I woke up around 5 AM today to a hard rain. Today the prospect of a rainy, stormy day is a mild inconvenience at worst; my outdoor workout gets pushed further down the day’s calendar past its usual 11 AM appointed time. But I work at home most of the day, so except on a few occasions when I am out doing a program or the like, weather is fairly inconsequential.
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.
Julie Jansen, in Chapter 5 of her “I Don’t Know What I Want But I Know It Is Not This,” addresses a very basic problem in the selection of a career and particularly in the mid-life change of career process. She challenges the reader toward specificity in identifying exactly what motivations bring meaning into a life. Years ago a diocesan catechetical director told me a story about a major Midwest diocese in which a parish DRE was discovered to be an atheist. (There are dozens of questions to be raised here about vetting, but I digress.) When the DRE was confronted about this incongruent state of affairs, he stated that he found great meaning in his parish work “because I get great satisfaction out of administering organizations and making everything work.” He didn’t know the members of the Holy Trinity, but by gosh, the trains ran on time.
There are both religious and mental health advantages in addressing these issues within yourself. Jansen identified a number of value sets, and I took the quiz to see, if at 68, there were any stones I have left unturned in my quest for professional meaning.
Good return for services rendered. Many people, deep inside, need recognition and at least reasonable compensation for their efforts. Before you write this off as an inappropriate value for a religious employee or volunteer, consider Luke 10:7: "Stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not keep moving from house to house.” Some career tracks will break your heart in this regard. Having worked for the Church for twenty years, and public health for a decade, my monthly Social Security check is a constant reminder to me that no good deed goes unpunished.
Interesting. There are folks who are hotwired with the need for an interesting life, where Tuesday is always different from Monday, as the saying goes. Now some inventive workers have “created interest” by attacking the boring parts of their routine and mastering new skills or strategies to beat the system. For others, a change to a different set of job expectations may be a necessity. In seventh grade, I found class “boring” and I had the temerity to tell my home room teacher, a Christian Brother, how I felt. He allowed me to do independent study during class (grad school style!) and then to type my resulting papers on our home typewriter. So as a rule I have been able to invent interest, though not always.
Contributing and making a difference. Jansen, in her research, has found that as many as 94% of her subjects carry this value within them, but less than half are successful in converting the value into action. Jansen does not write from a theological perspective, so in this discussion I think it is fair to say that religiously practicing individuals—certainly in the Catholic tradition—have a theological advantage. We believe that “the cup of cold water in my name.” mundane as that may seem, has merit for the Body of Christ, for giver and receiver alike. Personally, I find that entering my years of seniority has made me reflect upon the contribution of a dignified passage into decrepitude and death. It is surprising to me how many people single out the protracted death of Pope John Paul II as one of his greatest contributions to the Church and the world.
Solving problems. There are individuals who find great meaning in that schizophrenic art of thinking outside the box and unraveling mysteries. I am perpetually grateful to Dr. Jonas Salk; I was in the first or second grade when the first vaccinations for polio were approved for use. (the class ahead of me was in controlled study—they had to get two shots.) It does seem to me that the Church needs problem solvers: theologians to make sense out of the twenty-first century culture with its moral and economic conundrums. I tend to be more cautious and watch the trial-and-error of problem solving before rushing into anything, at least in later life. Some of this, no doubt, comes from the post-Council experiences of Vatican II.
Expressing ideals and values. This is the career track of the messiah, so to speak, and our society would wither up and die without The Rachel Carsons and the Ralph Nader types. These are individuals which combine the traits of problem solving with the passion of moral persuasion. I would offer a few caveats here. Prophets, whether in church life or secular society, will always be swimming upstream, and because they challenge the status quo, will face varying degrees of opposition. Moreover, “prophesy” without some grounding in hard data is misleading; good intentions and a passion for justice must be grounded in the fertile ground of study.
Learning. Jansen describes this quest for meaning as the desire to “gain knowledge, understanding, or expertise through experience or study.” For this cohort of workers, daily responsibility is the opportunity to amass lived experience of the moment for insight and deeper understanding. I am glad to see that the author has paired experience with study, because (1) we learn in both mediums, and (2) reading and research without the passion for wisdom— “the perpetual student” as we used to say—can degenerate into isolation or escape. The critical consideration here is the type of experience and the fashion in which it is processed. As I advance in years I find myself working harder to keep the divide between experience that is little more than clutter of the soul—think reality TV—and experience in wholesome settings such as family, belief, humanitarianism, etc. Sometimes you have to push yourself into better learning sites. I am reading the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux, the late nineteenth century French Carmelite nun who was declared a Doctor of the Church recently. Given the esteem in which she is held by the Church, I thought I would make the effort, though the Little Flower’s worldview is certainly different from mine.
The key to investing education, financial standing, and day-to-day investment in career and workplace is the old Greek dictum, know thyself. And if the investment was misplaced or creating unreasonable stress in your current life, I’ll bring up another Greek bit of wisdom, heal thyself.
This week marks the first anniversary of our daily blog. For my impressions of the first year and plans for 2016, click here at your leisure.
Back in the late fall we were plodding our way through Julie Jansen’s I Don’t Know What I want but I Know It’s Not This, a decent book of insights and strategies for those who are discontented with their present worksites or career tracks. I discovered this work in one of my continuing education courses to renew my counseling license, a career/vocational counseling course. I was reading, as is my custom, on-line reviews about this book, and many of the criticisms reminded me of my own work as a therapist. The common thread of complaint is that Ms. Jansen’s book is so much like all the other self-help books on career change and work place stress they had read.
As I say, this reminded me so much of my office days. I would often have patients walk into my office with several self-help books under their arms. Now that I think of it, the books were not under their arms; they were waived in my face with the desperate hope of approbation from an expert for at least one—and hopefully all—of the publications. I think my office record is six books in one session, and I was on the verge of accessing the patient’s health care plan for a good chiropractor referral. This is not to belittle the patients—when in pain, we look for help wherever we can—and my earlier life might have been less chaotic if I had read more books and consumed less Scotch. (Today I buy so many theology books that I can’t afford Scotch anyway.)
It is probably good to know that where self-help books are concerned—and this caveat includes religious and spiritual guides as well as mental health maintenance—there is no such thing as the holy grail. If self-help books look repetitive, it is in the same sense that the Ten Commandments or the AA Big Book are repetitive. I believe it was Aristotle who observed that there are only twelve basic story lines in literature and life, and there is a lot of truth to that. Living a morally and professionally satisfying life is more often than not a matter of focus upon basic values and their subsequent behaviors.
I am not denying, of course, that some weird things get into print—again, equally true of religion and mental health. This is why I am always beating the drum about publishers, the importance of knowing which editorial boards have high standards about what publications will carry their brand. I have good Catholic publishers resourced on this website, but for the moment I would cite two excellent ones. Paulist Press and Liturgical Press. I never worry that a publication from these companies would deviate from good standards of Catholic faith and professionalism; in short, they would “do no harm” as Hippocrates would say, with a better than even chance of doing a lot of good.
Going back to our work place book with Ms. Jansen (published by the old reliable Penguin Press), if the worst thing that can be said about her text is its similarity to others of the same genre, there is a lesson here: a large number of vocational counseling authors are in agreement about basic principles of self-management. In my experience the difference between authors is the sizzle, not the steak. At some point the quest for stress reduction must lead to changes in thought and behavior. A competent self-help author will sell the concept and provide the tools, but the reader must do the work.
In Chapter 4 (pp. 43-60) Jansen discusses the importance of self-knowledge, taking an honest look at one’s personality to see what kinds of work environments and job styles an individual is best suited for. In assessing personality preferences, Jansen’s inventory explores how personal dispositions attach to real life work settings: do you enjoy personal interactions, do you need quiet and isolation, are you discomfited on a team with differing philosophies and outlooks, do you prefer to be a leader or a follower? It is hard at times to admit certain things about ourselves; if you are an introverted and private person, you may find public work in a parish rather stressful, as you can be sure your life and job performance are fodder for countless conversations and comparisons.
Along these lines, I have often seen a dissonance between the kind of ministry a person believes himself called to, versus his actual spiritual/psychological/vocational skill set. This has been very true in terms of candidates for the priesthood. Our stereotype of the “perfect candidate” for the seminary is the humble, idealistic, deeply spiritual soul. In truth, the demands on the typical Catholic pastor would destroy such a man in a very short time. A successful pastor is an extrovert who takes an appropriate satisfaction in his liturgical and political responsibility of leadership, who enjoys a profession where Tuesday is always different from Monday, who takes pleasure in the challenge of wringing big bucks from affluent prospects and managing a parish plant like a good CEO. I hope this does not sound crass—I don’t intend it to be—and some of the finest religious men I know have lived their lives in settings that demand exactly what I have outlined. My point is—it’s not a ministerial life for everyone. As for that deeply spiritual potential clerical candidate, there are other many other routes for him: the monastery comes to mind, or a retreat house setting. But candidates don’t always want to hear that, which is why dioceses are supposed to provide intensive and well-informed psychological testing and norms to discover career dissonance before a life is ruined.
Jansen goes on to discuss the importance of interests: it helps a great deal if you actually like what you’re doing, whether as a full time professional or a volunteer. One of my best friends from seminary days is an avid fly fisherman. He participates in a program whereby returning veterans with physical and/or psychological scars are introduced to the healing environment of the trout stream, apparently with very favorable outcomes. There are Catholics who enjoy the give-and-take of debate, or dialectic as the old Greeks would have put it. To my way of thinking, here are great candidates for faith formation with teens and young adults. It is hard for me to imagine anyone enjoying success in faith formation and teaching without a burning passion to read.
Finally, Jansen looks at practical skills. I have been lucky to possess a fair ability to write and record keep, so maintaining patient records was never a downer for me. Writing sermons and reports has never been problematic, particularly when added to my knack for writing fiction for chancery officials. But I never mastered a second language (and since I am growing increasingly deaf, I don’t see much point in mishandling two languages at my age.) I cannot manage a high school classroom. I have a computer named Cortana that unfortunately records all the cursing I do while attempting to master it. It stands to reason, then, that vocationally speaking, you want to avoid being the square peg in the round hole.