Before I went to seminary (the second time), I worked in various financial companies doing all sorts of financial things with investors, traders, and bankers. I worked for large, multinational corporations with vast hierarchies. Sometimes, I would be asked to sit in on special projects, particularly projects that had to do with testing new computer programs and beta testing customer portals. Always, there were meetings – several a week.
In those meetings, I began to notice something about work in a corporation. Much of the work was “busy work“. I was pretty sure a major portion of the work getting done was not so much unnecessary as it was merely designed to keep people busy. Like in the movie Office Space, I began to suspect that most of the work in my particular corner of the cubicle world of corporate work could probably get done in about 45 minutes to an hour of any given 8 hour day. Of course, this included me.
No one I worked with ever said anything because to do so would mean fewer people would be needed to do the work that actually needed to be done. I was a lowly administrative phone person with a Series 6 Mutual Fund license and I, like the cube-dwellers who surrounded me, needed the job. To point out the fallacy would mean I would be the first to be let go in the downsizing. All the companies I worked for provided a reasonable wage, full benefits, 401k plans, and generous vacation time.
Even though we were a prairie dog farm of cube workers, all of us knew we had made a deal with the giant corporate monster who kept us busy. It was a worthwhile trade-off for that time of my life.
“Busy work“, though, is a self-replicating virus. Busy work self-justifies. One of the ways busy work does this is to enter our common language. Sometimes, when I would come into work at the corporation, my manager would ask me how I was. I would answer, “Busy!” He would answer that way, too. All of us answered that way. I liked my manager at the corporation. He was a very cool guy who had connections in the music world up to and including Prince. “Busy” was an embarassing answer to someone who I liked and cared about.
Now I am in ministry and life in the ministry can be very strange. It is a weird career, a work in the realm of intangibles and relationships. A lot of pastoral work takes place unseen and out of sight. When I was being ordained at Colonial Church of Edina, in Minnesota, Rev. Jeff Lindsay looked out over the congregation and said, “Seth, you are going into the easiest job in the world. You will work only one hour a week, on Sunday, when you get up to preach.” Jeff was being provocative and ironic, and followed up that statement with all the preparation work, all the relationship work, all the planning work, all the interruptions that go into pastoring a church. It is a strange job. My ordination was 9 years ago and I still remember Jeff’s words.
By the time I was a year into my ministry at our church in rural Maine, I was, in fact, very busy. Much of my time was taken up with meetings and planning, but mostly it was funerals. The amount of time I was working was bad enough that my lovely wife arranged, without my knowledge, a week-long retreat at a monastery. She told me the day before I was to leave for said monastery that I was leaving for a week and I didn’t have a choice. Around that same time, I was in the local coffee shop, where I spend a lot of time, and someone I cared about asked me how I was and I answered, “I am really busy.”
And then I caught it. I stopped myself and said to the person, “I am sorry. That is a terrible answer.”
“Busy” might not be a terrible answer for some people, even though I think it is a terrible answer for most people. But it is a terrible answer for a minister in the Church of Jesus Christ. And as a minister in Christ’s Church, I also think it is a terrible answer for anyone who follows Jesus Christ.
It is not that we aren’t busy, but busy-ness is not any part of the example of what it means to follow God and Jesus. The thing about the busy-ness of a corporation is that people’s jobs depend on the appearance of being busy, of justifying the work you are doing to people who are justifying their work to people above them.
My very good pastor friend calls this sort of behavior a ‘self-licking ice-cream cone‘. That is what I was turning ministry into by always thinking about being busy – a self-reinforcing work that justifies itself by staying busy and thinking in terms of ‘busy‘, not in terms of the eternal and infinite presence of Christ.
So I took it upon myself to eradicate the word from my vocabulary. I do not answer with “busy” anymore. I said at the beginning this a weird job. Part of what makes ministry weird is that it is a job of interruptions. Interruptions create busy work, and I don’t like busy work. I am not always successful in the eradication of the word from my lexicon, but I am working on it.
When we use Jesus as our model of how to work, lots of things change. One of the changes is how we think about time. Jesus is the eternal breaking into the temporal, the infinite breaking into the finite. And when we claim our faith, we are saying that the same ‘breaking in’ that Jesus imposed upon the world in his birth, life, death, and resurrection is also imposed upon us. Our work, then, – any work – is born by this eternal, Christ-focused, sensibility. One of the accusations made against Jesus and his disciples was that they were drunkards, lazy, unmotivated. In the slang against my generation, Generation X, Jesus and his crew were slackers of the worst sort. These people who followed Jesus did not give the appearance of being busy. Jesus was a lot of things, but when I read the Gospels, I don’t think to myself, “Can you believe how busy he was?” Even so, a whole lot got done with Jesus around, but the gravity of the eternal pulled the temporal concerns of those around him into that infinite orbit, a universe that exists beyond busy.
I don’t have fully formed ideas around all this, but I think this is a good place for me to leave off and go about getting busy about not being busy.