Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Time and Work

I was at a meeting today where professional church leaders and students who are studying to be professional church leaders (interns and supervisors, for you who understand ELCA-speak) were talking about some of the ins and outs of our vocation. As we talked, I found myself dumbfounded by the work ethic that I heard from some of my colleagues.

All seven readers of this blog probably know about the so-called protestant work ethic ~ that enthusiastic spirit of go-get-it-ness upon which the idea of USAmerica is built. What I'm dumbfounded by is what the protestant work ethic has become in our society.

In a day when the speed of travel was "foot" ~ either human, or some animal ~ the practice of spending every possible moment working so that we could build a better life for ourselves was probably good. But when you're traveling to town on a wagon, you can't work ... so while you may be driving the horse, to some degree you're also resting. When the sun goes down, and there's no light to see by, you're forced to stop working and rest. When you take a holiday and get together with the neighbors for a barbecue, the community has stopped its work.

Today, the speed at which we travel is much faster than "foot". We have cars and airplanes, trains and buses. Further, we have the ability to keep our surroundings lit as bright as day. And while we're sitting in our brightly-lit homes, our florescent offices, or our cars airplanes trains buses, we can take along our laptop computers and handheld mobile stay-connected-all-the-time devices. While we're traveling, we can work. When the sun has gone down, we can work. While we're at the family community church neighborhood picnic, we can work.

So the protestant work ethic, which arguably has helped our society become economically successful by telling us to work whenever possible, has become unhealthy because we can now literally work all the time. And because it's so ingrained in our collective consciousness that more work is better, we find ourselves bragging about how much we work.

"I'm up at 5, at the gym soon after that, in the office by 7:30, and not home 'til 9 at night." "I take a day off, but usually not a whole day, because there's just so much I have to do." "I took vacation last summer, but there was stuff I had to do while I was gone, so I brought my laptop along."

We say these things to one another with pride, bragging about how we can work so much while still maintaining our sanity. We have bought into this idea that the busier we are, the more valuable we must be.

The great heresy is that our worth is measured by how busy we are. Time is money, after all. And if time is money, and money equals value, then time must equal value. Therefore, the busier we are, the more we're worth.

I don't necessarily begrudge the business world this theology. After all, capitalism wouldn't work without this kind of worldview. But I do fault my church professional colleagues who have bought into this worldview. Aren't we called to be counter to the culture when the culture is counter to the Gospel? And it doesn't do to preach this from the pulpit. Our sermons must be preached through a symmetry of word and action. Of course, none of us is perfect. However, for our preaching to have integrity, we must endeavor to embody our preaching. We cannot preach Sabbath without practicing Sabbath.

So much work becomes a means by which to control the world around us. Sure, the business professionals in our congregations may respect us pastors for working as many hours as they do. We don't become followers of Jesus by exerting control over our world. We become disciples by relinquishing control to G-d. It may be that the best thing we can do in our society is to set time aside to not be in control ~ to recognize by our inaction that G-d is G-d and we are not.



  1. I agree... and thank you. I'm not sure you know how much this means to me to read these words :-)

  2. Thanks for your 2 cents. We need to hear this-Sabbath is important, resting, ceasing and not being in control is a way to trust God.

    Again thanks!