Working it Out
“Servants, do what you’re told by your earthly masters. And don’t just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t cover up bad work.” Colossians 3:23-25 The Message
It was 10am Monday and Hugh was already feeling bored and unmotivated. A telltale sign was his mind already drifting to the events of the previous weekend.
It had been downhill pretty much from the start of the day. The boss had made his customary entrance, slapping a wad of edited papers on Hugh’s desk without so much as a nod. Hugh groaned. He knew from hard experience what that meant. The week before he’d done his best to draft the policy recommendation even though his motivation was about as low as the FTSE 100.
Of course, Hugh was by now hardened and cynical about the waste of time many of his efforts were. It was not uncommon for the boss to (seemingly out of the blue) change his mind and state that such-and-such a document or letter was no longer needed.
Survival in such an office environment was not easy. But over time Hugh had subconsciously developed a number of effective (though short-term) diversionary tactics to get his head out of the prospect of another mind-numbing day. Without a thought, he clicked onto the Net to check out the weekend’s sports results. Sweet relief! Man U had won away from home. All was well with the world!
Are you engaged?
One of the big issues in the workforce today is worker engagement. Numerous surveys have been conducted in recent years that demonstrate a low level of motivation, sense of ownership and commitment by a high number of people in their jobs.
Engagement has to do with being energized with our work. It leads to giving our all to the tasks at hand.
On the contrary, disengaged workers are those who are just going through the motions. They struggle to exhibit any strong sense of ownership and responsibility for their work. In fact, if bedrock honesty was tapped, the truth is such people would prefer to be somewhere else – they are only there because of a lack of other options.
So what determines the level of engagement in our work? Leadership writer Patrick Lencioni suggests that the three main reasons for disengagement are anonymity (feeling unappreciated and invisible), irrelevance (as though our work doesn’t really count or isn’t valued), and immeasurement (inability to measure tangible results). When these are our dominant feelings, our work is likely to be a miserable experience.
Why Christians should be engaged workers
Let’s face it: all of us have elements of our jobs and roles we don’t particularly enjoy. This might be because of the reasons Lencioni advocates. But it could equally be because we’re not well suited to the tasks, or owing to the fact that we don’t get along with colleagues.
While there is no doubt all these factors make it extra challenging to be engaged in our work, as Christians we don’t have to be bound and limited by them.
If we passively rely on our bosses and work environments to give us the feel-good factor, or if we spend much of our time wishing we had a better job, then we’ll never take responsibility for our call to give 100%, to be truly engaged.
We are, after all, working for the ultimate boss. Nothing we do is ever wasted. God values and treats as worthwhile, every offering of work we produce – whether or not others around us appreciate or acknowledge our effort. What’s more, it’s not necessarily what we do but how we do it that most counts.
Let us share several examples of how challenging (yet critical) it is to work this out in our daily lives. We hope that these stories will be both encouraging and challenging.
The Prison volunteer
I (Wayne) am a volunteer with the Chaplaincy service at our local prison. I genuinely believe this is worthwhile work. However, the way we are treated as volunteers is often appalling. In spite of the written rhetoric, it is clear that we are not valued by the management. In fact, the cynic might observe that we’re just an annoying irritant to them doing their job!
I am frequently mucked around – going to a lot of effort to arrange and turn up to see an inmate or lead a study – only to get there and discover it is no longer convenient or possible.
Sometimes I walk into a unit and am completely ignored by the staff. Other times I am in the middle of a deep conversation or a tender moment in a study or service and an officer walks in to announce that things have to stop – right now – without a moment’s consideration of what is being interrupted.
My wife Jill and I were once barked at and ordered to immediately leave the prison grounds. No apology or acknowledgement of this wrong order has ever been given or received.
What do these semi-regular experiences communicate to me? That to all intents and purposes, my work doesn’t matter.
Some time ago, my volunteer status ran out and needed to be renewed. The prison has a system in place to alert volunteers to this biennial occurrence – only their computer system failed to do so. So one day I discovered I could not enter the gates. The bible study and services I led, and the men I visited, were now left to their own devices. The trust relationships I had formed with guys were now put on hold. It took six weeks for me to have my status renewed – and it could have taken much longer if it wasn’t for an advocate within the system.
According to Lencioni’s three signs of a miserable job, going into the prison should be a miserable experience for me. I am completely anonymous to the management and most of the staff. It is clear that the system considers my contribution as largely irrelevant. And given the type of work I do, measuring whether I am making any real difference is inherently problematic.
In my worst moments I find myself angry, resentful and completely undervalued. And then…
I am reminded of who I am actually working for. And who I am serving.
It’s as if God speaks to me: “Get over yourself, Wayne! Think about why are you really doing this. You don’t need to be affirmed by the system. You know what you’re doing is important to me. Treat each interaction, each visit, as an offering of worship.”
In my best moments, I recognize that the men I spend time with deserve my very best. And on the days when I question the worth of my efforts, or am struck by how unsuited I am for some of what I do, I have to remind myself that none of this is an excuse for not giving my all.
Shoddy or careless work is not what God expects of me. And it cannot be excused because I might feel undervalued, anonymous or working in a job that doesn’t fit me too well. The words of Brother Lawrence keep ringing in my ears! (Read them again in chapter 11 if you can’t remember!)
Christ my employer
The second story was told to Alistair by a friend, about someone who made a deep impression on him. Here’s what he said about the person concerned:
“He was one of the first Christians I had met who believed that he served Jesus Christ in the marketplace. He has done well in business and was part of middle management for his firm. Now his commitment was being tested. He felt enormous pressure because he had refused to do something immoral to keep a client. He also suspected that he would lose his job because he wouldn’t go along to get along. He was right.
A few weeks later he was told that the company was making some organizational changes and his services were no longer needed. He knew, and his boss knew, that the real reason was not the given reason for the dismissal. He was out of work for weeks and when he found a new position it was for less pay.
Yet he had gone through the experience with an unflinching faith and I was impressed. I told him as much when we were having one of our regular breakfasts together. He responded, “I serve Jesus Christ at my work. It’s nice to get a check every month, but really I see Christ as my employer. He honors those who honor him.”
The third example comes from someone who was the son of life-long missionaries. This man wrote:
“I have always felt the tension between the sacred and the secular. I felt this tension most when I was about to graduate from university with honors in finance and engineering, and I readied myself to enter the marketplace.
Here I was, a follower of Jesus, feeling conflicted about using a first-rate education in the business world. "What's redeeming about a job in the marketplace if the ultimate objective is only an increased stock price or a better profit margin?" I asked myself. "Would Jesus become a management consultant or investment banker?"
Over the years, I have come to realize that I was operating under a paradigm that segmented all earthly activities into two distinct categories—the sacred and the secular—and that these categories did not overlap. In this paradigm, working in the marketplace most certainly belonged to the latter category.
Some believers dissolve this tension between the sacred and the secular by simply becoming pastors or missionaries. I almost did just that. But there is another way to address this tension.
God gives each of us different gifts, passions and callings, and for some of us, these gifts are in the realm of business. If our calling is to advance God's kingdom through business, then that is our highest calling.
Whatever our calling from God—whether in the marketplace or in the church—our calling is noble and sacred, and the old paradigms fall away. In fact, the sacred and the secular overlap and coexist. Personally, I have found a greater integration of my work (the so-called "secular") and faith (the "sacred") with the realization that I can minister in the marketplace through my business. All aspects of my life, including my work in business, are ministry when they further God's purposes.
I have also come to realize that doing business can be a spiritual activity that has redeeming and sacred value, thereby resolving that age-old tension within Christianity. We need not feel conflicted when we seek to serve God through our work. The marketplace is as legitimate a venue as any other for serving others to the glory of God, and doing so makes our very work a sacred act.”
British communicator Mark Greene tells the story of a woman who is a receptionist. She decided to make a habit of letting the phone ring an extra two times before she answered it, so that during those two rings she could stop and ask God to help her be more attentive both to the person and also to God. Unsurprisingly it changed her way of relating to customers, and her sense of being attentive to God.
Several years ago Wayne visited York Minster, an ancient cathedral in England. The volunteer tour guide who showed him around was a retired gentleman who not only took great delight in explaining the history of the building, but also gently inquired about Wayne and what he was interested in. Early in the conversation he leaned over and asked softly, without a hint of judgment, “So tell me – are you a tourist – or a pilgrim?”
A girlfriend of Alistair’s, during his university days, used to write four capital letters at the top of each page of her notes – AMDG. Alistair was mystified, so eventually he asked her what they stood for. They represented the Latin words – Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. Translated into English they read, “For the greater glory of God”. Here was a constant reminder of who this young woman was studying for.
Up Close and Personal
1. Read Colossians 3: 23-25 (listed at the beginning of this chapter). What kind of work would you consider “shoddy” in your employment?
2. Which of the stories/examples resonate with you most. Why?
3. Brainstorm together some practices that might help you to remind yourself who you are ultimately working for. Which one/s might you in your context?
Think about your own work – paid or unpaid. On a scale of 1-10 what is your level of engagement? Then attempt to identify the factors contributing to this.
See Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job (Jossey-Bass, 2007).
Some years ago I became involved, somewhat unexpectedly, in the business of buying and selling cars. This chapter tells my story, and the struggle to express my call to follow Jesus as a car dealer. I hope that my honest reflections will help put some flesh and bones on the issues we have been grappling with.
Now let me say right from the start that I’m fully aware of the low esteem that my “profession” (perhaps this is an overly generous term) is held in. We seem to have done particularly poorly on the “most trusted professions” annual survey, competing with Congressmen for the “least trusted” tag, according to recent Gallup polls.
I’ve also learnt to live with the jokes – like the one that asks when you can tell that a car dealer is lying (answer: whenever he moves his lips!). Given all this, you might fairly ask, how can anyone professing to follow Christ sell cars for a living? In fact, many people might even consider the very phrase “Christian car dealer” to be somewhat oxymoronic.
Well, it certainly had its challenges. But I came to the conclusion very early on that it’s exactly industries like car dealing that God most wants (and needs) to transform.
At any rate, I enjoyed and valued my time in business. While I no longer trade as a car dealer, I am very grateful for what I learnt and for the tremendous opportunities it gave me to work with God. It was a great ride (no pun intended).
How it all began
For much of my adult life I worked for Christian organizations. While financial insecurity was often a reality, my wife and I got by aided by the generous support of family and friends. However, after a few years things began to change. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and when our organization was facing an uncertain future because of financial sustainability, we were really forced to look for small business opportunities. To be blunt, we realized that for the organization to survive we had to find some way of paying the bills.
Buying and selling cars was not something I naturally gravitated to. However, a series of events led to a colleague and I importing some second hand vehicles from Japan. That it would mean eventually becoming a licensed car dealer never even occurred to me. If it had, I would have felt the irony immediately, and backed off.
This is because my one and only experience with a car dealer was very negative. When I was young I spied in a local dealer’s yard a freshly painted 1972 Holden (GM) Kingswood. Mid-blue in color, it looked the part. For the first and last time in my life, I purchased a vehicle from a car dealer. Things were fine for the first six weeks, and then it happened – the paint began to bubble in various places. Soon vibrant shades of rust brown appeared across the body, showing evidence that the panel shop job had been substandard.
There was little I could do about it, but it did reinforce my growing stereotype of used car dealers. Back then I resolved never to buy a vehicle from any of them again. In fact, that one and only experience of sales yard antics convinced me that used car salesmen were about as useful to the economy as the polar icecap.
The life of a car dealer
And yet, here I was, unexpectedly a member of this despised profession!
Dealing ethically with people in a highly unredeemed industry was one of a number of issues I was soon confronted with. Another was what value I should place on the 20-25 hours per week that I spent running the business. Initially, I confess, I viewed it as a means to an end. My heart was in Signpost Communications, but in order for us to survive we had to earn money.
But deep down I knew that it was inadequate to simply view the business as a place to earn a buck and a preaching opportunity. To be sure, mentally I ascribed to the view that God was interested in all work. But the reality was less clearcut. At first I didn’t find it all that easy to make a connection between my efforts at “God’s work” and my activities as a car dealer.
Part of my dilemma was that I viewed the car industry as one of the key markets fueling our consumerism. I knew that millions were wasted every year on our fetish of driving the latest and greatest fashion. So was it even appropriate that I, a Christian, committed to living an alternative to the great Western dream, should actually get involved in an industry that furthered our consumerist tendencies?
The position I came to on this was … yes, despite the negative way cars were used and viewed, people still needed transport. While our wants may get awfully tied up with our genuine needs, providing people with good-quality, well-priced vehicles that they needed for getting themselves from place to place was still serving people. Some of my toughest dilemmas revolved around how to serve clients who were quite willing to waste thousands of dollars more on a care than they needed to, or who seemed completely unconcerned about the environmental impact of their gas-guzzling SUV! I had to learn not to force my own convictions on them, but rather to find gentle and subtle ways of bringing influence. Short of withdrawing completely from society, there was no way we could divorce ourselves from the systems and structures of our communities.
I came to the conclusion that all industries needed Christians, and it was our role to discover ways of redeeming and transforming those industries – of finding how we might work “Christianly” in them. Especially in industries like the selling of second hand vehicles, where the public desperately needed people they could trust.
The primary question I asked myself through those years of car dealing was, “How can I do business Christianly?” Or to put it in another (and perhaps less clumsy) way “How can I follow Jesus faithfully as a car dealer?”
It seemed to me that doing this would involve much more than being honest and acting with integrity, sharing one’s faith, and giving generously to “Christian causes”. It is not that these issues were unimportant or in any way peripheral. They were, however, insufficient in themselves.
In fact, I soon came to believe that my business should, over time, lead to a quite distinctive way of operating, one that was radically different to the norm. (This is not to suggest that there won’t be some points of commonality to the way other car dealerships were run.) These revolved around issues such as the way I bought and sold cars, how I priced them, the type of cars I sold, how I related to customers, service providers, and other car dealers. Many of the ethical issues I confronted had wider social, economic, and environmental considerations. There were tough issues and tensions to grapple with.
All this meant that trying to run a car business with real integrity and see it as genuinely contributing to God’s work, became a fascinating journey of discovery.
Selling cars is essentially a service industry. However, was it even possible to serve people altruistically and still make money from the business?
The answer, I discovered, was a qualified yes. When dealing with people I learnt to carry uppermost in my mind the question, “Am I genuinely wanting the best for this person, or do I simply see them as an opportunity to make a sale?”
I would love to be able to say categorically that my responses were always 100% for the good of the person, but that would be lying! However, I did grow in this area and certainly felt relaxed about serving people at the cost of losing a sale.
How did I serve people, then, through my business? For those wanting to buy a vehicle, I did so by…
- Helping them work out what they needed (this was often a long process, but absolutely critical if customers were to make a good choice).
- Giving them options to explore and suggesting they consider a car more suitable for their needs.
- Selling them a vehicle for a price that was hard to beat.
- Ensuring they knew they could come back to me if there’s a problem.
- Being happy to provide ideas and options without making them feel that they were obliged to buy from me.
I learnt that some widely accepted practices actually worked against serving people well. For example, one was the kind of negotiation tactics generally employed by car yards. I call it the bargaining game. The problem with making a sale this way was that it generally undermined trust in the relationship and played with people’s heads. Plus, it tended to favor those who knew the game and were able to play it well. It was both counter-productive and unfair. For these reasons, I abandoned the practice very early in my business, replacing it with a set price structure.
Another industry practice was the strong encouragement for customers to finance their vehicle. I quickly discovered that there was a huge financial incentive for dealers to do this, as the commissions and kickbacks from the finance companies were a significant money earner for them. The result was that many people ended up buying vehicles they could not really afford, leaving them to struggle with high interest loans on a fast-depreciating asset. My contrasting approach was to do no finance deals and strongly encourage people to buy within their means. If a customer felt they had to get finance, my advice was to go their bank. If they were not prepared to lend you the money, then you definitely couldn’t afford it!
In order to serve people well, I sometimes gave advice that worked against making a sale. For example, I regularly told people to hold onto a good vehicle for a length of time, in order to get the value out of it. Regular changing of vehicles almost invariably makes bad economics, because it will cost you each time you change.
I knew this advice was potentially bad for my business and there were some customers who chose not to change cars because of the advice I gave them! But I had to remind myself – did I want to serve people or take advantage of them?
I also attempted to serve my business associates – the mechanics, custom agents, car groomers, and panel shops whose services I used? How did I do this? By:
- Working hard to make my interactions and dealings with them an enjoyable and fun experience, as well as taking a genuine interest in them.
- Looking for ways we could make doing business with each other win/win situations, and recommending them to others.
- Being open, transparent, and honest in my dealings – striving for integrity.
- Finding ways to help them out; for example, by offering to pay my account early where cash flow was difficult for a service provider, or by offering a vehicle where they needed transport for an emergency, etc.
- Not expecting more of them than what was reasonable.
- Appreciating their work – and letting them know that I appreciated it.
Being in business was a great way to grow relationships – not just with clients, but also within the industry. I enjoyed immensely working with people who were part of the car scene. This resulted in opportunities to build friendships with my service providers – and with other dealers. It was remarkable how often someone would open up to me about their struggles, or ask me about faith issues. I put this down to taking time to be genuinely interested in them – creating the environment for trust to grow.
I also built a strong relationship with my Japanese agent that was tremendously enriching. In fact, we became friends first, business associates second. My occasional trips to Japan were wonderful opportunities to spend time with this man, his workers, and his family. We had intriguing conversations in the car on the way to the auctions and while sitting in restaurants, listening to what was important to each other. At times he questioned me about my Christian beliefs, and why I lived the way I did. This enriching friendship would not have been possible without the business. It provided the context for the relationship.
Being in business also resulted in a great deal of personal development. It forced me into situations where the reservoir of my potential was tapped in unexpected ways. My car sales work prompted responses from me that other roles in my life have never called for. You see, latent within each of us are countless gifts and abilities that God delights in developing. His creativeness knows no limit.
For example, my business provided many opportunities to think laterally and come up with imaginative solutions. I never felt these were natural strengths of mine, but through the demands of my business God often helped me solve problems creatively. Someone might ring up in a panic because his vehicle had given up the ghost, prompting me to find a way to fill his immediate need so he could get by until a longterm solution was found. Or it might be through offering a customer another way of thinking about her requirements. The possibilities were endless and I learnt to delight in little bits of inspiration that dropped into my head just at the right time. I view these as “acts of grace” which helped me to see the way I could work in partnership with God.
Of course, many of these growing skills are transferrable, so as God has developed me in the business I have been able to exercise those same abilities in other roles I now fulfill.
One outlet I found for expressing my values as well as my gifts, was writing regular newsletters to all my past clients. I was able to provide information on the market, and on some relevant issue such as the true costs of running a vehicle, depreciation, financing, how to get the best value from your car, and so on. People appreciated this service and many commented on how it gave them food for thought.
More than a car dealer!
I am very grateful for the years of car dealing. And I certainly have no doubt that this work counted – it had real value in God’s economy.
However, the car business was at the time only one of many roles I carried during the course of my week. I continued to work part time for Signpost Communications. In addition, there are the numerous unpaid tasks that I do. They included being:
- A husband to my wife, Jill
- A father to our daughters – Maria, Kellie and Melody – and occasional foster children
- Chairperson of the local school Board of Trustees
- Home group member
- Youth group leader
- Church member
- Home owner
Collectively I viewed all these roles as the current expression of my call (or vocation) to follow Jesus. And I considered them all part of my work.
Of course, since those days, many of my roles have changed. Nevertheless, It has taken a few years but I now find myself thinking much more holistically about my day and week. All facets of my work mesh together as part of my vocation of following Jesus.
It has taken a while, but the paid/unpaid distinction now means little to me. Where the money comes from to live on is somewhat secondary to the value of the various tasks I feel called to fulfil. It’s not that money is unimportant (we all have to live). Rather, it’s that the value of work is never determined simply by whether I get paid for it – or how much I get paid.
Nor does the enjoyment I find in the task dictate whether or not I see it as “work”. I’ve come to accept that in every task there will be elements I enjoy greatly and others that I find difficult, monotonous, and uninspiring. If I did only the things I really enjoy there would be a lot left undone! Learning over the years about my motivations, gifts and temperament has helped me make strategic choices about where to put my time and energy. But ultimately I’ve learned the importance of putting at least some effort into tasks in which I’m not naturally gifted or motivated. God has much to teach me and each activity has its place in the scheme of things. Each contributes to my service.
This has forced me to think long and hard about how even the most mundane tasks are connected to God’s work in this world. Because I like order, I rarely lack the motivation to wash the dishes and mow the lawns. But it has taken time for me to understand how doing such work can serve others, express care for creation, and be an opportunity for me to learn discipline. Recognizing this has helped me to take delight in doing these simple, menial chores well.
An integrated view
I’m fortunate. The nature of my paid work over the years, has given me a certain amount of freedom, allowing me to be flexible in the way I use my time. Not everyone is blessed with such flexibility. However, I think all of us can learn to be more integrated in the way we view time and our various roles. We can do this primarily by rejecting the paid/unpaid distinction as the main grid through which we value different tasks. Instead we can learn to recognize how much the task allows us to reflect and further the kingdom of God.
For example, the raising of children is a strategic task. At no other stage of life have I had the opportunity to shape and mold lives more than in those child-rearing years. I look back on them as the most important challenge of my discipleship. When I first began to appreciate the strategic role of parenting “work”, my view of it changed dramatically.
Don’t get me wrong, I still find some roles (and parenting was one of them) more difficult than others. Because of my temperament and gifting, I easily gravitate to those tasks that have a tangible and clear outcome. My utilitarian streak is still likely to complain at the taking of “valuable” time to do something whose benefits are not immediately obvious. “It’s not productive enough. I should be spending my time on things that produce real results!” But I have learnt to allow my value system to be reshaped and to view all effort directed toward God, as work.
This includes relationships. In fact, it especially includes relationships. For people are at the center of our calling to follow Jesus. People are the heart and soul of all work. Relationships do not (contrary to popular opinion) just happen. They are generally the result of working at it in a focused way.
So I am learning to be more flexible with my schedule, and to hold my activistic goals a little more lightly. Frequently, God will bring across my path people who need my time. These are unique opportunities to serve, encourage, laugh with, cry with, and open up to others. My journey of faith requires me to give priority and attention to the small things that God is doing in the lives of the people I meet. Listening to their heartbeat, responding in friendship and love, will not come if I am always focused on the “tasks” I have set myself.
This process of realigning my priorities is still going on!
Up Close and Personal
- If a used car salesman thinks he can work with God, anyone can! What comes out of Wayne’s story that you can identify with? What other observations and solutions can you add?
- Try engaging in the same exercise yourself. Put down on paper ways in which you have come to see your work as connecting with God’s work. Now try to describe this to the group, and invite them to quiz you further. Then offer to do the same for them.
- What do you see as the greatest benefits that might come from realigning time to make relationships the priority? What are possible snags?
Disturbingly, sociologist Robert Wuthnow discovered that for many people with religious faith, ethics in the workplace is essentially viewed as the need to be ‘honest’, and that even this word is thought of in quite narrow terms. As Wuthnow argues, with this truncated perspective “one’s behaviour may contribute to the burning of rain forests and the perpetuation of world hunger and yet, as long as one tells the truth, ethics is not a problem.” Robert Wuthnow, God and Mammon in America (New York: Free Press, 1994), 84.
We all know how important words are. They communicate more than just actions and ideas. Many words encapsulate and reinforce worldviews – ways of thinking.
For this reason we believe we simply must change our vocabulary when it comes to the issues this book raises. We are not talking just semantics. For the way words such as “work”, “secular”, “calling” and “ministry” are used has so warped and twisted the original intention, that every time we use them they are immediately heard, understood, and interpreted through the grid of the powerful worldview we have been seeking to challenge. Unless we change our vocabulary, we risk tripping up ourselves (and others). Every time we use those words and expressions, we’ll find ourselves reinforcing the old ways of thinking.
Let’s consider some specific words.
We looked at this in the Introduction. Because the word “work” has such a wide range of connotations, how can we make clear what we mean?
Simply by using a more specific word. It’s with paid work that most of the problems arise. So if that’s what we’re referring to, then “job” or “paid work” or “employment” (or even the older word “occupation”) are options to consider using.
If it’s voluntary work or tasks around the home, then the words “tasks” and “roles” become helpful. For example, “I’ve been working in my role as a school trustee.” Or, “I’ve got a number of tasks to do around the house on Saturday. I think I’ll be working all day at them.”
Fulltime Christian service
What do we mean when we say “fulltime Christian service”? Generally we’re indicating that the person invests most of his or her week in a role within a Christian organization or church. All of us are fulltime in Christian service, so to make the differentiation it’s much better to say “church work”, “paid church staff”, “employed by a Christian (or mission) organization”, “cross-cultural missionary”, etc.
Here’s one word we think we should make every effort to ban from our vocabulary – unless we are referring to it in the negative sense (such as secularization). The images it conjures up almost entirely support a dualistic view of life. Remember, nothing in life is removed from God’s sphere – only what we deliberately divorce. The process of secularization is a very real trend – but it’s not one that should include us. For in reality, all of life is meant to be connected with God and his work.
Consequently, when we use the word “secular” we are making an unbiblical and unhelpful distinction. Of course it can be helpful to talk about our involvement in different spheres of life. But the words we use to describe them need to be chosen more carefully.
Four helpful terms to distinguish these spheres are – Marketplace, Community, Church, and Family. God is involved in all these arenas. When we exclude him we are contributing to secularization. Sadly Christians have virtually given in to this process in the marketplace and the community.
We’re not suggesting that the boundaries between these spheres of involvement are distinct. They’re quite loose and overlap at many points. Most of us work in all four of them – but to varying degrees. Some of us invest most of our effort in the marketplace – the worlds of business, law, education, and industry. Others are able to give a majority of their energy and time in the family, community, or in the church.
Consequently, rather than “the workplace” being interpreted as “the place of paid employment” or being limited to the marketplace, really should refer to all of these spheres.
Few words are more problematic than ministry. This is not because it’s a bad word in itself, but mainly because of the way it is unwittingly used to support a secular/spiritual split. It often has the effect of elevating certain types of service above others – making them appear more “spiritual” or important.
“My ministry is encouraging people”; “I’m in the ministry;” “We held a time of ministry at the end of the service”; “ABC Ministries seeks to…”; “Let me minister to you.”
The words ministry and minister are used in countless different ways, usually to in some sense highlight the “spiritual” nature of the task or role. But what does the word really mean? Paul Stevens comments:
The word ministry is derived in both Greek and Hebrew from a word that simply means “service”. A Christian servant is someone who puts himself or herself at God’s disposal for the benefit of others and for the stewardship of God’s world. Christian service – commonly called ministry – accords with God’s purposes for people and the world and has the touch of God, often unknown to the servant. Christian service makes no distinction between the sacred and the secular. Washing dishes, designing a computer program, preaching a sermon and healing the sick are all one….
Our suggestion here is that, given the way this word is so badly abused, we may do better to replace “ministry” with “Christian service” or just “service”. Not only will this help to work against our dualism, but it will also have the effect of putting all service (given to God) on an even footing.
Calling and Vocation
Calling is one word that is worth “redeeming”, if only because there is no easy alternative to replace it with. Vocation would have been the obvious candidate, but over the last few centuries it has been thoroughly “secularized” and watered down to mean something far less than originally intended.
However, we suggest that you aim to use the word “calling” with some discrimination. Be careful and selective in its use. The chapter on “Calling” helps to fill out the biblical meaning of the term. Used in the right sense and context it can be a powerful word, connecting who we are and what we do with our source and leader, Jesus.
“What do you do?”
Perhaps the most defining question in our culture is the introductory question, “What do you do?” It says a lot in itself. Notice it doesn’t say, “Who are you?” or “What’s important to you?”
Of course we must be careful not to read too much into this culturally-polite small talk. In itself it’s a good way of inviting people to share about themselves. However, as we’ve seen, the problem is what it implies – the suggestion that who we are and what we’re worth as people is so much wrapped up in our occupation. As if my paid employment could define my identity as a person! (Worse, what it says about people who aren’t paid for the work they do is depressing. Does this make them less than full persons?)
Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that our own culture’s introductory question is not always as innocent as it may appear. Often it contributes to the status and prestige games our society encourages us to play. Tony Campolo tells of how his wife Peggy grew tired of the points-scoring at dinner and cocktail parties, and the way it made her feel so worthless. For example, she would ask a young woman what she did for a job and the woman would reply something like, “I’m a lawyer with Bond, Gibbon and Priest, specializing in commercial law and public policy. And what do you do?” Flattened, Peggy would usually offer apologetically, “Oh, I’m just a housewife.”
Determined not to be intimidated in future, she worked out a patter. The next dinner party, when asked what she did, Peggy replied seriously, “I’m involved in the socialization of two homo sapiens, into the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition so that they might be transformers of the social order into the kind of eschatological utopia God willed for us before the foundation of the world.” – or words to that effect.
The incident is a salutary insight into the power of grand phrases, for when as an apparent afterthought Peggy asked, “And what do you do?” … her unnerved acquaintance could only manage, “Oh, I’m just a lawyer”!
Perhaps those of us with less definable working weeks or with low status occupations could design a reply patter like Peggy’s! But just as important is thinking about what we can do to disengage some of the “power” that goes with this small question. What about using some alternatives such as, “What does your week consist of?” or “Tell me a little about yourself.”
In offering the suggestions in this chapter, we are conscious that we are only too much at risk of stepping into another trap that has beset Christians over the centuries – the trap of laying down yet another set of rules. Nothing could be worse than creating a group of buzzwords that mark out our so-called spiritual maturity.
So let us emphasize that these are just suggestions. Ways to break the pattern of thinking that has bedeviled the church from its earliest days. For words do matter. They often give subtle messages about how we value people. They frequently indicate how we think about what others spend their lives doing.
So, without setting up a new legalism, let’s take a little trouble to use words carefully and help them carry the meaning we intend.
Up Close and Personal
- Can you think of other words or phrases that are problematic in working against a biblical view of work? Suggest some good alternatives.
- Within the life of your own faith community, what are some of the assumptions that deserve to be challenged? Are there words and terminology that should be made more transparent or honest or unambiguous?
Refer back to the list of roles and tasks you made at the end of Chapter 1. Try to group them into the four spheres of involvement (marketplace, family, community and church).
- Which sphere dominates your time and energy? (Remember, these spheres overlap somewhat.)
Paul Stevens, “Ministry” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, 635.
Remember our characters from the beginning of the book? In writing about them we have altered names and some of the details, but in each case they’re modeled on one or more real people that we have had personal contact with.
What kind of issues do you think have been raised for these folk and how are they doing on the journey of connecting their work with God’s work?
Perspectives that have been helpful
Roger, with his academically trained mind, had no difficulty understanding the theological meaning of the word vocation. He easily coped with the idea that he was not called to be a lawyer, but to follow Christ … and that one outworking of that call was serving Jesus through his profession.
From there it wasn’t a big step either for Roger to see that his role as a parent was not just an add-on. In fact, this insight was a freeing one to him. He had nursed guilty feelings about his “absent father” workaholism. Theologically and theoretically, he jumped at the chance to value parenthood – to see it as central to his efforts at this stage of his life, a wonderful opportunity for discipleship.
Habits that are changing
Roger has even managed to translate a little of this into action. He sets himself the task of getting home regularly for the evening meal (though he fails as much as he succeeds in this goal!), and he has deliberately scheduled into his diary a slot on Saturdays for accompanying his children to their sport. Again, it doesn’t always work out, but he has made some effort.
However, Roger still has a long way to go. The problem is his drivenness. Secretly he genuinely believes he is indispensable. He doesn’t yet have a big enough view of God’s sovereignty. He still has to learn that this is God’s work and that he is a junior partner.
Until he recognizes his egocentric thinking, he will still struggle with the questions that bother him, and that he frequently expresses to his wife Colleen. Like…
- How do I keep all the balls in the air? I feel like it’s a perpetual juggling act.
- How can I put some limits on the time and energy I need to give to my paid employment?
- Where can I get the energy to spend time with the kids at night? By the time I get home I just want to crash in front of the screen.
- How can I decently get out of some of the church jobs I’ve accumulated?
- How do I learn to say no?
More important question he still has to grapple with are: How do I learn to rest biblically? How do I recognize that God’s work is best served if I see that my role is more in relating with people (including my children), and less in the tasks I undertake?
Possible directions for Roger to pursue
Roger could profitably undertake some sessions with a counselor who could help him identify and deal with his compulsion for seeking affirmation and approval. This will certainly have its roots in a childhood need to perform for one or more of the adults in his life. When he recognizes this problem he can then devise strategies for dealing with it, and will finally discover the freedom to say no.
Habits that are changing
Karen has worked through the issues in this book with a small study group to which she and her husband Steve belong. Encouraged by the others in the group, she is determined to tackle head-on the people who leave her feeling put down because of her fulltime role as a mother. She has borrowed Peggy Campolo’s idea, and has worked out several replies to the “What do you do?” question.
Perspectives that have been helpful
The idea of partnering God has begun to radically alter the way Karen thinks about her daily tasks. She feels motivated to take even more seriously the challenge of raising her sons, relating to her unchurched friends, and helping out at school. Karen has also been inspired to see that if God himself has taken on mundane, maintenance tasks, then even the dirty washing and the constant cleaning up after the family is of value.
Karen faces the problem of many fulltime mothers. She often feels isolated and trapped in an unstimulating environment. She yearns for the intellectual and social growth that her husband Steve enjoys as a teacher.
What happens when my children grow up? What can I do long-term in God’s service? Should I think about training myself for a future career? I enjoy the children and helping people through my church contacts, but does that sort of practical assistance help me for the next stage of my life? Am I allowing myself to be sidelined?
Possible directions for Karen to pursue
Karen might usefully engage in part-time training to enhance her people-caring skills. This training might be in health areas (like nursing), or educational or practical, depending on where her interests take her. She might, for example, consider equipping herself to eventually become a teacher, or a counselor, or an aid worker, or a staff member in a service organization, or an advocate for disadvantaged people…
Perspectives that have been helpful
Joseph has caught on to the idea that work is much bigger and broader than “paid employment”, but unfortunately that’s as far as he has travelled. This inadequate understanding has just reinforced for him that his “job at the bank” should be treated as a means to an end.
Habits that are changing
For Joseph nothing has changed. A certain glamour still attaches itself in his mind to the idea of “fulltime Christian service”. He can’t help thinking that if he were to find some such position, it would give an immediate lift to his spiritual maturity. Then at last he wouldn’t feel so ineffectual in his life for God.
Until Joseph’s understanding of what God is about in this world begins to change, there’s unlikely to be any deepening of his contribution to the world of his employment.
Joseph still can’t get his mind around the false division between secular and spiritual, and the resulting value judgments over what tasks are particularly important to God. That sort of thinking is just so deeply embedded in his psyche.
So he continues to struggle with the apparent futility of his banking job. He hasn’t yet been able to explore the range of opportunities his employment offers, the ways that he could make a difference here and now.
For Joseph, these relate mainly to issues of guidance. What do I do with this strong “call” I feel I have to “the ministry”? And if I don’t pursue that leading, then won’t it mean disaster for the rest of my life – because I will have missed God’s perfect will for me?
Possible directions for Joseph to pursue
If Joseph’s friends could steer him into some such service opportunity as hospital chaplaincy, or industrial chaplaincy, or as a counselor on a crisis phone line (like Samaritans or Lifeline) – a short term of “volunteer service” might do the trick – he could be brought to see what huge contributions Christians can make alongside ordinary people.
Perspectives that have been helpful
Mark has wrestled with his difficulties as an over-worked middle manager, and is beginning to get a handle on his problem. His thinking has gone like this: God has me working in the company for a real purpose – not just for earning money and the occasional sharing of my faith with others.
So much for step one. Mark has really caught on to the concept of working with God to be an agent of change.
Habits that are changing
Step two. He’s made an agreement with his wife that he won’t bring work home during the weekends. Having drawn this line in the sand, Mark has been able to come to terms with the risk of losing his job. There’s more to his life than his well-paid employment, he’s decided.
Step three. So he has taken the step of talking (cautiously) with his manager about acceptable limits to his workload – and found the manager surprisingly receptive. Between them they’ve agreed that 50 hours of full-on effort is reasonable.
The emotional stress of the above three steps occupied Mark for some time. He’s only now finding himself ready to look at the next question. While he sees clearly how unredeemed his employment environment is, he hasn’t yet worked out how he can make a difference to the atmosphere of mistrust, low morale, and straight-out dishonesty that exists in the company. Significantly, he also hasn’t been able to find other Christians who will help him work through appropriate responses to the myriad of issues he is becoming aware of.
For Mark there is still no clear connection between Sunday and the rest of the week. He finds the worship service frustratingly irrelevant.
Possible directions for Mark to pursue
Mark can profit enormously from finding like-minded friends among his Christian acquaintances. Joining a study group that wants to investigate these issues would be a huge help.
Perspectives that have been helpful
For Julie, thinking biblically about work and God’s call has been a breakthrough. “Unemployed at 58” has given way to “a future of service for God wherever he takes me”. She doesn’t just see the potential of what God wants to do in the world … she sees potential in her own abilities and experience for being part of God’s work!
Habits that are changing
With impressive speed, she has abandoned her past mood of procrastination and inadequacy. She has looked at herself in the mirror (literally, because that’s how she made the determination to change) and said: “Julie Irvine, God has so much that you could be doing with him. You don’t have time to sit around and mope. For the next month, watch what crosses your path, and see how you can get involved as God’s agent of change!”
For the most part, these are just the question of how to discriminate between all the things she sees that could be done, and the practical sense of how much she can take on. (“Julie Irvine,” she said to her mirror just the other day, “Don’t be an idiot. You may be a child of God with a brilliant eternal destiny … but you are 58. You’re not going to be able to sort out the whole world this year. Now sit down carefully before you go promising your support to every organization under the sun. You have to make priorities. Which one – or maybe two – will you commit yourself to?”)
“Julie Irvine, how long have you got? Better add an exercise program to your daily schedule!”
Possible directions for Julie to pursue
As you can see, Julie’s new sense of freedom has released a bubbly enthusiasm! There’s not much to add to Julie’s good sense. Except to suggest that she might find others in the same situation she’s in. She would be a marvelous model for them, and would help them find a whole new realm of service for God.
What about you? Now is a good time to reflect on what you’ve absorbed during the course of reading this book. Why not take some time to think about:
Some perspectives that have been helpful
Some habits that are changing
Some unresolved issues
Some unanswered questions
Some directions you might pursue
A Prayer for Our Work
We thank you that you are a worker, and you invite us to share in your work – as your partners.
We confess that sometimes we work in ways that ignore what you are doing – pretending we don’t need you or that we can make a difference without you.
Forgive us for when we work compulsively – as though what we’re doing is the most important thing on earth.
Forgive us when we treat our work as little more than a means to an end.
Forgive us when we fail to see that all work done in cooperation with you is good and worthwhile.
And so as we enter a new week of work:
We acknowledge afresh our dependence on you in all we put our hands to.
Help us to find dignity and purpose in every task. Particularly, Lord, in the things we find mundane or hard.
Give us vision to see where you are already working – in our homes and families, in our neighborhoods, in our places of employment, in our church life, and in our surroundings.
Fuel us with imagination to see what you want us to do.
Give us humility to serve without complaint, in whatever tasks are before us.
Transform us, as we work.
Help us to make this week of work an act of worship.
May your kingdom come, here on earth (particularly in our places of work) just as it is in heaven.
We ask this all in the name of the One who modeled what it is to work with and for you.