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One of the unfortunate things about aging is that we acquire more skill about vocational assessment and workplace selection at a time in our lives when these skills are less critical. For example, I understand today that in a job interview I should be assessing the employer and the work place more critically than vice versa, and that I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had known that then. This was true when I worked as a priest in a religious order, and in a second career making my bones in the mental health field. Particularly in my “second life,” the pressure to “make the team” and pull down a paycheck made me overlook a number of critical factors, notably the character, style, and competence of bosses. Later, when I developed some skill in the employee assistance specialty, I found that this fear of losing place was very common in my patients; the prevalent thinking was that “any job is better than no job,” despite the fact that job stress was my number one self-reported complaint.
I need to make a critical distinction here. The words “job” and “career” are not interchangeable. I was a decent fit in the mental health profession, but I found myself in crazy positions, no pun intended. Again, let me zone in on my mental health tenure in years: 2-5-1-1-11. It does not take rocket science to figure out which were the “misfit” years, one as an administrator/evaluator for a children’s Medicaid clinic, and another as psychotherapist with a team of psychiatrists in a managed care service center. Curiously, these two lousy years were the ones with the best salary and benefits packages in my life. That two year span was useful at least to the degree that it taught me where the land mines were buried in my profession. By contrast, the “5-year tenure” was a shoestring family therapy center where the paychecks were not always predictable but there was lots of quality face time with patients and a hand-on staff of supervisors whose priorities included skills development and professional enhancement.
Vocational counseling dates back to 1909 with the publishing of Frank Parsons’ Choosing a Vocation. Amazon allows free access to the introduction of the book by Ralph Albertson (Parsons died before publishing), and aside from the sexist language, it is interesting that all the general principles—written during the presidency of William Howard Taft—have significant application today. Notable are the emphases on the very process of career planning and the need for advice from knowledgeable and successful outsiders.
Julie Jansen, in chapter two of her above cited text, recommends that all professionals address three critical questions about themselves in initiating the discernment/assessment process of present day career satisfaction. She provides self-assessment material in her book, a good reason to buy it in paperback. From her own experience she has identified three significant benchmarks for professionals: values, attitudes, and change resilience. She defines values as “a principle, standard, or quality considered inherently worthwhile or desirable.” (29) Values, in her way of thinking, are what motivates the worker and provides fulfillment. For those of us in Christian ministry, the obvious value of our work would most naturally seem to be a love of Christ, devotion to the Church, or some personalization of this.
But given the number of church personnel I have treated over the years, I have come to the conclusion that many ministers are in stress because there is dissonance between “the obvious values” of church work and the actual values held by the minister. This does not imply that my patients were phony; it was more a question of not recognizing their deepest-felt needs and purposes; here is a good example of where religion and psychology work in tandem. Jansen, in her inventory here, cites among many values such things as autonomy, challenge, competition, creativity, doing good, helping others, leadership, self-expression, safety, stability. (31) Having gotten her reader to identify the top ten values in one’s life, she goes on to assess whether these values are expressed in one’s current work place.
Jansen’s value list includes spirituality, integrity, doing good, belonging to a group; these are values we typically associate with church and parish ministry. But this is what I hear in the field or the office from church workers: there is no time for a staff retreat; there is no money or time provided by parishes for ministers to make individual retreats; staff meetings are non-existent, or dominated by narcissists and histrionics, or state of the union addresses by the pastor; there is too much parish bureaucracy to engage in Pope Francis-like sojourns among the sheep, like the always appreciated home visitation. It is little wonder that we have burnt-out folks who labor 50-hour weeks in circumstances of disconnect from what they truly believe in.
Of course, the reverse is also true: a parish may be decently administered but a minister’s values may be at variance from the values cluster of the local or even the universal Church. Years ago a major catechism publisher told me about a parish in a large U.S. city that discovered its highly successful director of religious education was an avowed atheist. When confronted about this, the DRE admitted that he took the job for the challenge of running programs. Today I reviewed Jansen’s inventory of values and discovered that indeed she has identified achievement/accomplishment as a significant workplace value in the general public. Some of her identified values would inevitably lead to frustration for a church professional or volunteer: excitement, fame, financial security, fun, leisure, physical activity, recognition, risk-taking, status, and wealth are usually not the opening phrases in a Catholic job posting.
Time and space do not permit me to continue on to attitudes and change resilience; I will pick those up next week. But in conclusion I would stress the importance of your values system, that which naturally drives your enthusiasms. What we profess our attitudes to be from a distilled sense of duty, and what they actually are if we are truthful with ourselves, can often be in some measure of dissonance. I have used the word “passion” over time with the blog to describe the values that drive us. In choosing or sustaining a career, in planning our education and/or formation, and even when interviewing for placement in the ministry, the term “passion” should sit first and foremost.