At a recent workshop for clergy, I got into a conversation with a colleague now 20 years into her ministry. Over coffee during one of the breaks, I was sharing some of the difficulties of being minimally employed and working from home. As an extrovert and a new priest excited about parish ministry, I’ve been frustrated and depressed at times with the situation. Before I could finish she gulped her coffee distractedly and told me, “Don’t be sad. You just need to have faith.” Her break was over, and apparently so was our conversation. I was left furious, and just as demoralized as ever.
It has now been one year since I graduated seminary and was ordained in the Episcopal Church. When I graduated, I had already been hunting for a parish job for several months. Now a year and a half since that process began, I am still without parish work. (I know I’m not alone in this. Finding parish positions for those just beginning their careers and even those later in their careers has been difficult lately.) Several of those months I spent unemployed, and for the past half-year I’ve been minimally employed coordinating grants for my diocese. I feel blessed to have work of any sort, but I continue to search for any parish options full-time or even part-time because that’s where my heart is and that’s really where I want to be.
“You just need to have faith” is just not helpful. At best it’s useless, and at worst it serves as veiled criticism that distances us from each other – as if someone with a job is more faithful and more deserving than someone who is minimally employed. When we say this to each other, we suggest that the problem is being unemployed or underemployed, and that getting a job will fix it. Don’t get me wrong, unemployment is part of the problem. I’ve got student loans, and rent, and expenses to pay… and possibly health insurance if there’s anything left over.
Reducing the problem to being underemployed, and trying to fix it by telling me that I just need to have faith, conveniently skirts what have been the much more difficult parts of not having significant employment: the social isolation, the questioning and doubting that go along with sending out applications and not receiving responses, and not actually being very tired at the end of each day. When I say I’m frustrated, when I express sadness or listlessness at being underemployed and not exercising my priesthood as I hope to, this is what I’m dealing with. And “Just have faith” doesn’t speak to this reality.
Part of the danger we run into is equating our vocations with employment, of tying our call to ministry and God’s claim on us too closely with successfully landing of the job we envision affirming our ordained status. What I’ve had to do for the past year is resist that temptation in my own attitude. Most days my frustration or listlessness are with me, but I’ve discovered how to creatively live my vocation. Even in the midst of being an unemployed priest, I’ve stumbled on ways to respond to God’s nudges.
I’ve found coffee shops and discount work-out classes at the local rec center to be great places to encounter folks in similar situations to mine. For a small expense we can chill for long periods (or dance together and sweat off our frustrations!) without being expected to be ‘productive’ or ‘move on.’ I’ve also found the bus stop to be sacred ground where people in transition meet and accompany each other, however briefly, in the difficulties of waiting – not just for a ride, but for something, anything, to happen in our lives when we feel out of control.
These places become temporary congregations where we share the ups and downs of daily life, the difficulties of under-employment, and find new ways to make meaning. Not all the people I meet aspire to a vocation or profession, but everyone I’ve met hungers like I do for more connections than they have, more integration into a community. I find myself becoming a sort-of ad hoc spiritual director. I find myself preaching mini-sermons in cafes and listening to others’ testimony before zumba class or at the bus stop. Church isn’t mentioned most of the time, but there is a place for every emotion and every thought we entertained that day, even the ones that might not sound ‘faithful.’ But we do find a way to bring all of it together before God. And somehow the time is holy, and I leave stronger, trusting that job or no – and make no mistake, I’m still in full search for a parish job – God continues to claim me and claim us all for the work of caring for and restoring the soul of this world.