It was all “just too much!” There was too much overwhelm, too much grind, too much meaninglessness, depression, isolation and too much uncertainty that anything would ever change. In hindsight, it was not surprising that my overly stressed and under nurtured life came to a full stop, shutting down my health  — physical and mental, finances, home and career  — but fortunately through Grace, not the urgings of my spirit.

Such had been the state of my “successful” yet work-weary life as an education lobbyist when the wise spirit within pressed me to ask, “What is it that really matters to you?” I found myself in a Google search for the only answer that mattered to my heart in that moment: “love and compassion.”

And there it was…confirmation on the landing page of the Fetzer Institute…a picture of H.H.The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in full embrace, and an announcement that they would soon receive the Fetzer Prize for their work advancing love, forgiveness and compassion. In that one image I saw love and compassion across individuals and cultures, and religions and race, and also saw a stand for creating bridges across differences of all kinds.

Scrolling through the site I saw the Center for Courage & Renewal and the tag line, “Reconnecting Who You Are with What You Do.” In that one line I received affirmation that I was not the only one disconnected. Thus began my relationship with the Center. A couple of years later I was invited to participate in the Courage & Renewal Academy for Leaders and truly began my personal relationship with courage work — work I came to refer to as “the courage to begin again.”

At the initial Academy retreat, I knew I was in the right place when before sharing my own story, one of my cohort members shared the proverb, “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.” I was home and there was hope.

My clarity and conviction to begin again grew with each cohort call. The calls were a safe place to pause and ask previously unmentionable questions, along with intelligent and committed peers with whom to do so. I had the privilege of experiencing the tremendous courage my peers called upon in the search for their own more sustainable ways of being, doing and contributing. I received confirmation, affirmation, validation and the courage to align my work with my most deeply held values, motivations and desires for meaning and contribution.

Through this alignment, through “truing up,” I became clear that my calling too is to be a bridge across the personal and political, the individual and global. It is from this aligned and far more solid foundation that I will soon enter the Pacific School of Religion as a Changemaker Fellow in its new Certificate of Spiritual and Social Change program and its Center for Spiritual and Social Transformation. Together these initiatives seek to integrate formative theological study with the preparation of vocation as a catalyst for transformational leadership and social change.

In shifting out of a career and into a calling, I will combine my personal and professional advocacy skills with the lessons learned over the past few years about peer learning, mindfulness, mental health, neuroscience, leadership and vocation. As a Changemaker Fellow, I will add the last and most important pieces, further spiritual formation and theological grounding in order to do what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has encouraged:

“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”

valerie_purnellI offer this story of reinvention and ongoing transformation in hopes that another searching soul might land upon it and find encouragement to participate in the Academy for Leaders. Meanwhile, I will cherish my Academy photos and the memories of those therein. They listened to me, saw me, tempered, centered and encouraged me. I embrace and carry them forward with me in strength and with the deepest gratitude. That is what is offered here.


Want to hear more from Valerie about the process of finding her True North? Watch her video here.

Learn all about the Academy for Leaders at and consider taking your leadership “from mess to meaning” at one of the upcoming academies near Austin, Texas (2014-2015) and Seattle, Washington (2015).

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