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Alaina Kleinbeck: The dangers of workism, especially for pastors

Workism is the new religious tradition in town.

Workism proclaims that we must “do what we love and love what we do.” “In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings — from necessity to status to meaning,” writes Derek Thompson of The Atlantic. For educated professionals in the United States, our work identity has become central to our sense of self. We are what we do. When we meet a new person, “What’s your name?” is quickly followed by, “What do you do?” Those of us who try not to define ourselves by our titles — or who have been pushed out of jobs aligned with our sense of purpose — are left feeling inadequate and needing to explain ourselves.

As a culture, we worship work success stories, even at our peril. Our relationship to work is distorted, if not toxic. The problem, Thompson argues, is clear: “Our desks were never meant to be our altars.” It’s no wonder we are so eager to buy into the wellness industry’s latest gimmicks to erase the pain of our overidentification of work with worth.

Wellness is workism’s co-conspirator, luring the weary, overworked and wealthy among us. Wellness often looks like a willowy white woman in flowy monochromatic garb selling a juice, powder, cream, class or strategy to cure our existential ills. Wellness promises that the purchase of the right set of products, put to use diligently in a self-care regimen that includes just the right quantities of steps, meditation and sleep (all tracked on that expensive device on our wrists) will eliminate our woes. Its gurus sell us aspirations of a life with good vibes, spa days and raw-food diets that look better than they taste.

But all of this falls short, because wellness fails to address workism itself, the root cause of our weariness.

Yet what if my job is a calling and my desk is an altar?

In a culture of workism and wellness, pastoral leaders have an unusual challenge. Pastors come to their work because they have experienced a call to serve God and the people of God. And so, in this moment when work is worshipped, pastors are uniquely vulnerable.

The Flourishing in Ministry research directed by Matt Bloom, an associate professor of management and organization at the University of Notre Dame, has revealed that while pastors believe their work matters and report high levels of job satisfaction, they also are vulnerable to high levels of burnout. A third of pastors surveyed reported high to severe levels of burnout. Evidence suggests that women, people of color and pastors over 40 are especially vulnerable to burnout.

Alongside this research, Lilly Endowment Inc. has funded 103 projects in the Thriving in Ministry initiative intended to pilot interventions for pastors in a wide variety of contextual and transitional settings where burnout, fatigue and a lower sense of well-being are likely to occur.

These interventions, unlike the wellness strategies marketed on Instagram, encourage pastors to strengthen their sense of community, forming collegial relationships with peers and mentoring one another. Many of the projects employ contemplative prayer practices, cohort groups and retreats.

Further, unlike the wellness-industrial complex and its celebrities selling pseudoscientific moon juice, this initiative has deep theological commitments — to the incarnation, to Wesleyan discipleship bands, to a reimagining of theology that takes seriously the lived experience of vulnerable groups, to the rejection of “success” as limited to the quantifiable, and so much more.

Thriving in Ministry is an opportunity for Christian institutional leaders to walk alongside pastors and empower them to address the myths of workism and wellness that have thwarted their thriving. It’s an opportunity for pastors to reclaim the relationship between work and well-being, taking the call to minister as seriously as the command to honor the Sabbath. And it’s an opportunity for those of us who are committed to the health of pastors and congregations to imagine new ways of doing God’s work in the world.

Earlier this year, I spoke to 150 mostly middle school youth at a winter retreat focusing on the Lord’s Prayer. The assembled youth were mostly white, mostly middle class and mostly looking forward to rambunctious free-time activities.

Before I arrived, I had prepared the first two sermons and thought through ideas for the remaining two. On Friday night, I preached about God’s holiness. On Saturday morning, the topic was God’s provision.

Later that morning, as I pondered daily bread and deliverance from evil for the remaining sermons, it hit me in a new way that these were young people, the same age as Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. Most of the young people at this retreat didn’t look like Jordan, Trayvon and Tamir, but they might attend school with them. Or perhaps they attend schools intentionally built to keep out the Jordans, Trayvons and Tamirs.

I often pray for young people who have died or been brutalized in racially motivated violence. But I have observed that discussions about police brutality against black and brown people are rare in a white youth ministry context.

The more I learn about my own identity as a white Christian youth minister, the more I am convinced that these conversations with young white people lie at the core of my calling as a Christian. I’ve come to know a Jesus who interrupts violence with peace, and hate with love, who doesn’t sit idly by, overwhelmed by a challenge too big to overcome. In drawing closer to God, I have been called into that work of interruption alongside a community of faithful people.

So in that third sermon, I said that God cares about the black and brown young people in their schools and communities who are mistreated and maligned. I said that black and brown lives matter to God, and that God’s protection is made real when we act against mistreatment and the racism in our communities. We live the Lord’s Prayer when we speak and act against racial brutality.

While I had been passionate about the evils of racism in my country, that moment marked the beginning of my journey toward anti-racist youth ministry in the white church. I’m learning that this is not an identity to be achieved — or a place at which I will arrive all on my own.

Rather, anti-racist youth ministry in the white church is a daily practice of calling myself and my fellow white youth ministers to imagine a world in which the lives of black and brown youth are as valued as the lives of white youth, and to work with others in making that imagined world real.

It is a daily practice of vocal repentance of the cultural violence done against people of color in this country and in my community, and of the ways in which I’ve benefited from that violence. It is investing in and partnering with people of color to protect their lives and dismantle the systems that oppress them, allowing them to change me and the content and form of the programs I lead. It is asking my white friends who are also striving to be anti-racist to hold me accountable and challenge me to think bigger about our collective work to dismantle racism.

Since the sermon that awakened me to the work of becoming an anti-racist youth worker, I have been asking God how I might use my role as youth worker and leader of youth workers to empower real change in our culture, our communities and our churches.

How might God use me and the work of youth ministry to usher in the kingdom where daily bread, release from debt and deliverance from temptation and evil is not just for some but for all? How might white youth ministers like me actively partner with those who are hurting — listening and following their lead in transforming the world to be the kingdom of God we plead for in the Lord’s Prayer?

Praying the Lord’s Prayer is a call to a new way of being in the world. Today, in the United States, in our communities, in our churches, and even in our white youth ministries, we need a new way of being. We need to speak honestly about our histories, repent of and repair the harms inflicted, and live the prayers we speak.