theological labour

Have you ever worked in retail? Like most kiwi students I did my time working in retail during high school and undergrad. Standing on your feet all day and being nice to people can be tough, and sometimes it is just the organisational culture of working with other like minded students that provides your enjoyment. Fortunately for me that was before the days when customer service involved prescribed interactions such as you must wish every customer ‘have a good day’. Yes we were polite, respectful and helpful and we had some regular customers who we would genuinely wish a good day. I have been coming across more and more discussion of what is called ‘emotional labour’. This is a concept that was introduced into sociology in 1983 by Hochschild, and has slowly made its way into HR and other disciplines. Emotional labour is when organisations (often service oriented) require people to manage their own feelings to produce a public and visible expression of how they feel, in order to have an effect on others (usually customers). For example when I buy my groceries at Countdown the cashiers are required as part of their job, to say have a good day and smile when you have paid the bill. This requirement for a particular emotional response is what is called emotional labour.


A few things got me thinking this week, what if among Christian organisations we are seeing a similar phenomenon that I would like to call theological labour. I would describe theological labour as the management of beliefs and their visible outward expressions as a job requirement.

Most staff and members/partners of Christian organisations will be required to sign or agree with some sort of statement of faith or doctrinal position before they start work. So theoretically there should be no dissonance between what the individual believes and the beliefs of the organisation. However in real life faith ebbs and flows, understandings change over time and in my experience not everyone even has the same understanding of the doctrine in the statement of faith. Then there are the extra things that come to life after the initial agreement, extra position papers are released or beliefs that were once peripheral become central.

Sometimes it is not even as overt as a position paper, it can be the culture that rises up in an organisation. This is expressed through the clichés that are left unquestioned, the words and statements that are left un-contextualised, the assumptions that are made that all Christians think the same. It is even expressed through the people that it is ok to invite to an organisational gathering and the theologians and thinkers that it is ok to share on Facebook. Certain ways of thinking about beliefs may become the norm through the organisation without it ever being stated. Slowly but surely the space for growing and changing faith, the space for questions and doubts, the space for diversity slips away. When we lose diversity we lose the richness that different viewpoints can add to our lives, our organisations, our conversations and our understanding of God. We lose the voice that can highlight our blind spots that we are standing too close to see.


So Christian organisations often create an environment where staff may have to monitor their expressed theological position or risk their job security. It comes when you are out and about, at church, at conferences, networking, and fundraising. The theological labour comes when you know that what you say in response to things that you have heard or read will reflect on your organisation, and may cause challenges with your colleagues that you are not ready for.

Theological labour is the awareness that you need to reflect the theological position of the organisation regardless of what you believe, no matter what your current questions are, and what you believe the Holy Spirit is saying to you.

If you have dedicated your life, and your career to ministry, if you still feel vocationally called (usually to the people you are working with, not the organisation) it is very difficult to just go out and find another job. For those trained and experienced in ministry crossing over to the secular workforce can be very difficult, so the options for leaving are usually difficult.

All organisations require a certain commitment to their vision, mission and passion. But working in the Christian sector is different because of the interaction between personal beliefs and organisational requirements. As Christians our personal beliefs and our relationship with God are central and provide meaning, purpose and vibrancy to our life. Christian organisations therefore have a unique power over their workers as they have an involvement in something that for most people is not mandated by their workplace. The simple act of having a statement of faith gives the organisation leverage over the beliefs of their workers.

Personally both times I have worked for an evangelical organisation I have had to give a certain amount of theological labour. It hasn’t started out that way but as I got further and further into the organisation I discovered more and more belief expectations. This was of course unintentional, it was more about unexamined assumptions, and which books would be on recommended lists than sending around position papers to be signed. To be fair in my first organisation they tried to encourage me to speak up a bit more, but I was not confident, and I was not prepared with the rational arguments to back up my positions that were expected. The second time I found myself having to give theological labour I knew enough to leave before it became undermining to my emotional and spiritual health.

Emotional labour has side effects for those who are engaged in it, and is thought to be a contributor to burnout and so of course does theological labour. The dissonance between personal beliefs and what you need to express publically can begin to take its toll. Authenticity and integrity are challenged and I found it very tiring to always be monitoring what beliefs I was expressing where, and eventually it led me to doubting my faith and my ability to hear from the Holy Spirit. For those of us who care for workers in Christian organisations we need to be aware and ready to explore the impact of theological labour on those who feel that is what they are providing.

If we want to increase the diversity within Christian organisations and allow for the ebbs and flows of faith, for questions and periods of doubt and theological wrestling for new contexts we need to reclaim the story of God’s work throughout history and as told in the bible as the core that unites us. Rather than a set of doctrines, Communion becomes a powerful symbol of unity as we break bread together re-enacting the centre of the story that provides unity and coherence to our work and to our lives.

I would love to hear your impressions and experiences of theological labour


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