While trying to keep my feet as I hefted the burden of the academic semester onto my back this year, shocked again—just like every year—as to how heavy that weight can be, I received an email that had a new opportunity inside of it. It wasn’t even a direct ask. It was only a mention, but before anyone could ask me to do it, I said yes.
On paper, that yes seems like a bad decision. Like so many professors at small Christian colleges and universities, like so many people who serve in Christian communities everywhere, I am already doing more than can rightfully be expected of me. Saying yes to more could easily be perceived as an act of martyrdom or worse: a sort of slow-motion self-immolation wherein I am lighting the fires of my burnout.
Why would I do such a thing? Why do so many of us say yes to more and more and more?
I find no need to appeal to a protestant work ethic or Calvinistic baptism of work to explain why I continue to heap tasks onto my to-do list. I wasn’t even raised as a protestant, and there seem to be plenty of workaholics in Japan where Calvinism is rare.
Instead, I think there is something about me, the opportunity, and the place that made me say yes, and I think this realization offers a framework for why we say yes, when we say yes, and how to encourage (or discourage) faculty everywhere to say yes.
One reason I said yes to this email is because I could. While the load I carry is heavy, I am not being crushed by it. I am buttressed by a broad framework of support that enables me to flourish even when there is too much to do. I have a wife who helps take care of the innumerable tasks of raising kids and managing a home. My kids are now eleven and fourteen, and the demands of raising them are no longer a twenty-four-hour-a-day marathon like they were a decade ago. I am physically healthy, mostly by no fault of my own.
At work, I am part of a department that has enjoyed unusual stability and somehow weathered the great resignation without loss. We have a team of faculty who have worked together for five years, and we are a competent team. I can count on my colleagues to teach, research, mentor, and serve the college with excellence.
I said yes to this opportunity because, even though I am already overburdened, I am so supported by family, community, and blessings that I can say yes.
The second reason I said yes is because of the nature of the opportunity. While no one went right out and asked me to do it, it just made sense for me to do so. My vocational formation in the last five years has been such that this was a logical next step. While other people at the school could do the work, I can do it because I have learned, thought, and worked in this area.
I said yes to this opportunity because I have been formed by God and my community to be ready to take it up. Sometimes an interesting opportunity is the work of the Holy Spirit, blessing us so that we can bless others. God is shaping each of us through experiences, challenges, and neighbors and some opportunities are a clear next step in the work God is doing in our lives.
Third, I said yes to this opportunity because I believe in the place where I work. I believe in the institution, its mission, its students, and the direction the administration is leading us. The opportunity didn’t come with much prestige, remuneration, or fanfare, so the reason why I said yes is because I want it to be done. I want it to be done well. I want this little slice of the mission of the institution to succeed. I said yes because I see how it serves the mission that I love.
In short, I said yes, I think all of us say yes when we are supported enough to do so, when the opportunity is a clear step in our broader formation, and when we see how it serves a mission we endorse.
With this insight, we can also understand the opposite. Why do people refuse to step up, buy-in, and dig deeper? First, they do so when they are being crushed. When they are facing hardship in life outside of work, when they feel unsupported in their department, and when the institution has already stretched them too thin, they have to say no. If we are wondering about the seemingly disengaged colleague down the hall, do they look disengaged because they are already carrying more than they can bear? If it isn’t a heavy load of teaching and scholarship, is it a heavy load of an ailing parent or a failing marriage? If so, now is not the time to ask them to do more. They have to say no. Any wise and loving friend would encourage them to say no. Now is not the time.
Second, I think people say no when the opportunity doesn’t match their formation. The new associate dean position might be a nice promotion for some professors, but if all of their recent formation has been around a major research project, book project, or teaching collaboration, then now is not the time to take up a new leadership position. They aren’t saying no because they are disengaged, they are saying no because this opportunity is not right for them. At least not now.
Finally, I think people say no when they don’t believe the opportunity serves a mission they believe in. When rounds of faculty lay-offs and closed academic departments make everyone feel the stranglehold of scarcity, why would anyone decide to give more of themselves? When the opportunity seems like busy work, a list of pointless tasks far from where the life and vibrancy of the institution are playing out, then it makes sense to say no.
So, to my faculty colleagues, if you have been blessed with the support and stability needed to extend yourself if you see opportunities that continue your formation, and if you believe that what you do matters, then I do not need to encourage you to say yes. Of course, we say yes. We will do so over and over.
And to administrators, if you are having trouble getting faculty to buy in and take on new opportunities, it may be worthwhile to check in with your professors and see if they have the support, they need to carry the loads that already weigh them down. When inviting someone to a new opportunity, connect it to the formation you have seen in their life. Ask not because you need the task to be done, but because you think this person needs to do it. Finally, be sure to connect each ask to the mission of the institution and the well-being of students.
When those are in place, we will say “yes” every time.