Managing Workplace Anxiety: My Boss is a Tyrant (And I Might Be the Boss!) Genesis 31 Sermon Notes
The Text. Genesis 31:44-54
44 Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us.”
45 So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. 46 He said to his relatives, “Gather some stones.” So they took stones and piled them in a heap, and they ate there by the heap. 47 Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, and Jacob called it Galeed.
48 Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” That is why it was called Galeed.49 It was also called Mizpah, because he said, “May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other. 50 If you mistreat my daughters or if you take any wives besides my daughters, even though no one is with us, remember that God is a witness between you and me.”
51 Laban also said to Jacob, “Here is this heap, and here is this pillar I have set up between you and me. 52 This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me. 53 May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac. 54 He offered a sacrifice there in the hill country and invited his relatives to a meal. After they had eaten, they spent the night there. (NIV).
Theological Point: There are several types of covenants in the Bible. Covenants ranged from simple contracts for goods and services to the New Covenant between God and humanity in the cross of Jesus. Some covenants are between a superior party and a subordinate party, as between God and God’s people. Our text, however, refers to one between two equal parties—Laban and Jacob—who are settling their differences with a covenant of peace. Covenants were an important part of life throughout the history of Israel, symbolized in objective ways with a sign of the agreement. For example, the heap of stones in this narrative was erected as a visual reminder that an agreement was made between these two parties. Similarly, Jonathan solemnized his covenant with David by giving him tokens of his royal house and military conquests (1 Sam. 18:3). The covenant between Laban and Jacob was also consummated with a meal.
Hermeneutical Connection: Employment is best understood as a contractual (covenantal) exchange with an objective sign of agreement (e.g., a written contract). The contract is essentially: “I give you my labor in exchange for a paycheck.” The contract is made between two equal and free parties and can be freely terminated by any party at any time within the terms of the agreement. Employment contracts between equal parties assume (and sometimes are made explicit in writing) that each party will be treated with respect and dignity rather than as slaves. The relationship should not involve emotional or economic bondage. Rather, it is a clear contractual accord: labor for pay between two equal parties in an environment of respect. Interestingly, many hirings today also involve a meal.
The preacher can refer again to the alarming statistics of stress in the workplace. Then, the following is an example of an introduction to the second sermon.
According to recent research, one of the greatest sources of anxiety in the workplace is dealing with your boss. For bosses, one of the greatest sources of anxiety is management of employees. Take a friend to lunch and you’re likely to hear about a tyrannical boss. Attend a conference of managers and you will most likely see a list of seminars on how to manage people more effectively. These issues give us sleepless nights and take up a lot of brain power. Worrying about this primary relationship also produces stress that can result in compromised health.
A. How We View Employment
When we become Christians, our minds are transformed. We see things differently than before. Christians have objected for 2,000 years to bowing down to other lords. We have one Lord and one God whom we worship and who is first in our lives. All other relationships are secondary to our relationship to God.
Much of our stress in employment comes from feeling like economic and emotional slaves to our boss. Sometimes our fear of losing the paycheck tempts us to act in ways contrary to our faith. It is as if we become slaves and lose our freedom. Some bosses also use emotional manipulation—either consciously or unconsciously—to put their employees in a position of servitude.
Preacher: here is an added resource for you on this topic: https://www.theologyofwork.org/the-high-calling/blog/you-gotta-serve-somebody.
We are set free from slavery. Referring to our last sermon, we enter into employment contracts as sons and daughters of God. We serve God first. We enter into covenants as free people who serve only God as Lord. And as employers, we stop at the line of making our employees emotional or economic slaves, requiring them to fulfill their contractual obligations with honest feedback and straightforward dealings, rather than unreasonable threats.
Illustration: The final section of Exodus 1 is about two courageous Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah. The mighty and exalted King of Egypt, one of the most powerful men on earth at the time, told them to kill the newborns of Hebrew women if they were male. However, they did not carry out their boss’ order because their allegiance was to a higher power: the Lord God. Exodus 1:17 says, “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” We enter into employment covenants as free children of God who offer our services in exchange for pay, but not our souls, our values, or our primary allegiances. Preacher: really help the congregation “feel” the text from Exodus 1. What was it like to encounter the most powerful man on earth and yet not do as he ordered and instead follow the will of God? Imagine the courage! Their identity was in God first and not the will of Pharaoh.
B. Be Creative in the Workplace
Sometimes workplace drama requires clever responses. Pray for ways for God to help you relieve the pressure cooker in creative ways. Remember that bosses and employees are human beings. They have all the same problems you do just trying to live their lives. Try to understand their motivations and approaches to work and make a connection with them. Attempt to become allies to accomplish the mission of the company rather than emotionally connected in unhealthy ways. Realize that sometimes kindness and understanding can lance a festering boil and bring peace and understanding.
Preacher: if you want to be specific about the above paragraph, look here for helpful resources: https://www.theologyofwork.org/the-high-calling/blog/enchantment-enchanting-boss
Sometimes being creative means looking at our relationship with our boss in different ways: https://www.theologyofwork.org/the-high-calling/blog/pardon-me-whos-chained-whom.
Taking time to consciously manage up can help stop a relationship from spiraling down. Here are some tips at http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2006/11/03/7-ways-to-manage-up/.
C. Sometimes, It Just Isn’t the Right Fit
Sometimes, no matter what you do, it’s the wrong fit! You’ve worked hard to fit into the office, make a contribution, manage up, and make a great contribution—but the relationship just isn’t working. Even worse, you feel like everyone knows that but you! Maybe it’s time to consider your options and begin looking for another job while you still have one!
Illustration: Matthew was a hated tax collector who became wealthy through extortion and threats. When Jesus approached him and called him to follow, he jumped up from his tax collection table and went off with the Lord without looking back. It was time to leave a terrible profession for something better!
There are times to plan a well-executed exit from your job to something better. After a lot of prayer and thoughtful consideration, it may be time to consider your work options. If you are a boss or supervisor and you’ve exhausted all your attempts to help an employee who is just not working out and is miserable at work, you might be in a position to relieve their pain and that of the workplace.
Here is a true story of moving someone on in love.
Illustration: I worked for a company years ago that had a CEO who could deliver blistering criticisms that went beyond work performance to challenging a person’s core. He was especially critical of an engineer whom he publicly ridiculed and verbally abused. The engineer became emotionally crippled, bent-over with self-abuse, believing the CEO’s assessment. Every day was a dirge for him. As an executive with human resources responsibilities and deeply caring for this engineer, I started to take him to lunch to debrief these dressing-down sessions he was receiving from the CEO.
Believing the engineer would be better suited in another company, after negotiating his departure with the CEO, I worked with him creatively to envision what a more suitable workplace would look like—and then we worked together to pursue it. Those lunches lifted his spirit and attitude. His smile returned because he realized he had great value for another kind of company. Within three months, he was able to relocate to a better position in another company, partly because of his improved frame of mind.He was looking up!
Preacher: more resources for you on this topic: https://www.theologyofwork.org/the-high-calling/blog/how-cope-toxic-boss and https://www.theologyofwork.org/the-high-calling/blog/saying-no-your-boss
Wrap It Up! Preacher: here is your opportunity to offer words of encouragement to those suffering from relational issues in the workplace. Something like: We can reduce stress at work by reminding ourselves that we are children of God first and foremost. Our primary relationship is to our Lord. As free people, we enter into contracts of work for pay, but we
are unwilling to submit ourselves to ruthless Pharaohs. Nonetheless, we use wisdom and charity to work to improve our work environments rather than simply condemn them. We look for ways to influence them in positive ways. Instead of our first reaction to defend or fight, consider understanding and kindness. However, there may also be times when we are called away to do something else.
Preacher: as you pray to end this sermon, I suggest you sum up the difficulties real people experience in the workplace with bosses and employees…and call upon the help of the Spirit to be with each person in their individual struggles.
For many more resources from The High Calling and the Theology of Work Project on this topic, visit our list on the topic "Bad Boss."
George Cladis is Executive Pastor, Liberty Churches, Shrewsbury, MA.
Other sermons in this series on Managing Workplace Anxiety: