The First Temptation of Ministry?

By now, we all are surely familiar—perhaps wearily so—with the growing religious denominations “nones” and “dones.” An article I encountered a couple of weeks ago featured yet another option/alternative to customarily-observed religious practices: “Workism.”

The article explained how there’s a trend or tendency in the surrounding culture for jobs and the workplace to bear the weight of some values or expectations that were formerly the purview of religious observation. Apects of people’s lives such as community, meaning, purpose, and so on are being sought in the place of employment, perhaps unrealistically so, and sometimes with unhealthy results.

I don’t intend to demean anybody’s occupation or line of work, and don’t want to unnecessarily aggrandize ministry within the church. The article did point out, however, that some of the most common occupations in our society (the author used the example of retail cashiers) were not intended to provide things like meaning or purpose to those who work in those occupations, but were intended to allow or provide for other aspects of life (family, community involvement) that were meant to. Like everything else, occupations exist on a spectrum of potential for providing a larger context for life, and evolve in this regard over the course of time. I think of my own mother, who started her teaching career during the 1930s in a one-room rural schoolhouse with a wood-burning stove; teaching was viewed, at the time, as a respectable choice for an unmarried woman, but surely not a substitute for a husband, home, children, or faith.

Since I firmly believe that those of us who work/minister in ecclesial communities do not escape the influence of the surrounding culture, I got to wondering to what extent “workism” has infected my own life, work, and ministry.

This is a tricky situation for those of us who work in ministry, and I know I’m not the first to have ruminated on this issue. For the first time, however, I found myself wondering if I run the risk of allowing the work (tasks) of my ministry to be the actual source of meaning for my life. I am most familiar with this in my work as a musician, and along with a number of my colleagues, I have asked myself if (or to what extent) I’d be religiously observant if I had to cease my musical activities altogether.

I have accused others (and have been accused myself) of “liturgiolatry.” It’s a real temptation to make the liturgy itself the object of our devotion, or love—even worship. Perhaps there’s a corollary “ministrolatry” (“workism” in a ministerial context) as well. Since the work/tasks of liturgical ministry are so intimately interwoven with what ought to be our true source of meaning and purpose—life in the Holy Trinity as members of the Body of Christ—I don’t believe that a complete separation is possible, or that it would even be healthy. But for ministers to worship their work will, I believe, ultimately be as unsatisfying and unrealistic as it is for those in the secular world.

There’s a certain quixotic aspect to the way all of this intensifies during Lent, when our spiritual lives should be calling us to silence, reflection, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and a return to the promises of our Baptism, yet our day-by-day realities tend to ramp up in terms of tasks and workload, until our liturgical year is crowned by post-Triduum exhaustion. Perhaps Lent’s spirit of self-examination can help us to take a step back, ask ourselves if we’re building in time for the disciplines of Lent outside of or aside from the tasks of ministry. If not, some further examination of priorities—including a consideration that someone ELSE might be able to complete one of our tasks successfully—is in order. We may even find that we can be led away from our own practice of “workism” to a more graced celebration of Lent and the Sacred Triduum, as well as a more fruitful ministry beyond.





One response to “The First Temptation of Ministry?”

  1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    Btw, this is something I noticed a generation ago with liturgical tinkering and improvisation – it’s no more liberating to be redefining tasks as neuralgic rubricism is to adhering to defined tasks.

    And, despite claims of finding something new, workism is not so different from what preceding generations have indulged for some time:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *