Contexts and Constraints: Integrating Life, Work, and Faith

This week, Dr. Reyes talks with Dr. Michaela O’Donnell about her journey from a small town in the Midwest, through the American South, out to Los Angeles, then returning home to the people and places that nurtured her. The foundational love of family coupled with extensive wandering allowed Michaela to find new experiences and perspectives that she carries with her in both family and work life.

Season 4: Episode 2

Vocation is a call to belong

Michaela’s current work as executive director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary allows her to help leaders across industries think about how they can show up in their work in ways that graft onto God’s redemptive mission in the world. She believes that spiritually formed leaders can and do change the world.


Patrick: It's Dr. Reyes here from the Sound of the Genuine. If you are enjoying this show, please do us a favor - Give us a five star review. It helps get this podcast in to other listeners ears. 

Today we have Dr. Michaela O'Donnell who's the executive director of the Max De Pree Center of Leadership, where she oversees the center's vision, strategy, program and team. All with the goal of helping leaders make a redemptive impact through their work. She's also the author of a book I love, Make Work Matter: Your Guide to Meaningful Work in a Changing World. This book helps people discern their purpose and call and it's just a gift. So I can't wait for you to hear this interview with Dr. O'Donnell. 

All right, now I am glad you joined us here on the Sound of the Genuine to tell your vocational story. Now we've just been connected about a year, from the first time we had a conversation. I know your work. I've read your work. I am really curious though how you got there. And so do me a favor, do our listeners a favor, take us back to the beginning. Who formed you? What was the community like? Who loved you into being?

Michaela: I love the question and I love your work. I use your work, Patrick, with all of my students, and this idea of who formed you, not just what or where formed you, I think is really significant and inviting. So thanks for inviting me to do this and thanks for asking me such a good question. 

I come from Irish Catholic families in the Midwest. I'm an only child and if you go to both my parents' side of the family, each of them is one of nine. A lot. Yeah, lots and lots of people. And so I grew up around a lot of people and in big spaces. And like on my dad's side of the family, we couldn't do Christmas at anyone's house because there were too many of us. We had to rent out like the fellowship hall in the local Catholic church. So just very, very big families. I am very close with both my parents. It’s sometimes what happens when you have an only child, also the daughter of divorced parents and lots of dynamics that play out there.

When I was, oh goodness, about 10 years old, my grandparents ended up moving in across the street from my mom and I. And my grandpa, he had dementia, and the move was an unhelpful catalyst that everyone was thinking it would be helpful, but it was just the opposite.

So he didn't live in the home, and so that meant it was me and my mom and my grandma. And my dad was very active in my life, but not living in the home and access to all these other people that I just painted a picture of. But right there in the very daily rhythms, it was me, my mom, and my grandma.

And my mom would often send me across the street - go mow grandma's lawn, go do some chores for her. And she was older, right? When she moved in, her hands weren't functioning in the ways that…I was just able to take on some of those household things and she was like able to do less of 'em and we were kind of like entering that space together.

And she was a woman of the garden and I am not a woman of the garden. I did not evolve into woman of the garden, but I was literally just her hands. So she would be sitting inside during the day, not able to kind of like do things she wanted to do. She'd look outside and she'd have like a rosebush that was driving her crazy.

So when I’d come over, I'm like, “hey grandma, what can I help you with?” You know, hoping the list was short and I could go back and do like whatever middle school and then eventually teenage kids wanted to do. But she’s like, Michaela, I need you to move that rosebush. And I was like, Oh, okay grandma. I got it. And I'm like, where do you want me to move it? She's like six inches to the right, Michaela. She's like, it's driving me crazy. I need it to be moved. And so I spent a lot of time learning to move things six inches to the right and to fiddle. When my friends were doing their things, I was literally pushing a mower in my grandma's backyard.

And just one last little bit of the story. I would be, again, trying to rush cause I was trying to go do whatever I was gonna do and toward the end of mowing the lawn or moving the rose bushes, she'd holler out the back door like, “Michaela come on in when you're done.” 

And she almost always when I was taking on one of these bigger projects, would have like, made some of her famous cookies. And she’d put 'em out on the table and then we just sat and talked. And that's when I learned about her early career ambitions. I learned about her boyfriends. I learned about dancing, you know, and she grew up as a depression era kid in the Midwest. And that relationship really shaped my vision of the good life. So much so that I, actually as a 39-year-old married person with two children, just picked up from Los Angeles, California and moved back to Omaha so that my babies could have those same kind of moments with their grandma.

So when you ask about the people that formed me, that I got lots of family, lots of people, but what's on my mind these days, just like the women and particularly generations of grandmas.

Patrick: That's so beautiful and what were…I guess both your dreams and your grandmas dreams for you as you were sharing cookies, as you were your grandma's hands [that] was just a beautiful image. Yeah, what were you dreaming together as you kind of moved into young adulthood? What were some of those aspirations for young Michaela?

Michaela: One thing that's so interesting, and we talked about this and I think your work is really good here, is that most of the imagination that she was helping cultivate in me were through her own stories. So she told me a lot of stories of when she was a teenager, all the things that she wanted to do, some of which she got to do, some of which she didn't get to do.

I call myself a third-generation woman entrepreneur. My mom owns her own business. I own and ran my own business for 10 years, my husband runs it now. But my grandma was the kind of woman - she had, again, nine kids. My mom would tell the story of people sort of traipsing through a living room that was dotted with small children, in their business suits, to get to my grandma because she ran a bookkeeping business out of her house.

And so when she was telling me stories, she was telling me those stories. She was telling me the stories of like how good she was at work actually, and how much she loved work. And I got to see her in grandma mode. I got to see how much she loved her kids, how much they all loved her. This is the woman that people, you know, rushed to be by her side in final days. Like might we all live a life that people run like to be with us in our final hours, right? But I got to see that kind of like family love on display all the time. But when we were there, she was telling me stories about work. And so she was shaping in my imagination that I was gonna be a person who loved my work and my family. And so did she ever say, ‘Michaela, I hope for you that you go on to have this kind of career, that you have kids and that you figure out how to integrate those two?’ No. But did she paint a picture of me and did she like plant those desires in my heart? Like, absolutely.

Patrick: So what do you do with that? I mean, what do you do with that kind of foundation of strong work ethic? You know this deep love of family, like you can do both. Where do you take that?

Michaela: Yeah, I mean, that's where I gotta go to my mom and my dad, right? They both owned their own businesses, started their own business, do well for themself. Both came out of…they had nine kids. Like it was hard. It was hard living in families with nine kids, there wasn't always enough to go around. They both did well for themselves and like never missed a game and were always at my stuff. So that was modeled for me - that work was important but that it bent around family and that if there were choices to be made, you chose the family. But that they, in the best-case scenario, being good at one made you better at the other. So being a good business owner and managing a team of 15-20 people, helps you know how to help your kids deal with conflict and work with people who are different.

And being a parent who says like, “No, I'm gonna be at the soccer game,” helps you prioritize and focus. Like where's my attention at work really need to go and what's not mine to do? And so that was modeled for me by both my parents, handed down from my grandma. And so it's the same for me. You're entrepreneurial. You think about innovation a lot, as do I. I think a lot about context and constraints. We can be the most creative when we’re clear-eyed about our contexts and constraints. Where exactly are we planted? What are we doing? What are the boundaries there? And to use those as the creative guardrails, nothing otherwise. 

I’ve got two kids, a seven-year-old and almost four-year-old. They are like creative constraints like in a really helpful way. And they dial in, like what am I gonna say yes and no to in my work life? And then also I get to bring that over to them and help pass down this lineage of people shaping imagination about how to integrate life and work and faith. And now I’ve come to call that a sense of vocation. I feel like I’m still working that out. Probably be working it out for the next 30 plus years, Patrick. But that’s kind of how it comes to bear in me.

Patrick: I hear this move to community. You have it. A strong sense, you're your grandma's hands, very young. You're now back in that space. There's this gap of time in between when you move away. And for folks who have a strong sense of community, who are deeply connected to their kinda local context, tell me about what was that decision like? When did you make that to move away for a while and what'd you do in that time? Who helped you make that decision to do that?

Michaela: Well, I ran away Patrick. Like the affection that I speak with now like comes on the backside of a lot of dealing with my stuff and letting other people help me deal with my stuff.

The daughter of divorced parents, and I won't get into all the dynamics cuz that's not the point of this conversation, but as an 18 year old person, 17 year old person making the where am I gonna go to college decisions, I was ready to get outta dodge. I just wanted to go as far away as I possibly could go.

And so I played softball and I knew that that could be a ticket for me. I was good enough at softball that that could get me to college. And I think I googled, I mean, I'm old enough now that I don't know if it was googling, but somehow I was on the internet and I was looking for where might I go. And literally researching, just investigating, getting curious. And I found this place that was about 30 minutes away from a place that one of my aunts had told me about, Chattanooga. 

So basically, I like picked it on a map and wrote the coach and was like, hey, I'd love to come play there. You know, some other schools had been trying to get me to go there and so like when this coach got my email, she was like, yeah, come do a tryout, come on down. And that door just kind of opened. What I did not know at that point, is that it was a school that was living out of and birthed in the Pentecostal tradition.

And I've already said that I grew up Irish Catholic. And so Irish Catholic in the Midwest, headed to a Pentecostal school in the American South, that was different for me. And when I went on the college tour, they gave me the athlete tour, which was not the like ‘we're going to chapel and talking about the Bible classes and all the stuff’ tour. It was the, ‘here's the field and here's the fun and well come do this thing.’ So I ended up there and it was a pretty radical season of me encountering God in a new way amongst different kinds of community - friends, learning communities. It's maybe one of the things that implanted a love for learning inside of me. Maybe that's always been there, but it sort of cemented that at least. 

So, softball team, college sorority, the places that you make sense of yourself. I went on after that and did some kind of things that people call gap years now. I didn't have the language for it. Like I thought I would end up going to do an MBA or go to law school like, all right, I wanna be part of solving the big problems in the world. And I think law and business are the levers by which people can do that. And that is not the invitation that I felt from God. Even though I was sort of, you know, came to faith and vividly in a Pentecostal environment, I wouldn't always describe myself as having Pentecostal ‘hearing from God’ inclinations at this point in my life, but I did. It was like, just keep studying the word, keep studying the word. So I ended up with a Masters of Divinity and a PhD in Practical Theology from Fuller Seminary. And that, as you can imagine, was like a whole new season of my vocational journey and discovery. But that was birthed out of a sense of running away.

Patrick: The physical commute between where you grew up to Fuller, the cultural commute from your home community to your college community to this new context. Tell us about what it's like to hold those two worlds together in one person, in one body as you're coming into yourself in vocation, how you're finding meaning and purpose. Tell us about how do you hold those two worlds together? 

Michaela: Yeah. So Irish Catholic in the Midwest heading to the American South in a Pentecostal environment out to Fuller Seminary, the city of angels and dreams in Los Angeles. I love Los Angeles. It is just a city that. . I have nothing but love for, I mean, maybe I don't love the traffic, But just the holy and sacred noise of a lot of different ideas, hopes and dreams - dreams, to use your language, communities colliding into one another and all that comes with that. The invitation to listen and to grow and to learn. Los Angeles is a city for dreamers and for curious people and for people who love people, all of which I am. So now like each of those experiences have to come with me. 

I'm a, you know, white Irish girl from Omaha, Nebraska, shaped by Catholics, my Catholic grandma, who told me to move rose bushes to the right or left, that then went and did that and had to deal with people who maybe didn't understand Catholics in the American South and then all the way out to Los Angeles, a city in which I'm like, oh, I feel like I can fully…I can come alive in some ways that I haven't been able to. And then just recently making a decision to circle all the way back, to come home, to come home to Midwest. But to bring all that with me and to bring those perspectives and those values, and also to see how even like home has changed.

Like I've changed in 20 years and it's changed in 20 years. I've not changed in 20 years and it's not changed in 20 years, right? These, these movements. So I just like to collect all that and bring it with me.  So now I, I’m trying to be faithful to the very specific community I'm in but with this journey that I've been on as a primary agent in shaping how I show up where I'm at.

Patrick: And it's expressed in your work and research, which I just absolutely love cuz it's centered on work. It's an explicit tie that so many of us make implicit or just try not to think about. Like work does take up a lot of our time. That's where your energy, focus has been. How do we think about work in the context of holding all these things together? So can you tell us a little bit about what does that work look like? What does your work look like and how do you make sense of it? 

Michaela: So one of the largest vocational themes for me has been the journey of placing and thinking about my response and our response to God primarily as one of a sense of belonging, before one of doing. But the undoing of that, okay, my call is not a job call. Work is a place where calling plays out and is a dance partner - work and vocation are dance partners, right? But they're not the same thing. So my work is a place that that sense of belonging plays out, my sense of who I am. This person formed by my grandma and the American South and the city of Los Angeles.

Yes. And theological education. And now my work. I'm the executive director of the Max Depree Center for Leadership, and I'm assistant professor of Marketplace Leadership at Fuller Seminary, and my work is largely to help leaders across industries think about how to be spiritually formed leaders. How to show up to their work in ways that graft onto God's redemptive mission in the world.

I mean, I talk with people who have so many people entrusted to their care, and I'm like, okay, you got a lot…like a lot of power. Like how do we steward that power for the sake of all the people entrusted to the care of this place and this organization and us and the kingdom of God? I spend a lot of my time doing that. So yeah, I've got a book that talks about vocation and meaningful work and how those integrate. And at the De Pree Center we've got cohorts and programs that take people through those. And I've got a really, really dynamite team, that's just like making this work possible.

So that's what I'm doing and most of my time is spent talking, teaching, leading a team, trying to figure out how we can cast that imagination a bit wider. And so just going all the way back, just to draw the through line - a person shaped by like the up-close, proximate relationships of grandmother, but who's had to live and make sense of my own life in some different places, and then carry that with me to be joining in what God's doing in the world, wherever I'm at. So that's a very like, long answer. I mean, if you ask me, like for the elevator pitch, I'd say, yeah, like we're in the business of spiritual formation for leaders because we think spiritually formed leaders like absolutely can change the world. So that's what I do for my work now.

Patrick: So many of our listeners and folks who engage in FTE's work think about leadership or have a very kind of narrow lens of ministry. So it only kind of exists within the pastorate or within the, you know, the confines of a congregation. But what your work does it really expands that, saying that you can find this, you know, broader, and if you're a leader of an organization or a for-profit institution. Tell us a little bit about how vocation shows up in these spaces that maybe FTE listeners haven't really had the opportunity to expand their imagination to include those spaces. What does vocation look like to a business leader or a lawyer? For folks who are coming through your leadership programs?

Michaela: Yeah, that's a great question. I think it's pretty innovative, if you will, to use a common word, that Fuller Seminary about 25 years ago was like, how do we steward and leverage the resources of a seminary for the sake of leaders across industries? Not just the leaders that will come and get formal pastoral training.

And you and I know that the church is totally changing and I'm not gonna get into data and try and like wade into an area that I'm not totally able to go, so I'll speak in generalities for the sake of conversation. Both with the decline of white mainland mainline denominations and the rise of all kinds of intersectional expressions of the church, particularly with leaders of color, like what do we even mean by church now? And like I have people who come to me and they're like, Yeah, my parish is the realty company that I own. And yeah, like the place where I get to live out my calling to belong to Christ is in the business transaction I'm making. Like I didn't go for the jugular and that feels like a distinctly Christian approach to work. So it plays out in all kinds of ways. And the interesting thing is that more and more people I'm meeting, they're just living intersectional lives even in their work.

Maybe they're involved in their church as a board member or they're leading this ministry and they're involved over here as a person who's leading in business or in education or healthcare. And then they've got like their kind of like quasi stuff that they're volunteering at their kids' school and…we would be in the business of forming leaders for all those spaces, right? Because people live as whole people no matter where they show up. That's what we're hoping. If you show up as a distinctly Christian leader at church and. On the playground when you're watching your kids play and in the business room, the stories that I hear are just so encouraging. And this is now very much my belief. We're living in an age where I think we're needing to and are starting to totally reimagine the ways a lot of our structures and systems operate and make sure that they're in service to people who aren't just in a really small section of society. And these are the leaders really poised to take those ideas and implement them and who are interested in doing it.

And then you say, Oh, by the way, this is what it looks like to participate in God's Shalom and this is how we think about redemption. And you just get a really active channel. So yeah, like Christian leadership in all these spaces, whether it's ever called Christian leadership or not, but it's Christian people leading. Yeah, it matters a lot. And as you can tell gets me jazzed.

Patrick: What's exciting about this is this work was located in Fuller, for those who are listening, is in Pasadena, in Southern California/Los Angeles. And we were talking offline about this move home. So I want to return us back to the beginning of your story. You are your grandma's hands.

You now are still leading this organization, still leading this work, but back home. Tell us about that decision to move back home, what belonging means now, what it means for your work and what kind of clarity you can provide for our listeners around how does all this go into negotiating in this new era that we're in? 

Michaela: That’s a great question. I mean, I'm still in the middle of working a lot of this out. Like as a person who ran away from home and who has faced those reasons, time and time again, it comes up in new ways when you're like, Yeah, my address is gonna be back in this place that has both formed me for the positive and comes with pain. So it's Richard Rohr's idea, but this whole idea that like you've gotta go down to come up. That has just been like the season I've been [in]. It's like just facing the pain head on. What I find is that the more I do that and I give way to an inevitable healing process that coming home is facilitating, the more I'm able to be back in touch.

Like, I don't know that I could have been so proximate to even the story of my grandma like a year ago. Like of course my grandma shaped me. When I'm not here, like I don't drive by where I moved that rosebush, right? Like I don't like sit with my cousins who have like her eyes, right? And so there's just these like things that I've had to…I'm just becoming more proximate or becoming proximate again - but as an adult, as somebody who's done 20 years of work. Facing the fears of coming home invites me to show up in a way as a leader that's just like able to hold space for a lot more stuff that people are dealing with.

I don't know, like I feel like I've got a neon sign on my head at the airport you know, at a birthday party or wherever, where it's like, tell me your work stuff. Tell me the stuff that's not fun. I get people who like tell me about their bosses that suck and about how they wish they were here and instead they're there. And my own journey toward that gotta go down to go up has enabled me to hold more space for others. When you talk about like you're in a work from anywhere culture - work from anywhere culture, living in the Midwest is a technical and physical manifestation of a destabilized work world.

The other stuff that comes with a destabilized work world is like just so much grief, so much grief over the pace of change, over things are different, over we don't really know how to do this. We had fits and starts and so there's just a lot. We need to make space for a lot. And so my own coming home, my own facing my own pain, my own talking about crucible moments and seasons, which also by the way, lines up with research we're doing at the De Pree Center on like, what actually does healthy leadership look like - it's the people who can integrate pain and crucible seasons. But my own learning to lean into that, which I'm early on that journey, I'm not evolved, I'm not arrived far from it, helps me to attune to where others need to go. And in this world of destabilized work, in this world of new expressions, new modalities, new questions, I think we just gotta make a lot more space for that kind of stuff. So that's the full circle.

Patrick: Wow. As I think about your story, and this is the last question I have, and I ask every guest who comes on, some version of this. But as you think about your own call, your own vocation, how much of it do you think has been shaped by your own sense of self - that kind of coming awake you were talking about in college, coming to know the divine in you, and how much is shaped by the many communities that have shaped you, the city of Los Angeles, the home you grew up [in], you're moving that rosebush six inches over. You know, how much of this is your own sense of self and connection to divine and how much is it due to community and belonging?

Michaela: That's a great question. Thanks for asking it. A couple things. One, I mean, I think calling is dynamic, not static. So I do not think that we get a call from God that manifests itself in a job, and then we spend our lives responding to that. So, the image that I usually get is that like the Holy Spirit is leaving breadcrumbs for us and that our breadcrumbs lead toward each other and sometimes they're too big for us to carry by ourselves. And so we're all just kind of pushing this forward. But it is a call and response. It is a followership. It is a path of discipleship and a belonging that is expressed wherever we're at, whoever we're with and whatever we're doing - whether that's a job or work, paid or unpaid. That's a flip on vocation to say like, vocation is a call to belong and our belonging is expressed wherever we show up in the world.

And how do we know what belonging looks like and feels like? You know, I'm thinking about the passage in John 10 of what it means to be a sheep and hearing and knowing our name. Literally, it's like I go back to the first people who like spoke my name. It's the sound of their voice. That is what sounds genuine to me when I think about recognizing where I belong. 

So the people who have painted for me a picture of who I am in context of belonging to them have absolutely given the shape…the physical and in person manifestation of, of belonging to God and then playing out that belonging, that identity that's formed in community over the myriad of relationships and context in which I find myself including work but not solely located in work. So it's everything.

Patrick: That's right. I appreciate that answer so much and I appreciate you, love your work, love everything that you put out into the world. If folks are looking for more information about your work, where would they go to find it?

Michaela: Yeah, thanks for saying that. You know I'm gonna like every single book you write, I'm gonna be the one who starts the book club and the fan club cause I love 'em all so much. De Pree Center - You can just Google that. It'll get you to all the stuff. People always like to find me on like LinkedIn and Instagram too, which I welcome. I love hearing about what's going on with you. So those are the good outlets.

Patrick: Great. Well thank you for being on the Sound of the Genuine. This has been just such a gift for you to share your stories with us, the story of your grandmother, the story of running away, story of home, story of belonging, and glad you're facing it courageously and head on now. So thank you so much for being on here.

Michaela: Oh, thanks for having me, Patrick.

Patrick: Thank you for listening to Dr. O'Donnell's story and glad you joined us here on the Sound of the Genuine. I want to thank our producers Elsie Barnhart, Heather Wallace and @siryalibeats for his music. It's our sincere hope that this podcast is helping you find the Sound of the Genuine in you.