Michaela O’Donnell on the Nesting Dolls of Calling







Michaela O'Donnell Nesting Dolls of Calling_Featured Image

Dr. Michaela O’Donnell (Executive Director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership) shared an interesting metaphor about calling in her book, Make Work Matter. It is a picture of a set of nesting dolls. We often think of calling in very simplistic terms, such as equating calling with our professional work. So I think O’Donnell’s metaphor can help us capture the different layers of calling. In this post, I’m citing some of her insights from her book and a podcast interview with Jordan Raynor, before sharing my thoughts on how it has helped me think about calling.

Let’s start by watching this video:

Make Work Matter: Nesting Dolls of Calling. Source: https://vimeo.com/600784919

In previous posts, I’ve differentiated between primary and secondary callings. Our primary call is to God, to belong to Him in a relationship through faith in Jesus Christ. Our secondary call is to the roles, jobs and places God has called us to.

But what is the relationship between the two? Here’s where O’Donnell’s metaphor comes in.

Imagine that calling is like a set of Russian nesting dolls. Russian nesting dolls are a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. We have an innermost calling from God, which is to belong to Jesus. From there, more nesting dolls are added, each representing another layer of God’s calling to us.

Each nesting doll represents another layer of God’s calling in our lives.

O’Donnell suggests four layers of God’s calling:

  1. the call to belong to Christ,
  2. the call to work toward redemption,
  3. the call to create, and
  4. the call to particulars.

1. The Call to Belong to Christ

According to O’Donnell,

“God’s most central call to us is to belong to Jesus Christ. Full stop. This call from God to us is both an individual and a collective call. Meaning that it’s fully ours to own, but not just ours to own, and that the fullness of this call comes to life in the presence of community. When we answer God’s innermost call to belong, we are grafted into a family—sisters and brothers who, like us, are called to belong to God. Together, as the church, we are called to be Christ’s holy people, called to follow Jesus together.”

In the Gospels, we saw how Jesus literally called his disciples to follow him. Disciples like Peter and Andrew, the fishermen, in Matthew 4; Levi, the tax collector, in Luke 5.

Today, we too are called to follow him by belonging to him and radically reorienting our lives to kingdom priorities.

“We are to walk through the world loving God, prioritizing mercy, loving our neighbors, centering marginalized people, practicing forgiveness, extending grace, and living generously with the narrative of Christ as our guiding light.”

– Michaela O’Donnell

2. The Call to Work Towards Redemption

Not only are we called to belong to Jesus, but we are also called to join God in His ongoing work of redemption in the world.

What does it mean to participate in God’s mission, of redemption? Part of that is to work towards the restoration of justice, love, and shalom in all areas of life – family, work, community.

man in white crew neck t shirt sitting on black wheelchair
Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

But what drives this work of redemption is the power of the gospel.

2 Corinthians 5:16–21 tells us that God reconciled the world to himself through Jesus, and invited us to be His gospel ambassadors:

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

O’Donnell finds this mind-blowing, and so should we:

“It’s why I think the call to participate in God’s redemption in the world as ambassadors of Christ is the great honor and great challenge of being a Christian. The idea that God is at work converting loss into hope, pain into glory, and betrayal into forgiveness and that we’ve got a part to play? That’s both inspiring and terrifying at the same time.”

3. The Call to Create

The third layer is the call to create. We are called to follow Jesus by creatively working, especially toward God’s mission of redemption in the world.

O’Donnell reminds us that our very first story about God is a poem about God’s creativity. In Genesis 1, we come to know who God is through a picture of God as maker. We also read about God creating us in his image. We are made to reflect the essence of the God who created us.

After that, God blessed the first people and commissioned them to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (v. 28).

This invitation to be fruitful extends far beyond bearing children, but to any sphere in which we find ourselves—friendships, activism, work, church life, and so on.

woman in brown scoop neck long sleeved blouse painting
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

We are called to create in loving service of each other. This can take all kinds of shapes. It can look like:

  • restoring broken places, people, and systems in a way that brings about renewal, and helps people see what God is up to.
  • creating new pathways and solutions, and sometimes new systems.
  • creating space—or advocating—for someone’s opinion or idea.

O’Donnell continues to say,

“When we weave this third nesting doll of calling in with the other two, we start to get a picture that we’re made to belong to Jesus and to creatively work toward God’s mission of redemption in the world. Our identity is found in our belonging to Jesus. Our purpose is to participate in the mission of redemption. Our God-given creativity becomes a vehicle for the first two.”

4. The Call to Particulars

And finally, the outermost doll is the call towards all the particulars – the particular people, places, moments, tasks, and roles. Today, this is usually where we start when we associate calling with work, especially paid work. It is the most apparent and visible expression of calling.

That was what I had in mind when I first started blogging about calling:

In the Bible, we see several prominent examples of people called into particular roles and tasks that were significant and specific. Moses, Joseph, David, Esther, and Mary were all examples of how God called people to do very particular things.

But, using O’Donnell’s metaphor, being called into particulars can also be about going to particular places. It can be relationships with people. It can be beyond just paid work. Those particular callings are places to express the core layers that are nested within.

And, for most of us, God’s callings don’t come all at once and don’t stay fixed for our entire lives. Specifics of how our lives work, such as who we’re connected to, where we live, what we do for work, change shape in different seasons. Our lives and our work environments are dynamic, not static.

Like the analogy in the video, our inner 3 layers of calling form the ‘North Star’ of our lives, guiding us in our particulars even as our environments and particulars shift and change.

Like the Israelites relying on God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, our willingness to depend on the rhythm of God’s ordinary grace becomes the bedrock for how we do the daily work of centering ourselves, as we seek to follow Christ in all the particulars of life.

O’Donnell sums up her definition of calling, with all 4 layers, in the following statement:

“We are called to follow Jesus by creatively working in love for others, especially toward God’s mission of redemption in the world, through particular relationships, roles, places, tasks, and moments.”

– Michaela O’Donnell


Do you find this metaphor helpful? Personally, I find that this helps me think of calling, not only as a division between primary calling and secondary calling, but as a multi-layered concept. The primary calling is within (our call to belong to Christ), and it works itself outward into our mission (the Why), our creativity (the How), and our particulars (the What).

Secondly, I like the redemptive focus in this idea of calling. It reminds me that, as I go about my work, I am joining God in His work of redeeming the world, bit by bit, inches by inches, before His kingdom comes in its fullest. In this ‘already-but-not-yet’ reality, where the kingdom of God has been inaugurated by Christ’s first coming but yet to reach its fullest completion in His second coming, we work to redeem the spaces that God has called each of us to.

This means that as a teacher, I am pushing against the brokenness of the world I am in – be it in the lives of my students, the brokenness of the system, or the brokenness of the relationships. The call to work towards redemption is defining and empowering. It is defining because I am driven by a mission that is more enduring than the organisation’s mission statement. It is empowering because it is God who works in us to will and to act according to His good purpose (Phil. 2:13).

Thirdly, our call to create invites a dimension that I seldom think of before. When I design lesson plans, create new materials, or set test papers, I am creating resources for the glory of God. When I mentor a new colleague, facilitate a team discussion, or lead a new project, I am creating relationships and systems for the glory of God. When I write my blog, share my ideas and teach my classes, I am creating new ways of knowing for the glory of God. Recognising these gets me excited about the endless possibilities of creating.

So, what about you? Does this metaphor help you think of new ways about your calling? Does it refresh your sense of being called?

Drop a comment to share your thoughts!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.