Are You Leaning In or Leaning Up?

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A few years ago, Sheryl Sandberg (the CEO of Facebook and now Google), wrote a best-selling book, Lean In. She shared her observations about women, careers and what keeps women from advancement in the workplace. While I think Lean In has some practical advice for young, aspiring women, it doesn’t take God’s call on our lives into account. Rather than point out the faults in the philosophy presented in Lean In, I’d like to share a bit about my own journey.

As a forty-six-year-old woman (ironically exactly the same age as Sheryl Sandberg), I find myself a clinical psychologist, author, and president/co-founder of a ministry. I have also broken some “glass ceilings” like being a co-host on the male dominated Focus on the Family radio broadcast and being the first woman on the board of the Moody Bible Institute. None of this happened because I “leaned into” my career. In fact, I’ve done more “leaning out” than leaning in.

If you had met me twenty-five years ago, you would have described me as focused, ambitious and driven. I probably would have gobbled up advice like what is offered in Lean In. Yet the Lord has been chipping away at my ambition over the years. Ironically, the more I’ve surrendered my career goals, the more He seems to present the opportunities I had once dreamed about. Instead of “leaning in” to a career, I’ve learned to “lean up” to hear and obey the voice of my Savior.

While I could write a book on what “leaning up” means to me, I want to share three snapshots of times when the Lord has clearly directed my steps.

Dr., Wife, and Mom

In 1997, I was finishing my final year for my doctoral program in psychology. The same week as completing my last exam, I gave birth to my first son. No, Mike and I did not plan on this little bundle of joy, but here he was.

As part of my degree, I had to complete a full-time pre-doctoral internship. I was able to get an internship position working four 10-hour days during the first year of my son’s life. It almost killed me. I hated saying “goodbye” to Michael. I savored every moment I got to hold him and play with him. During that year, I also discovered I was pregnant with boy #2. I finished my internship and graduated with a 1-year-old and another on the way. Decision time. What would I do with my brand new degree, two little boys and a husband who was establishing his own career in the business world?

The Lord made it clear that being a wife and mom during this season was more important than being Dr. Juli. I was reminded that anyone else could fill my role in the counseling world, but no one else could be a mom to my boys or a wife to Mike. I spent the majority of my time for ten years at home, seeing clients two evenings a week.

Looking back on those years, I have no regrets. Yet at the time I was often racked with insecurity, questions and guilt. Was I neglecting my education and gifts by being home? Some women told me I was a fool to stay home; others made me feel guilty for working at all!

Saying “no” to my profession was as much about my marriage as it was about my boys. My husband needed me to support him, not compete with him. As I look now at the man who is so affirming and supportive of my ministry, I believe those early years laid a critical foundation of trust and intimacy.

Focus is Calling

You know when you have a dream so out of this world that you would be embarrassed to say it out loud? For me, it was working for Focus on the Family. Growing up, Dr. James Dobson was a role model for me. I wanted to apply God’s truth to marriage and families the way he did on the radio, speaking and writing. I gave up on that dream in my thirties. I was practically a stay-at-home mom living in Akron, Ohio. How would Focus ever find me?

One day, the phone rang. It was Focus on the Family. I had written a book called Finding the Hero In Your Husband and someone from Focus interviewed me over the phone for a radio broadcast. I had gone to the same graduate school as Dr. Bill Maier, the guy who interviewed me. Bill randomly called me and said, “Focus has been looking for a woman who has gifts in communication and has an advanced degree to be a voice for Focus. Is that something you would consider?”

I remember getting on my knees as soon as I hung up the phone. God, could this be for real? A year later, my husband and I were living in Colorado Springs and I was working for Focus on the Family. A year after that, Dr. Dobson had resigned and I was asked to be part of the broadcast team. I had never filled out an application or done anything to pursue this dream job. It was all the Lord’s work.

A Call is Better than a Dream

While serving at Focus, the Lord began to work deeply on my heart. You may have heard me share about the journey He took me on to begin the ministry Authentic Intimacy. I won’t go into the detail here, but I’ll say that the Lord was very clear that He was calling me to speak specifically about sexuality, brokenness, and intimacy. He also made it clear that I was to leave Focus on the Family and start a new ministry.

There were so many reasons why this was a bad idea and a terrible career move, but it didn’t matter. Many friends and colleagues questioned my decision. One said, “What are you going to do? Record radio in your garage? Juli, millions of people hear you every week. Why would you walk away from that to start some little ministry?” The Lord had brought me to the point where following Him was more important than following a dream.

Friend, every woman’s journey is different. I don’t for a second want to make you second-guess your choices about motherhood, marriage, and career. I just want to ask you if you are “leaning up.” Are you listening to the plans the Lord has for your life or are you too focused on your own agenda?

Women sometimes ask me, “How did you get to where you are? What steps should I take to do what you do?” All I can do is chuckle because it has all been the Lord. The only advice I can give is to lean up instead of leaning in.

Many women say Proverbs 3:5-6 is one of their favorite verses, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding. In all of your ways, acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” I don’t know what crossroads you are facing today, but I know that the Lord has wisdom, counsel and direction. If He is asking you to “retreat” from your will or desire, it is for the purpose of advancement in His Kingdom.

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  • Becky Atkinson

    Becky Atkinson

    Since I attended the conference in Akron Oh I have changed my mind set regarding raising my 8 and 6 year old granddaughters, instead of saying "this is not what I thought or wanted to be doing at 58" I have listened to what God was trying to tell me, - Jean, I have given you a gift in your granddaughters, like I helped Moses communicate with his people, I will help you raise your girls, embrace this time Jean and let me help you.
  • Annabelle Haas

    Annabelle Haas

    Thank you Juli for sharing this important message! Leaning Up makes so much sense to me. As an active mother of four, I gave up a career to stay home and raise my family. It was a true blessing and a gift from God to have this opportunity. Now many years later, child number 3 will begin college in the fall and now I'm down to one child going into 8th grade next year. I'm currently searching for full time employment and I am "leaning up" to God for His direction in my next career move. I honestly do not have any idea where my talent where lead me but I do know God is in control. This article helped affirm my trust in God, His guidance and His decision for my life. Today on 103.3 FM, Brian and Kathleen have discussed this topic especially for women who are contemplating when to dive back into the workforce. Amazing how God plants these seeds for growth and nourishment for His lovely mothers who dedicate their lives to their families. God is good, all the time!
  • kw


    Juli, THANK YOU for this solid message, guiding us to keep our minds and hearts fixed on Christ: ‘If He is asking you to “retreat” from your will or desire, it is for the purpose of advancement in His Kingdom.’ You wrote these words a few years ago but it is a TIMELESS message. This encourages me as God has stripped away so much and has directed me to our Example, who poured out his heart/desires, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me” but submissively resolved, “yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). He speaks through multiple channels and gets my attention, kindly confirming his instructions. Thank you for being one of his conduits of truth! Thank you for the specific examples from your life you shared of submission, obedience, patient waiting (thank you for the honesty about your self-doubts), and his generous responses. This helps me submit again today: ‘If He is asking you to “retreat” from your will or desire, it is for the purpose of advancement in His Kingdom.’ Advance your kingdom, LORD. Have your way, LORD. I choose daily to say, “not my will but yours be done,” LORD. Very sincerely, KW

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