more margin

It’s been three months now since I left my well-paying, health-insurance-providing, funded-by-a-grant-that-I-helped-write, managing-a-program-I-believed-in denominational staff job. By quitting that job, I’m part of a massive wave of resignations that is, right this minute, re-shaping the American employment landscape. One in four American workers quit their job this year.

There is a laundry list of reasons I quit that job. It was fully remote and after over a year of barely leaving my house, I needed work that included real, live, people; it was working in a national capacity and I kept feeling called to invest in work and community closer to home; organizational leadership consistently refused to respond to abuses of power in helpful ways; while my tiny congregation is and remains a source of joy, the church at large doesn’t feel like a safe or welcome or generative space for me to work anymore.

Part of my decision to quit that job was also to take a sabbatical from denominational work through 2022. I don’t know if this happens in other jobs or industries, but my denominational structure runs on volunteer, unpaid labor. Committees, speakers, writers, and positions of leadership are almost entirely without compensation. That makes sense for a non-profit organization with limited funds, and it made sense when you could safely assume that every congregation was paying a full-time professional to be its pastor. There was an assumption that full-time pastors spend a chunk of their time on larger church projects, and congregations were happy to compensate them for that labor. But today, 77% of pastors are part-time. And there’s an enormous pastor shortage, to boot. Pastors don’t have extra time outside of their congregational responsibilities, and congregations are not all that excited to donate their pastor’s already curtailed hours to work that may or may not directly benefit them. We do not have hundreds of full-time pastoral professionals begging to fill out their calendars with uncompensated larger church labor.

In the three months since I left my denominational staff position, I have said “no” to 18 different requests for uncompensated denominational labor. Eighteen.

First of all, I’m really glad that I set this boundary at the outset, so that I didn’t have to hem and haw and tie myself in knots deciding whether to not I could manage another project that I kind of wanted to do and felt an obligation to do but actually needed NOT to do. Hooray for boundaries!

Second of all, these aren’t even all of the requests I’ve received in the last three months: I said YES to three OTHER things, two of which are paid and one of which I could not morally refuse.

It’s only been three months. And maybe, after writing this out here in public, the requests will slow down. I’m not even all that sure how to reflect generatively on what’s happening, especially in terms of drawing conclusions and recommendations for the system at large. But here’s what I can say about my own experience:

Before I set this boundary, I would have said yes to every one of these requests without a trace of hesitation. These are things I like to do. They are things I have experience doing, and I’m generally pretty good at them. And these are almost all things I would get to do with people I like. There is some sadness in all this saying no, for me.

But there is also realization: I was giving my labor away for free at a rate that is, looking at my running list right now, almost incomprehensible. No one was paying me to do any of this, and the work I DO get paid for does not stretch in ways that make room for this kind of labor. No wonder I felt burnt out by the time I decided to set this boundary.

And, saying no means that I have margin in my life. It’s been a grief-filled three months, so most of that margin has been gobbled up by sadness.As time moves on, though, things are becoming clearer. I have written every morning this month. My mind and heart are not busy all the time worrying about nonsense church politics. A friend suggested we PITCH and ARTICLE to a RESPECTED PUBLICATION and I actually had bandwidth to legitimately consider it. I had enough time and space to say YES to being part of the Food Hub’s giant Christmas Giveaway prep yesterday afternoon, where I signed Christmas cards and counted Christmas stockings and sorted Christmas gifts for over 200 neighborhood kids.

hundreds of stockings for the Christmas Giveaway!

I’ve been thinking about this move as a way of divesting. I am removing my free labor from a system that I don’t experience as healthy or merciful, a place where years and years of investing myself has – while not without enormous benefit and grace – run into a dead end. This is freeing up so many resources to reinvest in other spaces, with other people, in other ways. And it’s not just about time and labor. While it does seem that there have, all of a sudden, been extra hours added into the day, I also have more brain space, more creativity, more compassion, more curiosity, more innovative energy to share with people who are already doing curious, innovative, creative, compassionate work.

So, here’s my testimony: quit the thing you know you need to quit. Divest yourself from death-dealing systems. It’s a tiny bit terrifying, for sure, but there are so many ways to invest in life-giving, generative, nourishing, creative, curious, compassionate things. You can do it. You’re not the only one.

3 comments

  1. Krista · December 15

    I thank you for your words, Dana. I left my pastoring role to give myself and family some extra margin and I’m grief stricken but also feel like it is the right time to do so. I breathe better right now.

    Like

  2. Carol Spicher Waggy · December 16

    Dana, thank you for sharing this. I certainly support your boundary-setting decision. Hope I can share with you personally sometime on this topic. Carol

    Like

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