It was not always this way. In 2003 I had a commute of 60 miles each way, and I would arrive at the facility’s treatment center around 7 AM and buy breakfast at the pink ladies’ volunteer station before starting my patient contacts at 8. Aside from other internal stresses of the workplace, of which there were many at this site, I always worried about driving through bad weather, particularly in the pre-dawn or post-sunset darkness. Today I look back and it is hard for me to believe that for some years of my mental health career I tolerated similar stresses and job frustrations, and I wonder how I did it. It is true, of course, that I could do more when I was younger. At nearly 68 the thought of some of things I used to do as a matter of professional course makes me nauseous and I could never go back again.
There are many studies indicating that the majority of American workers are unhappy in their jobs or careers, including a 2013 study from Gallup. (If you have time to read the article, note the conversation on office or site managers.) Only 30% of respondents felt passionate about their work and connected to the goals of the employer or corporation. I am happy to say that I have come across such enthused church ministers; I would be lying if I said I didn’t know of any in the 70% range, too.
Julie Jansen, in a section of Chapter 6 called “Exploring Roadblocks and Possibilities,” attempts to break the logjam of unhappy workers by dissecting the fears that hold us back from risk taking where our job choices and careers are involved. She immediately addresses money: whether you are a local DRE or president of Microsoft, the idea of workplace change or position almost always impacts one’s life and one’s choices. In 2013 CARA’s research discovered that about 600,000 young single Catholic adults have actively contemplated becoming priests or religious. At the same time, the study noted that 50% of this cohort carry student loans and/or other economic (and academic) liabilities that would foreclose any possibility of entrance into a Catholic seminary, for example.
Jansen observes (70-71) that the loss of wages must be measured against the degree of personal satisfaction and fulfillment of values. The author tends to focus upon highly paid executives in her treatment; I suspect the more common picture is the middle class worker who labors to keep head above water. Change of placement and income is a much more acute consideration. Jansen concedes that working for non-profits will never pay lavishly, and the wage shortfall must be balanced by a particularly passionate commitment to the particular service one embraces. No one ever got rich working for the Church except the Borgia popes.
Jansen then looks at the age factor. If you are forty or over, one thing to consider is that careers and job titles are very different today than when you graduated from college or high school. New positions have come into play, and a lot of jobs no longer exist. (I received a call from a head hunter yesterday looking for a therapist for affluent and celebrity patients in South Florida.) This is true as well in church work; I recall giving a teenagers’ retreat on Chesapeake Bay in 1970 for a parish with the first lay DRE in the Washington, D.C. diocese. That position is morphing into “faith formation” today with a considerable new expanse of responsibilities and skill sets.
I might add here that a midlife change is a true spiritual and psychological crisis in the biblical sense of critical time. I was 44 when I left the ministry—with its very comfortable if not overly lucrative supports—to go plunging off into the wild blue yonder. I had made a wise decision fourteen years earlier, to pursue a masters in counseling from nearby Rollins College during night school and summer. It is a lot easier to change careers after retooling than before, as I did have certification for future employment in a new field. All the same, I was no longer a boss, starting at the bottom of the mental health ladder, at $23,000/year. This income forced me to take a second job, as an adjunct college instructor, but again the counseling degree (and the theology degree!) made me eligible to teach in multiple departments of the college. As Jansen notes, sometimes you can parlay even your older degrees and certification into new wineskins.
Jansen treats of several issues faced by those entering or making horizontal moves that are spot on when working in the Catholic Church. One is the fear of having limited experience. A good number of parish hires—including religious sisters—are being hired with a minimum of education and experience to start with. How common it has become to see the good long-term volunteer mother promoted to DRE or a similar post in her own parish on the grounds that she has observed parish programs long enough “to know how they should go.” This happens to be the model of training a smithy in early medieval times; it troubles me we are regressing to that. I blame parish administrators/pastors for this, convincing people they are ready to exert professional leadership when they are not. (I blame a fear of spending the time and money for a competent search, as well as a temptation to make a comfortable hire, as the principle reasons for this style of executing employment positions.) This is a recipe for stress for an ill-prepared minister, among other things—and, more broadly, it discourages young people from embracing religious education with its attendant financial investment as a respectable academic disciple.
Jansen catalogues a number of other concerns about changing jobs and/or careers. Among them are (1) “I can’t make a difference;” (2) looking for a placement that will allow expression of individual ideals and values; (3) change in lifestyle; (4) lack of passion; (5) lack of time to experiment in new fields of work (or ministry); (6) lack of creativity; (7) lack of technical savvy. Time does not permit exhaustive discussion of each point, but a few quick observations may be of help.
As early as the high school years, one of life’s most important skills is managing yourself. It is a fallacy to believe that faith, good health, love, and satisfying work will fall into your lap. It is equally a fallacy to believe that everything will remain the same. As a counselor all my life, I have always advised professionals to thing “one job ahead” or even “one career ahead.” This mentality prompts the drive for continuing education, more intense search for meaning in prayer, and physical fitness. An individual who cultivates the long view of self-management lives with the consolation that no matter how badly the present workplace is functioning, he or she is fairly well prepared to shake the dust from their feet and move to the next town.