Treading water: One independent worker’s reflection in the time of the Coronavirus

“Stay back from the edge!” I said that to my boys more times than I could count during our fall hiking trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Northern Michigan. The sandstone cliffs towering over Lake Superior are magnificent. On calm, sunny days you can see their clay, tan, and yellow reflections on the crystal clear waters. On stormy days, the winds and waves buffet the cliffs without mercy.

As we walked along some of the trails nearest the lake, I worried that someone would step too close to the edge and tumble to the water below. Only a few weeks before our trip, a huge section of a cliff collapsed. Apparently this happens regularly as the result of erosion.

Working in the gig economy can feel like walking dangerously close to the edge. In a previous article, I described the vulnerability gig workers, like me, experience on a regular basis. Will we have enough work? Will we be able to afford health insurance? What happens if we get sick and can’t work?

Between my consulting business and adjunct teaching for two universities, I have been piecing together gigs, hoping to have enough work to meet most of our family’s expenses. Just a few weeks ago, papers splayed in front of me, I charted out my projected income for the rest of the year. I included current consulting contracts and adjunct teaching contracts. And I marveled at how God had provided since I began ramping up my business in August. I had a new proposal going out in a matter of days, and I was waiting for a client to contact me about starting a four-year project. I was filled with hope. For the first time in a while, my feet felt secure.

Then Coronavirus came to the United States.

When Calvin University canceled its Festival of Faith and Writing, I wondered if Cornerstone University, just a few miles to the north, would cancel any of their events. Specifically, I wondered if they would cancel the March 17 conference I had been working on for months.

A few days later, as I drove to Target to purchase some gifts for the speakers and a few amenities for their green room, I caught bits and pieces of 1A’s episode “Coronavirus: All Work And No Play” on NPR. I resonated with much of what the guests said—about how many contract workers do not have paid sick leave or health insurance through their employer. The stimulus packages being discussed at that point seemed irrelevant to my work situation. My hope wavered a little. Perhaps the ground I was standing on was not as solid as I thought.

Little did I know, the ground was crumbling beneath my feet. By midday, one of our speakers emailed to say that his university was prohibiting him from travel. Another speaker emailed concerned about contracting the virus while traveling and potentially sharing it with his high-risk wife. Shortly before dinner, the conference director called with the news: the conference would have to be postponed.

I could barely eat that night. Nor could I focus enough to count from one to 12 during our family’s game of Skip-Bo. All of that work, all of that momentum built and energy spent leading up to the conference — all of it abruptly stopped. The cliff I had been standing on had broken off, and I was falling with it.

But that was not my only woe. Even though I, unlike our videographer, had executed most of my contract and had been compensated for most of my work, the conference director had asked for a proposal to develop learning resources after the conference. In other words, I had the hope of more work that was contingent on the conference taking place.

Contingent. So much of my work is contingent. I had never really thought about my work in those terms until someone called me a member of the contingent faculty at Trinity. Yes, to some extent, everyone’s work is contingent. We work at the pleasure of others. Employers can terminate and lay off employees. Even gig workers and their clients can end their contractual agreements.

But in the current economic climate — a climate that is changing daily — my work feels more precarious than it ever has. My primary consulting clients are faith-based non-profits. I’m working on a project focused on measuring church vitality which seems impossible given that we’re currently redefining what it means to be “the local church.” I also teach in higher education, but as an adjunct. If my classes get postponed or canceled, so does my income.

Right now, I feel a bit like I am treading water in a stormy Lake Superior. Grey clouds weigh oppressively overhead, and one more wave could break me against the rocks.

And do you know what? God sees me there. And he is with me — out there in the water, “where feet may fail.”[1]

For even as I typed these words, I received an email asking if I had availability for another gig. It may come to naught. But that email reminded me that my good Father sees me. I believe he hears my cries for mercy. I believe he “is full of mercy and compassion” (James 5:11 NIV).

Treading water is hard work. It’s sitting down at my computer when I can, putting on my noise-canceling headphones, and blocking out the chaos of having two young boys at home. It’s doing good work for the clients to whom I am contractually obligated right now. It’s doing thoughtful analysis, creative instructional design, excellent writing, and compassionate teaching. And it’s giving myself a break when I get tired, and permission to be adequate instead of perfect.[2]

And it’s finding comfort in a familiar psalm: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…” (Ps 46:1-2 NIV).

God is my refuge. O for the grace to trust him more. O for greater assurance that he will keep me from drowning. O that my heart, my mind, my soul, and my hands would be still and know that God Almighty is Lord.

He is Lord of the cosmos. He is Lord of every square inch of this earth. And He is Lord of my life.


[1] “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail).” Hillsong UNITED, 2013.

[2] “Self-compassion allows us to give ourselves the gift of being adequate at many things instead of exceptional at everything.” Chuck Degroat. Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Topics: Issues Facing Workers, Suffering

About the Author

Meryl Herr lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband and two sons.