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Three weeks ago, I lost my job. The mortgage company that hired me during the pandemic refinance boom has now, like many others, scaled back to a skeleton crew through successive layoffs. I got cut in the third round.
Emotionally, I’ve been more stable than I would have predicted, even though the pressure of uncertainty still gets at me sometimes. But being unemployed for the first time in my adult life has given me plenty to think about. I’ve mulled over the loss of the job itself, my hopes and fears about the future, and the strangeness of this in-between time. Like with other transitions I’ve been through, I’m looking at being laid off as a spiritual opportunity—if only because it prompts me to reflect on what really matters.
Three weeks in, this experience is definitely still a work in progress. But in the spirit of thoughtful reflection, I’d like to offer four spiritual takeaways that I’ve found so far.
1. I’m Just as Vulnerable as the Next Guy
After making it through not just one, but two rounds of layoffs unscathed, it went to my head a little. I guess I’m the kind of worker they want to keep around, I thought. Even though a reduction in force is, in theory, not about individual employees’ performance, it’s hard to believe managers don’t use the opportunity to “trim the fat” while retaining the team members they can’t do without. Looking at layoffs this way can reinforce a meritocratic view of the workplace: you get what you deserve.
While it’s true that—all other things being equal—a hard-working team player probably has more job security than a disengaged misanthrope, it’s also true that none of us are invulnerable to forces beyond our control. I need the humility not to jump to conclusions about another person’s character when they’re facing a tough situation. Viewing the workplace as a well-balanced meritocracy erodes my compassion. It also blinds me to persistent biases and even injustices that shape the distribution of opportunity in our work communities.
The landscape of Scripture is populated with saints who faced unmerited deprivations that affected their whole lives, including their work. Joseph was enslaved and then imprisoned on a false accusation. David was on the run for years despite being the rightfully anointed king. Esther survived being held captive in a pagan harem, and found a way to advocate for her people in such circumstances. I may feel the allure of achievement telling us, “If you work hard and do the right thing, you’ll get ahead.” In contrast, Jesus tells me, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33 NIV).
Bad news about work situations is par for the course. I shouldn’t be offended by it, as though I deserve better or are somehow above the vicissitudes of life that common mortals face.
2. I Want to Work Hard, Not “Just Hard Enough”
I shouldn’t jump to conclusions about someone else’s character if they get laid off, but I can use my own situation as a chance to examine my own character. The layoff made me ask, “Should I have worked harder?” There were times when I could have gotten to work earlier or stayed later, or put a little extra oomph into a project or a presentation. While in this case, I don’t think that a more exemplary performance would have protected me from the layoff (they cut my whole department, after all), it raises the question of how hard I should work at work. Especially in light of recent discussions on “quiet quitting,” it’s a question worth asking.
The answer that Scripture gives is fairly straightforward: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23 NIV). While there is certainly a place for setting boundaries and protecting everything that matters in life besides work, let’s be honest. Sometimes we slack off because it’s easy to slack off. It’s easy to slack off because we’re sinners! There are times when clocking in late, calling it quits early, or giving less than our full effort while we’re working is not about our mental health, our families’ needs, or caring for our soul. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Often I want to work just hard enough and no harder.
The solution is not toxic overwork, but full and healthy engagement. As the verse says, it’s about heart. As I pivot to whatever’s next, I want to show up with my whole self and put my whole heart into it.
3. Risk and Stability Can Both Grow Faith
Just three days before the layoff, I took a prayer walk to talk with God about the challenges I was facing in my role at work. In particular, it felt like it severely limited the time I had available for Mission Central. Back at the start of the pandemic, when there was nothing to do “in real life” and I was working from home, making time for Mission Central was pretty easy. But now as a new homeowner trying to be involved in my local church and supporting Katie as she finishes grad school, those extra hours have been harder to fit into the margins.
During that walk, I felt like God was affirming two things: 1) My desire to spend more time on Mission Central, and 2) My willingness to keep accepting the limitations that my work imposed. It felt clarifying, like I was ready to keep going with the current arrangement. Then I got laid off.
As soon as my job went away, the sense of limitations went away, too, and my heart swung toward a relatively risky option: I considered trying to go full-time with Mission Central, which would involve a great deal of fundraising in an uncertain economy. Katie and I gathered a small group of friends, and their feedback was unanimous: That’s too risky! Embrace some limitations!
So now, I’m hunting for a part-time job while also hoping to build up Mission Central with the other half of my working hours. There’s certainly still risk in that arrangement. But there’s also some stability. Given my personality and inclinations, the more challenging side of that dynamic for me is the stability. I want the freedom to go after the even riskier option, but God is making it clear that embracing limitations is also a path of faith. I have to trust that he will provide for me and for Mission Central even if I can’t give it my full-time attention.
4. Rooted Community Is A Lifesaver
If I was laid off from a job that I was more passionate about, that felt more deeply aligned with my vocation and gifts, I imagine the emotional toll would have been much more severe. As it stands, it felt like I lost a job, but not an identity. I lost a job, but not a life.
One primary reason for that is the strong sense of rooted community that I have. Katie and I moved to Aurora, Illinois back in May. I’ve been attending City of Light, an Anglican church in Aurora, for three-and-a-half years now, and it’s wonderful to be so close. The day after the layoff, I was with a bunch of fellow City of Light friends helping a member move. It struck me, as I was hauling boxes, that my layoff did nothing to take away from my role and place in that community.
Even beyond church, I benefit from an extraordinarily strong social network, which I can only take partial credit for. Katie’s family is only half an hour away, and my parents are not too far off in Madison, Wisconsin. I live in commuting distance from my alma mater and have had the chance to catch up with a couple of professors in person as I consider some academic job opportunities. On the Tuesday after the layoff, I found myself at a minor league baseball game for my cousin-in-law’s fortieth birthday. The sense of connectedness and stable selfhood that all these relationships give me is beautiful and grounding when so much feels up in the air.
By the same stroke, this experience makes me feel for those who don’t have this kind of community. Some have never known an extended family or church family that feels safe, or, like so many, find themselves perhaps permanently “between churches.” Some are temporarily displaced because of a new job or new school and haven’t put down roots yet. More than ever are permanently displaced in their own nations, or internationally as refugees.
It puts my difficulties in perspective.
Image by Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash
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