Chapter 11 - Engaged Work: Devotion on the Job
“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).