Staying Busy or Changing the World?


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Handwriting (b&w)

May 13, 2013

I remember that point in my first ministry when I came to the office, sat down behind my desk prepared to write a sermon and realized I had already said everything I knew to say. I kept going over possible angles for the sermon, and kept running headlong into a brick wall: “Said it. Nope, said it. Said that. Said that too.”

I figured my career had reached its conclusion. I was sure that the next sermon would be my valedictory.

Where do ministers go after they’ve exhausted their knowledge, or perhaps better, when they’ve lost ways to communicate what they care about? After all, I hadn’t really said everything I knew. I just couldn’t see the bridges that would take me back to all the knowledge I had accumulated.

Sometimes I still feel that way when I preach or when I write—like whatever good I’ve had to say has already been said. Not much in front of me from here on out. I start feeling sorry for myself, wondering why inspiration isn’t a constant companion.

Some of it is boredom, some of it laziness. You do your thing for a while and you start thinking, “What’s next? Surely, there’s got to be something that will motivate me.”

And do you want to know what usually happens when these thoughts come flitting back through my mind? I eventually think: “I need to get busy doing something . . . something important.”

I know that sounds counter-intuitive, in part because what I seem to have lost at these times of depletion is the ability to identify what’s important. Perhaps better put: What I’ve lost is the the belief that I’m no longer able to identify what’s important.

There’s a difference, because I haven’t really forgotten what’s important. I’m still able to name the kinds of values I bring to my work. What I’ve lost is the ambition to discover where those values might be found in the next thing I want to do.

So, my response is to get busy doing something that I think might be important, with the idea that what I value will reveal itself to me soon enough.

Here’s how it works in writing. I don’t know what to write, so I fiddle. I fiddle until I feel guilty enough about it; then I force myself to write something. Usually, I will start out writing about the first thing that comes to my mind. And if I keep writing, eventually what’s important will find me.

But this doing something important isn’t just motivational talk. Human beings continually struggle to find meaning in life. However, many of the ways our culture seeks to define that meaning center on quantifiable measurements like money and success. But while money and success are nothing to sneeze at, they don’t ultimately provide much in the way of meaning.

According to Harvard Business School Professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, meaning is to be found when we are a part of something that makes a difference. She argues that “everyone regardless of their work situation, [should] have a sense of responsibility for at least one aspect of changing the world.”

So, engaging in something important isn’t merely a bridge back to the interesting, but a chance to make a difference.

Turns out, I’m not just trying to get motivated; deep down I want to change the world.

Churches, it occurs to me, often experience this same cycle of despair, when there’s not a whole lot new going on. Maintenance. If you’ve been busy, then taking a break can feel pretty good.

After a while, though, somebody notices that “we’re not doing anything anymore.”

Somebody, often clergy, will respond by saying, “What do you think we should do?”

And like my kids at home during summer vacation—usually sometime in July—the person responds with some sort of variation on: “I don’t know. Nothing sounds good.”

That’s when it’s time to get busy doing something important.

“But what should we do?”

It matters less at first what you do than with doing something that aligns with your values, with something you feel will make a difference.

Let me put it another way. What kinds of things have you done in the past as a congregation that you take pride in?

“Well, we did that back-to-school backpack thing that one summer for the children of undocumented workers in the area. That was pretty great?”

Why did you do it?

“The kids needed backpacks.”

A lot of kids need backpacks. Why these kids?

“Well, somebody in the congregation heard that this group of people are often paid so little that their children go to school under-equipped. So, we thought that we could do something tangible to help.”

Why’d you stop?

“It was just a one time thing.”

Why?

“I don’t know, now that you mention it. But it sure did feel good to be able to help. It was a lot of work, but it felt right.”

What’s going on with those kids now?

“I don’t know.”

Why don’t you find out? Call the people you worked with last time and see what they’re up to, what their needs are.

Pro tip: Why not find out what it is about the system as it now stands that continues to under-pay workers, and get involved in that?

Look, here’s the thing: Being a Christian (or a writer, or a software designer, or a seamstress, or a golf cart salesperson) is almost always more about intentionality than inspiration.

Get to work doing something, and the important stuff will find you . . . if important stuff is what you want to find, and not just looking to stay busy.

You follow Jesus. You shouldn’t be worried about trying to stay busy. You should be worried about trying to change the world.

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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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