Note: The author, a longtime leader in the faith and work movement, has embarked on a road trip over the next several months to have conversations with ordinary people about their work in these challenging times. This is the first in a series of articles on his discoveries and reflections. The conversation will continue with Darrell and many others presenting at Karam Forum this January 4-5!
Everyone Has a Story
He walked up to me and asked if I would like to have a look at any of the RVs on the lot. “No thanks,” I said. “I’m here with my rig, having a sway bar distribution hitch installed.”
I didn’t catch his name. I never catch a salesperson’s name at first. In our initial encounter, salespeople are not yet persons to me, they are just a role – and a sales role. As a rule, I don’t like it when salespeople approach me. I have a visceral reaction. I feel objectified, targeted, like a piece of meat to a hungry predator. I prefer to approach a sales associate when I have a question or want something – although I can never find one then.
Of course, as a good salesperson, he senses this response. He asks my name. After some banal small talk, he asks me where I live. I point over to our new home: a newly acquired 2011 Jayco Skylark 21 travel trailer. “Oh,” he replies. I respond before he continues: “We are going on the road, just sold our house, and we’ll be workamping, full-time RVing.”
“Retiring?” he conjectures. “Actually, no” I respond. “I’m between jobs.”
But that kind of feels like a lie. I’m not between anything that I know of. I have no job waiting ahead. I cannot be between things when there is only one reality there.
I recently lost my job, my work, my career, my identity of 25 years. I’m embarrassed, actually. This salesperson must think I was no good at my work, or that I’m some kind of loser. I kind of do, too.
Feeling awkward and disingenuous, and as if I need to justify myself, I chime back in. “I’m a college professor, but my college is making cutbacks, and cut my program and my position. ‘A high-performing luxury we cannot afford,’ they said.”
The economy is killing higher education, and particularly Christian higher ed. I have interviewed at several places, but I’m a 54-year-old, white male in academia, at the top of the pay scale. Everyone is cutting back. Nobody will hire me in any role.
The conversation turns immediately. He becomes animated, personal – real.
“You know why I work here?” he, a similarly-aged man, asked. “I’ll tell you,” he answers before I have a chance to respond or rob him of this opportunity.
At this point he (I still wasn’t retaining the guy’s name) proceeds to pour out the personal details of his story to me – a total stranger. It turns out he was an accomplished artist/designer. In the 1990s, he owned and ran his own successful printing business.
But printing died. Technological innovations led to everyone doing-it-themselves. His work dried up.
He spent several years trying, but was unable to get a job as a designer. He bounced from unskilled job to unskilled job – that is, when he could get a job that paid enough. He liked RVs and eventually got this sales job. He is underemployed, but at least he likes what he is doing, even though he had to downsize his house and his lifestyle massively.
“Jim,” I say, finally engaging him as a human and as a person with a name, “it’s a pleasure to meet you and hear your story.”
Everyone has a story, and many of us need to tell it. We need to tell someone so we feel we are still living. Telling it reminds us that we are human, are somebody, that we matter somehow – or used to. Our story is our way of saying who we are, what we have been, what we have invested our life in, our projects, our work that we take (or took) pride in, and thus, the contribution to humanity we make.
New Stories of Change and Disruption
Increasingly, our “work stories” are tales of how rapid changes in the economy, technology and our workplaces have brought disruption and loss into our lives. Our income is disrupted, our lifestyles are disrupted, and so are our families and even our identity. This, it seems, is becoming the new normal.
I have been a college or seminary professor teaching theology for almost 25 years. I have researched extensively, published various articles and books, spoken at conferences and led workshops. I have written two books that are widely recognized in the broader faith and work movement.
This is who I am – not all of who I am, but a very large part of it. This is what I know, what I do, what I have “spent” my life doing, what I’m good at, where I have found success and a substantial amount of meaning and joy in my life. Yet with all my training, expertise and experience – and even recognition – I can no longer find a college, seminary or organization to hire me to make a living doing what I have done best.
A tight and changing economy in higher education, and schools seeing what I have to offer as a luxury that isn’t essential to seminary or Christian liberal arts education – this for me has become the new norm.
With all of my expertise in the faith and work field, I find myself struggling to pivot and know how to move forward.
As a student in college and seminary (and graduate school after that) I was not taught, in either my liberal arts or theological training, how to think economically, how to be an entrepreneur, how to monetize my skills and knowledge, how think about work itself, or how to understand my work in a healthy way as a part of my identity, but hold it loosely. I was never taught and never read about how, when necessary, to “pivot.” Nor was I taught that I would ever need to.
The tacit assumption was that you could go to college/seminary/grad school and then get a job in a church, as a professor, or as a missionary. It was obvious and straightforward and was to be a “lifelong calling” even if you moved around a little.
For an increasing number of us however, that world doesn’t exist anymore. Nor will it be the world of our kids or grandkids, or our current students. For me, the optimism surrounding the possibilities of work as a calling in the 1990s and early 2000s, when we sought to make what we love the thing we do for our paycheck, seems like the long-ago past and a childish dream of privileged youth.
In this series of articles, I want to reflect on this new normal – offer some observations and analysis, pointing you to resources that you can use to do your work better as seminary/college professor, pastor, or Christian leader.
And, I want to tell stories. While we are living and workamping on the road in our camper, I will be interviewing and videoing the stories of folk like Jim, and like me. I want you to hear and share their stories, our stories.
My purpose is not to bemoan change, bash technological innovations or economic systems. Rather, it is to explore some of the key issues and questions surrounding work and economics – at the core of the Oikonomia Network’s mission – that theological educators are integrating into our curricula. As teachers and educators of church leaders, we cannot ignore these issues or leave them on the back burner if we are to serve and love others through their own vocational journeys and disruptions.
See you next month.