Alaina Kleinbeck: The dangers of workism, especially for pastors

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Our culture prizes meaningful work, and a lot of it. What does that mean for pastors whose desks are actually altars?

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.