumination, shame, depression, focus on appearance, eating disorders, a belief that they are not loved, and/or even self-loathing. And, when women are in some type of transition, these feelings may even escalate. Yet, I would argue that the Lord has several or even many life callings for women in the Church, with “mothering” being the most important.

For several years, I have been exploring the intersection of women, leadership, and “calling” as one way to raise women’s aspirations to influence and lead. I have discovered that for women in religious or secular settings, “calling” can be incredibly powerful. It can be a motivator to find meaningful work (paid or unpaid, inside or outside the home). In fact, “calling” drives the work that I choose to do every day at this stage of my life—I’m an empty nester. I feel called to do work as a mother, spouse, Church member, professor, writer, and women’s leadership researcher and advocate. This sense of calling gets me up each morning with energy, drives my daily decisions, and brings me peace when I face challenges. Because I firmly believe I am doing God’s will in my home, workplace, and community, I feel hope. Although I am far from perfect and have endured painful struggles with some of my children, this meaning, purpose, and call propels me forward.

I tell you this so you will understand how deeply and personally I feel about women finding the various “callings” they have in life to serve, influence, and impact others in unique, beautiful, and bold ways. When LDS women seek and discover their callings, they can serve our Heavenly Father in ways they may not have considered. As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated,

God sent you here to prepare for a future greater than anything you can imagine. . . . God knows of your successes. . . . He knows of the times you have held onto the fading light and believed—even in the midst of growing darkness. He knows of your sufferings. He knows of your remorse for the times you have fallen short or failed. And he still loves you. . . . He loves you not only for who you are this very day but also for the person of glory and light you have potential and the desire to become. [1]

Calling or a “Call”

Over a decade ago, a USA Today poll found that if people could ask God just one question, most would want to know, “What’s my purpose in life?” [2] Researchers [3] have found that people long to do work that is meaningful, that makes a difference, that needs to be done, and that helps them experience a sense of calling in their work. Religious and nonreligious literature alike discusses the notion that individuals want to believe there is something special within them and that they have some type of life mission to discover and fulfill. [4] Although many people are unsure about what that might look like, they still feel driven to prepare for and accomplish this work or mission.

The term “calling” was coined in 1522 by the German theologian Martin Luther. [5] His view, which was different from that of the Catholic Church at the time, was that everyone—not just religious leaders—had a calling from God. He believed that both religious and common occupational work could hold spiritual significance. [6] Luther thought that this sense of being called could help motivate people to serve their neighbors and communities more effectively. Calling for women was also addressed during the Protestant Reformation, but it focused primarily on motherhood. [7] Calling in this context took on a special meaning particularly for women because the role of motherhood held spiritual connotations. Luther gave wives and mothers hope that they were fulfilling the Lord’s work by being in those roles. Importantly, this reformation provided at least some initial space for women to think about how their roles may be viewed as callings from God.

Calling has often been used interchangeably with the concept of “vocation,” which involves living a life of meaning and purpose. [8] In fact, the translation of the Latin word vocare is “to call.” [9] It was believed that a vocational call was “a summons from God” to use one’s gifts in the world, “whether it be within paid employment, the home, or volunteer activities.” [10] These terms often refer to a “sense of purpose or direction that leads an individual toward some kind of personally fulfilling and/or socially significant engagement,” often with references to God, a sense of passion, or giftedness. [11] A well-accepted formal definition of calling in the scholarly literature is as follows:

a transcendent summons, experienced as originating beyond the self, to approach a particular life role in a manner oriented toward demonstrating or deriving a sense of purpose or meaningfulness and that holds other-oriented values and goals as primary sources of motivation. [12]

Scholars [13] have clarified that the identification and application of calling is a lifelong process, not something an individual discovers one time only. Rather, it includes an “ongoing process of evaluating the purpose and meaningfulness of activities within a job and their contribution to the common good or welfare of others.” [14] The same scholars also argued (referring to paid work) that everyone potentially has one or more callings, and that it can be in the context of any legitimate area of work, not just religious, teaching, or social service careers. Calling is also a dynamic phenomenon and can change depending on life circumstances. [15] For example, a call may be slightly different when a woman has young children living at home, and it may evolve as the children grow and move out of the home. Also, a call may change based on a woman’s preparedness (e.g., education, experience, and self-understanding).

Several years ago, I did a thorough literature review [16] on the studies that found workplace benefits related to employees who felt called to the vocation in which they were employed. These benefits included better job performance; heightened job satisfaction; increased organizational citizenship behavior; greater life satisfaction; better psychological well-being (less depression and anxiety, increased happiness); heightened sense of identity; enhanced adaptability; lower absenteeism; increased self-confidence; clearer sense of identity; greater meaning in life; increased social connectedness; satisfaction of fulfilling God’s plan; deeper career engagement; heightened sense of contribution and worth; self-clarity and firmer career decidedness; increased positive workplace attitudes; decreased boredom; greater energy, enjoyment, and vitality; stronger capability to manage temporary setbacks or failure; deep psychological satisfaction; and increased self-awareness, self-efficacy, and resilience. One researcher also found that “people who approach their work as a calling have a career that engages them at a deep level and provides them with a highly valued sense of contribution and worth in their work lives.” [17] I argue that many of the elements or benefits discussed in the last few paragraphs can also apply to individuals in their unpaid work (e.g., homes, wards, and communities).

Literature [18] more generally discusses the important connection between a call and one’s interests, passions, motivations, talents and strengths, skills and abilities, personality traits, openness to call, commitment, courage, gifts, and love for work. Christian researchers [19] (friends of mine) have found that, particularly for women, the “recognition and embracing of personal gifts, talents, and strengths that enables individuals to contribute to the good of humanity” is central for women to both “hear” and “accept” life callings from God.

Overall, scholars [20] have found that a strong sense of calling lies at the core of meaningful work for many people, and individuals are increasingly seeking deep meaning in their work. Parker Palmer has said, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.” [21] And, as Frederick Buechner asserts, true vocation joins self and service in “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” [22]

Researchers have found that millions of people around the world are seeking for greater purpose. So doesn’t it make sense that, with the doctrines and revelation available to us in the Church, LDS women—especially those navigating major life transitions—would also have a desire and need to seek clarity around their own callings and purpose?


Teachings of Church Leaders

Our Church leaders have talked to women about the importance of preparing to contribute in a variety of ways that relate to calling and purpose. Since most LDS women are already familiar with the teachings and quotations around the importance of motherhood, I will share compelling quotations that help women—and those who influence them—understand the significant calls women may have in other life domains as well.

LDS leaders have made numerous statements about the importance of education for women (and men) to prepare them for a variety of roles they may have in life. For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley stated,

It is so important that you young men and you young women get all of the education that you can. The Lord has said very plainly that His people are to gain knowledge of countries and kingdoms and of things of the world through the process of education, even by study and by faith. Education is the key which will unlock the door of opportunity for you. It is worth sacrificing for. It is worth working at, and if you educate your mind and your hands, you will be able to make a great contribution to the society of which you are a part, and you will be able to reflect honorably on the Church of which you are a member. My dear young brothers and sisters, take advantage of every educational opportunity that you can possibly afford, and you fathers and mothers, encourage your sons and daughters to gain an education which will bless their lives. [23]

In 2004, Russell M. Nelson spoke to BYU students and stated: “[P]repare to do work of real worth for your fellowmen. This is one of the fundamental reasons for enrollment at this institution of higher learning. The critical difference between your just hoping for good things for mankind and your being able to do good things for mankind is education.” [24] And finally, speaking specifically to women about their education as it relates to paid employment, M. Russell Ballard recently stated:

Get as much education as possible and plan on being employed sometime in your life after college. . . . At the same time, prepare for marriage and family. Some women will choose to work and raise a family. Others will need to work because that will be the only way to support themselves. Others may not need to be employed because their husband can support the family through his income. Some married women will become single through the early death of a spouse or because of divorce, so they will need the skills to support themselves and their children in such a situation. My basic counsel is to not delay marriage because of educational goals. You can accomplish both with hard work, sacrifice, and planning; in fact, with a companion’s support, you can be even more successful. [25]

Through the years, Church leaders have also spoken about the responsibilities and callings given to sisters in the Church to make significant contributions in a variety of ways, and I will share three. For example, in 1974, Relief Society General President Belle Smith Spafford stated,

I think one remarkable things is the tremendous changes that have taken place in the social, economic, industrial, and educational life of most countries in the world since Relief Society was founded. And I don’t think any change in the world has been more significant than the change in the status of women. At the time the Relief Society was founded, a woman’s world was her home, her family, and perhaps a little community service. Today a woman’s world is as broad as the universe. There’s scarcely an area of human endeavor that a woman cannot enter if she has the will and preparation to do so. [26]

Second, Elder Marvin J. Ashton once stated:

This is a day when serious-minded, clear-thinking women are needed to promote a climate of peace, harmony, and righteousness in community life. Let such women work together to create an atmosphere in which the problems of our society can be resolved by reason, respect, and concern for all people, and by esteem for that which has traditionally proved conducive to mankind's happiness and well-being. [27]

I’m not sure exactly what “well ordered” means, but I know it doesn’t mean “perfect.” And, finally, President M. Russell Ballard in the April 2018 General Conference stated that

Church members—both men and women—should not hesitate, if they desire, to run for public office at any level of government wherever they live. Our voices are essential today and important in our schools, our cities, and our countries. Where democracy exists, it is our duty as members to vote for honorable men and women who are willing to serve. [28]

In reference to the influence women can have in the world more broadly, two of my favorite quotations from years past include those by Presidents Hinckley and Hunter. In 1985, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley said,

I have often thought that if great numbers of the women of all nations were to unite and lift their voices in the cause of peace, there would develop a worldwide will for peace which could save our civilization and avoid untold suffering, misery, plague, starvation, and the death of millions. [29]

And, President Howard W. Hunter made this statement in a session of General Conference in 1992:

There is a great need to rally the women of the Church to stand with and for the Brethren in stemming the tide of evil that surrounds us and in moving forward the work of our Savior. . . . As we labor with our might to minister to needs in the same caring way that our Lord met those of the women of his day, so we entreat you to minister with your powerful influence for good in strengthening our families, our church, and our communities. [30]

For the women of the Church to make the impact discussed in these previous quotes, I would argue that each sister needs to discover her callings and then rediscover them again through life transitions. I often advise women to explore and understand how their unique personalities, backgrounds, education, experiences, insights, talents, and gifts have prepared them to do God’s work in a variety of settings (and not necessary all at once). Each woman’s callings are unique and different. All women may not be called to speak in front of thousands of people or run for public office; God also needs women to transform souls, families, and communities through quiet and profound moments, hours, days, or longer intervals. We are all different, but we are expected to get out of our comfort zones and contribute. As Relief Society General President, Mary Ellen Smoot stated,

Truly, we may each be an instrument in the hands of God. Happily, we need not all be the same kind of instrument. Just as the instruments in an orchestra differ in size, shape, and sound, we too are different from one another. We have different talents and inclinations, but just as the French horn cannot duplicate the sound of the piccolo, neither is it necessary for us to all serve the Lord in the same way. [31]

While celebrating our differences, Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson also noted that we still need to be one. She stated, “We must stop concentrating on our differences and look for what we have in common; then we can begin to realize our greatest potential and achieve the greatest good in this world.” [32] Hence, we should not judge the decisions of other sisters. We should value them, love them, support them, and serve them. We don’t know what God’s call is for the sister who lives next door or a sister who lives in another state or country. A woman’s call from God is her own.

So, what do I say when a sister says she feels lost, in a void, and is seeking new paths, passions, and purpose? I say, let’s rejoice together because it is an exciting time for you. God can use you in different ways when you are transitioning from one stage to the next, from one hardship to the next, from one success to the next, and from one personal revelation to the next. Our Heavenly Father needs strong, faithful women more than ever in His Church.

In 1987, Sister Patricia T. Holland said, “Every one of us has privileges and blessings, and every one of us has fears and trials. It seems bold to say, but common sense suggests that never before in the history of the world have women, including LDS women, been faced with greater complexity in their concerns.” [33] And, in the last two decades the complexity has increased by leaps and bounds. With this complexity, as Sister Oscarson has said, “The Lord needs us to be brave, steadfast, and immovable warriors who will defend His plan and teach the upcoming generations His truths.” [34] Each of us as sisters (and brothers, too) have unique calls from God. And, we need not let socialization, expectations, cultural norms, and fear of judgement from others dictate how we prepare and contribute our efforts, both in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in the world. Feeling “lost” in transitions is a sign that God needs you in new ways, and discovering your next call from God can truly change the way you impact your marriage, family, ward, community, state, nation, and the world.

NOTES:

[1] Uchtdorf, D. F. Living the gospel joyful, Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/10/living-the-gospel-joyful?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[2] Brennfleck, K., & Brennfleck, K. M. (2005). Live your calling: A practical guide to finding and fulfilling your mission in life (p. 3). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. [Back to manuscript].


[3] Smith, G. T. (2011). Courage and calling: Embracing your God-given potential (p. 31). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; Steger, M. F., Pickering, N. K., Shin, J. Y., & Dik, B. J. (2010). Calling in work: Secular or sacred? Journal of Career Assessment, 18(1), 82–96. [Back to manuscript].


[4] Brennfleck, K., & Brennfleck, K. M. (2005); Madsen, S. R. (2016). Leadership responsibility and calling: The role of calling in a woman’s choice to lead. In S. Kempster & B. Carroll (Eds.), Responsible leadership: Realism and romanticism (pp. 89–107). Oxon, UK: Routledge. [Back to manuscript].


[5] Tunheim, K. A., & Goldschmidt, A. N. (2013). Exploring the role of calling in the professional journeys of college presidents. Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 10(4), 30–40. [Back to manuscript].


[6] Oates, K. L. M., Hall, M. E. L., Anderson, T. L., & Willingham, M. M. (2008). Pursuing multiple callings: The implications of balancing career and motherhood for women and the Church. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 27(3), 227–257. [Back to manuscript].


[7] Oates, K. L. M. et al., (2008). [Back to manuscript].


[8] Madsen, S. R. (2016). [Back to manuscript].


[9] Brennfleck, K., & Brennfleck, K. M. (2005). [Back to manuscript].


[10] Brennfleck, K., & Brennfleck, K. M. (2005, p. 7). [Back to manuscript].


[11] Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2009). Calling and vocation at work: Definitions and prospects for research and practice. The Counseling Psychologist, 37(3), 424–450 (p. 427). [Back to manuscript].


[12] Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2009, p. 427). [Back to manuscript].


[13] Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2009). [Back to manuscript].


[14] Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2009, p. 429). [Back to manuscript].


[15] Tunheim, K. A., & Goldschmidt, A. N. (2013). [Back to manuscript].


[16] All scholars for each mention are cited directly in the summary of literature found in Madsen, S. R. (2016). [Back to manuscript].


[17] Steger et al. (2010, p. 91). [Back to manuscript].


[18] Madsen, S. R. (2016). [Back to manuscript].


[19] Longman, K. A., Dahlvig, J., Wikkerink, R. J., Cunningham, D., & O’Connor, C. M. (2011). Conceptualization of calling: A grounded theory exploration of CCCU women leaders. Christian Higher Education, 10(3–4), 254–275 (p. 258). doi 10.1080/15363759.2011.576213 [Back to manuscript].


[20] E.g., Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2009); Hall, D. T., & Chandler, D. E. (2005). Psychological success: When the career is a calling. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(2), 155–176; Steger et al. (2010). [Back to manuscript].


[21] Palmer, P. J. (2000). Let your life speak: Listening for the voice of vocation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass (p. 16). [Back to manuscript].


[22] Buechner, F. K. (1973). Wishful thinking: A seeker’s ABC. New York, NY: Harper & Row (p. 119). [Back to manuscript].


[23] Hinckley, G. B. (1999, June). Inspirational Thoughts. Ensign. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/ensign/1999/06/inspirational-thoughts?lang=eng -- [Back to manuscript].


[24] Nelson, R. M. (2004, January 7). Reflection and resolution. BYU Speeches. Retrieved from https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/russell-m-nelson_reflection-resolution/ -- [Back to manuscript].


[25] Ballard, M. R. (2017, November 14). Questions and answers. BYU Speeches. Retrieved from https://magazine.byu.edu/article/questions-and-answers/ --- [Back to manuscript].


[26] Spafford, B. M. (1974, June). Reaching every facet of a woman’s life: A conversation with Belle S. Spafford, Relief Society General President. Ensign. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/ensign/1974/06/reaching-every-facet-of-a-womans-life?lang=eng&_r=1 [Back to manuscript].


[27] Quoted in DeHoyos, G. (1982). Stewardship—The divine order (p. 105). Bountiful, UT: Horizon. [Back to manuscript].


[28] Ballard, M. R. (2018, April). Precious gifts from God. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2018/04/precious-gifts-from-god?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[29] Hinckley, G. B. (1985, October). Ten gifts from the lord. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1985/10/ten-gifts-from-the-lord?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[30] Hunter, H. W. (1992, October). To the women of the church. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1992/10/to-the-women-of-the-church?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[31] Smoot, M. E. (2000, October). We are instruments in the hands of God. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2000/10/we-are-instruments-in-the-hands-of-god?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[32] Oscarson, B. L. (2014, April). Sisterhood: Oh, how we need each other. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/04/sisterhood-oh-how-we-need-each-other?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].


[33] Holland, P. T. (1987, October). “One thing needful.” Ensign. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/ensign/1987/10/one-thing-needful-becoming-women-of-greater-faith-in-christ?lang=eng&_r=1 --- [Back to manuscript].


[34] Oscarson, B. L. (2015, April). Defenders of the family proclamation. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2015/04/defenders-of-the-family-proclamation?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].



Full Citation for this Article: Madsen, Susan R. (2018) "Navigating Transitions for Women: Finding New Calling and Purpose," SquareTwo, Vol. 11 No. 2 (Summer 2018), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleMadsenTransitions.html, accessed <give access date>.

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