Rejecting our toxic work culture

September 29th, 2015

In her op-ed for the New York Times Sunday Review, Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that Americans face a particularly toxic work world and a culture of overwork, where those who can succeed are an increasingly narrower slice of society: young people who are healthy and wealthy enough not to have to care for family members, be they children or aging parents. We see the effects all around us and even experience it ourselves — unpaid overtime, constant stress, a struggle to balance professional and personal obligations. While it affects all economic brackets, those living on or near the edge, making minimum wage with no paid leave, are most likely to lose their jobs when a family or personal need comes up.

Slaughter claims that the problem is that our workforce culture is built on an antiquated model from the “Mad Men”-era, when most families had two parents, and the women stayed at home to care for children, the sick and disabled, and the elderly. Even now, most care is expected to fall to the woman, in spite of her professional aspirations, and many families find themselves in the “sandwich generation,” caring for young children at home in addition to aging parents with failing health. While women are entering the work force at wages that outpace men’s, the ranks thin significantly as they rise towards the top and companies demand more time and energy investment.

As I saw myself and my family reflected back to me in her analysis, I agree with Slaughter that this is not just a women’s issue or a women’s problem, but a problem for all of us. So what can the church do to help? How can the church minister to those torn between caring for their families and making a living? How can the church reflect or model a different way, a way of wholeness and health?

Often it appears that the church has been sucked into the corporate capitalist model. We criticize Wal-Mart’s labor practices but then make sure that our administrative assistants, youth ministers and support staff don’t work enough hours to receive benefits. Pastors often receive questions from their parishioners about what they do all day, as if our worth is dependent on what we produce and we’d better earn our keep. Even our “stained glass ceiling” in the church mimics corporations, with very few women leading large congregations or in other church leadership roles.

Slaughter offers societal suggestions like high-quality and affordable elder and child care, further investment in early childhood education, and paid family and medical leave for men and women. These are policies that the church can certainly support and even participate in, perhaps by providing affordable daycare or after-school care for children of working parents. If we truly want to center family values as Christians, we should start in the church. How are we treating our clergy and our employees, from childcare staff to the janitor? Too often, we pay less than a living wage or even fair compensation and appeal to a sense of service or ministry. Unfortunately, that sense of service won’t pay for in-home assistance for elderly family members or the rent or student loan debt.

The church can also model another, different way of engaging in meaningful, life-giving work that isn’t tied to productivity. As clergy, we need to be diligent about protecting our own Sabbath time for activities and relationships that feed our souls. In ministry, as in other vocations, overwork is held up as a badge of honor instead of modeling to our congregations a different way. Even clergy need to remember that our value comes first from God and not from how many pastoral visits we accomplish or how many nights we attended meetings.

Our stressful, toxic work culture needs some grace to go with its Protestant work ethic, and the church might be just the place to offer and model that much-needed grace.

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