Don’t read this post until you’ve read “The Religion of Workism” from The Atlantic. Go read that, even if you don’t have time to come back and read this post.
Clergy might be particularly susceptible to the religion of work. It’s easy to confuse your work with your religion when you work is religion. In my case, it doesn’t help that I am one of the millenials who “passed through a childhood of extracurricular overachievement and checked every box of the success sequence.” I’m fortunate to have been early enough in my generation that the economic crash of 2008 did not blow up my dreams. I got a good job in my field. Thirteen years after finishing graduate school, I am doing my dream job. Two of them, actually. And, in general, I have expected to find fulfillment in this rich and varied work that both pays my bills, gives back to my community, and lets me travel.
Has it worked? Has having two “dream jobs” (at once) brought me fulfillment? Sometimes. Sometimes not. (Today I’m feeling particularly stressed and anxious, wondering whether I even have time to write the post!) As with the author of this article, those unfulfilled times “can send me into an existential funk that can spill over into every part of my life.” Workism, it turns out, does not work – not even for clergy.
I have been catching glimpses of this truth for years, but the picture has become clearer since serving a multi-cultural congregation. I noticed almost immediately that the Cambodian and West African members of my congregation almost never talk about their jobs. After 3 1/2 years of ministry here, I still do not know what many of my people do for a living or who they work for. Their jobs are what they do so that can support their families both here and back home. And while there is certainly some commitment to the American Dream, for my non-Western members, identity comes much more from their ethnic and cultural roots, their commitment to their families, and their faith in Jesus Christ than from their jobs.
A couple summers ago, I led an eight-week worship series on vocation using many of the excellent resources from the folks at the Theology of Work Project. We explored the idea that were were created in the image of God who labored for 6 days to create the world. We were made to work. But we were also created in the image of God who rested, really rested, and charged the creation to do the same. The idea in that series was not to convince people that they needed to find a fulfilling job or even find fulfillment in their jobs, but that they could live out their faith no matter what kind of job they do or don’t do.
Reflecting on that summer series, I wonder if my Workist side was inviting people to find fulfillment in jobs that the culture says cannot be fulfilling. I’d like to think my Christian side was telling people that what they do and how they do it can be an expression of their Christian faith and identity, even if the world doesn’t value one kind of work or another.
I recognize I am privileged to have a job that I mostly enjoy, that pays the bills, and that gives me opportunities to make my community a better place. But if I don’t remind myself often, then the stress, anxiety, and burnout will do it for me: my religion should not be work, even if my work is religion. There is much I can learn from my Cambodian and West African members. And so, as their pastor, I will do my work faithfully even as I try to put my deepest faith not in my job but in Jesus who should shape all that I do, on the the job and off.