By Bill Mefford
In the last few days there was an uproar on Twitter when someone posted a picture of Geoffrey Owens, a former Cosby Show star who now works at a Trader Joe's in Clifton, NJ. The photo and the posting were meant to shock and elicit shame on the actor who now works at a grocery store.
In an interview Tuesday morning on Good Morning America, Owens admitted that he indeed feel some shame initially. It was only afterwards, when more former television and movie stars started sharing that after their successes they also had worked in what are considered menial jobs; jobs like kitchen staff, waiting on tables, sweeping floors, etc. His shame was changed as people shared his social and economic position, and pushed back collectively at the attempt to shame him.
I work in a city that is known for this kind of shaming: Washington DC. What you do or what position you hold is everything. No one really cares all that much about who you are. My wife and I still remember years ago when she joined me at a social function in DC. Someone asked my wife which organization she was with and my wife, a little surprised, said she was a social worker who worked with homeless people. The inquiring woman immediately walked away and found someone more "important" to talk to.
This happens all the time at every level and in every context in DC.
No matter if you are an elected official, or a lawyer in a powerful lobby office, or even if you just work in the non-profit or faith organization world - there is shame that is poured on those who are fired, lose their jobs, or who move to less prestigious employment. Though I have been out of my previous job for over 2 1/2 years now, I still get condescending looks from former colleagues who I once thought were my friends because I no longer have a powerful position in the third largest denomination in the country.
Positions of power is what DC is all about.
But all of this is nothing when compared to the shaming that happens inside the church. Again, I will use my departure from my job at a general board of the United Methodist Church. I met numerous friends across the country during my ten years in that position, but I have lost many of those friends since my unplanned departure, particularly among those who occupy national or conference-wide positions. I guess it is too awkward for them to relate to me anymore. Yeah, kind of pathetic.
But church shame is not relegated to national or conference positions of prestige.
I remember when I worked for local churches as a youth pastor, or as a licensed local pastor, or campus ministry director (I worked in these positions without ever being ordained). I remember listening to the discussions among ordained clergy who led local churches when someone left their position in the church to work at another job outside the church.
I remember one such time when someone left their position as a pastor to work at their family farm. There were rumors and whispers about why that person "left the ministry." Were they burned out? Were they questioning their faith? Or the absolute worst, were they involved in some kind of dastardly sin? (We loved to whisper and rumor about the last one more than anything).
We never discussed the fact that maybe they felt called to work on their family farm. Jesus certainly seemed to garner a lot of lessons from farming so there must be something holy about caring for creation in this way. But we never discussed that maybe that calling to farm work was just as valid as vocational ordained ministry in a local church setting.
From my experience of having served in various positions of the local and national church, there is very definitely a vertical hierarchy to the callings of followers of Jesus. For some weird reason, there are many in the United Methodist denomination who regard the positions of those who work on general boards or in the episcopacy to be of sacred worth, which is probably why I lost so many relationships when I lost my former position.
But we have assigned value to certain positions in the Body of Christ. Denominationally, ordained people have greater value than lay people. Those who are ordained and have been given statuses like bishop or district superintendent, or general secretary, or director of civil and human rights, (or whatever) all have higher importance in the church than those without the fancy titles. And among ordained clergy who serve local churches there is a definite hierarchy in terms of size of churches and, even more, in terms of salary. I have seen numerous instances when local pastors devastate the churches they serve, and then get appointed to churches with a higher salary simply because it is common practice that clergy are almost never "demoted," no matter how inept they may be. And the rare occasions when demotions are given to clergy, they are clearly defined in terms of salary and size of congregation.
This, shame is a direct result of the adopted structure, which we now accept as a given, but which is one which we have very clearly adopted from the society in which we are located. The denominational church has thrust aside any theological notions about what a Kingdom-based ecclesiology might look like and we have instead adopted the same corporate ladder to success that is found in corporate America.
It is no wonder that the prophetic voice is given little if any credence by our society; we have adopted their value structure in determining significance and faithfulness.
And make no mistake, we protect the verticality of our adopted structures in the church as sacred. In the current strife in the United Methodist Church the one area of agreement among most liberals and conservatives; the one area of the denomination that has rarely, if ever, come under attack, is the salary and appointment structure. Virtually everyone agrees that lifetime appointments, upward mobility, and guaranteed healthcare and pensions should not be touched.
So, when someone walks away from these perks, there is more than just alarm. There is a perceived attack of one's own values. And then follows the assumption that something nefarious is in play.
But it does not have to be this way.
I remember before I took on the grand title at the last job I was at. My family and I lived in downtown Lexington, KY - the poor part of town. My wife was a social worker and I was a stay-at-home dad, working on my dissertation, while working three part-time jobs. I worked as a part-time Missions Pastor at a small United Methodist church, a case manager for a weekend pharmacy that served poor clients in my neighborhood, and I ran a paper route for the Lexington Times Herald. That's right, I was a paper boy who woke up at 3:30 every morning and delivered the paper to a bunch of homes (and a strip club) on the Southeast part of Lexington. And you know what? I was thoroughly content. My family was happy, I was actively engaged in the justice movements in Lexington, and I started my own email activist list of contacts I had across the country, which is much like the one I now have with Fig Tree Revolution.
There are many days when Marti and I talk about returning to that kind of life - doing the jobs to get us by so that we can engage in what we are most passionate about. I am sure the folks I know in DC would be aghast at such a downward move. And there would certainly be whispers among people in the church, akin to the condescension directed towards Geoffrey Owens for working at Trader Joe's. But there would also be contentment and perhaps a greater opportunity for expressing Kingdom living and justice.
So, let's celebrate the opportunities we have to work at what are considered "menial" jobs. Let's tell the keepers of the current corporate structure of the United Methodist church (and other denominations too) to shove their upward mobility. And let's look the condescension and shame in the face and tell it to go to hell where it belongs.
Let's just be faithful.