Since over a year ago, when a group of us began dreaming and scheming for what has now become the fully-funded “Work with Purpose initiative” at Bethel Seminary, I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of work. Or, I should say, meanings. Work often creates economic value. It usually serves other people. It can be an arena of fullest self-expression and self-realization as we exercise our particular gifts and personalities. It can be a place of sanctification, of discipleship, as we struggle through the mundane challenges and difficult relationships that mark most workplaces.
But does it have divine meaning, our work? Is such ultimate meaning of our work reserved for pastors, priests, or monastics? Does God ordain and care for our particular work, even if we don’t wear a collar, alb, or habit?
Related to this question, I’m busy right now writing an article on Christians’ understandings of the concept of vocation or calling through the ages. Here’s some reflection that may or may not make it into the final draft:
These days I’m asking pastors this question: “Do you see it as part of your calling to affirm the divine significance your people’s work in their jobs, in all economic spheres—business, non-profit, home?” Few answer affirmatively, and that’s worrisome. Especially in these recessionary times, much tempts American workers to discouragement: we work more hours, for less pay, with less security, less loyalty to our employers, less sense of our work truly mattering. Most of us want to find meaning in our work. But the church has at times behaved as if full-time ordained ministry is the only arena in which people are really working for God.
Many sincere Christians conclude that the only legitimate arena of vocational meaning is the church. In their first history class of each new year at Bethel Seminary, when I have my students share about their sense of calling, many tell the same story. It boils down to: “I quit my job to go into the ministry.” For some of these students, though not all, it is clear that what drove them to this decision was a sense of frustration and meaninglessness in their daily work; indeed, a sense that they simply can’t work there in a way that is pleasing to God or useful in the kingdom.
But where does that leave the vast majority of Christians, who by the end of our lives will each have spent an average of 100,000 hours serving other people in non-church work? What does it say about the ordinary human service of giving cups of water to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked (Matt. 25)—which (for example) parents do every month, whether through a paycheck or in the work they do in the home? Nonetheless, we pew-sitters still sometimes feel that those precious words “Well done, good and faithful servant” only, or at least most truly, apply to those who hold down obvious “jobs for God.” Like our pastors.
This sense that ordinary work is spiritually second-class shouldn’t surprise when we consider what goes on in our churches. I think of my own experience as a young man trying to figure out “What I’m going to be when I grow up.” For years after graduating from university I worked in corporate communications. During this period I struggled mightily to discern a vocation. Not surprisingly, as the son of two educators, I had demonstrated academic aptitudes in my college years as I completed a degree in religious studies. But as a young adult convert in a charismatic church, I just never heard anything suggesting that God approved of any sort of secular work, let alone academic work (which was viewed, in fact, with the hairy eyeball of suspicion).
The only faint praise we ever heard about secular work was that it was a good thing to train, get a good job, and earn lots of money, because then you could give that money to the church—for the real work of God. In case we didn’t get the distinction between this “work for money” and the better “work directly for God,” every once in a while a pimple-faced teenager would decide to go on a short-term missions trip, and the church would pull out all the stops in a raucous commissioning service, laying hands on them and praying in Old Testament cadences. I never saw a commissioning service for businesspeople, or lawyers, or (heavens!) professors. No wonder it took me seven years to work my way to the conclusion that life as an academic (or any other non-church work) might possibly be a God-honoring vocation!
Fortunately, when I shared my new aspiration with my youth pastor, he affirmed it. He didn’t have sophisticated theological reasons for doing this. He just told me it seemed I was gifted by God to do this work. Simple words, but they boomed out to me in the midst of my church’s resounding silence about secular work.
In the Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics, Princeton ethicistMax Stackhouse relates that we have ceased to link our work to God’s work in the world. The problem starts in our universities, where an older Christian understanding of vocation has gone by the boards, in favor of what essentially amounts to skills training for specific jobs. Stackhouse suggests that in our industrialized, globalized economy, the way most of us are trained for work leaves a gaping “a spiritual void.” Bluntly put, we are living in what author Gordon Preece calls a “post-vocational world.”
All very well, but the question nags: What if work is not supposed to be an arena of spiritual purpose and satisfaction? What if a paycheck really is what it’s all about—and in order to do anything of divine significance we do indeed need to serve in church services and church programs?
Well, of course my answer to this last question is a resounding NO! And I’ll be posting on this more during the coming year . . .