A durable modern and first-world “problem” is what to do next. People didn’t always spend a lot of energy wondering what they should do next. “Next” was defined by the passage of time, not a change of circumstances. One’s lot was largely cast. But now, any of us who enjoys the luxury of vocational mobility — the upper-middle, knowledge class — will have more beguiling opportunities than we will ever be able to take on. Indulging frequently in luxurious questions like whether we enjoy our work, whether we are living where we would like to, or, perhaps more nobly, whether we are best stewarding God-given gifts, our lives are lived in the anxiety of the subjunctive mood.
The anomie coincident with these freedoms is well known. People who imagine themselves on their way to somewhere else, the next and better thing, find their motivation to invest here subverted. Even modestly onerous tasks, slightly annoying co-workers, or less than desirable weather (short, cold Wisconsin winter days!) trigger wanderlust for more effortlessly fulfilling work, admiring colleagues, and beaches (if you like that kind of thing). And even otherwise mature people who know better indulge these fantasies of paradisiacal netherworlds.
Lest this become a hackneyed exhortation to live in the moment, to bloom where you’re planted, or to make lemonade, maybe I can ask the keen Covenant readers instead to recognize a gesture to the monastic vow of stability. Taking control of one’s life in the form of rearranging one’s circumstances often proves not only to be a fool’s errand but a saint’s derailing. One of the most disconcerting realizations that follows a major vocational, geographical, or other life change is to learn that we have come along with ourselves to the new destination. Disappointedly, we find out that the invigorating hopes accompanying a fresh start didn’t efface endemic and paralyzing fears and that discontent travels especially well. None of this came with the territory; we brought it with us.
I am hardly suggesting that “staying” — in a job, in a parish, in a denomination, in a city, with an institution — is always the right thing to do, only that, for Christians, change rather than stability bears the burden of proof, a burden that can be satisfied, but is borne nonetheless. Change bears the burden of proof because, for modern upwardly mobile people, change almost always promises better, whereas stability only promises more of the same. Change for the better will often look like a God-opened door or even vocation, and well it might be. Stability, on the other hand, implies “stuck,” and almost nothing could be worse for captains of fate than to be stuck with theirs.
Moreover, two of the best reasons to stay somewhere are counterintuitive: because we don’t fit, and we are underappreciated. Rather than that we are expendable, that we don’t “fit” could be a sign that we are disproportionately important to the body to which we belong or the circumstance in which we find ourselves. It may be that “odd man out” is another way of describing the indispensable person. St. Paul seemed to think so (1 Cor. 12:21-25). Unless the role comes at the expense of her grace and virtue, the ill-fitting person usefully frustrates group-think and self-justifying narratives; what looks like a foreign body might be an anti-body.
Meanwhile, a lack of appreciation is often just the natural course of affairs; we grow accustomed to others’ reliable gifts and graces while increasingly annoyed by their shortcomings. This is probably not only natural but also sinful, a sign of ingratitude and lovelessness. Nonetheless, it might also be its own kind of well-disguised sanctifying grace — if we can receive it as such — to any of us addicted to approval with insatiable appetites for validation. To carry on faithfully without the satisfaction of these cravings is no fun, but, if we can spare ourselves from self-pity and become recalibrated to the intrinsic rewards of obedience, we will have paid a small price for a great gain.
I don’t suggest that anyone martyr himself to toxicity. Some environments are inescapably damaging to certain people, and departure can count not only as self-care but as a quiet rebuke of ungodliness. But perhaps we have too often wrongly assumed that toxic environments are endued with a radioactive half-life and that we have no choice but to yield by leaving. Maybe not.
Covenant blog deadline approaching, I was pondering some of these very thoughts when we had the privilege to spend Sunday morning of Epiphany I at a parish to which we belonged for four years, a Presbyterian church (PCUSA) in an exurb of Madison, Wisconsin. The occasion was the celebration of 25 years of ministry by the senior pastor, during which time the church has flourished far beyond the imagination of the inexperienced search committee which called a promising young (then single) pastor 25 years ago. From a parish of 50-70 faithful Sunday attenders on synod life-support to about 500 today, this is a mainline Protestant parish bucking all trends. The growth of this parish — the numerical is just a sign of more profound transformations — has been slow, steady, and, most importantly, long. Nothing happened overnight. There was no great influx of disaffected something-elses. While we were there, with uncanny predictability, every quarter a half-dozen to dozen new members stood before the congregation, received the right hand of fellowship, and started going to church.
We ourselves joined that parish because we found it so modest, unspectacular, and innocent of hype and gimmicks — just understatedly substantial and friendly, parishioners infectiously happy to be there. And though it was not exactly my theological and liturgical cup of tea, those four years in that parish remain the happiest experience of local church life in my 54 years of church-going.
Twenty-five years of ministry in one place is unusual. If there are reasons to doubt that it should be the norm — there are — there are also reasons to wonder if 10- and 15- and 25-year tenures should be so unusual. If we are perfectly honest, most ministers are effectively long-term interims. Two scenarios (admitting many exceptions) have created a culture of long-term interim ministry: (1) after a season of relative “success,” it is believed that the minister could do better elsewhere, or indeed that they have earned better, or (2) after a season of unmet expectations, the congregation (or a portion thereof) or an overseer wishes “to move in another direction,” or the minister believes that somewhere else there is a better fit. This all makes pretty good sense. The most promising clergy should have their chance to spread their wings; they are needed elsewhere. And where “things aren’t working out,” it’s natural and probably right to hope for a better fit.
I wonder, though, what that logic would have meant for this parish. Without doubt, our former pastor has received countless invitations to pastor larger, more prestigious churches and to take higher salaries (in warmer climes) over the last 20 years, as his reputation spread across a denomination with too few growing parishes. No one could have faulted him for hearing “God’s call” in one of these. For whatever reasons, he hasn’t. At the same time, it can almost be guaranteed that a succession of five ministers, each taking a respectable five years, would have resulted in something like a parish of 75-100, hanging in there, doing better than many parishes — that is, assuming none of the five fomented disaster, which, statistically speaking, is unlikely.
In the era in which we find ourselves, where church affiliation and attendance have become de-automated, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the revitalization of the church will require an even more capable clergy, more of whom should stay in one place longer. Surely there must be somewhere a thriving parish that has flourished under the leadership of a succession of short-term pastors, but I don’t know of it. Not only priests, but bishops, missionaries, professors, and deans require any number of years — more than we think — just to become useful, to gain some proficiency in the work, often through trial and error emerging from a manic flurry of well-intended activity. But gaining the trust of a constituency, the benefit of doubt, the authority that comes not with the position but from demonstrated character and competence is also a multi-year project. What a shame, then, that the tenure of so many ministries on the cusp of fruitfulness, dues already paid in full, is cut short only to be rebooted somewhere else. The vagaries of church and institutional life will often require that this happen, even that it happen more often than those responsible for it would wish. But is it not also possible that, preferring to go to better places rather than make places better, fields nearly white unto harvest have been abandoned for greener grass?
When it makes sense to leave, maybe we should stay. Maybe.