Is That Really Why They Call It Work?

(or

“Don’t Try This At Home!”)


Almost every Christian I know is unhappy in their work. I’ve had many conversations with friends in recent months who’ve made comments like “I just don’t know if I’m cut out for this job…” or “I don’t know how much longer I can do this!”

Me? I quit my job over two years ago due to severe job dissatisfaction. Those who know me know that wasn’t the first time, either. Eight years ago I left behind a 9-year career as a “church professional” (13 years if you count the schooling required beforehand). In the two years since I quit the more recent job, I’ve been pretty unhappy in the short-term jobs I’ve had since then, too.

I may be an extreme case, though. You see, the truth is, I hate work. It may sound like I’m just lazy (and in fact, maybe I am!). But I did pretty well in school. I graduated Magna cum laude from college with a GPA of 3.9. Likewise, my GPA in grad school was a 3.5. So I think I do know how to work. I do know how to strive for excellence in areas I care about. It’s not the work itself I mind. It’s the fact that I do my best and my best never seems to be “right” or enough. I think the real problem is I hate the atmosphere in the workplace and the rules governing it. I’m a contrarian. I just don’t really want to go along with a lot of the B.S. that’s required in so many jobs. (And to be honest, I felt pretty much the same way about church work, too. Hope that’s not too much of a shock for anybody….)

But even though I may be an extreme case, evidently I’m not alone. For as I said, a lot of people I know are unhappy in their jobs.

What are the sources of all this job dissatisfaction, especially among Christians? I can only share what I myself have felt, and what I’ve heard from others.

Sources of Job Dissatisfaction

The Feeling of Wasted Gifts and Time

One of the common themes that often comes up with Christians is the feeling that their job is getting in the way of their service to God. “I wish I could quit my job so I could serve God full time,” they (we) pine wistfully. Often they have a pretty good idea, too, of the way in which they’d like to do this. It’s not just a vague fantasy they’ve resorted to on really bad days. Many of the people I’ve talked to have given this a lot of thought and have come up with some kind of vision or plan.

The odd thing is, when I was a pastor, I felt the same way–I felt like my job was preventing me from really loving and serving God. That may sound strange, but the role of pastor in the average church sort of takes on a life of its own, and therefore requires you to spend your time doing certain things, no matter what. Whatever else is going on, you’ve got to spend a certain amount of time each week preparing your sermons, Sunday school lessons, and Bible studies; responding to crises in people’s lives; visiting the sick and those in the hospital; preparing for and attending an assortment of meetings; and the like. Ideally you should be doing a certain amount of visiting of the folk who are well, too. If you want to be involved in your larger denomination and your community, then those activities require additional time as well.

The old joke that pastors only work one day a week is just that–a joke, and not a very funny one really. If you add all the above together, most of your time for a given week is already committed–in fact, all of it is, and then some. Therefore, if you’re going to be a pastor, you better like doing all those things enough to have all your time taken up with them, and you better not have many other interests, because you will soon find yourself feeling frustrated about not having time to do some of the other things you love.

That was me–I didn’t fit the mold. I had other interests that didn’t fit my job description, and there were quite a few aspects of the job I didn’t enjoy enough to be forced into spending all my time doing them, particularly when it was to the exclusion of other things that were important to me personally but not to my congregation. These other interests were not sidelines or insignificant for me, either. They were integral to who I am, such as my music and songwriting.

So ironically, as a pastor I also felt inhibited by my job from being able to serve God in some of the ways I most wanted to. I attribute some of this to the fact that the very way in which most churches do church leadership is out of kilter, but that’s a topic for another blog entry.

Job and Skills Mismatch

Another common source of job dissatisfaction I’ve heard from friends is the feeling that the skills their jobs require from them don’t fit with who they are. I felt this way as a pastor, also. That, of course, can only be solved by finding a type of work more suited to one’s interests and abilities.

Crummy Corporate Cultures

Yet another source of job dissatisfaction I often hear folks talk about is the people they work with, or the corporate culture where they work. While I didn’t experience this so much in the church, I’ve certainly experienced it in the secular companies I’ve worked for. There are some real bozos out there in the business world, and they make life unpleasant for everyone around them. (Of course, someone I worked with may have felt that way about me, too!)

I think one of the roots of this problem is the moral and ethical slide of the society we live in. Greed seems to be the driving force behind a lot of corporate decisions, and individual workers pay the price. Meanwhile, the global economy has made competition a lot more fierce, adding to the “dog-eat-dog” nature of today’s workplace. It truly is “survival of the fittest” out there. This causes people to strengthen their defenses and to become more ruthless simply out of a feeling of sheer self-preservation.

A number of my friends are teachers in the public school system. Though not in the business world per se, even they feel the pressure from our society’s moral and spiritual decay. They see it in the attitudes of their fellow teachers, especially those who aren’t believers, as well as in their students’ behavior, their outlook, and their schoolwork. Cheating is prevalent and seems to be “no big thing”. Parents are more prone to side with their children when there’s a problem in the classroom. When I was a kid, if the teacher called to talk to our parents, we dreaded it, because we knew our parents were most likely going to side with the teacher. Not so anymore.

This is just one example of how our society’s moral decay makes work more unpleasant for everybody. I’m sure you could offer examples as well.

What Is The Solution?

I think all these factors–the desire to serve God more effectively, the feeling of not being a good fit for their jobs, and the decay of corporate culture–all contribute to the dissatisfaction so many Christians feel in their work. So the question is: What do we do about it?

I myself have had a chance to look at this dilemma from many sides. Since I quit my “real” job two years ago, I have all the time in the world to pursue the things that matter to me most. The problem I’ve faced (as you can imagine) has been paying my bills and putting food on the table. And quite frankly, it has been a real problem. I have no family to support, so that has kept things from being truly catastrophic. But that’s why I jokingly (or not so jokingly) tell my friends “Don’t try this at home.”

But are we always to be stuck in this dilemma of either having the time to do the things we love or putting food on table, but not being able to do both? Are we always relegated to being able either to work or to serve God, but not to do both? We know we have to work, because the Bible is clear that everyone is supposed to provide for their own needs through work, and ideally make enough money to have some extra left over to give to the poor (see 1 Thess. 4 and 2 Thess 3).

Ministry in the Marketplace

I suspect my pastor and some of the people in my church would respond that this is a false dichotomy. They would say we should focus on ministry in the workplace and see our jobs as, among other things, the very arena in which we are to carry out our ministry. And they certainly have a point. Instead of seeing our workplace as a hindrance to our ministry, why not see it as the location for our ministry? Why not see it as a mission field? If we’re called to do a certain type of work, then it seems reasonable to assume God means for us to witness to Him in that work.

So what might this approach to work and ministry look like? Well, first of all, we can pray for the people we work with and the company we work for. That could be quite a task in itself. I don’t know about you, but many of the coworkers and businesses I’ve been associated with have needed a lot of prayer! We can also look for opportunities to witness to unbelievers and to encourage fellow believers, both in words and in actions. This can be a challenge, though, because many businesses are not keen on proselytizing or faith sharing. Another matter for prayer, perhaps? We can also look for ways to care for the day-to-day needs of those around us, just in trying to be kind to them and take an interest in their problems. (Easier said than done sometimes, I know.)

But this still doesn’t address the other issues: What do we do when we feel as though our work is hindering us from fully using our gifts to serve God? And, how do we deal with a corporate culture gone awry?

The Desire to Use Talents Directly For God

To illustrate the first question, one friend I know handles media all day at work for a secular company, but what he’d really like to be doing is using his media skills full-time in the church. After all, the need he sees there is great, and it would give him the feeling of really being able to do what he loves in a way that concretely serves God. He would have the chance to use his gifts directly for God and the church, as opposed to feeling like he has to use them all day in a way in which the direct benefits for the kingdom are very hard to see, if there at all.

This is the issue for many of us–simply longing to be able to use our gifts directly for God, in a way in which we can feel like they’re having an impact of eternal significance, as opposed to using them for the business world and only secondarily ministering through our relationships in the workplace. I’m sure there are those in the Bob Briner mold (author of the book Roaring Lambs) who will be quick to respond that the world needs competent people in every secular field and that this in itself provides a very strong and needed Christian witness. That’s fine if you really do love using your gifts in the secular marketplace. If so, I say more power to you.

But there are some of us who desire to use our gifts in ways that we feel directly serve the kingdom of God. Is this merely establishing a false and unwelcome division between the sacred and the secular? Or do some have a legitimate, God-given desire to utilize their gifts in direct service to him?

One consideration which determines how we answer this question is our world-view. There are many Christians who seem to agree with our culture’s expectation that Christians should keep their faith to themselves; that religious matters are not appropriate in a public forum. These folks might argue that using your gifts in direct service to God is inappropriate or unnecessary because all ministry should be carried out quietly in the secular arena, or else carried on in a clandestine fashion that doesn’t offend anyone.

But for those of us who do want to use our gifts more directly in the service of God, how do we discern the will of the Lord? How do we tell whether the desires we have are from God? Could it be these desires are sometimes really rooted in a desire to escape a challenging work situation in which we find ourselves? (More on this question below.)

“Get Me Out of Here, Please!!”

There are those of us who’d like to change jobs or careers because we have a desire to serve God more directly, and there are others who may want to change jobs simply because their coworkers or the corporate culture is driving them bananas! If you fall in the latter category, the most obvious solution would seem to be to find a job with a different company, perhaps a company with better values, maybe even a company run by Christians?

There are two objections to this answer. The first is, if you leave where you are, how do you know you’re not jumping from the frying pan into the fire? From what I observe, the corporate culture is pretty bad everywhere. Few workplaces are unimpeded by aggravating people and Dilbert-like absurdity. So could it be we need to learn better methods for dealing with difficult people and a corporate culture with stinky values?

The second objection–to the idea of going to work in a Christian company–is: If all the Christians leave the secular marketplace to work only for other Christians, then doesn’t that rob the world of its salt and light? Perhaps, but the other side of the coin is, when Christians work together perhaps it can show the world how a business could be run utilizing Christian values. Working together, Christians can show that, contrary to worldly wisdom, businesses operating with the values of honesty and integrity can be profitable and successful.

Mixed Motives

The latter two causes of job dissatisfaction I mentioned above–the desire to use one’s gifts more directly for God, and the aggravations of an un-Christian corporate culture–can foster motives for changing jobs or careers (especially a change to “full-time ministry”) that are less than honorable, though. We can be motivated to make such a change simply because we’re unhappy where we are.

Though I’m not proud to admit it, I originally went into full-time ministry in part because I was afraid of the pressures and demands of the business world. My experience was that the secular world is unkind and unforgiving toward those who don’t measure up and, being a sensitive soul, I didn’t really want to subject myself to that kind of treatment. I thought the church would be a kinder and gentler place in which to work. I should add that my motives were mixed–in addition to these fears, at the same time I really did want to serve God, and I had a genuine desire to use my gifts in more direct service to God and the church.

In some ways I was right about the church. Overall the people I served in churches were kinder and more gracious than many I’ve encountered in secular work. The thing I didn’t count on was how trapped I would be made to feel by my job responsibilities. (I also felt out of sync with my denomination, but that’s also a topic for another day.) So my solution to my distrust of the business world really didn’t work in the way I had hoped.

For these reasons, I would caution those who are thinking about leaving a secular job for work in the church: Check your motives carefully. If you discover that your desire to serve in the church is motivated in part by a wish to avoid something else unpleasant, maybe it’s time for some real soul-searching and prayer. If I ever serve in full-time ministry again, I don’t want it to be because I’m trying to escape something else. I want it to be because I know I have been called and led by God to enter into that ministry. And I want it to be because I want to, not because I feel compelled to by other considerations.

I’ve been doing some reading lately on co-dependency, and I’ve been reminded how well that description fits me. Co-dependency is a complex dynamic, but simply put, one aspect is that co-dependents try to do a lot of seemingly “good” things for questionable motives. Co-dependents tend to have a lot of their self-esteem wrapped up in feeling like they are able to “help” others, but often they wind up being manipulative and controlling in order to try to get others around them to do what they “should” do. Co-dependents are often suckers for the helping fields in employment, too. Not that all people who work in helping fields are “suckers.” But there are positive and negative motives for going into the helping fields, and if we are drawn to that sort of work in order to bolster flagging self-esteem, we’re liable to be in for a rude awakening.

“That’s Why They Call It Work!”

At any rate, with respect to job satisfaction, maybe the bottom line is that in a fallen world we’re always going to feel dissatisfied in our work to some degree. I guess it goes back to that thing in Genesis about toiling “by the sweat of our brow,” due to Adam’s sin. One wry quote I’ve heard from people is “That’s why they call it work!”–meaning, of course, that labor is to some extent unpleasant and unsatisfying by nature, which is why it’s called “work” in the first place.

But is that really true? After all, there are those seemingly rare and fortunate people who really love their jobs. “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this!” is their exclamation of delight. I must confess I envy those people. Referring to my pastor again, I think he would say that people who love their jobs are people who know who they are and who are doing work that’s in keeping with their true identity. That rings true with me. My challenge in working this out has been actually knowing who I am (that is, who God says I am), and knowing how that should direct my vocational choices. Ultimately it brings me back around to one of the dilemmas we started with: I think I know what I want to do. I just can’t figure out how to make a living at it.

The Importance of Attitude

I’m starting to think, though, that part of what enables people to love their work is their attitude about work and life in general. I would wager that people who love their jobs are people who are able to put a positive spin on almost anything they do and enjoy it. If that’s the case, then I need God to do some work on my heart, because I don’t enjoy work most of the time. I’m pretty sure I’m in need of an attitude adjustment. Maybe what I need is what the apostle Paul described in these words:

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want: 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:11-13, NIV, colon added)

And also:

“6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Tim 6:6-8, NIV)

I will conclude this reflection on work and job satisfaction with a quote from the song “Great American Novel” by Larry Norman:

“Don’t ask me for the answer, I’ve only got one:
That a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son”

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