Work and Sabbath at the Dawn of Covid-19

In preparation for helping my congregation both think about and live into new ways of being the church, I have been re-reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. It is a lovely text—accessible yet profound, grounded in deep knowledge of the Christian tradition and also of the earth. Many chapters have spoken to me, but especially timely is “The Practice of Saying No.” It meditates on the gift of Sabbath practice and how difficult it is to choose to engage in such a practice when our world is calling us constantly to either produce or consume. How radical it is just to stop, to sit, to observe, to breathe… to say no to the cycles of production and consumption that dominate our society.

Now that many of us have been forced by the Covid-19 pandemic into a withdrawal from our usual activities, the chapter reads differently than it has in the past. On the one hand, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have slowed our participation in commerce and literally called us home. On the other, most of us have moved our jobs from our offices into our homes, in some cases right next to family members and their work. How do we manage the contradictions and blurred boundaries brought about by this collective upheaval? There are some striking reflections making the social media rounds about the silver linings of this crisis, specifically how it might bring us back to some simpler ways of living and sharpen our eyes for what is truly important. Especially notable is Lynn Unger’s poem Pandemic, which explicitly names the calls for social distancing and sheltering in place as opportunities to reconsider the practice of Sabbath.

Most of us are required to move forward with business as usual, even if we are doing it from our own homes with countless preoccupations swirling. Today, for example, I am wrapping up a Vocation Across the Academy grant proposal for my school. We are grateful to NetVUE and CIC for offering an extension through March 30th. Yet it is also the case that in the two weeks since the extension was announced, the ground has shifted dramatically; in fact, it keeps shifting day to day, sometimes hour to hour, and the unknowns keep multiplying. In order to complete the proposal, I have to imagine a future that is unlikely to come to pass—because at this point there too many possible futures to track. The only question is just how far off the mark my imagination will turn out to be. This is just one small example of the strange cognitive load under which so many of us are working. In addition to worrying about the health of both loved ones and strangers, the financial impact of this crisis from global to personal, and how our students are coping with the rapid shift to online instruction (not to mention what to feed hungry teenagers for lunch), there is the basic yet terribly elusive question of how to plan for such an unpredictable and dynamic future.

It is certainly worth thinking through ways to support our students’ vocational exploration during a time of national crisis and at a distance. I look forward to entering those conversations. Following the oxygen mask principle, it seems equally important to ask the question of our own wellbeing as higher education professionals. That is, I invite us to ponder not just how we might “do vocation” in a time of such uncertainty but how we prepare ourselves to do it. Precarity already characterizes every level of higher education, from the higher ed apparatus as a whole to individual institutions to our campuses’ contingent faculty and staff. Now this: the shuttering of residential campuses and an emergency move to online instruction. Even as we are concerned for our students, especially the more vulnerable ones, many of us are also anxious about whether our own jobs, perhaps even our very institutions, will survive this crisis.

The tendency in the face of this anxiety is to throw ourselves into our work. Putting our heads down and doing our work offers some control in the moment: “I cannot solve the pandemic, but at least I can get this Power Point to my colleague and finish up this recommendation letter.” We also hope that steady work from home will demonstrate to the powers that be that we are in fact essential to the key workings on our institution. Finally, there is something to be said for simply putting in a good day’s work, to offering our best to the world despite the chaos swirling around us.

We risk crossing a line however when we use our work to avoid or gloss over the larger realities impacting the world. Work without end ultimately helps neither us nor our students. While we may need to get things done, we also need to offer ourselves the grace of being unproductive and of not doing our best work. All of us, if we take any of the current situation seriously, are bearing a heavy emotional and cognitive load. Recognizing this and offering ourselves breathing spaces for grief, anxiety, lament, or any other emotions often called “negative” is of vital importance.

We would also be wise to consider Pastor Emily Scott’s “Tips for Spiritual Leaders during Covid-19,” among them “know that your brain will not work as well” and “do less.” In a piece for The Chronicle, Aisha Ahmad shares her insights, especially for faculty, about how to do creative work under long-term crisis conditions, noting the necessity of establishing security and allowing time for adjustment before attempting to settle in to a new normal. Common across all these illuminating pieces is this: however precarious things are, unless we are on the front lines of the medical crisis, “work harder” is probably not the solution. Instead, we need to give ourselves permission to be, well, human with all of our vulnerabilities and limitations. It is okay to say “no” to work and “yes” to practices of care.

In answer to the question what exactly vocation in higher education is, I sometimes respond that it is simply a call to engage students as whole persons. During this unprecedented pandemic that has evacuated our campuses and sent us all home, we may not be able to offer sophisticated vocation programs. But insofar as vocation is about “whole personhood,” those of us committed to vocation in higher education are more than equipped to offer and to encourage this basic practice: to meet students where they are. In order to do that well though, we must be able to meet ourselves where we are.

Wherever you are today, be there and be your whole self, knowing that your call in this strange time may be as simple as that.


Krista E. Hughes is a constructive theologian and currently directs the Muller Center for Exploration & Engagement at Newberry College where she also serves as an Associate Professor of Religion and directs Called to the Common Good, a Lilly Youth Theology Network summer institute. She is co-editor of Ecological Solidarities: Mobilizing Faith & Justice for an Entangled World (Penn State UP, 2019).  

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