Pastors and their congregants share something surprising in common that is now obvious for the first time in generations: they are all confused about work.
In early 2020, as the pandemic increased and the world shut down, our news feeds felt heavy with articles from the marketplace touting waves of layoffs and predictions of a second major depression as unemployment, and furloughs reached rates not seen in this generation. A year later the statistics around jobs remain unclear.
Reports say that a record 95 percent of US workers are considering quitting their jobs, citing burnout as a major factor, and in April 2021, in what’s being called the “great resignation,” more people quit in the span of one month than ever before. Yet McKinsey and Company’s recently published report, The Future of Work after Covid, illuminates that low wage workers will continue to struggle to find new work post Covid because of automation.
The messages and realities about work, regardless of one’s status, seem uncertain.
Pastors, too, are experiencing uncertainty around their work. At a recent conference for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination, George Roberson, a senior pastor from Memphis, Tennessee, stated in his plenary address that every pastor he has met with this year, including himself, has contemplated leaving their jobs. Barna data reveals that more than one third of pastors officially state that they are currently considering leaving ministry all together.
If pastors are struggling with work, how can they unify and encourage others struggling with work?
Exacerbated by Covid, for the first time in modern history, both pastors and their congregants — from artists to business leaders to low wage workers — are united by one thing about work: its toil. For some, work is ideal and prosperous, but only at times. But for all, work can be fruitless and menial.
As organized religion wanes in the US and church attendance (even online) at an all time low, can workplace toil be not just a pain point exacerbated by Covid, but an opportunity for the church to exemplify Christ? What if we allow this pain to reveal our own brokenness, the dark side of systems, and the hope of the gospel, not just for ourselves, but for all creation? Let the struggle of work produce unity rather than disparity.
Clarity and Action in Our Work Struggles
What could it look like to bring the toil of work, regardless of ministry context, into the day-to -day of our churches? In order to see the pain of work through the lens of the gospel, pastors must first examine their own toil and also understand the specific pain of their congregants. Here are a few practical ways to clarify and take action around the difficulties of work both within and outside the church walls.
Examine the Toils of Ministry Leadership
When you think about the frustrations of your pastoral work, what are your main pain points? These pain points can reveal the idolatries that exist in your own heart around work as well as the systems around you that may be broken and contributing to the hardships. The following questions will help you examine your toil as a pastor or ministry leader:
- Do you feel isolated without an ability to see your congregation? Are you scared and even angry about whether they will come back?
- Are you unable to conceive of your church financially pulling out of Covid?
- Are you tired of someone being mad at you every week over big and small things from the role of politics in the church to racial reckoning to vaccines, to masks?
- Are you worried that if you quit your job that you will not have the skills to do any other kind of job without serious retraining?
Taking the time to examine the brokenness around work in your own heart and institutional systems will prepare you to more empathetically engage in the pain of laity.
Identify the Struggles of Your Congregants’ Work
By engaging with congregants in one-on-one workplace site visits or in small groups, church leaders can gain clarity about the typical pains of those in their church body. The areas of stress and suffering can inform spiritual leaders about how to apply the hope of the gospel in a message that is meaningful to the day-to-day reality of the individual at work. These questions can help your conversations with people and help you identify where they struggle in their work.
- Do low wage workers struggle to see work as good? Are they being taken advantage of by their bosses?
- Do professional business leaders wonder about their calling and whether it is worth it?
- Have artists lost their drive to create? Have they lost their confidence in their ability to perform? Have they lost their financial flexibility to focus on their art?
As you interact with your congregants, the toils of workers should reveal misplaced affections and broken systems.
Find the Common Ground in the Toil of Work
If pastors and congregants are both in pain due to work, finding common links may provide a fresh perspective and a sense of unification in the present. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your work as a pastor.
- Is your sense of pastoral isolation relatable to business workers whose jobs have been moved entirely remote?
- Could your exhaustion from all the anger and division compare to the toils of someone in school leadership trying to open the doors for kids?
- Can giving sermons to a camera be a connection point to the artist who has moved to YouTube?
- If financial stress has pushed you to find second streams of income, does that help you relate to the worker covering two shifts at the plant?
Though the toils have different contexts, finding the similarities in our work stress through examining our own idolatries and the broken systems in which we work can allow us to together understand the work of Christ on our behalf.
Seek — and Find — Hope
Each time we experience a workplace toil, whether fair or unfair, it is an opportunity to examine the cross, remembering our troubles are nothing Jesus did not face. Pastors and congregants can look to Christ for hope. We can look to Christ, not the success of our church or our business, as our identity. We can look to the misery Christ experienced for our sake as we look to our own misery. We can see Christ as the ultimate liberator of broken systems. We can push against darkness in his strength. And we can do it together, at work.
If we allow work to become a place that reveals our misplaced affections and broken systems that need our help, then suddenly the hope we profess might feel more relevant to our congregants. Struggles at work, while different because of Covid, are not new. Let’s collectively embrace the toil of labor to the glory of God. Now that will take some work.