From triple helix - Summer 2019 - Shift work and the local church
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David Jonathan Jones looks at new opportunities for church engagement opened up by shift work
The challenges of the leap from medical school to foundation training are well known: shift work, prescribing power, navigating the sometimes chaotic layout of a new hospital, traversing numerous IT systems, remembering countless log-ins and door codes, and coping with the challenges of short staffing (and the occasional resulting lack of senior support) are some well-known examples. What I failed to anticipate or adequately prepare for, however, was the impact that life as a junior doctor would have on me spiritually.
In a heartbeat, gone was the guarantee of a work-free Sunday, or of a free Wednesday evening to attend my church home group, or of a civilised nine am start to my working day that allowed me time to pray and read Scripture in the morning. Gone were my normal workday hours which so conveniently synchronised with the normal working day of every other church member I knew. Suddenly I found myself with days off midweek when all my friends seemed to be at work.
I was once a reliable church member, able to serve on numerous ministry teams and meet friends to socialise, or have fellowship at a regular time every week. Now my rota changed every four months and any meeting had to fit around this ever-changing rota. Not to mention, a 5pm scheduled finish time that could, in reality mean anything from a 5-7pm finish time depending on the events of the day (staffing, patient illness, emergencies etc.). Then there were the night shifts, which hit me hard and seemed to eat into my days off. Rather than serve as true 'days off', this time had to be used to recover from rota-induced jet lag before soldiering through the next round of shifts.
Like many others transitioning to a new career stage, I had also moved to a new county to accept
the training post I had been offered. Inevitably, this meant settling into a new church. How on earth could I start from scratch and put any firm roots down under these circumstances? Now it seemed,I couldn't commit to serve my local church in any of the roles I had previously enjoyed in my former church. I couldn't even commit to regular fellowship! I tried serving in a community outreach programme, but after another church member voiced frustration at my unreliability, I quickly stepped down. I felt spiritually disoriented, disengaged and disconnected.
I voiced my frustrations to my father-in-law (and friend) who happened to be an experienced church pastor, and then I heard it: simple, true, kind and obvious wisdom… how could I have been so blind?
'God has called you to a ministry of healing' he said. 'If all you can do is serve God through medicine then do that. Forget the other ministries; God has made you a doctor!'
Over the following months of ever-changing shifts and rotas, I prayed regularly, chaotically, spontaneously; read my Bible infrequently, un-routinely, yet reminding myself daily of God's grace. I am not saved by my works, my Bible reading or my prayers, but by Jesus's final great work. I opened up about my faith and found a work environment littered with Christians from all over the world: a lifeline, a 'church' in 'less-alone-ica'! My non-Christian colleagues became interested and would ask me about my faith and my ethical views. There were no dramatic conversions, but that was God's job not mine. I merely served as a witness.
I began using my weekdays off to meet one-on-one with pastors for coffee and I became fascinated by the similarities between their work and doctors: dealing with life and death, communication and counselling in times of crisis, being 'on call' for emergencies, and the rigorous academic study required for them to qualify. I also used midweek days off to meet retired Christian church members, mature in faith, as well as other church members I might not have naturally gravitated towards, but happened to be available midweek.
(I even accompanied my wife to a mid-week women's Bible study, albeit to man the créche on an ad hoc basis!)
As a fan of mnemonics, I adapted what God was teaching me into a mnemonic I could use to encourage myself whenever needed (see end of article).
I realise now that, contrary to my initial belief, shift work has its advantages: I have begun building diverse friendships, serving in unique areas of Christian ministry, in which 'regular hours' workers cannot easily serve, whilst remaining mindful that medicine is my primary ministry.
We work not for the NHS but for God; we are merely on extended NHS sabbaticals!
'Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart,as working for the Lord, not for human masters.' (Colossians 3:23)
'Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God - this is your true and proper worship.' (Romans 12:1)
Thanks to the church members and leaders of All Saints Loose, Kent, who inspired this article and continue to offer endless encouragement, love and support. Thanks to Phil Playfoot (St John's, Crawley), my father-in-law and pastorally-gifted friend, for always listening.
David Jonathan Jones is an ACCS-Acute Medicine trainee in Kent
1. A useful resource on biblical friendship is Vaughan Roberts short book entitled True Friendship. Aimed at men, but applicable to anyone working demanding shifts that make friendships difficult. Roberts V. True Friendship: Walking through life with your Christian Friends. Leyland: 10 Publishing, 2013
2. Hebrews 10:24-25
3. 1 Timothy 2:1
4. 1 Timothy 6:17-19
5. Romans 12:10-13
6. 1 Peter 4:10
7. 1 Corinthians 12:4-7