I’m grateful to write this month’s seminary spotlight on behalf of The Commonweal Project at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I benefited from The Commonweal Project as a new student at Southern, grew with it through my MDiv, and now, get to serve it as its managing fellow.
I started at Southern in fall of 2014, and like many of my peers, I assumed I would find a role in pastoral ministry within weeks of arriving. That didn’t happen. I had a background as a line cook, so I managed to land an interview at a local high-end grocery store which featured a hot food bar. While interviewing, the general manager asked if I would have any interest in training on how to cut meat. As a line cook, I had learned how to trim and prepare filets, for example, but butchering loins and quarters of hogs and beef was an altogether different order. I ended up getting the job.
Being a butcher in seminary was a unique experience. It made for great conversation starters in our seminary circles: “What do you do, Zach?” “I slay the flesh, professionally.”
It provided well for my family. It was also a physical job, which provided some balance to the mentally taxing coursework I was performing. I could not, however, shake the frustration that I was wasting my time in seminary. I felt as if I was not serving the Lord by working as a butcher at a grocery store.
That changed for me at one of The Commonweal Project’s lecture luncheons. The Commonweal Project is an initiative of Southern that is working to advance a biblical theology of faith, work and human flourishing. I had originally gone for the free lunch, but I came away with a reoriented theology of work. Our team likes to joke: incentives matter. Al Mohler, our seminary president, gave the inaugural lecture, “Work to the Glory of God.” I left his address recognizing that by doing for others what they could not do for themselves – namely, turn a cow into a tender steak – I was not merely grinding out a paycheck. Instead, by working well, I was fulfilling the two greatest commandments.
I continued to participate in Commonweal events throughout my MDiv. I read The Road to Serfdom and Wealth of Nations with Mark Coppenger. I sat under Robert Plummer’s brilliant lecture lunch on economic lessons from wisdom literature. James Hamilton gave me theological categories to think about work. This lecture would eventually be expanded into a book.
Were it not for The Commonweal Project, I would have wasted my time at my job. Instead, because I had these new categories for work, I threw myself into my trade.
I learned new, efficient techniques to reduce waste. I learned new cuts to result in a better retail product for our guests. I expanded my knowledge from livestock to seafood. I then insisted on learning how to make sausage and cure bacon. I earned every certification my job would allow to earn. So, by the time I moved on to God’s next call, I had worked my way up to the equivalent of assistant department manager.
I had always thought that work had instrumental value only, but The Commonweal Project developed theological categories to transcend that thinking altogether. Work has intrinsic value because we were made to work, and our work glorifies God.
In 2016, the Lord opened a door for me to serve as an associate pastor at a local church here in Louisville. In the providence of God, I could see that my two years as a butcher were just as much preparation for ministry as my seminary education. I was responsible for a member who worked as a mechanic at the local power generating plant. He was a forty-year-old man who was convinced that because he never “went into ministry,” he had wasted his life.
Precisely because of the categories given to me through the work of Ken Magnuson and those at The Commonweal Project, I was able to pastor that brother to help him to see that if he did not love us by going to work every day, making sure that the plant itself did not break down, there would be no electricity. I carefully traced out for him all of things for which we require electricity: everything. Even contemporary church services require loads of electricity. By him doing precisely what God called him to do – that is a mechanic – he loved all of his neighbors, even those he’d never meet. God is still milking the cows, and he now provides power for our cities through technicians.
I’m very grateful for the impact that The Commonweal Project has had on my life and ministry. I’m thankful to Dr. Magnuson for his leadership. I’ve also appreciated the Oikonomia Network for the encouragement and resources it provides. The Commonweal Project has been a pivotal influence in my preparation for ministry, and I am changed forever because of it.