A Public Journal: Careerism and Holy Discontent

I liken the experience of growing into vocation and finding God’s leading to a person who stumbles into a dark room, arms waving haphazardly looking for the pull-cord to turn on the light. Sometimes I have walked into that room, stubbed my toe, walked face-first into the wardrobe door, cussed under (or over) my breath, and walked out. But every once in a while my wildly flailing hands brush up against the thin, hard-to-grasp light-switch cord and the light comes on.

I have always had a wee bit of vocational angst in the soul. Aspects of this angst, as you well know, are rooted in brokenness; other aspects of said angst are gift. Angst is a gift I have not always wanted and sometimes tried to regift to others like an ill-fitting gift in a lame christmas gift exchange. It’s also a gift that is nowhere near developed; I spend far more time waving my arms wildly and aimlessly than I do standing in adequately lit rooms.

I remember reading a book around 2006 wherein the author spoke about ‘holy discontent’: an inner tension produced by the gap between the ideal and the real –the church as I dreamed it could be in contrast to the church as it is. This was helpful for me; it gave language to articulate what I felt inside, although I must confess that often my discontent was far from ‘holy’. It was partly this tension between the ideal and the real that led me into a bit of a breakdown in 2009; I couldn’t live with the tension any longer and my body, mind, and emotions said, “Nope, we are done holding this tension and you need to resolve it or fragment into a thousand pieces inside.” I ended up doing a bit of ‘resolving’ and a bit of ‘fragmenting’.

The experience of coming apart at the seams in 2009 taught me a few things about myself and my relationship to the church. One such thing, although I may not have been able to articulate it then, is that moving up the ladder of ‘establishment’, or at least moving up in typical ways, would not be my lot in life. The reason for this is that in the process of moving up there is a necessary stifling that happens. This, let me be clear, is not inherently bad, it really isn’t. Actually, its the gift of many a bishop to be able to hold the tensions of the church, the teaching of the church, and to subdue their own voice for the sake of the common good. But there are some of us that cannot do this, we are not built with this skill set, we don’t always need to be ranting, but we need to have the freedom to speak and act in accordance with ideals that appear at times to be radical.

The breakdown of 2009 also revealed to me something else, something far harder to admit to myself than the point about living in tension. It revealed to me that I was a careerist. In retrospect, while on the one hand I held particular ideals and hopes for change in the church, on the other hand I loved my position and did not want to rock the boat. I loved the fact that I was young, executing what I perceived to be high level leadership in the organization, traveling around the world preaching to people, I loved this stuff. I think I actually loved it more than Jesus sometimes. It was nice, really nice. The seduction of position, power, and career was so strong. I capitulated for years, which silenced my voice and caused me to bury my convictions.

I have since realized that some people who lead in the church do not struggle as much with this as I did, and I hope they become/are our spiritual leaders. I thank God every day for some of the Bishops I know that counter this in their speech, actions and spirituality. But I don’t want to turn a blind eye to the reality that this exists in our church. I hear it in clergy gatherings, I hear it in statistics about how long it takes to find a clergy person to fill estate incumbencies in the north of England. We often don’t recognize it because we are like fish in water; like frogs in the kettle. Its hard to see it in ourselves. Because of this, I find myself deeply distrustful of my capacity to resist it. But speaking about it since 2009 has helped. Telling the world — my friends who I trust and some I don’t trust, the social media sphere — that it is my desire to steer clear of this makes me publicly accountable. I’m wholeheartedly convicted that careerism made me, and it makes the church, desperately ill, it brings death – and leaves a path of destruction in its wake. It has to be talked about, talked about loudly.

Careerism can mute one’s voice and subconsciously cause us to avoid risk. This is problematic for those who are called to live on the edge of the church, those filled with holy discontent and idealistic vision, those called to carve out new or ancient trails. I need to, and some of you need to, die to the possibility of moving up in the church hierarchy. We need to resign ourselves to using leadership skills to do ministry that others might consider shitty and that will not position us for promotion.

This is not an act of self-righteous-false-piety, but an act of following Jesus into calling. The establishment, which is a gift, needs those of us who live with angst to follow our ideals — to break hard ground, to live radically, to try things, to risk it all. Those called to the periphery are not ‘better’ than those called to carry aspects the established church. That is a ridiculous idea. This is not an either/or. Both are necessary; very necessary for the health and life of the church.

Some of us angsty-ones have been stubbing our toes, stumbling around in a dark room looking for the pull-cord to turn on the light of our vocation in the church. But we are seduced by careerism. Rejecting careerism is like feeling the thin pull-cord bouncing between your fingers. Leaning away from careerism is leaning into angst – idealism, risk and holy discontent – and is to finally get a grip, it’s the act of pulling the cord, turning on the light.

Like what you read? Give Ryan Cook a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.