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Committing—After the Adventure is Over

After graduating from college, I had all kinds of hopes and aspirations. I wanted to change the world.

My first job was working as a writer for a nonprofit organization. I thought it was a short-term commitment, because everything I had done up until that point in my life was. A semester abroad, a summer in Texas, a year on the road—these were my ideas of commitment.

It didn’t take long, though, to realize this opportunity would be different. I was about to learn a painful, but important, lesson about commitment. And it would be years before I would be able to start thinking about my own dreams again. 

If I had known this going into the job, I wouldn’t have taken it.

My first work project was to launch an online magazine telling missionaries’ stories. This was followed by a short-term mission trip to Mexico, where I would be cataloguing stories of young people who were traveling the world. I was certain this 15-day trip would spark another season of adventure in me. I envisioned Machu Picchu. The Great Wall of China. Africa. All in the same year. This was going to be amazing. Maybe I would even write a book about it some day.

But I was rudely disappointed. Instead, all I got were spreadsheets, trips to our Georgia headquarters, and a new, shiny, $500 Dell laptop. Hardly the adventure I expected.

So, what kept me there? It wasn’t the paycheck (I had to raise my own salary). It was the opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself, to be led by vision and opportunity. Sure, I didn’t get to participate in crazy, round-the-world journeys like I had in previous seasons of life, but I got something better: a chance to serve someone else’s dream.

The concept of apprenticeship is largely lost in American culture today. These days, young adults don’t have the opportunity, like previous generations had, to come under the leadership of a master craftsman. This is a foreign concept to most of us—at work, in our families, even at church. Instead, we offer lots of education with little application, followed by high expectation. No wonder we have a generation of Peter Pans, wandering through a series of short-term commitments and slow to grow up.

That first year of work, my job was hard. I was supposed to virtually “follow” (via email and the Internet) a group of 50 missionaries around the world and tell their stories. When I told people what I did, almost every person asked me, “Oh, that’s great. Do you get to travel?” “No,” I would tell them, rolling my eyes. “I get to do something better. I get to write blog posts.” I was only being half sarcastic. Part of me really enjoyed what I got to do. But part of me longed for an adventure. 

Selfishly, I wondered why I didn’t get to be part of all the amazing experiences I was reporting on. Until one night I had a dream. 

I dreamed I finally got to go. I visited one of our teams in Africa, and my boss, Seth, was there. I showed up unexpectedly, hoping to be greeted with smiles and high fives. Instead I received strange looks, and Seth said, “Jeff, what are you doing? You shouldn’t be here.” I frowned, but shrugged off the discouragement. I went around to the different groups telling them how I was there to join them in the work they were doing. 

But each group I approached received me in the same way: “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here!” So, I turned around and headed home. Apparently I had a different role to serve. I woke up sweating. Five years later, the dream still lingers.

Since then I’ve gotten to travel some, but my life most days is filled with phone calls, email and meetings. From the outsider’s perspective, it looks normal. But for me, it’s one of the most fulfilling things I could do in this season. I do it for a few reasons. One, I’ve learned that an adventure is not an end to itself but a means to something bigger. Two, when work feels mundane (because it probably is), I remind myself that I am disciplining myself—learning to put off short-term gratification for long-term joy. 

In serving my boss and submitting to his leadership (which I trust), I get to see firsthand what a dream realized looks like. I get to understand the complexities of running an organization, leading hundreds of staff, and still keeping your heart and soul grounded in what matters most. Sometimes, it’s a discipline, but most of the time, it feels like a gift. And I consider it preparation for what’s to come.

My friend Alece Ronzino knows the power of commitment; she’s lived it like few have. She helps nonprofits tell their stories, but she didn’t always do that. For over a decade, she lived as a missionary in Africa, working with a ministry called Thrive Africa that she started. All of this began with a trip to rural Botswana when she was fifteen. The two months she spent there changed her life. 

Sounds typical, right? Kid goes on a short-term mission trip, feels guilty for having so much privilege and promises to make a difference. Thousands of American teenagers and young adults do it every year. But what happened next was anything but ordinary. Alece did what few of us do: she decided to go back. She decided to do the hard work of committing to a cause and paying the cost to actually see it through.

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Alece was 19 years old. And for the next decade, she served as a missionary in Africa, helping empower local leaders to make a difference in their own communities. She is an inspiration and challenge to so many young people who want to make their lives matter. This is the cost: doing what she did by giving her life away.

Alece was wrecked by her first visit to Africa, but it was in the staying that the transformation took place. Change always happens when you come down from the clouds and deal with the messiness of life. When you turn a mission trip into a lifestyle. When you walk past someone who is poor and in pain and actually turn around. Real transformation happens when you commit.

Every time I lead a mission trip, I hear the same vows from teenagers (and sometimes adult sponsors, too): “We’re going to come back next year!” “We’re going to adopt this community!” “We’re going to pray for you every day!” 

Those are all great promises, but they aren’t decisions. You can’t make a decision on the airplane—up in the air where cabin pressure is low and you’re not thinking practically. 

Real decisions are made the way Alece made hers. They’re made when you step off the plane.

About the author: Jeff Goins is the communications director for Adventures in Missions. He’s also a blogger, author, and speaker. His first book, Wrecked: When a Broken World Slams into Your Comfortable Life, comes out Aug. 1, 2012, from which this article is excerpted. You can follow him on Twitter (@jeffgoins) or on his blog.

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