Note: Register today to join Scott Cormode, author of The Innovative Church, and Michaela O’Donnell Long for a webinar on how churches can transform their approach to vocation to connect with the rapidly changing needs of the world around us. The Innovative Church is the fruit of five years of innovation work with hundreds of church leaders; Cormode will describe how his research on innovation can help us reinvent the Christian practice of vocation. The webinar will take place on October 22 at 10-11 Pacific time (12-1 central, 1-2 eastern). It is co-sponsored by the Oikonomia Network and Fuller’s De Pree Center.
There was a time when Michael could say he was doing what God had called him to do – that his work was more than a job, that it was a vocation. But then things started to change. When his work had meaning, Michael was the thirty-something-year-old manager of a chain drugstore that happened to be next to a large retirement community. When asked about his work, he did not talk about selling things; he talked about people. He described the nineteen-year-olds who came to work for him and he swelled with healthy pride as he talked about teaching them to show up on time, to work hard, and to care for customers. And he talked about the elderly folks whose trip to his store was the high-point of their day. Michael cared about his people. But his face clouded up as he asked a hard question. The big chain that owned the store was making changes that did not treat his people well – cutting hours, cutting benefits, cutting promised positions. And Michael wanted to know how to maintain the integrity of his faith. His pastor’s only answer was to quit his job to do ministry. And, so the pastor’s answer leads us to our question. Was quitting the only option? How do we understand vocation – especially vocation in the marketplace – when we recognize that companies that are designed to make money (companies that are not necessarily run by Christians) will not always make Christ-honoring decisions? What does it mean to be called by God in the workplace?
The Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that our work begins with God’s work in the world. Paul told the Corinthians that God was in the world reconciling the world to himself in Christ Jesus and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation. And then he says, “You are therefore Christ’s ambassadors.” An ambassador is a citizen of one country who goes to live in another country with the expressed purpose of building relations between the two. Like an ambassador stationed in a particular land, we Christians are appointed to duty in a particular workplace. This allows us to recast the Christian idea of vocation by rooting it in the biblical call to love God and to love neighbor. In recent times, some Christians have deformed the doctrine of vocation to be about my gifts, my work, and my place in the world. But we do not exist for ourselves, and neither can we work for ourselves.
I believe that we can recast the Christian understanding of calling around the needs of the people entrusted to our care because God calls us neither to a task nor to a job – and not even to exercise a gift – but God calls us to a people. The entire point of doing the task or exercising the gift is to benefit others. For example, we create because God creates. Artists and entrepreneurs alike celebrate this point. But, why did God create? God creates for the sake of we his people. Artists who create just for the sake of creating miss the point. Art should be shared. Likewise, entrepreneurs who build for the sake of building (or for the sake of selling) miss the point. Every Christian who is a boss, or who serves customers, or who labors alongside co-workers, each one has people entrusted to her care.
The idolatrous danger for Christians is to see people as tools, as nothing more than a means to accomplish my ends. Business leaders have a responsibility to do more than extract value from their people. I recognize that the nature of the workplace is an exchange. Clients or customers pay for what businesses provide, and employees earn a salary for doing their work. Each party attempts to extract maximum return from minimal cost. This is not wrong; it is just not enough. It is better, instead, to think of what Max De Pree calls a “covenantal relationship” in the workplace. For example, the company where De Pree was president promised that factory workers would have a say in the hiring and firing of their supervisors. It was a way for authority to travel up as well as down. And a shift worker named Valerie came to the president’s office one day with a petition because a new VP had fired a supervisor without consulting the line workers. Most CEOs would think it is important to back the authority of the fledgling vice-president. Max said it was more important for the company to keep its promises about the rights and dignity of the workers. And he restored the supervisor. De Pree believed that God had entrusted his workers to his care. So he made public promises about how they would be treated and he enabled his people to hold the company to those promises. We Christians are stewards of our clients, our customers, our employees, and, indeed, even our bosses.
I believe that every Christian, no matter what her station, has people entrusted to her care. And wherever God plants you – in whatever position, and with whatever authority – the question that should orient you is: who are the people God has entrusted to my care?
And that brings us back to Michael the Store Manager. How does Michael represent as an ambassador the God of integrity and compassion while at the same time representing as a manager a company that stands for neither? He does it by continuing to do what he has already done. Michael helps the elderly folk from the retirement community next door. He teaches teens how to be responsible workers and how to care for customers. And he manages people with integrity and compassion. But what about the new and unfair policies? They become an opportunity for him to model for his employees the appropriate way to live in the world. Indeed, the most important lesson Michael has to teach in this moment is to model how a Christian responds to the injustice in the world. Ambassadors treat people’s longings and losses as spiritual questions even when the people do not recognize them as such. To leave his employees to become a minister is to abandon them. Instead he can say to them, “I will not abandon you. I will be with you in this painful situation. And I will do what I can to make it better.” In this way, he is like the Apostle Paul who ministered to churches that were persecuted, abused, and defiled. Michael keeps his integrity by staying with the people entrusted to his care and ministering to them in the midst of their longings and their losses. That is his calling.