Theology for workers in the pews


Other 100,000 Hours image from InTrust article

This is the second half of a two-part article that appeared in the Winter and Spring 2013 issues of InTrust magazine. Both parts, with full graphic treatment, appear here. This half focuses on what seminaries and churches can do to help heal the divide between faith and work in many Christians’ lives today.

Theology for Workers in the Pews

In the last issue of InTrust, Chris R. Armstrong wrote that churches are good at helping people find meaning on Sunday morning, but during the “other 100,000 hours”—the lifetime that people spend earning their daily bread — pastors often have little to contribute. This is unfortunate, because when people labor, it’s possible for them to be co-laborers with Christ who both build up the world, helping it flourish, and also grow in grace, learning new disciplines.

Read the full article at www.intrust.org/work.

In this companion article, Armstrong describes how schools and organizations are making connections between faith and work. In some cases, organizations are helping business leaders to think ethically and theologically. In other cases, they’re helping clergy to engage more intelligently with business leaders in congregations.

Let’s take as given that work matters—it matters to God, and it is most people’s primary arena of discipleship. And let’s agree that the primary role of seminaries and theological schools is to form pastors and scholars who teach and lead people in discipleship. Therefore, it makes sense that theological education should serve a vital role in making the connection between faith and work.

Yet most theological schools are not doing this well. Professors and administrators often lack a sense that pastors should equip their people to see their work as vitally important in the kingdom of God. The atmosphere in the seminary can promote a disconnection between theology and the issues facing working people. Professors often have little nonacademic work experience, and even those who desire to learn and teach in the area of faith–work integration hardly know where to start.

Harvard scholar Laura Nash, coauthor (with Scotty McLennan) of Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values with Business Life, finds in her research that across traditions and denominations, theological education has still barely begun to help ministers understand this topic. Nash argues that if pastors and other church leaders caricature business in hostile terms, failing to provide spiritual guidance for the work lives of people in the pews, they commit “one of the largest acts of self-marginalization since their support of national prohibition.”

How to bridge the divide

What, then, should theological educators do? A first step is careful listening. This may mean paying attention to the lay-led faith-and-work movement, which has done an endrun around the religious establishment. This movement is developing a contextual theology among people who are actually doing “secular” work, seeking religiously informed answers to the existential sense of disconnection between the two halves of their lives. Professional teachers and preachers would do well to listen a bit to these people. Indeed, theologians and pastors have begun to pay attention. And business people, in turn, have begun to take practical steps to initiate and fund change within theological schools.

In a few cases, this has taken institutional form as significant centers on seminary campuses. Fuller Seminary’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership and Gordon-Conwell’s Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace were both founded and funded with lay resources. Other lay-initiated centers, such as the National Center for the Laity in Chicago and the Theology of Work Project in Massachusetts, are not housed on seminary campuses, but nevertheless sponsor or highlight scholarship in this field.

These examples, though still isolated, are instructive— perhaps even inspiring:

• Gordon-Conwell’s Mockler Center opened in 1996 with funding from the widow of Colman Mockler, who had been CEO of Gillette from 1975 until his death in 1991. From 1999 to 2008, Will Messenger directed the Center, bringing both business and pastoral experience (along with business and divinity degrees), and under him, Gordon-Conwell initiated a concentration in workplace theology, ethics, and leadership that results in either an M.A. in religion or a D.Min. Led today by David Gill, the center is partnering with the Kern Oikonomia Network (more on that below) on a project in which students at Gordon-Conwell’s downtown Boston extension site help mobilize congregations to fight poverty—by working with entrepreneurs to incubate new small businesses that create jobs.

• In 1999, Lilly Endowment Inc. launched its Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV) initiative. The program has awarded grants to 88 church-related liberal arts colleges and universities to strengthen programs that help students examine career and life choices through eyes of faith—whether those choices lead to ordained ministry or to secular workplaces. (The Council of Independent College’s new Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education, which involves 179 colleges, is now continuing the work of the PTEV initiative.)

In 2008, a group of five theological schools approached Lilly and sought support for a Christians’ Callings in the World project. Leaders at these five— Luther, Duke, Catholic Theological Union, Fuller, and Princeton—had noticed that graduates of PTEV schools were arriving on campus already deeply engaged in a vocational discernment process, but the seminaries were not well positioned to help these students move forward in their discernment. Moreover, they began to ask how they were preparing their students—future pastors—to help their future congregations think about their own vocations. Under the grant, the five schools have been working separately but collaboratively to teach future pastors how to engage members of their congregations in vocational discernment practices, helping them make deeper connections between their faith and work. Naturally, this has invited the participation of faculty and even trustees—not an easy or straight-line process.

• In 2009, the Kern Family Foundation of Waukesha, Wisconsin, which had been supporting seminary education through student scholarships for more than a decade, created a seminary initiative called the Oikonomia Network. Framed as a “learning community” for theological educators, its mission is to help its members aid churches in integrating theological truth and Christian discipleship with work and economic thinking. Through the network, the foundation now funds significant initiatives at 12 seminaries, including Trinity Evangelical, Bethel, Southwestern Baptist, Azusa Pacific’s Haggard School of Theology, and Biola’s Talbot School of Theology. All these initiatives seek to train pastors to affirm the basic goodness of work, business, and economic activity; to prepare people to discern their callings and pursue excellence in their work; to help communities respond in virtuous ways to the changes wrought by economic forces; and to cast a future-oriented vision for virtuous membership and participation in the civic community.

So far, the most challenging among these goals seems to be achieving economic literacy. The theological schools in the network are typically more comfortable teaching and learning about work and vocation than about the moral world of the market and the nuts and bolts of business. Oikonomia Network program director Greg Forster says,

Economics is not what most people think. The economy is just people exchanging their work with each other. It’s not only in workplaces and markets; it’s in homes and neighborhoods, and anywhere people do work that cultivates creation. Work takes up most of our lives, because God made us to cultivate blessings and make the world a better place. That means most of our lives take place in the economy. If most of our lives are played out on the economic stage, we need to know how the gospel applies to economics—and we need to know something about economics itself.

To help seminaries do that learning, Forster is leading a process to develop a set of “economic wisdom maxims” stressing the moral dimensions of economics.

The credibility gap and other challenges

What does this sort of theology of work integration look like in seminaries? In my own setting, Bethel’s Work with Purpose initiative is presenting a slate of faculty- and student- centered activities during 2013, from reading groups and forums to public lectures and a conference in October. The seminary community will read, discuss, and above all listen together with laypeople in the marketplace.

A seminary course on the theology of work and vocation will be complemented by a pilot church-based course in theology of work, co-developed with church partners and refined for wider distribution in partnership with Christianity Today International (the publisher of Christianity Today, Leadership Journal, and other magazines). We are already seeing how we will need to build trust among people active in various ministry settings—seminary, church, and workplaces. We recognize that both church and seminary face a credibility gap as they address this topic.

Messenger offers an example of this gap:

Most businesspeople would say, “I love my pastor, otherwise I’d quit the church. I’m upset with him, because he misunderstands what people like me do; he takes cheap shots at us. But he’s a nice guy. It’s not his fault—he just doesn’t have the training he needs to understand the world where I work.” What do we do with this? It tells us that the first thing working folks want to hear from the seminary is not all the things the seminary is going to do to fix the problem—there is no credibility in that! Businesspeople and other workers want to hear that the seminaries recognize what the problem is and are willing to change their cultures to address it.

In other words, seminaries have to recognize that their first impulse—to start programs that will output information to the working world—is backwards. Job one is to reverse the information flow. Of his Mockler Center experience, Messenger observes that “what we discovered is that the seminary doesn’t have much expertise that is useful to the people in the pews. And in many ways, this institute has been more valuable to the seminary by bringing the concerns of lay Christians back to the seminary.”

Any attempt to bring this emphasis into the central concerns of the church is likely to meet resistance, because the call here is for the church to divert some of its energy from programs internal to itself, supporting instead the Christian work people are already doing in the world. (“Missional” is the current buzzword for this emphasis.) But this feels scary in North America, where churches are supported not by the state but by individuals voluntarily giving of their time, talents, and treasure—and where, not insignificantly, people gravitate toward churches that serve their needs. Religious competition itself helps drive the multiplication of programs within the church.

We find something similar when we ask theological schools to address this area. Schools, too, are committed to sustaining their own programs, including the classic departments of theological education: biblical languages, theology, homiletics, and the like. Because there is not a department that cares about the non-church-related work of lay people, pastors never get trained in it, Messenger re- minds us. “Seminaries too often act as if the central mission of the seminary is to equip pastors to spend all their time getting people to pour their own time and effort into church.”

But to learn how to integrate faith and work, people in seminaries must visit laypeople in their places of business, listen hard to the needs expressed there, and then work out how to address them. That does not seem central to the mission of most seminaries—at least, not as they have classically been configured.

Even the Oikonomia Network seminaries, which are buying into this new focus, still face the reality of tight curriculums: Most seminaries simply have no space to add additional core courses to already bulging programs. Messenger likes to say, “If I could make the following promise, I could raise any amount of money: ‘Give me X million dollars and I will guarantee that every graduate of our seminary will have one course that will give an accurate understanding of business and economics.’” But experience has shown him that this just won’t happen in most seminaries. Nevertheless, wonderful things start to happen once a theological school does start to teach this emphasis, whether in individual lectures and assignments within the theological disciplines, in electives, or in extracurricular learning modes. Gordon-Conwell discovered this once they launched a degree program concentration in “workplace leadership and business ethics.” This program brought master’s and D.Min. students together in the same classroom, and the dynamics, while initially uncomfortable, proved tremendously fruitful.

Messenger describes it:

The D.Min. students are mostly (though not all) pastors. The masters of arts in religion students mostly work in business, but also some in academia, government, medicine, and the like. The first three days of class, they’re skeptically scoping each other out. Businesspeople think of pastors as nice but not knowledgeable about the business world, and pastors see business people as sons and daughters of God but greedy, not knowing their Bibles.

And eventually they find they want to dance together. Pastors start saying “Wow, so that’s the kind of decision you have to make? I thought you were always deciding between doing good and making money. But now I see your decisions are about how to support people, how to do trade-offs.” And businesspeople: “You pastors actually do care. You really do know the Bible — you’re not just parroting it, you’re helping me understand how the Bible works.” Eighty percent of the time, you end up with wonderful conversations.

David Miller suggests other creative ways for seminaries to bring ministers-in-training on board with faith–work integration:

Rethink field education. Expand the conception of clinical pastoral education (CPE) and field education programs from the traditional realms of hospitals, prisons, and psychiatric wards to include internships in local businesses and workplaces.

Create new institutes. Develop faith-and-work centers or institutes that undertake joint ventures or research projects with professional schools (e.g., law, business, medicine), denominational bodies, and established faith-and-work leaders and groups.

Ship out the theologians. Send some theologians on “externships” to work for a business for a semester or a year, undertaking research and gaining firsthand familiarity with marketplace issues.

Offer executive MBA-type courses. Develop courses for people in the workplace, much as many business schools offer executive education courses and continuing education programs.

None of this is easy. It takes concerted time, money, and institutional will. But the alternative isn’t appealing: continued marginalization of the church from daily life and continued confusion among Christians about the value and the spiritual, theological, and biblical dimensions of their work. And the theological schools that do this well may find an answer to one of the current crises in theological education: expensive seminary degree programs that often fail to meet the needs of would-be ministers and of the church. The more a company listens to its customer base, the surer its path to success—what business leader doesn’t already know that?

Similarly, theological schools whose lay-responsive programs are grounded in listening will likely find themselves training students in more distributed ways, “out there” in churches and workplaces. Such forward-thinking seminaries can produce ministers who (1) are not drowning in the debt inevitably racked up in standard residential models and (2) are highly sought after and well supported by lay people who want both an affirmation of their daily work and the empowerment to labor “as unto God.”

In other words, as theological schools discover how to affirm the work of ordinary people, they may well also discover how to do their own work in new and more effective ways. ■IT

Chris R. Armstrong is professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and director of the seminary’s Work with Purpose initiative.

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