Doing the work we’re called to do – and letting go of what we’re not – helps us focus on what’s most important: Good News.
‘Quiet quitting‘ is having a moment. The idea started on Tiktok, but now plenty of people are talking about how they’re doing less while on the job. And about how that’s not such a bad thing.
With all due respect to whoever actually coined the term, the concept of ‘quiet quitting’ has been around at least since the time of Rabbi Edwin Friedman, the great teacher of leadership and organizational consultant. He called it ‘defecting in place’.
It’s less about slacking and more about boundaries.
The first two should be obvious for someone like me, but I keep Friedman nearby because he reminds me that change is hard, change is personal, and the only way to change the system is to change myself.
Honestly, with all due respect to him, it’s not that far from what Jesus says.
‘Defecting in place’ is the way Friedman describes focusing on your own work, on doing the things you want and need done, and not doing things because others expect you to if it’s not your job.
It’s not meant to be passive-agressive, it’s not meant to try and force others to change their behavior, it’s about changing our own behavior and living with the pushback that will inevitably come (or at least we think it will…)
It’s tricky when it involves our job. Aren’t we supposed to do what others (like our supervisors) want? Yes, we’re definitely hired to do certain work, and we should do that. But there’s often a whole boatload of extra things we do – or think we should – that are not really our job.
This is what ‘defecting in place’ or ‘quiet quitting’ is getting at. There’s another word for it, too: over-functioning. And it’s not really good for us, or for those we serve with. Friedman says:
‘Burnout doesn’t come from working too hard. It comes from doing the work that others should be doing’.
Burnout is something a lot of clergy feel. I think the over-functioning a lot of us are doing is trying to uphold a dying organizational system. This is a burden that feels overwhelming. It’s a losing battle. And it keeps us from focusing on what our work really is: bearing God’s love in this world.
‘Quiet quitting’ is a way to rebel against a culture that says work should take up most of our lives. ‘Defecting in place’ is the same concept, but particularly in the church, it’s about a call to let go of what is no longer life-giving, and give our precious time and energy to what is.
All work is hard sometimes. We do things that have to get done. Ministry brings us into places of deep pain sometimes, yet even here there is the holy privilege of witnessing to God’s presence and the hope we carry.
But when we’re stuck in endless meetings – or petty conflicts – this sucks the joy right out of us. Once we pay attention, we can tell by how we’re feeling if the work we’re doing – even the hard work – has meaning.
If it doesn’t, we have to ask, ‘does this really need to be done?’ If not, we can let it go.
Don’t worry about what ‘they’ think
I’m always amazed by how much ministry is done because of the pressure we feel that ‘they’ want us to do it.
Clergy especially are often harried by this constant refrain of ‘my congregation expects this’. From visiting parishioners every time they go to the hospital to spending hours on the phone to preaching in a certain style (or a certain number of services), the burden of expectation is there.
But is it real?
I’ve worked with many congregations where the clergy feel like they aren’t living up to the congregation’s expectations, but the congregation doesn’t expect what the clergy thinks they do!
Clarifying our role goes a long way.
Just saying, ‘this is how I plan to spend my time’ out loud with those we share ministry with helps everyone know what to expect. Then there can be a conversation about it, and agreement on it.
Then the ‘expectation’ voices can go away, freeing up a lot of our time.
Don’t do others’ work
This is a hard one, since so many congregations are struggling. There’s a lot of things that need to be done that are not technically our job as ministers (lay and ordained). Members are typically aging, and they, too, are putting down the burden of a lot of work they’ve carried.
Who will do this work? Typically, clergy and lay staff pick it up, adding to their already full plates.
We don’t have to do this. I don’t think we should. Letting go of others’ jobs – even if it means they won’t get done – is crucial. Both to our own well-being and to the growth of the church.
Why? Because when we’re able to let things go, we’re also able to see how things aren’t working. Instead of trying to prop up what there’s no energy or ability to do anymore, we can look clear-eyed at the truth of it.
From here we can truly find new ways to be in ministry.
This is frightening – we really do have to say goodbye to some of the ways we organize ourselves, some of the ways we engage in ministry.
And we’re making room for what is to come: possibilities for new ways of sharing the love of God in community.
‘Defecting in place’. ‘Quiet quitting’. ‘Giving up over-functioning’. There’s lots of names for it. The one I like especially: reimagining ministry.