ME: Hi. My name is Pam.
RESPONSE: Hi, Pam. I’m _____.
ME: Hi, ____. So, what is it you do?
If you are an American, the above sample conversation may seem . . . normal . . . typical . . . . nothing out of the ordinary. From the time we are children, we are trained to focus on one’s occupation, particularly when we are asked, “What do you want do when you grow up?” This continues when we enter college, “What do you want to do with your life?” Then when as adults we attend class reunions, parties, or meet someone for the first time, it seems unavoidable as we will be asked, “What do you do?” And if you are retired, “What did you do?”
So imagine my pleasant surprise when I realized while vacationing for ten-days that no one inquired, “What do you do?” Instead, I frequently heard, “Where are you from?” And, you know . . . I liked it. It was refreshing. In fact, it was liberating as no longer was the emphasis on doing but on being.
So . . . let’s talk bluntly about the prevalent American question, “What do you do.”
Honestly . . . I dread it . . . and I have for some time. First, I have realized that certain answers to that question terminate further conversation. There is no doubt in my mind that my answer fits within that category since I have been ordained with my denomination since the early 1990s. Many ministers will bear witness to the fact that nothing shuts down a conversation quite like replying, “I am a minister,” which is followed by an awkward silence. It is my experience that we as people struggle to move beyond the naming of some occupations (e.g., minister, mortician, urologist, etc) to discover, “Who are you as a person?” And if by chance I maintain their interest after answering the-what-is-it-that-you-do question, the conversation is inevitably curtailed after they inquire, “With what denomination?” This, too, is followed by a speechlessness as some people are not sure what to do with a pentecostal.
Second, I have realized that some answers place a person in a lower status because they are not making a significant contribution to society. When I became a student later in life, I struggled to answer the question because I felt pressure to justify my being only a student. After all, why do I need more education? Why am I not working while being a student? I can imagine that stay-at-home moms and dads, retirees, those experiencing unemployment or disability, etc. may have similar thoughts.
Now, with a PhD after my name, the-what-do-you-do question continues to be unsettling for me . . . and maybe more so. If others discover I have a PhD, I now hear, “So, what are you doing with it?” There are, understandably, expectations of producing now that I have more education. I mean . . . I have those expectations. But guess what? I am still searching for my place in this world. In other words, I am a minister who writes and teaches a little while I am searching for my purpose. How do I explain that I knew I was to pursue doctoral studies but without clear direction as to its purpose? I am as mystified (and may I add frustrated) as the next person about this lack of clear direction. Little do people realize that receiving a PhD does not necessarily guarantee teaching in higher education. Just glance at the recently published The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission by Herb Childress (thanks, Josh, for pointing me in this direction).
So, since I have brought up this issue, I am curious . . . How do you experience the question, “What do you do”?
For some, it may be empowering. They may enjoy their jobs and/or the status that accompanies it. It may even be perceived as a safe subject as it avoids talking about who the person is. However, for others, it may foster shame. This means that it might communicate, “You are not good enough” or “You are not doing enough.”
Recently, I had the privilege of attending a training on grief/loss conducted by Alan Wolfelt, which focused on finding purpose and meaning. At the end of the training, more than one participant concluded, “I matter as I am, so it is not required of me to do something in order to matter.” This is a brave statement in a society that urges “Do. Do. Do.” Such a statement pushes back against the cultural milieu of doing over being . . . of a political climate that highlights position, power, and productivity above and beyond integrity . . . of an ethos that fosters results at any cost . . . of a society that tends to generate work-alcoholics. Such an iconoclastic assertion says, “Being matters.”
This is why I enjoy hearing the other’s story. I desire for others to teach me through their stories. We are, after all, story-telling, story-listening people. We are made up of stories . . . from our history, which are stories about our past, to our sharing about current experiences. Our past stories are a part of our current story so that our past becomes part of our future.
Stories are particularly vital for pentecostals, which means an emphasis on being over doing could be quite natural for us.
This is seen in our underscoring of testimonies in which we talk about our experiences with God. Not only do we listen to each other’s experiences, we also stress the stories of Scripture . . . be they the stories of people like Abraham, Moses, and David or the stories of Jesus (the Gospels) and the early church (the book of Acts). As pentecostals, we seek to highlight our stories about our experiences with God and intersect those stories with the narratives of Scripture, which in turn generates our theology. That is, experiences combined with Scripture is the mainstay of our belief system.
Such stories stress being. Who we are. Who the people of the Bible are. Who God is.
Yet . . . despite a pentecostal emphasis on stories, which could lead toward an underscoring of being, I have experienced a persistent focus on doing within pentecostal circles. Having attended a variety of pentecostal services in a variety of churches in our sixteen moves in thirty-two years of marriage, I have repeatedly heard the theme of doing in most of the churches. In fact, such an emphasis has been so strong that at times I wonder if we tend towards legalism or even Pelagianism, a belief that a human is capable of choosing good over evil without God’s assistance. In other words, there is a strong focus on human effort—do, do, do. We may not intend to put forth this type of doctrine, but if we continue to highlight doing in our sermons, the message that may be heard is doing over being. Think about it this way: If I repeatedly preach from stories from Scripture in which God delivers the people out of suffering, such a consistent message over time will generate a belief that God will deliver a person from suffering each and every time. This type of message neglects to prepare the person for those occasions when God does not remove the suffering but is still present—a different form of intervention. So it is with our stressing of doing over being. If I preach do, do, do without the grace and love of God, I may inadvertently foster legalism or Pelagianism.
For some time, I have been concerned about the American pentecostal’s centering on doing over being. Such an overemphasis may generate shame because I am not doing enough or I am not good enough. To be honest, I have departed from many pentecostal services with a sense of defeat and shame. On the other hand, when I have sat in services that underscore the being of Jesus who embodies grace, I sense freedom, not shame. This in turn is accompanied by hope and empowerment to change because it is not up to me because I am a participant in Christ’s ongoing ministry through the power and presence of the Spirit. Since I believe doing flows from being, it is when I know who I am in Jesus Christ that doing and change follow. After all, Jesus’s being is God’s doing (action). That is, they are one and the same.
Recently, in my search for meaning and purpose I began to wonder if pursuing a PhD was more about participating in Christ’s ministry of God’s love and grace toward my father.
We were living in SoCal when I was accepted into a doctoral a program in Minnesota, and this acceptance meant a move back to the Midwest, a return to where I was born and raised. Two years prior to our move, my mother had unexpectedly passed away, and my father remained alone on the farm in South Dakota where he was born. Since my father was a shy, introvert, he struggled to take his grief from the inside and turn it into mourning, which is to express one’s grief outwardly and thereby move towards healing. However, my sense of call toward doctoral studies provided an opportunity that placed us closer to my father, resulting in my husband’s and my participating in Christ’s ministry of healing in him by regularly being present to him. And you know, we had the privilege to witness a healing change. Coincidentally, my father died eight days after I graduated. Was God’s leading me to pursue a PhD, producing transformation in both my father and me, more about God’s love for my father’s being than my future acts of ministry? Perhaps. After all, this would be in line with God’s character: God loved the world so much that God gave God’s Son to the world as a human being, who was Emmanuel, God with us, providing healing (reconciliation) for humanity.
In short, being matters.
 I recognize such a question is not as liberating for some. I am a White woman born in South Dakota, so I found the question freeing; however, for those, who are not Caucasian and/or do not have an American accent, they may experience such a question as racist and/or deliberately placing them in the category of “other.” Thus, I want to acknowledge and respect this experience while pointing out that my focus is about our culture’s emphasis on doing over being.