With the downturn in the economy over the past few years, no segment of society has been immune from its repercussions. And the church is no different. As churches struggle to work within a balanced budget and the reality that people who have lost their jobs simply can’t give as much to their church, it seems that often the first area that feels the impact is Christian education. None of us like this reality, but it is what we have to live with.
The purpose of this article is not to bemoan the lack of support and commitment to Christian education, but rather to come to terms with this reality and perhaps offer some helpful and hopeful words to those who are dealing with the loss of a job or fewer hours (but still with the expectation from well-meaning people that your work output will be the same).
I have experienced this firsthand, losing a position due to financial realities in a church. Then while serving as an interim associate pastor a couple of years ago, due to budgetary restraints, several staff members had their hours cut, including the person responsible for youth ministry. Although I was certainly able to see the reasoning behind these cuts, I think that all too often decisions are based on the business side of the equation, and perhaps not enough on the pastoral side.
Real people get hurt. Real families have to alter their lifestyles. Downsizing or job loss affects not only the staff person, but many people who are related to that person, not to mention the lay people who have to pick up the slack when a position is vacant.
So what words of wisdom or comfort can I offer to those who may be in this situation?
- Affirm and re-affirm your call. We got into this vocation because we felt a deep and sincere sense of call from God. That hasn’t changed. God has not given up on you. You should not give up on God. There were times during my 30-plus year career that I was convinced that I should try something else, that I had done all I could do in the church. But when I actually tried something else (and, yeah, I really did), it didn’t take long to realize that the only place I was supposed to be was in the church. And once I realized that, doors started to open and I found my way back into the arms of the church.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We have come a long way over the past few years as the role and importance of educators have been recognized by many APCE denominations. Unfortunately, this is not always realized in the real world and in congregations. Some are more intentional in their care of educators than others. Find out what help is available for you in your denominational structure. If you are PC(USA), I hope you are aware that the Book of Order mandates the care and support for Certified Christian Educators.
- Keep your network alive. It is vitally important, if you are no longer working in the church, to keep your network of colleagues and contacts active and alive. There is a strong sense of community in the arena of Christian education. Take advantage of this community. As I write those words “take advantage,” I realize that a negative connotation can be inferred. Not intentioned! You have a network. You have friends. You have colleagues. Ask them to pray for you, to keep their eyes open for you, to keep you informed of new resources and educational models. Keep yourself “in the loop.” Take advantage, as you are financially able, of conferences and the APCE Annual Event. If finances are an issue, as they often are in these circumstances, apply for scholarships within your denomination or with professional organizations. Stay in touch!
- Keep your sense of humor. It is very easy to fall into the trap of negative thinking and feeling sorry for yourself. Resist that trap. Try to find the humor in what can seem to be a completely humorless situation. Laugh at yourself, your surroundings, your situation, and your former employers. This is where your friends can help. They can laugh with you. Negativism and all that goes with that way of thinking is time consuming, wasteful, and non-productive. You will be sad and question your decisions, but just be aware of that and try to move past those feelings. Move to humor as one way of dealing with a difficult situation.
- Take care of yourself physically. Now this is where I need to practice what I preach. I am not one to look to as an example of caring for one’s self physically, but I do know that taking care of myself physically would have helped me through difficult situations in a better way. You don’t need a gym membership or expensive equipment to do this. Plan a walking route in your neighborhood. Find friends to walk with you. There are exercise shows on TV that can get you moving. Make sure you eat healthy foods and eat the right amount of food. Resist the temptation to turn to alcohol to numb the pain. Embrace the gift of health that you have been given and don’t let the situation in which you find yourself affect your health and physical well-being.
- Pray. It works!
John W. Johnson is a life-long Presbyterian, and has served the church for more than 30 years as an educator and pastor, currently serving as pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, NC. He has degrees from Stetson University, PSCE, and San Francisco Theological Seminary. John is a Lifetime Member of APCE and served on the Governing Cabinet for eight years, serving as APCE President in 2007.