When God Calls You to the Unexpected - Jessica Tanoesoedibjo

Have you ever felt God calling you to something unexpected and outside your comfort zone? Or perhaps you found yourself in a position at work, where you've wondered if you were the right person for the job. Guest Jessica Tanoesoedibjo has been called into many unexpected roles at work. Although she dreamt of going to seminary and working in church ministry, God called her to business school instead. She now works for the MNC group in financial services, philanthropy and education sectors where she continues to follow God through unexpected challenges, like leading her team through the pandemic. She's here to talk about her experience of responding to God when He calls us out of our comfort zone.

Scripture References

  • Genesis 1

Additional Resources Referenced

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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts.

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

LA: Have you ever felt God calling you to something unexpected and outside your comfort zone? Or perhaps you found yourself in a position at work, where you've wondered if you were the right person for the job. Today's guest, Jessica Tanoesoedibjo, has been called into many unexpected roles at work. Although she dreamt of going to seminary and working in church ministry, God called her to business school instead. She now works for the MNC group in financial services, philanthropy and education sectors where she continues to follow God through unexpected challenges, like leading her team through the pandemic. She's here to talk about her experience of responding to God when He calls us out of our comfort zone. Jessica Tanoesoedibjo, welcome to the Making it Work Podcast.

Jessica Tanoesoedibjo: Hi, Leah, good to be here with you.

LA: It's so good to have you. I wonder if you could just talk about a time in your life where you felt like God was calling you to something that was outside of your comfort zone.

JT: Yeah, sure. I think I grew up in a family where we were always directed towards the business world, and there was a time in my life, particularly when I was in undergrad, that I started thinking about where it was that God was calling me to. I think I started having an existential crisis thinking about what is the meaning of life and so forth. I grew up in a Christian home, and particularly in that season, I started serving at church and actually finding joy in serving, especially in youth ministry. And the desire to go to seminary started surfacing, it started with just a desire to know more about God's Word and to be equipped for the work. And I think I kept it in my heart for around three years because as the middle child at home, I tend to be more of the timid kind, and I didn't dare to bring it before my parents who were always kind of teaching us and leading us towards like the business world.

Long story short, by God's grace, I was finally able to go to seminary with my parents' blessings, and just about when I was about to graduate from seminary and coming back home thinking that, "Okay, this is it, I'm gonna serve full-time in the church." I think that year, particularly 2017, leading up to 2018, I started wrestling with the thought of where God was leading me, particularly with everything that He's entrusted to my family's care, and now that it's literally ahead of me. And in seminary funnily, I started talking with some professors about the theology of work, and I think it really challenged me to think about how... I think all of these years. I thought about ministry as simply being confined within the four walls of the church. When serving God is so much more than that. As Christians, we affirm that God is the creator of the universe, and He owns everything. But why is it that we put him in a box and we tend to just simply think that, "Okay, God rules within the church," that's it.

LA: The church in a box.

JT: The church in a box, that's right. But if really we believe that He is sovereign over all things, right, wherever He leads us, we are called to missions, we are called as missionaries, wherever we are. And I think that year, particularly, I had to deal with my own heart and my own rebelliousness through the years of not wanting to take on something that God's entrusted to my family's care and... Yeah, I started thinking about the possibility of coming into the workplace as a means of serving the Lord.

LA: I'm so curious, what made you experience this shift in calling, 'cause as you said, for a while you really felt called into ministry, and then was it learning about the theology of work, at the seminary that really brought along this shift, what was it in particular that you learned that made you start to see your calling differently?

JT: Yeah, I think one of the things that I really love about being at seminary was, I think it was a few years of sabbatical, just being, diving into the Word, and I think one of the things that I loved and wrestled a lot with was my own heart in that season, the heart is deceitful above all else, and one of the things that I really brought before the Lord was how my goodness, all of us as human beings we're so rebellious against the Lord. And for my own self, I think funnily, ironically, I found myself rebelling in a way that maybe in the Christian world, it would seem like it wasn't rebellion.

LA: I don't think a lot of rebels go to seminary.


I think... I don't know who you were rebelling against by going to seminary, but I see rebels in other areas.

JT: Yeah. So I think for me, rebelling was a lot more to do with rejecting in a sense, like my birthright, something that the Lord has entrusted within my own family. I know that, of course, God leads us all to different callings, for sure. And be it in the laying down of whatever birthright we may have or taking it on. But for me, I think for the most part, growing up, I thought that following Jesus meant I had to reject my birthright, I had to reject everything. I grew up in quite a conservative Christian school, which taught that basically, if you want to follow Jesus, you have to leave everything right, the rich young ruler asked Jesus. And that was what was in my mind, that if I were to follow the Lord, I had to reject all these material blessings that the lord had given me.

LA: Including the family business or the...

JT: Including the family business. Yeah, but then I think one of the things that in seminary particularly, not just through diving to the word nor learning more about the theology of work, but also meeting people, meeting a mentor, particularly there at seminary, who had been to business school and also had been to seminary before, who ended up really challenging me to think more about God's mission field as being the workplace.

LA: Was there a particular Bible verse in particular, or was there a particular piece of scripture that kind of guided you as you were making this change in your sense of calling?

JT: I think there was a book that I read particularly in one of the classes that we had called Vocation and Calling by Gordon Smith, I think. And at the front page, it says, it has this little quote that says "God's calling in your life is where your deepest passions meet the world's deepest needs." And I think that really made me think a lot about how the Lord has shaped me with all my leanings, tendencies, the gifts he's bestowed, including the gift of family, the entrustments and everything. And I think that made me think about, "Okay, if this is what God's placed in my hands, how can I steward it better? And how can I steward it well?" And to particularly follow the call of Jesus when he says that The greatest commandment is to love God and to love others, and I think part of meeting the needs around us is that, in loving others well. And I think one of the... For sure, one of the passages that also helped me wrestle with that is the book of Genesis, particularly in the creation account, how... I think we all talk about this. I think every year, everyone, if we resolve to start reading scripture, we'll start with Genesis again, and we read this all the...

LA: Well, of course. It's right in the front.

JT: [laughter] Exactly.

LA: Turn right to it.

JT: And it's like, we read this all the time, but I think it just dawned on me that God is a God who worked, and he didn't diminish just every kind of work, he's the painter of the sky, he's the gardener, and these are all work, work that God does, and it's not necessarily confined into church ministry work, but it's work that is good nonetheless, and work that is glorifying to him.

LA: I wanna bring Mark into the conversation. Mark, what are you hearing? There's so much in what Jessica shared in her story of discerning her calling, what are you hearing in terms of what calling means for us and its interaction with work and family and all the different responsibilities in our lives.

MR: Yeah, many... So I just need to say one of them is that Jessica, for people like Leah and me, who've been working at faith and work for a while, the fact that you went to seminary and got a good theology of work, just gives joy to our hearts. And I think I know where you went and they have some great folks there, but that's just very... 'Cause that's relatively new, as I expect, you know, there would be a time in which a theology of work would not really be taught much in a seminary context, so anyway, that's just amen to that, that's so exciting. And it is in the bible.

LA: All the little light bulbs and balloons are going off in our heads.

MR: Well, partly and partly too... Jessica what you said. Yeah, it's like in Genesis one, it's from the first chapter to the last one, and that gets overlooked. So partly I'm just thinking... Oh, that's so great, I love your story. Number one. Number two, I'm just impressed at your own articulate-ness about faith and work and your own journey, and it's obvious that the growing up experience you had in your conservative school and in your family, and then in college and in seminary has really helped to shape you. And I'm just struck that God uses all that stuff, sometimes that stuff doesn't seem relevant or it seems like our life has taken a detour, or how does it all work together? But God has a way of taking the different experiences and learnings of our lives and working it together, and so here you are in a work environment that you weren't expecting, but so much of what you studied and learned and experienced, God is using for God's purposes now in your life, and I'm just struck by that.

As one of the things, the other... And so I'd love to hear a little more about... So you were thinking you were gonna go in one direction, now you really are sensing more and more a calling into the family business, which ironically was sort of the thing you were raised for... Right, so you're really sort of sensing that calling, what were some of the things you wrestled with in that in that season of really trying to decide whether that really was your calling and whether God really had this for you or not, or... What was going on with you there?

JT: Sure, I think if I were to backtrack a bit and think about the time when I was growing up and how my parents kind of prepared me and my siblings and geared us towards family business... Actually, growing up, I accepted that, I accepted that 100%. And I was actually a very ambitious child, I was always aiming for straight As, there was a time when my parents were... So I was the only one who liked math at home, I would go on family vacations and work on math. Oh my goodness. I was that competitive. And what's funny was when I went to college... So first semester I had straight As, and then second semester was literally the year that I fell in love with Jesus, and that year I flunked my first class in college, I started failing my classes, 'cause all I did...

LA: What was the link? [chuckle] Tell us what was... This is like reverse evangelism here, what was the link between falling in love with Jesus and failing your classes?

JT: Yes, and I have shared this to some youth groups and I would tell them, Please don't follow my footsteps and flunk your classes, don't do that. Stay in school. So what happened was in that season, somehow the Lord just drew me to his word, in a sense that I was so engrossed in Scripture, and that was when I really long to go to seminary, I really wanted to go to Bible School to learn more about this amazing book that I can't get my hands off, so I would be in lectures reading my Bible, I would be queuing in the cafeteria reading my Bible, and that was literally the year where it seemed if someone were to look at my life from an external perspective, they would see that what is going on, like this girl's literally throwing her life away. But for me, I think looking back like that year was such a sweet year where the Lord was moulding me to know him, to love him and to know that he is enough.

And I think that year was when I thought to myself that I wanted to leave everything behind, all the ambition that I had growing up, and for me, I really love Him. Turn your eyes upon Jesus look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim. My gosh, I think that year, that song was the anthem in my life where literally like all the things of earth grew strangely dim. And I just found that nothing could replace the love of God, and so...

LA: Hearing that story, it's such an extreme turnaround between being in that place and being today, working in finance, right? So we've seen that, we've seen the flunking out of your classes for reading the Bible. How did the pendulum swing in the other direction then?

JT: I had in that year, one of the things that I wrestled with was, Lord, can I just drop out? Can I just drop out and go to Bible school right away? At that time, I spoke with my pastor, I spoke with some people I trusted as well, at church, and I think the same advice was given to me again and again, it was just be faithful, and so I think in that season, one of the things that I begrudgingly went through was faithful, learning faithfulness, learning faithfulness, even when I really didn't feel like staying in college, but I knew that this was a privilege that my parents had given me, and so I had to finish what I started, and... So I did, and I finished a Masters because that was also part of what they had wanted me to finish up, but what's funny was, I think when finally I had the courage to actually ask my parents if I were allowed to go to seminary with their blessing of course. At first, my dad's response was, "Just read your Bible." [chuckle] And I was like, "I have been doing that. [chuckle] I have been doing that." And so...

LA: What was he hoping that you would find?

JT: In scripture?

LA: Yeah, when he said, "Just read your Bible." Did he mean read your Bible instead of going to a seminary or did he...

JT: Yeah, Yeah, he was like, "Why would you wanna go to seminary. You can just read your Bible at home and work." [chuckle] And I was like, "Oh, this is different dad." And what's funny was when he asked me where I wanted to go and things like that, 'cause I had three years kind of thinking through like where I wanted to go and what I wanted to take. When I told my parents it was in LA and things like that. What's funny was my dad paused for a bit and he was like, "What? That's so weird." We just finalized the deal, we just bought an apartment two weeks ago, signed the agreement, and it's in LA, and I knew at that time, our family, none of us had planned to go to the US to study. All of us, my eldest sister, my second sister, we've all gone to Australia for our undergraduate studies and our Master's as well. And we haven't even like vacationed to the US often so it was really odd that my dad had bought an apartment, but apparently it was because the housing market was down and it was a good buy and things like that, it was for investment purposes, but literally, he just paused and he's like, we just signed an agreement two weeks ago, it's in LA. Okay, maybe you can go to seminary. [chuckle]

LA: In LA.

JT: In LA.

LA: Because you have a place to stay. Why not?

JT: Yeah. So I ended up going to LA for a seminary. Graduated within two and a half years. And yeah, thinking that, "Okay, God is opening up the way for me to go into full-time ministry." But then again and again, I think in seminary, one of the things that I think God kept on tugging at my heart was how... There's a lot of theologians in the church but when it comes to the workplace, there aren't that many. There are lots of missionaries in the church, but when it comes to the workplace, unfortunately, there isn't that many. And I think that was something that softened my heart towards thinking about seeing the workplace as a mission field, and I think having softened my heart through those two and a half years, and also talking through with mentors and people who have actually gone into the workplace to serve and to see it as a way to glorify God, I think that really affirmed my decision to eventually say yes to coming into the workplace.

LA: So you came back to your parents after your time in seminary and you said, "Thanks so much for this apartment in LA. I've decided that now I'm ready to go into the family business." And did they rejoice or did they roll their eyes and say, "Oh, Jessica."?

JT: No, they rejoiced. I think they saw it coming in a sense that... No, maybe they didn't really see it coming, but they expected it, they expected me to come back to work with them in family business. But I think as we spoke about it as well, I shared with them my own wrestlings and things like that. I think that's something that I am grateful for, that they also understood, 'cause coming back home and being given roles, especially in the financial service sector, one of the things that I'm quite grateful for that my parents also saw and understood was my love to serve particularly the less fortunate. And so when I came home, they were like, "Okay, we have a philanthropy department, you should run it, since that's where your heart is at as well." So I think those are some things that I'm quite grateful for that my parents also accommodated to where I felt called to.

LA: Are there any now, you had a kind of circuitous journey of calling, and I don't think... It doesn't sound to me that at any point you're calling changed, but it sounds like there were some different experiences God had to lead you through to get to the place that you are today, feeling comfortable that you're called to your work. Is there any part of your journey that you regret or you wish, "Oh, I wish God could have sped that up a little bit."

JT: No, actually, I think I'm quite grateful that as much as maybe looking back, I'm like, "Oh, I shouldn't have flunked." Like, "Oh, I should have worked harder." [chuckle]

LA: But that was the best part of the story. I liked that part of the story, that's really compelling.

JT: I think if anything like, I love that God forced to me to empty myself in that season and literally see that I have nothing to bring to him, I wasn't excelling in school, it wasn't like... 'Cause before it seemed like my sense of achievement was what made me feel like worthy. But then in that season, it's like, "Jessica, you have nothing to bring before me, but I have enlisted you in my service, and it's because you are my daughter." And I think that's something that I needed to go through, that he had to break through my pride, my sense of achievement. My... The vice of ambition.

And I think that was very necessary that I had to go through that so that when the time came and the Lord would lead me to the workplace, I know that I'm not doing this for my own sake, I know that I'm not... 'cause as human beings is so easy for us. I love how John Calvin says that our hearts are a perpetual factory of idols, and it is. And so I think we're calling again and again, even until today, every time I recall that season in my life. I'm reminded that [chuckle] literally, I have nothing to bring for the Lord, and that... Yeah, everyday when God calls us to serve Him, it's an honor, it's a privilege, it's an entrustment, and it's something we need to steward well.

LA: Mark, go ahead.

MR: I'm so struck Jessica by so many parts of your story and one of them is the wisdom and grace of your parents. Because as you know, because you're in it, but I've had many friends over the years who are connected to family businesses. And those can be wonderful but also there are sometimes many almost chains attaching people, their expectations. And it was both wise and gracious and I think somewhat courageous of your parents to give you the space. Because had they not done that, you might very well be doing... You still working in the company today but you would be a very different person, and for a very different reason. You wouldn't have chosen it, you wouldn't have sensed it as much God's calling as obligation. Or as a place to continue to earn your worth by excelling and doing great.

And just so all of the... So for one thing, so the wisdom of your parents and their grace, but then I'm just struck again by the grace of God in your story. Because again you could have gone into business with this notion that you're going to prove your worth and value by how great you are at it, and your success and your excellence. And that can really get caught up, of course in our relationship with God. But through that process of kind of setting you free from a lot of that, so you could finally set that aside. And then leading you through this process of growth, so that you could choose in response to God's grace and the grace of your parents. Really to be in the family business now, not because you had to or not because it was the place you are gonna prove how great you were, but out of service to God and to people.

And I'm just so I'm struck by sort of how your parents in many ways and God in many ways in your life were quite similar. And you know there is a lot in scripture that's like that. I think it's not the same story, but I think of the parable, The Prodigal Son. And now not that you went off and lived as the son did. [laughter] For your case it was going to college and seminary. But there was a sense in which your parents set you free and you in that experience of freedom and growth, then were able to return in a very different way out of freedom. And so, I love it how that's true for you with respect to your parents, but also with respect to the Lord. That your service to God is now not kind of proving yourself so much as a response to grace and to God's call in your life.

LA: Oh, Mark, I love that you mentioned the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is a story in Luke Chapter 15, because...

MR: Thank you Leah.

LA: It's a different story of calling for many of the calling stories that we hear in the Bible. So I think for a lot of us whose story of calling, personal calling is kind of circuitous, we went here, we went there, we weren't sure. Maybe we feel like, "Oh I wasn't like Moses." like God talked to you from the bush. I didn't have this direct sense of calling. But the story of the Prodigal Son, the son who leaves his family in order to realize what good work he had with his family and then comes back. That's a different kind of story about calling. I don't know Mark. Would you say that that's about calling as well?

MR: Well, calling is certainly part of it, but yes. But it's certainly about grace, and the other part of it is ironically, the elder son in that parable, who was the guy who continued to work faithfully in the family business, was filled with bitterness and resentment, right? And so it's kind of interesting 'cause I think when most of us read that parable we don't think in terms of calling our family business. We think of family relationships but that whole thing is framed as a kind of a family business story. And where one is set free really messes up, but then is able to return to the grace of the father. The other who is the faithful good son is resentful and distant relationally. So anyway, Jessica I'm talking a lot. Has that parable ever, ever struck you in that way Jessica?

JT: Yeah, I think... I love that you mentioned that because I think for the most part, actually, I always saw myself... I often saw myself as the... Almost like the older brother. Who in a sense that should or if I hadn't... If the Lord hadn't given me that space, if my parents hadn't given me that space to also wrestle with my own sense of calling, I think my response would definitely be more begrudging like the older son. Because in my nature, I tend to be more of the timid daughter who tends to be more obedient, and so I wouldn't really, I guess, reject my parents giving of perhaps a role or responsibility. I wouldn't reject it outright, but because I was given that space to wrestle with it, and not be immediately forced into the work, I'm thankful that it gave me opportunity to not grow in resentment.

I think... Because I think it would be very easy to do that. I think one of the things that I love that scripture teaches us is glad obedience, right? When God calls us not to simply offer sacrifices but obedience from the heart, which is supposed to be glad obedience, but oftentimes, especially as children growing up in family businesses and things like that, it's so easy to be drawn into or obliged to obey, to follow, to do as what is expected, but without gladness, without a sense of purpose, without a sense of direction or a sense of calling for our own selves, and so I think I'm very fortunate, I am very thankful that I was given that space for sure.

LA: Jessica, is there a piece of advice that you would give our listeners, someone who is maybe earlier than you are in their journey, or just thinking about how do I wrestle with, is my calling to the workplace? Is it with family, is it... If they're just asking these questions, what would be your one piece of advice that you would give someone in that position?

JT: Oh man. Yeah, that's the hard... That's a tough question, 'cause I do believe that God calls us all intimately and personally, and if anything... So I work with youths, a lot of youths usually, and that's a question that's a very live question for a lot of them, and always one of the things that I have to highlight is whenever we talk about calling and vocation first and foremost remember that we are first called to Christ himself, to Christ, to Christ likeness. To follow and seek him. And I think secondly, I think there's a quote by Elizabeth Elliot that I really, really like, and I think... This was one of the quotes that helped me as well wrestle with my own sense of calling. It is that, "The Lord calls every christian regardless of where they are at in their lives, to the same amount of obedience, to take up your cross and follow."

So I think for me, to be honest, even with me sharing all this and saying that, oh, I think I do believe that this is where the Lord is calling me to. It's not to say that every day I wake up and feel so ready for work, you know. It's not as though every day I wake up and feel like, Okay, this is where the Lord's called me to like, Okay, I'm ready to go to my mission field. That's not what I'm saying. There are a lot of days where I would wake up groggy and like, I don't even wanna go to work, but I think when we follow Christ, and we know that our call is to self-denial, to pick up our crosses and to follow Jesus, even in those times when we don't feel like it, right? We can show up, we can be faithful. And I think this is also where those years of me, almost loathing college, but still trying to finish, because that was what I believed was the faithful thing to do.

I think the Lord's molding of us through the years, in teaching us faithfulness will never be in vain. Because I think one of the things that I love is when Jesus also talks about, at the end, when we are supposed to see him face-to-face, what is it that we want him to say it is? "Well done, my good and faithful servant." And so it's never been, "Well done, my productive servant, well done my super successful, 30 Under 30, servant." It's never been about that, it's always been about good and faithful work. And so I think that's something that wherever we are called to or whatever it is we're wrestling with, I think the question that we need to be asking is, "Lord, what is the most faithful thing for me to do right now? Particularly, what is the most faithful thing? How am I most faithful to you and how am I most faithful to the work that you have entrusted to my care, the people you've entrusted to my care? Because different seasons also call for different sets of considerations. So what's most faithful, I think.

LA: I love it. What's the most faithful thing that I can do today? How can I follow you even if it's just out of bed into my regular job?

JT: Yes.

LA: I love it. Jessica Tanoesoedibjo, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. It's really been a pleasure to learn from your experience.

MR: Thank you.

JT: Thank you. Thank you, Mark.

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