Reflections on Retail

After a catastrophic season of burnout, I stepped away from parish ministry and took an available job in retail to help maintain insurance and pay the bills.  And to see if I was the POS (pardon the coarse self-reference, but it’s what I felt at the time) I’d come to perceive or if I really did have anything worthwhile to lend to other people and organizations.

Long story short, I’m back to active ministry within the structures of the church, and I’m still with the retail gig.  I’ve received a good bit of healing.  God’s had a hand on everything in this strange passage of my life.

Working in a retail environment provides considerable insight that helps me better understand and witness to the message of Christ.  This week, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints a portion of Matthew 9, including

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

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Lifted from here.

Working in retail camps me out among the harassed and helpless, for whom Jesus feels compassion.  It’s helps me “sit in the pews,” mentally, recognizing more of the stresses and strains that people bring to church.  I still don’t like the toxic ways in which they act them out, projecting them onto the clergy in particular and very often onto the other lay people, rather than receiving the transformation that Jesus offers them.  But I have more compassion than I did a couple of years ago.

I know what it is to give a long week’s effort for a few hourly bucks.  Yes, clergy are way underpaid – but so many folks in the “secular” workplace toil under more stressful, less uplifting conditions for longer hours for as little or less compensation.

I recognize that it isn’t only churches that that suffer busts having little to do with the quality of their efforts.  Folks in retail can do sustained, quality work only to watch hundreds of customers and thousands of dollars leave for a flashy, cheap or geographically convenient place that opens up a few miles away (or on the internet).  And I see how the “losers” in such shifts are helpless against harassing feelings of failure.

I watch managers in the retail setting and realize how much more harassed they are than I was as a congregational pastor.  Pressure from “corporate” to bring in more sales; pressure from customers aggrieved by this, that and the other thing; pressure from well intended laws and policies that force them to be accommodating to even their most lazy and incompetent employees; the normal human pressures from within themselves and their relationships.

I’ve gained respect for the South Sudanese members of one congregation I serve, many of whom work in a meat packing plant for long shifts and still manage to clean up and get their families to church.  I know more of how a work week can exhaust people, and what a precious offering working folks make to take part in worship, let alone all kinds of mid-week church stuff.  And retail is especially guilty of the diminution of Sabbath in our culture – we’ve turned so many aspects of not working into a feeling of added work.

Then there are the experiences that give me thoughts like, “OK, maybe I went a little nuts, but it’s not like the church isn’t a bit of a crazy-maker.”

There’s the reality that “I’ll pray for you” means more when I say it to folks in the retail store than when I said it as the expected (and often unappreciated) thing in church.  I used to keep a discipline of calling church members on their birthdays and asking, “What should I be praying for in your life?”  It became one of my most deflating and eventually abandoned practices, as time and again the reply was something like, “Oh, nothing.  You save those prayers for the people who really need them.”

Now, when I offer to pray at the store, I find myself and the person who wants the prayer huddling between teetering pallet loads of merchandise as our sanctuary.  I see tears in others’ eyes.  I hear sincere “God bless you”s in return for my fumbling words.  I got a heartfelt “God bless you” just this morning for doing a minor favor to help out a coworker.  The apt sharing of Scripture seems to reach people at the store whereas it often bounced off of people in the church.

This Sunday’s Gospel goes on to reveal that where people are harassed and helpless is exactly where Jesus wants his church,

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Working the retail job seems to drop me in that harvest field in a way that the church itself resists.

Now, let me be clear.  I’m not rejecting the church; I believe that it is Jesus Christ’s body at work, the Holy Spirit’s Temple on the earth; the royal priesthood ministering to the Heavenly Father. Christians affirm the church as an expression of the reality and mystery of God in our Creeds, and I’m not finding excuse to deny that (which would be heresy on the way to apostasy).

I guess what I’m saying is that this retail job continues to raise questions even as it gives fresh perspective.

I welcome your prayers that I see and speak more of what Christ calls forth, and that I do so as a living member of the church he desires.

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