HARD DAY’S NIGHT
The Church is both the beneficiary and the victim of the long hours working culture. Its reluctance to conduct a spiritual audit of this may in the longer run make it more of a victim.
Three major industrial accidents which have marred our generation – the nuclear disasters of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and the BP gas explosion in Texas City – all had at least one thing in common. Putting to one side the mechanical failings which subsequent reports identified, a key contributor was human tiredness. Chernobyl’s catastrophe occurred in the early hours of the morning, when human resilience is stretched thin; the BP disaster revealed a culture which compelled employees to work week after week without a day off, on little sleep, in order to cut the costs to boost profitability and shareholder value.
Among the rarely acknowledged societal changes in the last hundred years is a reduction in the hours people sleep each night, from an average of nine (yes, nine) hours sleep at the start of the twentieth century, to something between seven and eight hours today. Many people reading this would crave as much sleep as seven hours each night. This is allied to a long hours culture in the workplace. Not all must work long days, but there is an increasing number who must, among those who have work, as they strive to cover recessional cost cutting while supposedly sustaining the same level of output. There are serious divisions between those who have work and those who do not today and between those who are paid well and those who are not; less commented on is the inequality in the hours worked by those in employment and the effects it is having.
The Christian Church is both the beneficiary and the victim of the long hours culture. By its voluntary nature, most churches are resourced by people who are doing a hard day at work before they attend an evening meeting. There is a cost attached to this for volunteers and ministers which may be stoically borne but which subtly erodes more than just cheerfulness. One former Bishop of Durham spoke for more than just Anglicans in his observation: ‘it’s one thing being martyred for Christ, it’s quite another to kill yourself working for the Church of England’. The wry smile this cheeky dictum usually provokes is proof of its accuracy.
In reality many active Christians struggle where they should place themselves on a continuum which at one end has a person burning themselves out for Christ and at the other erects strict boundaries to protect personal leisure. Many of the saints and heroes of Church history were marked out by a dedication to Christ so complete as to make less selfless people shudder with intimidation and fear. The description the Apostle Paul gives to his travails in the epistles offer solace and incentive to those who would aspire to the sacrifice of faith. Yet we are left to wrestle with the implications for the relationships we are called to and which we cherish the most: the family which gets neglected and the friends who are forgotten.
At the other end of the continuum are rigorously constructed partitions between work and leisure which may well protect a person from burning out but which run the distinct risk of not responding to human needs which are inconveniently manifested on the wrong day or at the wrong time of day.
Most of us would aspire to a life lived somewhere between the two ends of this continuum, sliding first one way and then the other. The danger comes when we get stuck in a pattern of life which is inimical to the flourishing life Christ calls us to. There is much statistical and impressionistic evidence of the way excess tiredness harms human creativity and imagination, making us less fruitful than we might be. In industry this can ultimately prove fateful, as the accidents cited above show. In the Church, the product is more intangible and, as a result, less consciously audited.
We all have anecdotal evidence of ministers of the Gospel in one shape or other who burn out but this is often shamefully ascribed to personal weakness rather than an endemic failing of the surrounding culture of Church and society. Rather than taking an individualised view of the issue, we should assess the impact on the corporate body of a sustained excess of work. Among the well attested impacts in any setting are: loss of vision, superficial care for one another, critical attitudes, stubbornness, outbursts of anger and quarrelling. Sounds familiar?
When a pilot light goes out, it is usually some time before the loss of warmth in central heating is felt; similarly, the loss of vitality in a place of faith is an imperceptible process. We wonder why some of our churches fail to demonstrate the love and generosity they are called to. Rarely do we ascribe it to tiredness.
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