People are quitting both their churches and their jobs: this according to articles in the Wall Street Journal the last few days. You can tell lots of lies with statistics, and I’m on guard about that, but it seems about right when we are told that 40 million Americans have quit going to church since the pandemic started. And we have no statistics, yet, but a large number of them are NOT coming back. As for quitting work, the Department of Labor has tallied up that 40 million people have quit their jobs in the last year. And by “quitting” I don’t mean fired or laid off during the pandemic. People simply turned in their notices, and they are not coming back. In other words, we are quitting our jobs and churches in droves.
I can’t speak for the whole country (nor should anyone else in this fraught time,) but I can speak for myself: I’m one of those who quit. I walked out on both my job and my church, in one fell swoop last summer, when I retired from the pastorate.
Church leaders (who haven’t quit yet) are stressed. It takes a critical mass to keep things going in a congregation. A choir entirely made up of two altos and a tenor doesn’t perform Handel’s Messiah all that beautifully. A mass exodus of young families that leaves only six kids in the whole church, strung out between the ages of 2 and 14, does not bode well for a strong Sunday School. Too many empty pews in the sanctuary is demoralizing. Are the ones who are left some sort of noble remnant? …Or are they just the “left behind,” as though the rapture has occurred? Except we know for a fact that the ones who left have not been whisked off into the sky by a triumphant Lord; they are simply sitting at home in their pajamas.
As for people quitting their jobs, it is stressing both employers and consumers. Labor shortages are constricting supply chains and stoking inflation. The law of supply and demand means wages have gone up, further increasing what we have to pay for goods and services. As consumers, our every outing is unpredictable: shortages of what we’re shopping for, fewer hours things are open, more places shuttered…
All this quitting is a pandemic effect we weren’t ready for. (Of course, we weren’t ready for anything when it comes to this pandemic.) When we are caught off guard, sometimes our worst impulses take over first. In this nasty time, the collection of people we don’t like is already in the millions. Our bent is to find the goats and pile on the blame. Where there is conflict, we sow rage; where there is confusion, deceit; where there is fear, bigotry… Things are a near total mess: in politics, in church politics, in work-place politics, even on some airplane rides! There are some interesting political and economic factors behind all this quitting. But that’s not what I’m writing about today.
Americans and Christians alike are taught, “Don’t be a quitter.” It violates the spirit of our faith and our patriotism. What if MLK or Mother Theresa had quit? What if Washington or Lincoln had dodged out? Quitting is un-American. It’s the lure of the devil. Isn’t it? Have we become a nation and a religion of quitters? Or is this phenomena something more complicated? Is it possible that there is a difference between the verb and the noun, between quitting and being a quitter?
A quitter is marked by disloyalty, weakness, or selfishness. The foundation of civilization itself depends on loyalty: to family, to community, to the institutions that are central to the social contract people in any society must have. If we quit every time things got hard, how would we ever grow, become stronger, make our institutions stronger? If people were to leave churches and jobs whenever some selfish impulse arises, how quickly would everything good disappear? Our moral codes absolutely should include injunctions against quitting things like jobs and churches.
But moral codes without loopholes are deadly. A better way to say that is this: “Moral codes without ethical loopholes are deadly.” A moral code might laudably include: 1) Don’t be disloyal to your church or your job, 2) Don’t quit and thereby pass up a chance to increase your skills, patience, and character, and 3) Don’t save yourself by jumping ship and leaving the others to drown.
But a moral code differs from an ethical principle. A moral code is a list of generalized prescriptions for our behavior. Moral codes tell us what to do and what not to do. Ethical principles force us to think it out for ourselves: love your neighbor, love your enemy, do not judge, be kind and gentle, show mercy, do justice, choose the greater good, rejoice… Ethical principles are irritatingly vague. They demand that we take risks, that we learn and discern and try our best, that we examine our inner motives. Ethical principles never include the instructions. They are vague and open-ended, lacking any prescriptions whatsoever.
If it comes down to a conflict between a moral code and an ethical principle, always go with the principle. It’s what Jesus taught. It’s what America stands for.
It’s always immoral to quit, a church or a job. But at times, quitting might also be ethical. Yes, loyalty is important, but only if the relationship is generally characterized by mutuality. Is there a strong culture of mutuality at work or at your church? If not, quitting may not be so disloyal.
Not wimping out in a tough situation is praiseworthy; hanging in there helps us gain strength and wisdom. But if we are simply enabling a culture that demeans and disempowers people, that uses people for the egotistical designs of the leaders, then it is unethical to stay if we have a chance to leave.
The world already has too many selfish and self-centered people, and quitting can do more harm to the community than good. (It’s not always a bad thing when selfish people leave the church or workplace: I’ve known many congregations and workplaces that were vastly improved when selfish people quit.) But self-care and self-respect are not the same as selfishness. Of course, if you’re a jerk, you will always shroud your selfishness with something more respectable. But it’s never unethical for you to be faithful to your body, your family, your faith, your mental health, or your self-dignity.
This pandemic has gotten all of us thinking at new levels, in new ways. We have been thinking a whole lot about how we spend our time and energy. And aside from family, nothing takes more of our collective time and energy than church and work. We should be reassessing. Everything. This pandemic and the political reactions to it have brought us to the brink: life is fragile, time is precious. It’s never the moral thing, to quit. But now, more than ever, it may be the ethical thing.
I’m a two time quitter this year: left my congregation, which also happened to be my job. But I didn’t quit to just quit. I quit so I could live, so I could move on, to new work, to new forms of Christian fellowship and accountability. It’s a hard thing, all this quitting. But it may be the most ethical and exciting phenomenon that has happened in our lifetimes.