Skip’s Story: How the Nativity Story in the Bible Changed a Despairing Attorney to a Hope-Filled Minister
Employees of all ages are unhappy with their work, but Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist for workplace management and well-being, says those in midlife are slightly unhappier than those of other ages, and for different reasons. Harter says they are particularly likely to complain of feeling “locked into” their careers — stuck in neutral as their junior colleagues zip along. Although the mid-career slump cuts across industries and income levels, he notes that college-educated employees report greater unhappiness than do those who stopped at high school. He believes that highly educated people may have higher expectations, and may therefore find career disappointments more bitter.
Unhappy employees hurt productivity, and Gallup found that, compared with engaged employees, disengaged workers of all ages are far likelier to report stress and physical pain. They have higher cortisol levels and blood pressure, and they are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or to call in sick.
Skip Masback is one of those highly educated people who found that the career he had worked so hard to excel in no longer fulfilled him. Fourteen years into his highly successful career as a corporate and public-interest litigator, Skip had a “look in the mirror” experience that drained the meaning and purpose from his work. There didn’t seem to be any prospect that the long years of exhausting work would lead to the life of fulfillment and meaning he had imagined.
In the midst of the emotional suffering that followed, an encounter with Jesus brought Skip assurance and hope that led to a profound change of vocation. He left his law practice to study Scripture, to take night courses at Georgetown University, and then to enter Yale Divinity School to prepare for ordination. He became the youth minister and then senior minister of one of the largest churches in Connecticut for nineteen years, supervising youth ministries that grew to serve more than seven hundred children.
When he experienced a call to help other churches build transformative youth ministries in 2013, Skip resigned from his pastorate and joined Professor Miroslav Volf as the managing director of Volf’s Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. Skip is the founder and director of the Yale Youth Ministry Institute. His passion is to train youth ministers and resource transformative youth ministries throughout the United States and beyond. Skip has twenty-five years of experience in parish ministry, church revitalization, and ministry to youth.
My passion for social justice issues inspired a turn to law school and then the practice of law in a Washington, D.C., firm with a national reputation for public interest lawyering. Because I was now a husband and father, my maturing aspirations included being 1) a good husband, 2) a good father, 3) a servant of the public interest, and 4) an ethical lawyer.
Christian faith and identity weren’t on my list, but I had married a woman of deep Christian faith. If I had been going to church while growing up to keep my mom happy, I was going to church now to keep my wonderful wife happy.
For 14 long years, I poured my best energies into pursuing an elusive balance of family, work, and worthy causes. An annual round of all-nighters and long weekends working on cases yielded flourishing corporate and pro bono litigation practices that may have glittered to outsiders, but inside I was slowly hollowing out, worn down and contorted by the toll. When a crisis led to a proverbial “look in the mirror,” I found myself dissolving in tears.
Misery Replaces Contentment
My life had become distorted — it no longer made sense. Moreover, as a name partner of a firm whose soaring income ran just a lap ahead of its soaring expenses, I didn’t see any way off the hamster wheel. I couldn’t slow down, I couldn’t stop, and the relentless pace offered little prospect of living the life I had envisioned.
I don’t know whether the right label for what I experienced next is “spiritual crisis” or some form of depression. All I know is that I couldn’t stop crying. Well, I didn’t actually cry while my wife and kids were awake. They were always a balm. But day after day, I found myself crying on the Washington Metro as I rode to work, and night after night, I found myself quietly crying myself to sleep.
At first, I presumed I could work my way through the crisis with the same tools and tenacity that had served me well with other challenges. I delegated more work to junior partners and associates. I hired a chauffeur so I could sleep on the way to and from work. I walked our three miles of bridle trails before work each morning. I even learned a secular meditation form, meditating on the number one. Nothing worked. I was buoyed by time I could spend with my warm, supportive wife and kids, but my cases still made it hard to get home. And I was still weeping all the way to work and all the way home.
A Life-Changing Experience
One day, an evangelist working a Washington Metro station shoved a tract containing Bible excerpts into my hand, and I absentmindedly folded it into my wallet. There it remained, wadded up and unread, for weeks. I doubted there was a God waiting to answer any prayer the Scriptures might inspire. And, even if there were a God, I figured that God would know my pleas were born out of desperation rather than faith.
Then again, I was desperate, and I had exhausted every other tool, technique, or trick I could think of to arrest my slide. One day, as my morning train wended its way downtown, I finally reached into my wallet and slipped the tract out. At first, the listless exercise of scanning excerpts seemed just as pointless as I had expected: “No, this verse seems meaningless… No, this claim is incredible… No, I don’t even understand what this story means.”
But eventually I came to the Nativity story in Luke’s Gospel — the story most churches enact in their Christmas pageants. And as I scanned the verses, I came to the account of the shepherds:
Something happened. As I read the words, “And the angel said unto them, Fear not,” something happened. I wish I were a gifted enough writer to articulate for you that “something” with precise, fresh language. But I have never understood what happened with precision, and I don’t have the talent to summon words that don’t sound pretty much like every other heartfelt “testimony” I’ve rejected as incredible over the years.
All I know for sure is that there came a moment when I realized that I wasn’t crying anymore. As the train clicked and clacked along the tracks, I was overtaken by a new sense of calm, a peace. I didn’t jump up and cry, “Thanks be to God—I’m saved!” I just sat silently, savoring the immense relief of the absence of anguish.
It was wonderful, but it proved to be passing. By the next day, I could feel myself slipping back toward the abyss. Reaching into my wallet, I pulled out the fraying tract and thumbed through to Luke’s Nativity story. Sure enough, the angel’s “Fear not” again restored peace to my soul.
. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, “Quit Your Job,” April 2016, The Atlantic website, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/quit-your-job/471501/.
Skip Masback is the founder and director of the Yale Youth Ministry Institute at Yale Divinity School and the Associate Director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture in New Haven, Connecticut.
This excerpt is from my book Grace Revealed: Finding God’s Strength in Any Crisis, with permission by BroadStreet Publishing.