The Reverence Trap: Dangerous Vocations

In previous columns, I’ve highlighted the challenges faced by clergy, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial lockdowns. I’ve shared personal strategies for maintaining mental health and discussed broader societal forces affecting not just clergy but everyone. Laypeople, too, feel drained and burdened. The struggles extend beyond the church, affecting educators, healthcare workers, and countless professionals, amplifying the challenges of overwork and underappreciation.

The concept of “vocational awe” caught my attention—a term describing the romanticised reverence for a profession and its institutions. Originally coined in an article addressing the challenges faced by underpaid and undervalued librarians, vocational awe uses specifically religious language to explore a secular phenomenon. Once you start talking about it, you’ll always find people who recognize and relate their own experiences to this double-edged sword.

In academia, educators can blur their personal identity with the noble pursuit of knowledge. In healthcare, professionals see their roles as callings to heal. In many other ‘helping professions’, the comfort of knowing that your career makes a difference is powerful. It’s the belief that our work can be more than just a job—it’s a way to offer up our God-given talents for something bigger than ourselves. Some people say ‘Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.’

Yet the sword cuts both ways. This reverence for our careers can lead to unrealistic expectations and unhealthy work dynamics. People feel pressure to sacrifice their personal well-being and boundaries, for the sake of the greater good. Unchecked vocational awe leads to exploitation. Institutions can use it to maintain the status quo and perpetuate inequalities. It blinds society to systemic issues and delays necessary changes. Left unaddressed, vocational awe results in burnout, mental health struggles, and an imbalance between work and life. Another way to put the wisdom of the last paragraph might be ‘Do what you love, and you’ll have terrible boundaries and always be overwhelmed.’

In a world where work-life boundaries blur, the church needs to lead the way in addressing these challenges. If workplaces have become toxic from using our language of vocation, we have an opportunity to reclaim and redeem that language. What if we used our language around vocation to show the world a better way to treat workers? We need to encourage everyone to think about their career as a vocation and not just a job. In fact, that’s the best way to solve the problem of vocational awe. When we recognise that everyone has purpose in life, then no one’s vocation needs to be singled out for special awe. Instead, we are all called by God to use our gifts and abilities in gracious and loving ways.

It’s crucial to eliminate the expectation for professionals to overextend themselves merely because their work is deemed noble. Instead, by celebrating and respecting each person’s contribution, we pave the way for a fairer, more equitable professional landscape. If we wouldn’t demand such extraordinary sacrifices from one profession, why accept it elsewhere? In redefining our understanding of vocations, we can foster a culture that values, supports, and respects every individual’s contributions, transcending the boundaries of vocational awe.

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