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Push and Pull of Career Transitions By Alec Hill

Insights from Career Transitions

Early in my career, I worked for a refugee resettlement agency. I learned about “push” and “pull” factors impacting migration patterns in that role. 

Political, economic, or religious forces push people out of a country – think South Sudan. And they are pulled into another country either by its welcome – think Poland for Ukrainians – or its perception as a safe haven – think North America.   

In recent years, I’ve applied the push-pull paradigm to explain why employees leave one organization and move to another. Over many years, I’ve become an accidental expert in this area, having made four major job transitions (law, relief and development, higher education, and campus ministry).

Being Pushed

There’s an old saying: “People leave bosses, not organizations.” A recent Gallup survey backs this up – 57% of transitioning employees cite conflict with their supervisor as the primary reason for departing. That’s a lot of push.

Bad bosses contributed to my leaving the legal profession. In my first job, the senior partner was also a state senator. The firm imploded when he was sent to jail for accepting bribes in a sting operation, and I fled. A few years later, in a different job, the lead attorney was disclosed to be a pedophile and subsequently took his own life.

Granted, these are extreme examples. But I bet that – even decades later – we can name a supervisor who hurt our career choices.    

In addition to bad bosses, several other push factors motivate employees to walk away – e.g., toxic cultures, excessive workload, feeling undervalued, poor pay, no opportunity for advancement, and work-life imbalance.

The nonprofit world is a surprising hotbed of push factors. The Stanford Social Innovation Review reports that 25% of senior nonprofit leaders leave their positions every two years and that a third of those who remain are considering going elsewhere soon.

Why such turnover? The authors posit that nonprofits invest far too little in leadership development and are generally not well-managed. With little glue to hold them, employees look elsewhere.   

Being Pulled

Few tenured faculty members voluntarily resign their positions. But I did. Why? Because the mission of the pulling ministry stirred my soul. Because the opportunity was too good to pass up. Because I already had relationships with key leaders. Because the ministry had a sterling reputation.

When the pull is strong enough, we entertain the idea of making a quantum leap. We begin to ask from somewhere deep in our souls: “Lord, is this of you?”

At other times, we feel no initial pull at all. But if the pursuer is persistent, we may start to dream. And, when we imagine a brighter future, excitement grows.  

We are pulled to new organizations for the opposite reasons we leave others:  feeling valued, filling a challenging role, working in a healthy organizational culture, and reporting to a boss we respect.

Getting it Right

In making significant career decisions, there is always that moment when we are suspended between staying and going. While in this limbo, we write lists of pros and cons, consult with trusted friends, pray, fast, and retreat.

Sometimes, we decide to stay. Even when we do so, assessing push and pull factors is not wasted. As we try to discern the Lord’s will, our inner disequilibrium leads us to a place of surrender. And that’s always a good thing.

Other times, we decide to go. In doing so, we relearn the lesson that our journey is not about personal fulfillment but about advancing God’s kingdom. Like Abraham, we step out in faithful obedience despite future uncertainties.

Looking back on my career, I’ve probably said “no” more often than “yes” to new opportunities. But each episode has caused me to hold my existing role less tightly and to remember my slave-master posture vis-à-vis the Lord. In such times, we pray, “Not my will, but yours be done.”


Alec Hill is President Emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. He has also served as a Regional Director for World Relief and a Dean at Seattle Pacific University.

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