Pastors and lay leaders, start where many of your people live: burnout and the “suckiness” of work

We’ve been talking about how much God values our work and how important it is to his purposes. That’s great, but most people live far, far from that reality. And pastors, let’s be honest: most of you are not equipped to help your people put the “thorns and thistles” of their work in biblical perspective.

The truth is that most working people, though they may otherwise love their church and their pastor, feel their pastor simply does not understand their working world and its issues. One businessman puts the situation in stark terms. He says:

“In the almost 30 years of my professional career, my church has never once suggested that there be any type of accounting of my on-the-job ministry to others. . . . There has never been an inquiry into the types of ethical decisions I must face, or whether I seek to communicate the faith to my co-workers. I have never been in a congregation where there was any type of public affirmation of a ministry in my career [as a sales manager]. In short, I must conclude that my church really doesn’t have the least interest in whether or how I minister in my daily work.”

This is clearly a matter for pastoral concern and action.

Church leaders (and let’s include lay as well as pastoral leaders here): if we don’t start by addressing what we might call the “suckiness” of work as many people currently experience it, then our chances of bringing a message of the kingdom value and meanings of work to our congregants, friends, and co-workers are slim-to-none. Any rosy picture of work that floats above the earth in a sort of biblical-theological stratosphere is simply not going to connect with many folks. Worse: it will quickly lead many hearers to turn us off, be angry with us, or even come to the opinion that our message is an improper, possibly an immoral one. How can we hold out such fantasy hopes when the reality of work is so very different for so many?

For a peek into the reality of work, we need only go as far as Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report. The report tells us that while 30% of American workers are engaged and inspired at work, a full 20% are actively disengaged, spreading discontent, and, depressingly, the other 50% are just “kind of present”—unengaged and uninspired.

I would venture to guess that just as with many other social measures – divorce rates, harmful social attitudes, political polarization, and on down the list – Christians today are not far ahead of their non-Christian neighbors. Many have simply given up on finding some vocational way to serve the world through the best use of their gifts; they have ceased to believe – if they ever did – that through their ordinary daily work, they can deepen in their own discipleship and live their witness for Christ before others; and they are confused at best about what it might mean to bring gospel values to bear in challenging work setting and sectors.

The problem may have its root in our universities, where the classical understanding of vocation (God’s calling in whatever sphere or spheres a person operates in) has been exchanged for what essentially amounts to skills training for specific jobs, without any sense of their larger significance. Princeton ethicist Max Stackhouse suggests that the way most of us are trained for work leaves a gaping spiritual void.

One symptom of that void in vocational teaching may be the common phenomenon of burnout. Jeff Van Duzer, dean of Seattle Pacific University’s business school and author of Why Business Matters to God: And What Still Needs to Be Fixed, addresses this. He says, “I think part of burnout is losing track of your purpose. Now you’re working harder and harder, faster and faster for that which is seemingly more and more meaningless.” If only, Jeff Van Duzer suggests, we could truly believe that what we do is “part of the architecture of God’s kingdom.” We might think of this sort of belief as a life-giving tonic, more invigorating than any shot of Five-Hour Energy!

To be continued . . .

2 responses to “Pastors and lay leaders, start where many of your people live: burnout and the “suckiness” of work

  1. Mike – yes: Tom Nelson’s Christ Community Church in suburban Kansas City (Tom also wrote Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work) and John Yates’s Falls Church Anglican in the Washington DC area (one of his congregants is Steve Garber, author of Visions of Vocation).

  2. Chris, I find my experience to be the same as your quoted sales manager. Have you found examples of fellowships that get it or churches that are trying to address this issue?

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