Recent years have produced some excellent Christian thought on the nature of work and its relation to family life.
John Cuddeback has written eloquently (in First Things and on Life-Craft.org) about the centrifugal forces that pull the members of a family away from each other and the household. In typical modern life, children go to school and parents to separate jobs, but the traditional work of a home—planting a garden, building a shed, cooking from scratch—instead brings a family together. Other Christian writers have encouraged young people to abandon the pomps and works of the liberal university (and the mountain of usurious debt that follows) in favor of taking up a trade. Rod Dreher argued in The Benedict Option that Christians should “learn to make shoes” or take up some other manual work, because many professional workplaces increasingly promote an agenda incompatible with Christianity and expect their employees to do the same.
These two trends are related, such that we can say there’s a movement among Christians toward manual and/or agrarian work, for the good of faith and family. For convenience, let us call it the Christian Family-Work Movement.
For some years, the philosophy of the Christian Family-Work Movement has gained traction, but for many people, it remains a philosophy and nothing more. While we occasionally encounter a blog about traditional Catholic homesteading, the families who migrate to the country to start farms are few and far between, and the fathers of even these families often support the farm by working full-time away from it. For a young college graduate with a job in marketing or a middle-aged computer programmer with three children, moving to the country to herd sheep sounds like a nice daydream for the distant future; it doesn’t look like a practical and immediate option.
There are three reasons for this: firstly, shepherding doesn’t sound like something that will pay the bills, especially the student loans. Secondly, how exactly does one obtain sheep and begin to herd them? Thirdly, our marketing manager or programmer may understand, intellectually, the benefits of an agrarian life to the family and soul, but feel deeply squeamish about working with animals and dirt, or perhaps have physical limitations that preclude heavy manual labor.
How can someone who grew up in the suburbs, went to college, and took an “office job” begin to follow the Christian Family-Work Movement? Won’t typical college-graduate jobs always be the more practical way to support a family, even if it falls short of the ideal?
The COVID-19 situation sharpened these questions and added more. Many comfortable, middle-class Americans in professional careers have been confronted with a startling fact: their jobs were not considered “essential.” Suddenly, they did not have jobs anymore. As rounds of layoffs swept through nearly every large company, professionals were pushed overboard with barely a financial life-raft in order that the company (and its investors) might not sink. Of course, with schools and daycares closed, many parents who did keep their jobs had difficulty working anyway. Meanwhile, empty shelves at the grocery stores reminded us that our most basic necessities, including food and medicine, pass through a long and vulnerable supply chain after coming ultimately from we-know-not-where—perhaps even from China, the first country to shut down.
Add to this the civil unrest and political violence of recent months, the confusion and disagreement about basic facts, the startling realization that we have little in common with our neighbors anymore, and it’s dangerous. During COVID-19 lockdowns, for the first time, we began to see that our means of sustenance, on every level, are very fragile. For the first time, perhaps, we wondered whether we would have to rely on ourselves for the basic needs of food, healthcare, childcare, and personal defense, forcing us to realize that most of us don’t know how to truly make or do anything useful for survival. Society appears still to be far from total collapse, and the virus situation is improving, but perhaps many of us are wondering how to prepare for another disaster, how to strengthen bonds with our families and communities, how to build durability.
Enter Rory Groves, who worked as a programmer for many years before moving to a hobby farm with his growing family and embarking on a journey that has now culminated in his book Durable Trades: Family-Centered Economies That Have Stood the Test of Time. The book takes the philosophy of the Christian Family-Work Movement and makes it practical, addressing the questions and fears preventing many middle-class Americans from taking the plunge into a new line of work and way of life. It turns out, the workers who provide those truly essential goods and services—food, clothing, and shelter being primary—are the ones who will be most resilient to economic recessions, and, in fact, are often able to pay the bills quite well, without sacrificing family relationships.
Having nearly completed Durable Trades before the pandemic began, Groves’s timeliness is a testament to Divine Providence, and his balanced realism refreshing. The book begins with a few chapters outlining the author’s personal motivation for writing the book as well as the economic and cultural forces at work in our world and ends with a few more on the book’s philosophical and spiritual underpinnings. In the middle is a glorious parade of sixty-one trades, scored (using a method outlined at the back of the book) for historical stability, resiliency through recessions, family-centeredness, income, and ease of entry. A brief description of what the work entails, and (for the first twenty-one, which scored best in his estimation) a profile of a practitioner of that trade whom the author has interviewed, follows. Each chapter ends with perhaps the most valuable item of all: a short list of further resources. As I read, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s line about “all trades, their gear and tackle and trim” echoed in my mind, and I looked forward to seeing which trade came next with every turn of a page.
“Farmer,” “shepherd,” and “woodworker” were expected, but some were surprising. For example, we do not typically think of “lawyer,” and “pharmacist” as trades, but as professions. Still, they are included because Groves’s extensive research has found them to be historically stable and resilient lines of work, with at least some opportunity either to set up an independent family business or to hand on valuable assets and knowledge to one’s children. Thus he shows even those who have physical disabilities, or those who are constitutionally averse to dirt, a pleasant array of options for sustainable, meaningful work.
This book is not simply, “Everyone should start a farm.” But it is, “More people should start farms, or at least do something directly connected with perennial human needs: food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, communication.” And, “Everyone should try to hand on assets and skills to their children while discipling them in Christianity.” For Groves comes at this question from a distinctly Christian angle and shows the spiritual ramifications of spending all one’s days on lines of code that will be obsolete next month, versus forming the souls of one’s children for eternity through daily, shared work and its direct fruits.
Nothing is perfect. Durable Trades contains an embarrassing number of typos (“editor,” by the way, is not on the list of durable trades, though “publisher” is), but they do not distract much from the impressive amount of research and thought that clearly went into this work.
Also, the chapter on “counselor” is quite confusing: seeing the title, most contemporaries will think of a mental health counselor, but the chapter turns out to be on consultants, and therefore rather diffuse and less practical than the others. There are too many types of consultants to treat succinctly, and Groves even points out that, while management consulting is extremely lucrative, the consultant is easily fired as soon as a company’s numbers start to go south. But the basis for including consultants here under the name “counselor” is the fact that statesmen and other important people have always had advisors; there will always be work somewhere for those who have wisdom to share. Personally, I find the idea of consultants highly dissatisfying considered alongside the ideals of the Christian Family-Work Movement and would have preferred a discussion of mental health counselors here, as a sort of advisors to the un-royal. But perhaps Groves had his reasons; certainly the income of a management consultant is higher than that of a therapist, and the fact that he includes realistic income expectations for every trade is, overall, one of the book’s strong points. Every trade has its trade-offs, and Groves has done an excellent job pointing out what the possible downsides are and placing the most historically stable and family-oriented trades toward the beginning to emphasize them, while consultants fall nearer the end of the list under the “Honorable Mentions” heading.
At any rate, my quibbles are small and my only real complaint upon finishing Durable Trades is that it isn’t even longer and more detailed. This is an excellent introductory guidebook, the first foray into making the Christian Family-Work Movement a practical reality for ordinary people who have eternal desires, finite funds, and a growing number of mouths to feed. I hope many families will build on this durable foundation.
Durable Trades: Family-Centered Economies That Have Stood the Test of Time
By Rory Groves
Front Porch Republic Books, 2020
Hardcover and paperback, 293 pages
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