Career and Calling, For Better and Worse

Mandy: To say that my entire family was relieved when I completed my most recent book project is an understatement. I am not someone—for better or for worse—who takes stress in stride. It seeps into every nook and cranny it can find and then oozes out onto those I love the most. So it would be fair to say that my husband, Chad, was the most relieved of all. 

He had moved heaven and earth for me to have the time and space to complete this project. He did the grocery shopping, the cooking, and the cleanup; he drove the car pool, remembered the soccer snacks, and sent back the school forms on time (well, most of them). Best of all, he did not expect some kind of medal for doing it. He did it because it was what had to be done and because he is the father to our two children. He did it because navigating a marriage between two academics means you sometimes bear more than your fair share of the burden. This was not the first time that he had set aside his own ambition to let me chase a goal. 

It is not always easy for me to allow Chad to sacrifice his ambitions for mine. I feel judged by a world where women are still expected to be the ones who do most of the sacrificing, especially when it comes to careers. And of course, there is my own psychological drama, as I stumble into latent guilt that I cannot do it all or have it all.

These were not feelings or expectations that I recall thinking about as a kid. Instead, it was as if I somehow learned, intuitively, that my career would take a back seat to my husband’s. I saw this modeled in the evangelical world in which I was reared, where language of submission and modesty applied exclusively to the wife and implied that her will must be sublimated to that of her husband. Indeed, her very body was a source of temptation for all men, and thus she was responsible for not causing her brother to stumble, to paraphrase the oft-quoted Romans 14:21. As might be expected, this notion of men as the leaders who had the final say and women as potential tempters extended to other male-female relationships such that girls could internalize that boys were superior or, to use the language of evangelicalism, that men and women were equal but were created for different roles.1

My decision to attend Judson, a Baptist women’s college in Marion, Alabama, opened a whole new world for me, one in which I was given permission to be my whole self. Beloved professors taught me that feminism was not a dirty word, cultural biases needed to be confronted, and reading widely and carefully was a key to success. I embraced leadership opportunities and tried on new ideas, including the notion that women could be ministers too. 

There was no going back into the box of evangelical womanhood after that. Graduate school only solidified these ideas as I read and studied and lived. This led me to study the relationship between religion and the Miss America pageant as I sought to better understand some of the contradictions of evangelical womanhood, to wrestle with how women shrouded in lessons on modesty were thrust into the public eye in bikinis, all in the name of evangelism.2 

My faith grew, too, and this expansive faith afforded more possibilities for service, leadership, and influence. It also presented the possibility of Christian marriage as a true, complete partnership. But even if I didn’t fully know it at the time, the trappings of evangelical womanhood and the guilt that accompanied it were hard to shake. Even when I acted strong and confident, I still struggled to accept my ambitions as acceptable. As it relates to career and calling, this meant that I had internalized that my career would follow that of my husband if I chose to get married. If moves were necessary, it would be because his job demanded it.

My actual husband felt differently. This shouldn’t have surprised me, as Chad and I entered into our marriage intent on an equal partnership. Both sets of parents walked us down the aisle to be married. I kept my name, and he kept his. We shared the housework and childcare and any number of things that broke from gendered expectations. My guess is that far more marriages operate this way, even in evangelical circles, than is acknowledged. 

Marriage is complex and it involves sacrifices and compromises by both parties in service of the commitment, yet the fact that he was a couple of years ahead of me in his career, coupled with the gendered view of career that was deeply ingrained within me, meant that the thought of him following me was a bridge too far. Chad always said that he would follow me if I landed my dream job. It was a nice sentiment, but I laughed it off, never believing I would actually ask that of him. How could I? We were happy working at the same institution, even with what I believed to be a limited ceiling for me at the wonderful small college where we were employed. Two spouses at the same institution—this was the dream, right?

As Chad received calls asking him to throw his name in for this position or that, we began to imagine that we might be up for a move. Indeed, it was when Chad was pursuing one of these leads that I found the advertisement for my current position. The more I read and learned about the job in the Ministry Guidance Program at Baylor, the more excited I became about the position. Together, Chad and I began to wonder whether we were not thinking broadly enough about how we might find our way back into the world of Baptist higher education that was so central to our stories and callings, back into the denomination that felt like our home. Both Chad and I grew up Baptist, attended Baptist colleges, and were involved at the Baptist House of Studies at Duke. We even met in a Baptist polity class. Our identity as Baptists is pretty central to our lives, and it had become our dream to serve at a college like the ones we attended and give back to the Baptists who had helped shape our faith. Perhaps I was the one who could get us there. Baylor, as the largest Baptist university in the United States, was also the perfect place for me to achieve my dreams. And because it was so large, we hoped that both of us could find a place there. We decided it was worth a shot, even if that shot seemed like a long one.

I was shocked when I was offered the position. I was shocked when I found myself accepting a job halfway across the country that would require Chad to leave his job as a chief academic officer, especially since there was no guarantee of a job for him at Baylor or even in the city of Waco. I was shocked and yet my interview and campus visit, followed later by a family visit, left me incredibly excited. Chad saw that excitement, the ignited spark, and he recognized that I needed to be somewhere that I could regain my confidence, to be at a place where there was no question that I had earned the job. 

I cannot express how grateful I am for the miracle of love that Chad offered to me in those moments. He never wavered. Despite the significant risk to us all, as we were leaving two jobs for one, he embraced the next adventure and believed we would make it work. 

And we have, with God’s help. But juggling marital roles—the work of parenting, running a household, and pursuing a vocation—is never easy, especially when both partners are situated in production-oriented careers like academia. Our marriage and work life is an ever-evolving dance that requires constant communication to ensure that both partners feel supported, appreciated, and, just as important, never stuck. To be sure, this is the case for many marriages, whether between Christian academics or not, and that recognition itself is tremendously important. The particularities of our situation are not so special that others have not dealt with them successfully, building lives together that honor whole people and a whole marriage.


Chad: Mandy followed my career for the better part of a decade, owing solely to the chronological accident that she followed me by two academic years. So after a solid decade of determining which path we took, it seemed only fair for me to follow, at least for some time. We prioritized Mandy’s career in our most recent move to Texas, but that does not make me a martyr. 

Mandy’s success is our success. What makes a marriage is not the anniversary dinners or the sweet cards; it’s the dirty dishes done and the trash taken out, the diapers changed and tantrums (temporarily) quelled. Our marriage is the result of years of shared burdens and common joys, which includes creating a common sense of vocation. 

Cultivating such a shared vocational vision is no small task, especially for the two of us. Both Mandy and I were identified as gifted growing up, got pegged as leaders in college, and felt affirmed in that Sesame Street sense that we were unique. I believed then, as I sometimes do now, that God had something special for me, if only I could discern it and others would recognize it in me. I distinctly recall in college believing that those friends of mine who were settling down and finding their partners were doing something banal, whereas I was striking out and doing something unique and courageous by heading to grad school. 

You might think that arriving at Duke Divinity School and discovering that 90 percent of my classmates were planning to earn their doctorates to be professors might force some serious introspection regarding my assumption that I had special work to do, but, dear reader, you would be wrong. We were all special, God bless us. I share this part of my story only to show that there is a great deal in our society that militates strongly against a sense of shared vocation, including in the modern academy. If you believe too strongly in your divine mandate to go do something vital to the advancement of God’s kingdom, it can sometimes be a little difficult to figure out what role another person, even your spouse, has to play in it. Professors in church-related colleges who listen to their students will recognize the relatively innocent narcissism of our hyperindividualistic society instantly. We deal with a steady stream of well-meaning students who are desperate to know what God’s will is for their lives. This important search for a divine will masks the self-importance of the one searching. When I interacted with these students, I was often glad to hear them trying to place their lives into some kind of a theological framework, so I always attempted to treat the question with the utmost seriousness. But I also confess that I sometimes found it wearisome, and I took to answering their concern by paraphrasing Micah 6:8: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. The rest, I would say, is just the details that you can figure out on your own. 

The devil, of course, is in the details, as our students and those of us trying to manage dual academic careers know quite well. And these students come by their desire to know God’s will for their one wild and precious life honestly. God’s promise, first told to ancient Israel in exile, that the divine knows the plans he has for you, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you” (Jer. 29:11 NIV), becomes a sort of challenge. The trick is to find out what God’s secret plan is.

The extreme individualistic impulses of the wider social narcissism found expression in the evangelical faith in which Mandy and I both grew up, a faith that values the individual profession of faith above all else. “Every tub must sit on its own bottom,” Zora Neale Hurston said, and although I didn’t know it, I believed it to my core. E. Y. Mullins’s notion of “soul competency,” so important in the moderate Baptist tradition on which I was weaned, was the sine qua non of my faith in Jesus. “Religion is a personal matter between the soul and God,” Mullins famously declared, and I surely believed it.3 I decided to follow Jesus, and no one else could do it for me. Never mind that I was eight years old when I decided to become a Christian and that my mother led me in the sinner’s prayer by my bedside late one night in my fourth-grade year. It was not a coercive moment, but then again, it was not a decision I made entirely alone either, thank God, and it was this theological realization that led me to rethink the idea that I was an island unto myself, discrete in my decisions and vocation. Of course, like all truly compelling ideas, it is one with which I still wrestle today, particularly when I think about sharing my life and at least parts of my vocation with my wife.

Of special importance in this regard is the notion of corporate personality, an idea first popularized by the Hebrew Bible scholar H. Wheeler Robinson, who describes the ancient Israelite sense of corporate identity in which the many function as one through individual representatives of the larger entity.4 This idea functions theologically to suggest that we are never only ourselves, but we are instead always a composite of the communities in which we find ourselves. I am never so separate from my parents as I think I am, for example. Likewise, in our marriage, Mandy and I together form a unity in which the self is not wholly subsumed, but in mutual subordination. We also do not serve only the self but also the God who has brought us and is still bringing us together. This triune God also exists in perichoretic relationship, so that we have an example of corporate personality to which we can aspire in Christian wholeness. 

That all sounds lovely, of course, but I am a pragmatist, and there are still questions on the ground, so to speak. How does one navigate, on the one hand, the ideas of the sacredness of the individual, their rights, and the idea that God has something very special for me to do and, on the other hand, the fact that we have chosen to be together, to try to build a marriage and a family that serves ends our own individual callings could never serve? And if I drop the theological pretension for just a moment, how can we be happy in our individual calling and happy together trying to fulfill those individual callings? I know that happiness is not always guaranteed in life or a marriage, but neither would it seem necessary that embarking upon a career in higher education together ought to entail the sacrifice of one’s vocation for the fulfillment of the other.


Chad and Mandy: Our mutual vocation has indeed been a good one—not perfect but deeply rewarding—in part because we have learned in our marriage that our individual selfhood is not diminished by virtue of our marriage. Rather, our individual vocations are rightly ordered beyond our selves and the limited career ambitions we might have on our own. Together, we can push each other to move beyond the gender norms so often associated with men and women to their individual and collective detriment. In our marriage, we are thus more ourselves than we could ever have hoped to be. Our selfhood, rightly understood, allows us to act for each other in ways that will not make sense outside of a particular Christian theological framework of mutual submission. We are, in short, both a unity and a diversity of parts.

Of course, this sounds lovely in the abstract, but in practice, dual careers are challenging, particularly in academia. Academic search committees are charged with filling a single faculty line in a departmental budget, not crafting a sustainable life for two similarly called individuals who are married to one another. The onus rests on individuals to figure things out for themselves. Sometimes this looks like underemployment for one spouse when the other lands a tenure-track position. Sometimes it means that one spouse makes the jump to administration so that they can work at the same institution. Sometimes faculty couples choose a commuter marriage so that they can both chase their career dreams. 

We decided early on that living in separate states was not something we wanted to do. So when Chad landed a tenure-track position at Huntingdon College out of graduate school, it meant Mandy left in the middle of her doctoral program to research and write her dissertation three states away from her academic community. A year into their time at Huntingdon, a member of the religion department left, which opened an opportunity for Mandy to teach. Eventually she was hired into a tenure-track position as well. Chad had been tapped for academic administration, and we settled into our new roles. In many ways, both of us thought we were set and that we would be in Montgomery, which was near our families, for a long time. Only a job at a school like Baylor, where we could be back in the Baptist world, could lure us away from a reasonably settled and contented existence. 

Huntingdon actually had a number of faculty spouses. This, of course, can present its own issues for a small faculty—overrepresentation in a single department and the appearance of nepotism, for instance—and yet small schools seem more likely than large universities to value family commitments and to view academic couples as an asset. These schools seem to appreciate the way a professorial duo will put down roots and invest in a place, and in some cases, these schools see it as their Christian vocation to invest in families rather than simply the dollars and cents of a bottom line. Moreover, since women are still more likely than men to leave a position for their spouse, spousal hires assist with the retention of female faculty members. The opposite strategy of rarely if ever considering spousal hires can be equally discouraging. More to the point, when one member of a faculty couple is unsettled, both are constantly on the job market, a merry-go-round that leaves little time to take on the extra service that is at the heart of institutional life.5

Whether a spousal hire is made or not, it can be difficult to be the trailing spouse—a phrase overdue for a merciful death—regardless of that person’s gender. Although the psychological effect of trailing is surely different for different people, it is probably safe to say that the surrender of occupational control is not typically a confidence booster. Sometimes, even when an academic spouse is eventually hired at a school, it can be difficult to shake the feeling that the position wasn’t earned. Conversely, for spouses who are not hired or considered for positions for which they are qualified, it becomes natural to question their decision to move with their partner to the new city. 

Thankfully, and somewhat miraculously in our case, Chad landed an administrative position at McLennan Community College in Waco as dean of Arts and Sciences only a month after we arrived in Texas. It is work that is challenging, rewarding, and in certain respects a more direct educational ministry to students who are in need than similar positions on offer in church-related institutions. Nevertheless, it is different work than that for which he trained, and at times we wonder whether the nine years he spent in graduate training for Hebrew Bible was necessary at all. But he has found an academic home worthy of his full attention, and he works with gifted colleagues who do important work, even if it is different from what he imagined doing after graduate school. 

These strategies of underemployment or privileging one person’s career for a time can result in job dissatisfaction or multiple career moves for one or both individuals. It can mean missed opportunities as one partner chooses not to apply for prestigious fellowships or better-fitting jobs (even when invited to do so) because getting them would require residency in another state. It can also put incredible stress on a marriage as spouses are continually negotiating whose goals take priority, leading to resentment if the needs of both partners are not considered frequently.

The key for us has been to determine what we are willing to do (e.g., move for one person’s ideal job) and what we are unwilling to do (e.g., work in two separate states) and to then communicate often and openly about how we are feeling vocationally, including our career frustrations. At times, this has involved dreaming together and creating shared goals that might be possible at some later date. Perhaps the list of things we’re willing to consider will grow when we no longer have children at home. Perhaps not. Even in the most egalitarian of marriages, and we count ours one of those, there are seasons when one’s individual desires and goals are not the most important consideration. Perhaps as Christians this communal aspect should come quite naturally. It doesn’t always. Since both of us are Baptist Christians, juggling commitments to individual conscience alongside the goal of shared calling can be challenging. Nevertheless, for us, such intentional discernment has been worth the work. Do we wish that we could both be working in our primary field of study with time and resources for research and writing to boot, with exciting scholarly and administrative work on the horizon? Absolutely. And that day might yet come. But for now at least, such a scenario has not fully materialized. We are as vainly ambitious as the next wife or husband, more interested in being heard than hearing, more interested in making sure our needs are met than in meeting those of others. We want to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of hyperindividualism and the absolute sublimation of the self in marriage, but we find ourselves at turns swirling down the drain or crashing against the rocks. On those occasions, we tend not to think about notions of corporate personality. We think instead of our shared history and the communities that bind us, and then, if we’re wise, we offer to do the dishes or tackle the never-ending pile of laundry.


Source: The Other Journal

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About Chad Eggleston amp Mandy McMichael

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