Almost 10 years ago, Johnathan Agrelius felt clearly that God was calling him to become a real estate developer and transform underutilized or abandoned buildings in the downtown area of his hometown. “I had a lot to learn,” he recalls, “but other people in my community—architects, city planners, historic preservationists, bankers, and investors—all got on board with my vision, and we started to work toward it together. I thought I had found my career, and I was excited.”
For the past 10 years, though, Agrelius has faced setbacks and frustrations. His career path has been anything but simple and straight. In fact, he still isn’t a real estate developer.
How do we live in the tension of having a sense of God’s calling and not seeing it come to fruition? What happens when our career plans aren’t panning out?
Setbacks and Frustrations
By 2007, Agrelius picked his first building and started to plan its redevelopment. Then the owner doubled his asking price, signaling that he had changed his mind about selling the property. “The project no longer penciled out for me,” Agrelius laments. “I was devastated and didn’t know what to do. I needed a new plan.”
Since he still wanted to become a developer, he knew that he needed more training. So he decided to shorten the learning curve by attending graduate school for real estate development at Columbia University in New York City. After graduation, he planned to work for a developer for a few years and then launch his own company.
What he didn’t anticipate, though, was the economic downturn that started in 2008.
“Development wasn’t happening anywhere. After a year of freelance work and unsuccessful interviews,” he confesses, “I felt like I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I had invested everything in this career change—my time, my emotions, my savings, and more.”
He ended up becoming a real estate agent, but he was angry and confused. “There’s nothing wrong with sales,” he explains, “but I wanted to develop real estate. I wondered if the vision and dream I had of becoming a developer was really from God or if it was just a fantasy that got out of hand.” He felt that he had done everything right and that God was reneging on his promise.
He also felt tormented because, as the economy improved, he increasingly saw potential in buildings everywhere around him, but he had no capacity to develop them. Even worse, he witnessed other people come along and bring about the ideas he had envisioned. “In a way, that was edifying—I had a good idea, someone else confirmed it, and it was a success,” he says. “Yet I was upset because I wasn’t the one doing it.”
And he doubted. A lot. He questioned his calling to be a real estate developer. Am I capable? Did I overreach? Am I really someone who can do these things, or am I just a dreamer who’s detached from reality? He also doubted his work as a real estate agent. Am I a fraud for working as an agent while not wanting to be one? Can I glorify God doing work that I don’t really want to do?
Character of God
That’s when God started to remind Agrelius who he is. “There were many times in prayer, or sometimes in a walk down the street,” he remembers, “when I would get in arguments with God about his character and my present circumstances. He’d wrestle back with me, challenging me by asking if I really believed that he was sovereign or loving or promise-keeping. He’d remind me that he had always been faithful to me and then ask me why I couldn’t now trust him now with this. I’d think, It has been five years, Lord. How long am I expected to wait? I’m not immortal.”
Then God opened his eyes to see the lives of Joseph, Moses, Abraham, and Nehemiah—men who engaged in work that seemed unrelated to their callings for many years. He also used the story of the Tower of Babel to show Agrelius how he sometimes frustrates our plans in order to push us into uncomfortable areas for us to grow in our understanding of who we are and who he is. What we see as betrayal might just be redirection as part of a larger plan.
“I began to admit that I had wanted a direct line to becoming a real estate developer,” he confesses, “because I wanted to create buildings and cities that bore my name. I wanted people to praise me in the papers and in speeches. I wanted an identity of being a great man with a veneer of humility.” That probably would have happened, he guesses, had God let his initial plan stand.
Settling Into God’s Care
Today, Agrelius is still a real estate agent. His work hasn’t changed, but his heart has. He now sees the last five years as hard, but good. It has been a time of speaking differently and doing work that’s foreign to his temperament and difficult for him to master. But he’s learning new skills and discovering who he is and who God is. “It’s kind of like an internship,” he says, “so I can be better fashioned to execute the vision given according to God’s plan, design, and scope.”
On a recent retreat for Gotham Fellowship alumni, he was challenged by Hebrews 5:11—6:3. Am I maturing or just growing older? Am I simply passing the time in my current work while I wait for “the real work” of being a developer, or am I maturing in my current work in preparation for my later work? In other words, How can I maximize the square in which I’m working so that it grows to fill the rectangle to which I’m called?
In this season, Agrelius says, God’s making him into a patient, yet expectant, man. While he’s using his skills and education in somewhat unexpected and challenging ways, he’s still hoping to one day become a developer. For now, though, he’s growing in the joy of simply being someone in whom God delights.
“And I’m finding a great sense of freedom,” he says, “in serving my clients, in being a faithful steward of my talents, and in becoming an active man of prayer in all things.”