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Chase your dream job, but keep your day job

Meet Allen Sheffield. It took him 10 years, but he finally figured out how to balance his career at a major accounting firm with his passion for running a youth ministry. -- Your Career by Eve Tahmincioglu.
Chase your dream job, but keep your day job
Kim Carney /

Meet Allen Sheffield. He has a lot of passions — accounting, his family, helping disadvantaged kids.

But in 1995 he realized he couldn’t do it all.

His managers at Coopers & Lybrand in Detroit tried but were unable to give Sheffield the flexibility he needed to spend more time with his growing family and his local youth ministry. “As an inner-city kid growing up in Detroit, I wanted to give something back,” he explains.

So, even though he was on the partnership track at one of the nation’s biggest accounting firms he gave it all up. “It broke my heart, really. Since I was 15 I always wanted to be a CPA,” he says.

He took a job in the audit department at Kmart instead that offered a scaled-back workload compared to the 65- to 80-hour weeks he was putting in at Coopers. But after four years working for the discount retailer, his calling to do more for the youth ministry where he was a board member brought him to yet another crossroads.

“I ended up sitting in church one Sunday night and I thought to myself, ‘I can’t wait until I retire so I can spend more time with the youth at the ministry,’” he recalls.
“A little voice inside of me said, ‘Why wait? Why not do it now?’”

In 1999 he talked to his wife, and the couple decided they would start saving as much money as they could and pay down their debt so Sheffield could take an 18-month leave of absence from Kmart. Instead he worked at ministry, doing administrative functions for a fraction of the salary he and his family had become accustomed to.

“No more time shares and vacations to Florida,” says Sheffield, who had three children at the time and a hefty mortgage.

The way the couple saw it, it would be a year-and-a-half deal, and then they could go back to the life they had before.

In July 2001, he realized there was no going back to his former life and he took over the helm as president of the ministry, called Joy of Jesus, a three-building campus on the east side of Detroit that offers computer training, tutoring, after-school programs and a Head Start program, as well as a camp in Kingston, Mich., for 400 kids every summer.

“This is a safe haven for kids on the streets of Detroit,” he explains.

Giving up his corporate job meant the family, now including four children, had to make a lot of sacrifices, cutting back on Christmas presents and eating at home more. When times were really tough Sheffield admits he was late on a few mortgage payments. His salary at the ministry was $30,000 at the time, compared to his $95,000 annual take at Kmart.

Even though he felt fulfilled by his job at the ministry, he thought about his former life at Coopers, now known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, and stayed in touch with the partners there, talking to them on the phone and joining many former colleagues at golf outings, sometimes soliciting them for donations to the ministry.

In the summer of 2005, partner Mark Matthews asked if Sheffield wanted to meet for lunch to discuss the possibility of him coming back to the firm.

“I laughed at him,” he recounted, because he had already tried and failed to get the kind of flexible schedule he needed. “Mark told me things had changed.”

Sheffield decided to check it out, calling former co-workers and managers at the company to make sure they had indeed changed their ways when it came to work and family initiatives, and after discussing it with his wife, Paula, came up with a schedule that would fit his many obligations and proposed it to the managers at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“I put my plan on the table,” he says. He would work a 60 percent schedule, or three days a week during the fall and 100 percent in the winter, the busiest season for accounting.

“But during the summer months, when the camp was in full swing, from May to August, I’d work one day a week," he says.

The plan was accepted by the company and he went back to work at the accounting firm in September 2005, still maintaining the presidency of the youth ministry. He gets 60 percent of a full-time salary from PricewaterhouseCoopers, paid equally over 24 pay periods during the year.

His dream is to make partner at the firm.

“I would describe it as having my cake and eating it too,” he says.