Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Church Workers

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking Over Your Life by Richard Carlson became a classic of the self-help genre quickly after its publication in 1997, and related titles (such as Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff at Work) followed. I saw these books on people’s coffee tables, and, well, in bathrooms, but never picked any of them up until the first book was (forcefully) recommended to me about ten years ago. When I finally did read it, I found it helpful and applicable. I still pick it up at thrift stores, giving it to friends with the note, “I’m not implying anything by giving you this; I just found it helpful myself!” Some of the lessons in the book on work can be applied particularly by Catholics who work for the institutional Church.

There is a unique challenge in being a “professional Catholic.” If you believe that Jesus Christ offers salvation through his Church, but you are miserable at work—and that work is for that Church— it can affect your faith in Christ. Let’s say you believe that Jesus called you to work for the Church in some particular way—but your idea of what that looks like is not the same as your supervisor’s. People you work with in the Church may be unfriendly, rude, cold, or gossipy. You may see someone at daily Mass in the chapel at noon and then get a passive aggressive email from them at 1:30. Enduring the usual workplace challenges when you have an expectation that everyone is going to be on the same page is worse, in many ways, than working in a secular environment where you assume people have different priorities. In my column today, I want to share three of my favorite lessons from Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff at Work, adapted for Church work.[1]

  1. Don’t Sweat the Bureaucracy

If you are working in a diocesan structure, the USCCB, or, say, a Catholic university, you are working within a bureaucracy, and sometimes interacting with other bureaucracies. Stop fighting this fact and accept it. Fill out the forms—three times, if you have to—and move on with your day. Try to remember that there is a person on the other side of each form, and for whatever reason, the best way for them to do their job is for you to fill it out. Plan ahead. Learn the way things are done; work around them when necessary. Seek out the people within the bureaucracy who are flexible, helpful, and know how to get things done.

I worked in a chancery early in my career, and I was organizing an event for which we needed to stuff 3,000 folders. The folders and other materials were in large, heavy boxes in my office and they had to go down two floors to where we would be assembling the packets. The elevator was not accessible from my floor on my side of the building—you had to go through a secure door into the cardinal’s suite to get to the elevator. My supervisor told me to call facilities and ask for someone to carry all of the boxes down two flights of stairs. I gave him a look and said that was ridiculous. (I still had a lot to learn about tactful communication with one’s supervisor.) Instead, I called the cardinal’s secretary, whom I knew from our having lunch together periodically, and asked her if someone could just open the door for a second and allow the man with the boxes on a dolly to walk through the cardinal’s suite. She checked with the cardinal, he said fine, and that is what we did. There was just no reason not to do it that way—but there are people (like my supervisor at the time) who get nervous about asking for any aberration from the norm—especially from a cardinal. When it comes to Church bureaucracy or “the way things are done,” just don’t be afraid to ask, when your request is reasonable. You might get a “no,” and you should be prepared for that, but you might get a “yes.”

  1. Don’t Take the 20/80 Rule Personally

If you are unaware of this rule, it is the idea that in any given workplace, 20% of the people do 80% of the work. As Carlson puts it, “It’s often the case that people who are highly productive or who have an intense work ethic don’t understand why everyone else isn’t just like them” (p. 57). In a Catholic setting, this can become spiritualized: productive people can feel that others are not working as hard as they ought to be, and that this is a sign of sin or a lack of passion for the mission. I confess to struggling with this, and Carlson reminds me that “other people have different priorities, work ethics, comfort levels, gifts, abilities, and mind-sets” (p. 58). He advises me “to pay less attention to what other people aren’t doing, and put more emphasis on what you get out of your own level of productivity—financially, energetically, emotionally, even spiritually” (p. 58). It’s such an obvious piece of advice, but hard to remember sometimes. We will account to the Lord for what we have done with our own time, not for anyone else.

  1. Admit That It’s Your Choice

This is probably the piece of advice from Carlson’s book that I am most tempted to tweet out regularly and one that he notes people have a hard time with. “The admission I’m referring to is your choice of career and the accompanying hassles. You must admit that, despite the problems, limitations, obstacles, long hours, difficult coworkers, political aspects, sacrifices you make, and all the rest, that you are doing what you are doing because you have made the choice to do so” (p. 200). No one has to work for the Church. Starbucks and Trader Joe’s are usually hiring.

One of the struggles that I observe in people who work for the Church is that sometimes they made choices when they were young and/or discerning a religious vocation, and now they have to live with those choices or be willing to start again. Some Catholics seem to want the structures of the Church or of society to change, instead of themselves. Maybe a man declared theology as his major when he was eighteen and considering the priesthood; Maybe a woman went to canon law school at age twenty-three expecting to marry her current boyfriend, unconcerned about finances. These were choices that they made, and they may not have understood at the time what impact those decisions would have on their future earning potential or family. So now they are working for the Church, but they aren’t really happy about it; They just feel like they don’t have any other option.

I totally understand this, by the way. I got a masters in theology because I thought that I would be a high school theology teacher forever; then I was one, and after six years, I knew that I couldn’t do it anymore—both emotionally and financially, if I ever wanted to move out of group housing situations. It would have been easy to be resentful about this—especially toward God—and sometimes I was, since I felt that I had been following what Jesus was asked me to do—but instead it was important for me to “own” my decisions. I chose to study theology rather than business or architecture or engineering. I chose to seek work at a Catholic school rather than a public school, knowing that the pay is less. I chose to work on topics that I was interested in instead of looking for raises or promotions. And I made all these choices for concrete reasons! Maybe your reason for working for the Church is just that you need a job to feed your family and the Church is the only one you are qualified for—make the most of it, then, and recognize that you (apparently) did not plan well for a vocation in the world. You do not have to be stuck in a Church career if you really do not want to be. There are evening classes, training programs, etc. I have at times worked with people in the Church and thought to myself, “This person would have made a great plumber, and he/she probably would have been happier.”

I have a friend who got a Masters degree in library science, with the intention of being a school librarian. She got a job in that area and worked in it for years before acknowledging to herself that she wasn’t happy. At age 37, she entered an intensive training program for coding and other “techy” subjects (I don’t actually understand what she does), and she loves it. She’s met a whole different set of people and learned many new skills. Another woman I know began nursing school after her four children were all grown and out of the house. It’s never too late to find work that is satisfying to you.

I think of this point of Carlson’s often when a discussion breaks out about how many Catholic institutions have poor parental leave policies. Setting aside the question of injustice, the fact that this is the case is widespread information. Parental leave policies are fairly easy to find out and if you are in those child-bearing years of life, those are policies that you should ask about before you take a job. Then, if you think that the policy is unjust, and that you can’t work with it, you shouldn’t take the job. I think we sometimes make things more complicated than they are, and again, in the case of Church workers, we spiritualize them. “But I have to take this job because God is calling me to it.” Okay, well, that’s a real discernment that you need to do, because your vocation as a married person and parent is your first call and the only one that is objectively verifiable! There are many employers who can and do offer generous parental leave: go work for them if this is a top priority for you. If enough competent people simply won’t accept jobs where they can’t get the parental leave that they want, I imagine that would do more to shift things than complaining about it.

In Conclusion

I have a good friend who is a convert to Catholicism; when she was offered a position at an archdiocese, a priest counseled her that she may want to wait a few years to solidify her faith before working for the Church. It is sound advice. People are people, and chancery workers—and bishops—are no exception. It will not be all roses. I hope that the above points from Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff at Work are helpful for re-framing certain struggles common to Church workers. These are three points that resonated with me, but there are 97 others!

[1] Just a quick note that, just as with most things, knowing these principles and living them out are two very different things, and I do not live these out as well as I want to!