Dear Siblings in Christ:
I’ve been listening to a book by James Suzman called Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots. I don’t know why I’m so surprised, but he writes about the relationship between work and religion quite a bit. One of the themes he leans into is about how work was related to the tendency to try and create or shape order:
“It is no coincidence that tension between chaos and order is a feature of the world’s mythologies. After all, science also insists that there is a universal relationship between disorder and work, one that was first revealed during the heady days of the Enlightenment in Western Europe.”
This book was published almost a year ago in the middle of the pandemic but before the massive numbers of people stepping away from work. It does seem to inadvertently name the reality of one of these things that’s broken at this moment. No amount of work has truly kept the chaos away. No matter how much we work, it seems as though things are chaotic anyway. We’re truly not in control, and, even more than that, it sometimes feels as though no one is.
During the early days of the pandemic, we were all waiting for Someone to do Something. There was a lot of talk about We, too. The idea that, somehow, We would all come quickly together with a tremendous sense of Unity and all agree on the best way to fight off this tiny little virus thing. Two weeks, maybe a month, of Unity, combined with Someone doing Something, and We would be victorious. And, to be fair, Someones have done Somethings, and there have been moments it’s, at least, felt as though we’ve had Unity.
It hasn’t been enough to stave off the chaos, though. We think we’ve figured it out, then we learn something new about COVID, or it mutates into something harder to fight. As much as We try and tell each other what we must do to find Unity, a sense of “We” hasn’t been uncovered. All our digging for it has simply seemed to widen the ditch between Us and Them.
We’ve become resigned to chaos among us and between us. We’ve become resigned to the reality that our work might not be what saves Us. Our resignations have come together and become what’s now called “The Great Resignation” or “The Big Quit” (or a few other similar terms that have “Great” or “Big” in front of them). We’re quitting jobs, relationships, institutions, commitments, and a lot of other things. These were all things that were supposed to stave off the chaos and they didn’t work. So we’re moving into pods and starting our own gigs and breaking up, stepping away from those organizations, commitments, and relationships that didn’t seem to hold up their end of the deal in keeping us free from an exhausting, life-draining chaos.
Church life is reflecting this, too. A lot of church professionals and church volunteers are stepping away from church work. I’m hearing this reality across denominations. Like in the secular world, the number of people leaving paid church worker positions is outstripping the number of qualified people interested in filling those positions. It’s rarely been easy to find folks to fill church volunteer positions, but it’s never been this hard. As a result, a lot of churches are discerning whether or not to close.
We’re all exhausted and in varying stages of grief or depression or trauma or maybe all of these things combined. We need time by ourselves or with a very select group of people that bring us life and healing. We need to sit with art in private or with others to help refill our reservoirs of awe and creativity. We all need rest, restoration, and healing.
However, the period at the end of that last sentence might be misleading. When we’re in moments of pain, they sometimes feel as though they and the process of healing will last forever.
But, my siblings in Christ, this moment will not last forever.
In the same way, we were in the early part of the pandemic almost exactly two years ago, we are in the early stages of our emergence right now. Even with the news about the new variant, we’re starting to have enough experience to figure out how to live with or mitigate most of the effects of COVID. Some of what so many have done has made a difference in that. Between now and Spring, we’re going to continue to be emerging from this moment at the similar slow-fast-slow-fast pace at which we entered it. With that in mind, we have to start thinking about changing that last sentence from “We all need rest, restoration, and healing” by adding two simple words: “So that…”
Many of you have heard me suggest using this two-word phrase as a method for discerning where to place the Church’s limited resources. “So that” demands a purpose for an action that can help us discern what God is calling us to.
As we consider our part in”The Great Resignation” or “The Big Quit,” it’s similar. What we’re going through has helped make clear the limits of our internal resources. We need to look at where to best put our time, energy, and other resources. That’s holy work and good stewardship. I’ll even suggest a faith-based phrase to consider on the other end of that “So that…” and it’s “I can better serve God and God’s people.”
We’re also learning something about the purpose for and meaning of Sabbath in ways that might just stick around for a while. The world has slowed down. We may be adjusting our relationships so that we can use our resources at a more reasonable, healthy, and sustainable pace. We need to make some adjustments to make sure that Sabbath continues as a part of our lives.
Sometimes, we may need to resign. Sometimes we may need to quit. However, I wonder if we do it in too large a way when we need to do it in smaller ways. Sometimes, we quit everything when what we need to do is quit some things. I think that’s particularly true at moments when our spiritual and emotional state is in such a rut. I wonder if we’re missing an opportunity in all of this?
This is what I’d like to suggest: before you participate in the Great Resignation, what if you first try having a Great Renegotiation? I know that when I’ve felt like quitting, it’s usually not been about my whole job or relationship but parts of it that affect my whole self like a splinter. Some parts take so much energy or pain that it feels like these parts are the whole. Sometimes I may need to step away from that job or relationship entirely, but more frequently, I need to ask for help or set reasonable expectations; clearly saying what I am and am not willing to do. Again, I’m not saying that there aren’t times God is calling us to something entirely different. Still, I wonder if, more often than not, God is calling us to do some things differently. Not end our relationship with an organization or others but renegotiate that relationship.
In the case of the church, maybe renegotiate so that we can better serve God and God’s people together. What we come up with might not always fit neatly into our job descriptions, bylaws, or traditions, but so what? These are things we created and negotiated. They can be recreated and renegotiated so that God and God’s people can be better served.
We’re all beautiful and flawed and usually doing the best we know how. I’m not saying a renegotiation will make everything perfect, but there is a really good chance that it will make things better than they were before. Sure, it’s unlikely to fix everything that might be wrong. Still, it could help establish a relationship of honesty, vulnerability, and consent that paves a way to “better.”
We’re in an exhausting, chaotic, painful, and – well – weird moment right now. We’re not through it yet, but we are getting closer. Part of what will help bring meaning to this moment is how we negotiate and then renegotiate our way through it. There is even a chance that what we renegotiate now will help give this moment some sense of meaning and redemption later.
I actually think it’s likely. Some of these days may be awful, but I truly believe better days are coming. I believe it with all my heart.
Rev. Mike Denton
Conference Minister of
The Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Church of Christ
You can give to the ministries of the Pacific Northwest Conference by going to www.pncucc.org and clicking on the “Donate” button. Follow me on Twitter @denton_rev
4 thoughts on “Before you join the Great Resignation…”
Thank you Mike for these good and true words!
I retired (June 2019)from my position as a Senior Pastor of a large UCC congregation. As I watched my pastor colleagues navigate the turbulent waters of COVID, my respect for them only grew.
For all of us who love the church, even with all its flaws, Mike presents us with a powerful tool on how we might look again at our relationship to our communities. Instead of “resignation” think of “renegotiation” so that we may better serve God and God’s people. Thank you, Mike, for this memorable “takeaway”
I am a coach. Right now, I am coaching UCC pastors throughout the country. My role is to listen deeply and ask a few powerful questions, so that my “coachees” can imagine for themselves what a new renegotiated relationship with their congregation might be like. If you’d like a taste of what this could do for you or someone you know, come visit my website at http://www.peterluckey.com
Good thoughts. I liked the idea of calling the slowdown a “Sabbatical” and used that term a lot early in the pandemic, but after 21 months, we’re all tired. However, we are still created (and called) to work. I think that is true even in retirement.
Hav you read Makoto Fujimura’s “Art and Faith: A Theology of Making”? He has some good things to say about work.
I came across your blog as it was featured in a Presbytery of the Peaks newsletter.
Thanks for all of this; your comments, your book suggestions, and where you found this. One if the ideas I’ve been playing with is that we’re exhausted because we know how to rest/pause somewhat decently. However, Sabbath isn’t just rest but restorative. That’s the piece that deserves being renewed, rediscovered, and practiced. My sermon “Trying to be happy” was my first shot but I’ll be writing more.