How Do I Follow Christ in My Work? - An Interview with Will Messenger Part 1
Will Messenger is an Episcopal Priest in Boston with an MBA in marketing from Harvard Business School, D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and M.Div. from Boston University School of Theology. He is the former Director of the Mockler Center for Business and Ethics at Gordon-Conwell and is now the interim writing director for the Theology of Work Project. After speaking at Laity Lodge last year, Will sat down with us to talk more about what the Bible says about the meaning and value of work, whether you're in sales, financial analysis, energy, or medical diagnostics.
Will, it's great to visit with you to talk about what we are both very passionate about—helping people follow Jesus in their daily life and work.
Laity Lodge is an organization I trust and respect. I taught at the Lodge earlier this year about following Jesus in your job description. Now I'm eager to share some of what I've learned in my journey and desire to follow Christ in the nonchurch workplace with a wider audience. TheHighCalling.org is well used by people throughout the Christian world. I hope this interview can be helpful in extending their mission beyond the folks that walk into an event at the Lodge.
You obviously have a heart for this vision that God is present in the activities of our daily work. How did this become your sense of call and purpose?
For most of my adult life, I've been interested in this question of how to follow Christ in my work when that work is not at church or in a church-led workplace. I'm specifically interested in how to be a servant of Christ through the activities of my job description. How does one follow Christ as a financial analyst? As a bus driver or whatever it is that you do? For years, I was interested in this solely for my own sake, not because I wanted to get a job teaching it. I'd planned to be in the world of science. My undergraduate degree was in Physics (Messenger graduated with highest honors from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1982). I had to get a job to make some money while I tried to figure out what I was going to do with my degree. I got hired as a salesman for IBM. To my great surprise I loved it! It wasn't so much about how I could sell hardware, but how I could help people solve business problems by using information technology. It was almost like I was a solutions engineer helping them creatively solve some of their toughest issues. I enjoyed serving the customers.You asked, “How do you follow Christ as a financial analyst?” Do you have a working answer for yourself?
I worked one summer as a financial analyst in an investment bank. I got assigned to work on a project to see whether we could get private equity investors to buy power plants from electric utilities. If so, we could earn a big fee on every transaction. The way we approached it was this: I would build a financial model for each power plant to show how many megawatt hours it could generate, the price it could sell each megawatt hour for, the cost of coal, wages for employees, etc. Then I would crunch the numbers asking the maximum interest it could afford to pay on junk bonds that private equity investors would issue in order to raise cash to buy the power plant.
Then we could see whether we could find investors who would be willing to buy bonds, even though the interest rate would be too low to really compensate them for the high risk that the power plant could go bankrupt if coal prices rose, or electricity demand fell. I was at the bottom of the totem pole. The person who came up with this project was fairly inexperienced as well, trying to generate fees by proposing a few deals. To me that wasn't a particularly redemptive way to go about it. It wasn't about how to finance the power-generating needs of the utilities. It wasn't about creating a sustainable financial structure to help a company endure the ups and downs of the energy markets. It was just about seeing whether we could get a bunch of deals done and earn big fees.
Unlike at IBM, I couldn't see what business problem it was going to solve. I believe that in all things Christ is working for the redemption of our world that is busted in all kinds of ways—not just in our worshiping the wrong things and running after false gods in a very literal way, but in economic things and in organization things that are wrong in our world. I think God is interested in power generation. I knew that the power generation industry was hampered with all kinds of problems at the time. But I didn't see how our exercise was addressing the real issue of the actual job of power generation.
So was there anything you did as an investment banker that you thought was redemptive—or meaningful from God's perspective?
Oh, yes! I helped another company recapitalize itself by issuing convertible preferred stock and using the proceeds to pay off debt. It gave them a more secure financial base, so they could focus on the growth of the business. Plus it made sense for investors. I don't want to overstate how redemptive a good financial transaction is. There's a clear distinction between someone's soul and financial structure in an organization, but I don't think God doesn't care about finance either. Financial structure makes it possible to research and produce useful goods and services, to employ people, and to provide investment income for retirees, college endowments, and the like. The picture of the final Kingdom, eternity if you will, is not one of us becoming disembodied spirits flitting off somewhere where there isn't anything. Instead we see a new heaven and a new earth, and the kingdoms of the world bring their treasure to the New Jerusalem. So we continue to have the spheres of life fully embodied—the stuff of creation is transformed, but not eliminated.
How delighted are you by the freedom of this idea that God is in the midst of and redeeming all?
It took me a long time to think of that as a freedom. There was some unmeaningful stuff about the work I did. Even at IBM, I began to ask whether my long-term goal in life was really to generate return on investment for their stockholders. In the 1980s, IBM lost its focus on customer needs, and lost a lot of business as a result. I left before the company had its first-ever layoffs.
I was successful at IBM, but I actually was more fulfilled at a company that failed, called Advanced Metabolic Systems. We were developing a new treatment for diabetes. If it had worked, it could have revolutionized treatment for a serious disease. It turned out our treatment wasn't as effective as we hoped, but the idea was promising enough that it was worth investing in. The incomparable contribution that I believe business can make towards healing still energizes me.
I wish my church would have helped me think this through. That's where I wanted to go with the questions of meaning and purpose that were creeping into my daily existence and work. I had a secret desire the Christian faith would help, even though I didn't expect much from my church. I went to business school (Messenger received his MBA with high distinction as the top graduate in marketing from Harvard in 1988) then went to work for McKinsey, the management-consulting firm. Ultimately I got bit by the entrepreneurial bug and joined the startup diabetes company I just mentioned. When that failed, I began to think about what I wanted to do next. I realized the thing I was most excited about day to day at that point was my church. So I decided to become a pastor.
You were in your mid-thirties and working on your M.Div.V at Boston University School of Theology (Messenger graduated summa cum laude in 1997). What was your seminary experience like?
God must have had a good laugh with me, because I was in seminary thinking, I'm leaving the business world to become a pastor. But God wasn't planning on removing me from the business world! In seminary I continued to work as a consultant to pay the bills. I was doing an assignment with a cancer diagnostics company. It had been successful by creating innovative blood tests. But when they asked me to help them, blood testing was becoming a low-margin, commodity business. They were asking the question, “Should we become a low-cost producer, so we can compete with these giant diagnostic companies, or should we find some other area of cancer diagnostics where we can still be an innovator of better products for the market?”
I realized the main questions were profoundly theological at their core—“What's our purpose? What's really worth doing in the world? Why do we even have a company here?” Some managers wanted a new line of business that would continue to allow the company to be innovative. Others thought that was foolish, “We're a cancer blood test company—we can't give up the whole company to suddenly be in some other line of business.” There was a hardening of positions; good people were leaving. I'd say, “Your side hasn't lost yet, why don't you stick around?” They would say, “It's just not the same company.”
This convinced me that there is a need for theological debate in the workplace. Not at the expense of, but in addition to, an economic debate. It would help us integrate the two questions both sides were asking, “How can we make the most money? What do we think we can do that's meaningful enough to even think we can make money?” What if we asked instead, “What's our company about? What are our strengths, our weaknesses? What can we do that will benefit and bring meaning to our customers, our shareholders, and ourselves?” Even if someone doesn't believe in, or refer to God, there's a hunger to ask theological questions.
>> Read Part 2 of our interview with Will Messenger: Reading the Bible with Workplace Eyes