More Than a Desk Job: The spirituality of administration
St. Paul’s first letter to the Christians of Corinth describes the various gifts God has given members of the church to serve the reign of God in the world. Paul lists the gifts of prophecy, teaching, healing, working of mighty deeds, speaking in tongues, apostleship and assistance (1 Cor 12:27-28). The gift of administration, hidden toward the end of the litany, is a curious inclusion. Even many of those who serve as administrators in institutions—ecclesial and otherwise—find it so.
As one who has worked as an administrator in Catholic higher education for almost a decade, I am conscious of the ways that my colleagues and I in the larger sphere of ministry frequently devalue, even disdain administrative tasks. “Another meeting,” we gripe, “another report, another spreadsheet.” Administration is perceived as draining our best energies and taking us away from the very teaching, healing and assisting that we entered ministry to do. “I don’t know why we had to study so much Greek in seminary,” a pastor recently told me, “when what I really needed was ‘legalese’ and a specialization in furnace maintenance.” Friends who are administrators in the secular sphere share a common concern. “I went to dental school with the intention of working one-on-one with patients, offering them top quality care and attention,” my dentist recently admitted, “but much of my day is spent dealing with personnel issues and insurance claims.”
But there is another way of thinking about our work that challenges the poor reputation of administration as something that sucks the light and life out of good people. Why not reconceive administration as a potential spiritual pathway by which good people can become better people, distinguished by a certain translucence and vitality that extends beyond themselves and into the institutions they serve? I think that administration, to put it in theological language, can be a “praxis,” an activity with the potential to transform not only the lives of others, but oneself in the process.
There are many ways of defining the term. One can say that spirituality is the particular way in which God works out our salvation in this world, or that it is the particular way in which God brings us into the fullness of light and life for which we are intended. If we speak of a Christian spirituality, we mean that Jesus Christ plays an integral, central role in our salvation. If we speak of a marital spirituality, we mean that it is through our experience of being married that God intends to make us into the people we are meant to be. And if we speak of the spirituality of the administrator, we will want to ask the key question, “How is the ministry of administration a way through which God is transforming me into the person God dreams me to be?”
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, to receive a vocation or a call from God is always an invitation to movement. In Genesis, the first words God speaks to Abraham are “Come out” (Gn 12:1). In John, the Good Shepherd “calls his own by name and leads them out” (Jn 10:3). Calls impel us “out” of ourselves to something more, something beyond. As Margaret, a character in Gail Godwin’s novel Evensong, points out, “Something is your vocation if it keeps making more of you.” What can administration call us to if we allow it? What is the “more” that it can make of us? Consider the following four possibilities.
A Call to Greatness of Vision
Some jobs invite us to do one thing and to do it well; we are only responsible for our own piece of the puzzle and need not worry about the rest. That is usually the administrator’s job. Administrators must develop a vision of the whole, an understanding of how all the parts fit together and work together. This is an intellectual exercise that stretches the brain, but it can also be a spiritual exercise that stretches the heart, developing one’s capacity for a different kind of love. Administration cultivates a desire for the common good, for the flourishing of all. It does not pit one department against another. It does not thrive on increasing competition but on enabling collaboration, on seeing the body function as a body. Administrators are called to strive for the “big picture” and to help others to strive for this as well. To the degree that they are able to hold onto and carry this big picture, administrators image something of God who holds onto and carries the biggest picture of all. They share in something of God’s grand vision. They experience something of how God sees and loves.
A Call to Love Blindly
Since so many administrative duties take place behind the scenes, administrators often do not have a great deal of interaction with those their institutions intend to serve. Whereas the teacher or pastoral minister is able to get to know particular students or parishioners by name and develop affection for them, the administrator oftentimes knows and loves only from a distance. One of the greatest poverties of administration can be knowing people only through a computer screen. If looked at from another angle, however, we could say administration cultivates the Gospel virtue of “agape”—a sort of disinterested love, not based on personal affection. Instead of being uninterested, it is disinterested in the sense that one’s own self- interest and emotional gratification are not provided by the other. In the 12th century, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides noted that one of the highest levels of generosity is attained when one gives to those who do not even know the giver. Administration encourages the practice of giving of oneself freely and abundantly without always knowing what good is being done.
A Call to Courage
Administration is often a very humbling task. The work asks us to tackle issues that we do not quite know how to handle, issues that take us far beyond our comfort zones. It is good to admit these things honestly rather than pretend we always know what to do. At the same time, the virtue of humility must find its complement in the virtue of courage or fortitude. No, we do not know everything we wish we knew. No, we are not perfect. No, we do not feel worthy to make recommendations that could affect others’ lives. But, with due humility, we also have to act. We have to ask difficult questions. We have to make decisions. We have to offer challenging feedback. Sometimes we even have to write negative evaluations and let the one we have evaluated know this face-to-face. We struggle to cultivate a “response-ability” to match our responsibility.
I often find myself, as an administrator, in situations with students and colleagues that I would very much prefer to avoid. I know that I do not have the wisdom or experience that I should have to be dealing with the issues at hand; but nevertheless there they are, and here I am. I have learned from experience that no matter how badly I might botch things up through direct confrontation, it will be better than how badly I would botch things up by avoiding it. Often this is not much consolation. At such times I must rely not on my own inner resources but on the grace of the role itself. I remember that someone has asked me to serve in this capacity and appointed me to carry out the task. There may be someone better out there, but that person is not here right now, and the work still needs to be done. I have to trust that the gap between “me” and “what the role requires” will be filled by the Holy Spirit.
A Call to Embrace ‘Death’
To say that administration invites us to “embrace death” can sound a bit melodramatic. Opportunities for physical martyrdom in the line of duty are very rare. Yet as one of my former bosses commented, “In administration, you die a thousand deaths for the good of the whole.” Administrators experience a “death” of the ego for example, when they come to a new awareness of their own shortcomings and limitations. They are called to “die to control” with the realization that the institution they serve has a life of its own, in which administrators can participate but can never completely manage. There is the “death of productivity,” when they must give up something else that they had hoped to accomplish to deal with any one of a hundred mundane crises. Much of the ministry of administration is in “the interruption.”
Each of these “deaths” could be skirted and ignored or greeted and welcomed. In every Christian vocation, one finds an aspect of the paschal mystery. It is inevitable. We could walk another road, but then we would simply face other struggles. It is precisely through embracing the mystery and walking through it that our spiritual journey becomes salvific. We open ourselves up to transformation.
In the Christian tradition, we remember that death never has the last word. In the midst of letting go and “dying,” the strange gift of hope is born. Not the same as optimism (a sense that everything is going to be all right), hope is more a peculiar strength that gives one the energy to get up and keep going even when one is not sure that everything is going to be all right. St. Thomas Aquinas defined hope as a way of living that consistently “leans on God”—a particular way of being in relationship with God. It means depending on God in a radical way for not just the peripherals or niceties of life but truly for one’s daily bread, that is, whatever one needs to make it through the day. The experience of administration teaches over time that when all else fails, God still does not.
Administration as a call from God and the church has the potential to make more out of us. It makes us more whole, more humble, more courageous. It expands our vision and our capacity to love. It marks on us the pattern of Christ, moving through death to new hope. If we believe in the future of the church and society, the work we undertake is absolutely essential. It is essential for the institutions in which we serve. It is essential for the people of God as a whole. It may even be essential for us and the working out of our own salvation. Administration can be a great spiritual adventure.