Pastors and Bankers: "Redeeming Work" | Leadership Journal

I wrote this post for Christianity Today's Leadership Journal blog, where you can also read it (I re-post it here with their permission). The related event "Redeeming Work" was hosted in Chicago on March 13, 2014.  In a previous post you can read the live coverage I posted during the event.

Screenshot of this post at Leadership Journal

Last Thursday I took a day off work so I could talk about work.

Leadership Journal hosted their first "Live" event in Chicago's West Loop (check out the live blog history here). They called it Redeeming Work, and though the gathering was framed as small enough to be more interactive than a conference, every seat was full. Our venue was the event floor of an industrial glass factory where presenters stood aptly backdropped by a roll-steel door of the type you see in warehouses (and, you know, TV shows about warehouses).

Our topic was clear: as Christians, how are we thinking theologically about jobs—our secular work? The conversation was almost immediately warm and engaging and interactive. We wanted to talk about this.

Yet, I'll be honest, from the outset there was a certain obvious oddity.

Bricklayers vs. Pastors

Amy Sherman (a new voice for me, but certainly not for CT) was theologically broad and satisfyingly specific. She and others told stories of bankers and chefs, farmers and medical attendants. Work was celebrated in the roles of contractors and artists. And being in the West Loop, we sat in the near shadow of the thousands of 20-something information professionals so ubiquitous on the Chicago L trains—one hand gripping a crossbar, their eyes gripping their phone.

Yet actors and accountants, bricklayers and baristas—these weren't really who was in the room.

Who was? Lots of pastors. Lots of people like me. Aside from a brief stint with Microsoft consulting years ago, my work has been nearly fifteen years of what most would classify "full-time ministry." Eight of those years I was a campus missionary and minister. Today I help lead an evangelical mission agency for church planters and missional church staff. Me and my seminary degree felt right at home at Redeeming Work—our discussion table had just two people who worked in jobs like Amy was describing—jobs that didn't carry a Christian paycheck.

Was this odd in a forum where the stated mission was to promote the voice of the non-ordained? Odd that we were speaking of vocation in the terms of industry and commerce, yet most of the conversants were "of the cloth" or related to the Christian religious business complex? In our effort to recover the kingship of the secular, most of us were speaking from the demarcation lines of the sacred.

This vocational divide was, of course, central to the day's question. Compared to pastoral work, missions work, ministry—secular work can get the short shrift for Christians. Skye Jethani (of Leadership Journal and PARSE) blamed Eusebius (the fourth century bishop of Caesarea) and his lasting influence. For Eusebius, clergy were the ones with the real vocation—the real God-call. Theirs was the "perfect" calling. All other jobs were simply "permitted." Today, even centuries past the Reformer's intentions to apply vocation outside the priesthood, evangelical leaders have sometimes perpetuated a world where ministry itself is the loudest voice and highest calling.

This is why it was odd. Here we were, a gathering of pastors and ministry leaders talking of the vocations that weren't our own. Even as we declared there was no true secular and sacred divide, it felt a little like the invitation list was reinforcing the difference. After all, it was us who were here on a Thursday in the middle of the working week.

The Opportunity of Pastoral Influence

This wasn't lost on Leadership Journal—the pastors as the audience for Redeeming Work was intentional, Jethani told me. LJ thought: how can we launch further discussion in the church on faith and work? Pastoral influence matters here. And as the Kern Foundation has pointed out, pastors need better equipping at application of faith to economics.

So how do those who are called to ministry successfully elevate the call of those who are not?

Maybe we start with rephrasing sentences like that last one. Better: "How do those who are called to ministry elevate those called to banking or baking?" Tom Nelson, pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kansas (and author of Work Matters, Crossway), spoke via video, and had choice words on word choice:

We began to ask questions about what cultural icons, what cultural language, what cultural cultivation did we need to do differently? … Our preaching changed, not in its commitment to the exposition of the text, but in the language we used. … A lot of times we would use the word "work" to describe what someone did when they got a paycheck for it. Classic example for it is a stay-at-home spouse—who we would often refer to in an illustration or story or in a conversation with someone, that this woman had gone back to work. And we realized: what are we saying?? We are saying that work is remuneration not contribution.

Powerful I think. Pastoral influence in language (especially preaching) may change cultural assumptions. Or in pastoral care—do we ask about jobs, not just health and marriages? The spheres of influence (oh—there's Kuyper) pastors wield can be unique and effective.

The Challenge of Pastoral Influence

Yet allow me to keep nagging. It strikes me that a challenge very much remains for pastors speaking into the vocations of business leaders or janitors.

I think this: It seems the pastoral place that allows influence and access is also ananchor that limits it. A place of power always begs distance.

And then there's the practical differences. "How can I know your daily experience in the economic realities of the molten glass factory floor when my daily exposure in in the ministry of the word and sacrament? The separate callings do indeed separate.

Questions of distance and influence can run through nearly any discussion of leadership, so I don't pretend this is unique. But in the context of vocation, this Achilles heel seems particularly un-shoed.

This question quickly surfaced at our Redeeming Work table discussion. One rural pastor feels the distance. His solution is literal: riding along with some of his farmers as they do their sunup to sundown work. Proximity can make a real difference, he explained; it brings a sense of God to the work.

Sure, maybe simple presence gives us some crucial empathy and engagement. As I compose this reflection, I sit in at a corner table in local glassed-in restaurant, and my as waiter pours my coffee, he is curious enough to ask me what I'm writing. He is shy when I mention I am a Christian minister, but he likes the topic of work.

"Do you like your job?" I ask. I waited tables through college and always feel a little bit of kinship here (one of my two total "secular" jobs).

"I like talking to people," he replies. "The hard part for me? Knowing what I want to do next. I'm thinking trade school—heat and air conditioning maintenance. But I don't know."

A conversation about work at work seemed easy and appropriate. Yet for me it also underlined our distance. I had no experiential vision to offer in the missional redemption of HVAC maintenance.

Are we still worlds apart?

Ordinary Labor of Ministry

I think the point of connection may be in a confession. Ministry labor is less sacred than we would want to make it out to be.

My first years in ministry were as a campus missionary, and this meant not only reaching out to students with the gospel on dorms floors and coffee shops, but also approaching evangelical donors in Chicagoland and asking for their financial support. This process always forces a color-brightening filter on the snapshots of ministry. "God is doing great things" on campus. "The gospel is changing the lives of those destined to become the most influential in our society."

I don't repeat these with cynicism: I did (and do) believe these are true. Yet these visions of ministry grandeur could gloss over the mundane and the ordinariness of the work of ministry.

Tuesdays were like this: I checked e-mail. I sat in meetings. I pondered problems with a whiteboard. I stared at a screen. I had conversations that felt like the Holy Spirit was moving like the wind, and conversations where we said boring things and went our separate ways. I stressed. I laughed. I felt overwhelmed by my to-do list. I called a volunteer and recruited help. I texted. I had very big goals (change the world!). I had very small goals (get to 6pm!).

It's these things—the daily ordinariness of my vocation—that make me believe that the experience of the banker and the full-time minister aren't so far apart. The pastor can speak into the thrill and the monotony of work because we know what it feels like.

Two Callings, Same Calling

Chesterton wrote, "The difference between Puritanism and Catholicism is not about whether some priestly word or gesture is significant and sacred. It is about whether any word or gesture is significant and sacred." Unsurprisingly the Catholic Chesterton lands towards the daily recognition of the sacred, and I find myself unable to part company. I'm reluctant to iron the pastoral vocation into a "we're all called" one-size-fits all (wrinkle free).

Yet maybe the key to the oddness of pastors gathering on a factory floor to discuss the restoration in place of secular work is not particularly a grand vision of either, but the shared ordinariness—and redemption—of both.