Chris Armstrong, Director, Opus
On July 1, 2014, Wheaton College launched a new institute, Opus: The Art of Work. The institute has set several goals for our first year:
- Support scholar-teachers who are developing a deeper, clearer Christian vision of vocation
- Help students launch into occupations where they can serve the world well through the use of their gifts
- Develop a campus culture that celebrates economic work as an essential part of an overall witness to the goodness of God in a confused world.
Each of these goals will set us on a path that will continue beyond our first year
The Presenting Need
As members of the Oikonomia Network already know, most American adults spend the better part of their waking hours at work – some say 100,000 hours over a lifetime. Yet the generation now preparing to enter the workforce faces sobering realities – among them rising student debt, unemployment, and societal and economic pressures at home, where the crucial (though unpaid) vocational work of homemaking and parenting take place.
Once they are in their first jobs out of college, the scenario is not much better. According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace, while 30 percent of American workers are engaged and inspired at work, 20 percent are actively disengaged, spreading discontent (quite a sobering statistic!), and the other 50 percent are just “kind of present” – unengaged and uninspired.
Students looking ahead to their working lives want to know whether they can serve the world through the best use of their gifts; whether they will find work in which they can deepen their own discipleship and live their witness for Christ before others; and what it will mean to bring gospel values to bear in challenging work settings and sectors.
Three Opus Initiatives
Opus’s first goal – supporting Wheaton scholars who are developing a deeper, clearer Christian vision of vocation – is already advancing through a small grants program and a faculty fellows program. We have had a number of excellent small grant proposals come in within days of the announcement of that program in August. At the beginning of September, a competitive application process yielded a roster of 10 fine scholar-teachers who will serve as “Opus Faculty Fellows” for the 2014-2015 academic year. These fellows teach in an impressive range of disciplines: art, English, communication, biblical and theological studies, chemistry, sociology and anthropology, applied health science, business and economics, urban studies, and politics and international relations.
Each Wheaton faculty fellow is receiving a course release and funding for travel and research. The fellows have committed to joining an ongoing faith and work discussion group along with alumni in the marketplace and to craft and teach three class-session-long learning units relating to faith, work, economics, and vocation in their existing classes. That’s 30 different contact points for our students this coming year alone. We expect to continue the fellows program over the next two years as well, resulting in a possible 70, 80, or more contact points within the curriculum by the third year. We expect that once they see the benefit to students’ vocational discernment process, most professors will continue, in subsequent years, to use the units they have crafted during their year as a fellow. Several of the fellows are also planning to conduct scholarly research and publish material related to faith, work, and economics.
The second goal, helping students launch into occupations where they can serve the world well through the use of their gifts, is being served in year one by a pilot “vocational discernment groups” program. We have secured a curriculum writer and are inviting Wheaton professors into the mix to help us customize these groups for humanities, hard sciences, social sciences, fine arts, and business/applied fields. They will roll out in the spring term, with 10 groups of 10 students. Each group, led by a teaching team of one graduate student and one marketplace practitioner (mostly alumni), will complete the curriculum in three two-hour sessions. Books will be provided, as well as a meal at each session.
As for the third goal, developing a campus culture that celebrates economic work as an essential part of an overall witness to the goodness of God in a confused world, Opus and Wheaton’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics under Vincent Bacote cosponsored a screening of the Acton Institute video series “For the Life of the World.” Plans are in the works for a new course on entrepreneurship in the arts and for partnership activities with Wheaton’s J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy.
Those wishing to know more about Opus: The Art of Work may be interested in attending our launch conference, Jan. 27-29, 2015, on the campus of Wheaton College. The conference will feature such speakers as Steve Garber, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, and Will Messenger, along with an array of creative, practical sessions run in partnership with a number of campus departments and programs, including student groups. (Also, two other nationally known “special guests” have been invited – stay tuned!) The launch event will take place in tandem with the annual editorial board meeting of the Theology of Work Project, and several Wheaton professors have already had papers accepted for development in that project. All of you in the Oikonomia Network are, of course, warmly welcomed to join us.
A Plan and a Working Style for Culture Change
Through my previous work founding and leading the Work with Purpose initiative at Bethel Seminary, I learned that grand visions for organizational culture change cannot be realized as “outside-in” movements, but only as “inside-out” ones. Wheaton’s culture won’t develop a robust theological understanding of work, a stellar track record of preparing students for marketplace vocations, and a campus-wide celebration of economic work through Opus staff standing on a soapbox and shouting (or bringing in speakers to do the same). Rather, it will happen by attracting the energy and wisdom of people from every part of our community – students, professors, staff, alumni – and then handing them the resources to develop new understandings and competencies within their own disciplines and roles.
This means that possibly the most important task for the first year(s) of this new initiative is that of listening well – and then planning well in response to what we hear. We will need to discern carefully and prayerfully our context, task, resources, and potential roadblocks, and then create an action plan whose aim is to foster the long-term flourishing of faith-and-vocation teaching, mentoring, and research on this campus. We hope to become a highly valued partner within the Wheaton community, making new friends on campus and among Wheaton alumni and other off-campus groups. We need them as close partners in order to achieve our goals.
The Long View
It has already been an invigorating privilege to found and begin leading this institute. It has also been excellent to have as a partner in this work Program Manager Ben Norquist – formerly of Bryan College, Dayton, Tenn. Ben’s combination of personal touch with students, deep commitment to kingdom work, and broad network of thought leaders across the country have proved an instant boon to the activities of the institute.
Ben and I see ourselves pouring the foundation and erecting the scaffolding for an effort of lasting relevance and influence at Wheaton. If we do our work well, in 10 years we hope to see a significant number of our accomplished professors moving the ball forward on strong, biblical understandings of vocation within their own disciplines – including framing and answering the “next big questions” on faith and work.
We hope a decade’s worth of undergraduate and graduate students, living into leadership in the church and world, will not only experience the blessings of a vibrant and healthy understanding of vocation, but also spread that understanding to others. Finally and most importantly, we hope churches and Christians touched by this message emanating from Wheaton (along with many other emerging centers in the country) will steward their vocations in ways that join in God’s providing, constraining, and redeeming work to bless the world.