Friday, July 10, 2009

Just a Job?

In a couple of weeks I will be teaching a course for United Methodist licensed local pastors on Christian Ethics. If you are reading this and don’t know there is a difference between ordained persons appointed as pastors of United Methodist churches and licensed persons appointed as pastors of United Methodist churches - - - well, it is a bit of an explanation and not terribly germane here. One distinction is that licensed local pastors may, in lieu of seminary, take seminary-like courses as a part of a course of study. That’s where I will be doing my teaching.

One of the texts for the course is Rebekah Miles’ The Pastor as Moral Guide, a very good book and one I would recommend to all my colleagues in ministry. Dr. Miles writes well and raises important issues in a thoughtful manner. One need not agree with her on all the issues she presents to benefit from reading her book.

One section of the book I found particularly thought-provoking was her discussion of work. The following passage follows stories shared about persons struggling with various difficulties surrounding work – a family that has little time for each other, a single parent, and person who has lost his job. Miles argues that we struggle with balancing work with other parts of our lives (no big news there!). How might we work toward a better balance?

In addition to renewing the concept of vocation, we need to regain a new realism about work. If the first remedy is to raise the value of work, the second is to lower its value. Work is not only a calling and joy but also toil and vanity. We often value work too highly, expecting too much of it, letting it consume not only our time but also our identities. Love of work can become idolatry. What we need, then, is to lower the value of work. The purpose of work is survival and service. Our larger call is to be Christian. Employment is simply one part of that call…. We need to lower our sights and recognize that all work has limited value. We aren’t called to like it, just to do it. In short, we value work too much and too little. We expect too much of it when we look to it for ultimate meaning or when we forget that it is toil and vanity. Remembering God and the larger purposes of life, we are reminded of works important but secondary role. We need a hopeful realism and a chastened idealism about work. (69)

But does that apply to my work? After all, I am a pastor. I work with ultimate meanings, with people’s relationships to God, to one another, to the earth, to society. Is it ever appropriate to think of my job as, well, just a job?

Maybe it is turning 50, maybe it is a number of other factors converging, but Miles’ words make sense, even for pastors, even for me. Yes, I have the wonderful privilege of touching people’s lives in times of joy and sorrow, chaos, grief, pain, celebration. I get to hold babies and be a part of welcoming them as one of God’s loved children. I get to celebrate the love between people and stand with people when they bid their final good-bye to a loved one. I get to help people think about life in relationship to God and be a part of their spiritual journey. I get to help people work together to form community. These are the kinds of experiences that are a part of my job description that let me know that my job is more than a job, that ultimate meanings are woven within what I do. But I also have paperwork to complete, personnel issues to deal with, days when toil is not too far removed from my experience of being a pastor. Somehow Miles’ words have helped remind me that it is o.k. to remember that even if my job involves ultimate meanings, the job itself does not contain all ultimate meaning. God has called me to be a pastor, but first God called me to be a Christian, a full human being who finds what that means in Jesus. It is o.k., then, to have times when I don’t have to like all that I do, just do it. Sometimes being a pastor is just a job. I am deeply grateful that it is also often so much more.

With Faith and With Feathers,