Nice to meet you. So what firm do you work for? I wonder if my firm is bigger.
Webster & Associates. Just took the job last month; I was over at Leeland & Keller before that. Forward progress for me. Bigger, better…This guy’s pretty confident. I wonder where he comes from. How about you? You local? Where did you go to law school?
University of Denver. After that I clerked for Judge Merriweather downtown. Geez, Webster & Associates? I bet he went to Harvard Law. How about you?
Yale Law. I clerked federal in D.C. A long few years, but worth the sacrifice. Good thing I didn’t meet my wife until law school. Too busy.
Comparison. We all do it. A recent blog post entitled Mom vs. Mom highlighted the subtle ways moms compete and compare – organic mom, slender fit mom, working mom, super-godly mom. The push to do it all, be it all, thrives amidst mothers and their kids. It’s no different at work. Pastors subtly ask one another how many people are attending their churches on Sunday. Lawyers vet their competition by making small talk about law school. Business leaders compare balance sheets over happy hour. Entrepreneurs, feeling ‘small’ when around a venture capitalist, inflate their ideas. Authors discuss which publishing house picked up their last book. In admissions and student enrollment (where I work), of course, the marker of success is the number of students each Fall. LinkedIn profiles grow and grow – even when people aren’t changing jobs. Just look at all those endorsements.
It’s not like anybody does this overtly. But in certain contexts the feelings of inferiority – or superiority – take over. The small talk may seem innocent, but at the heart of it is the desire to prove our own worth. We play a never-ending game of professional (and personal) rank. Why? To show the world our worth. To justify ourselves.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor in WWII, wrote a little book called Life Together about Christian community during his time leading an underground seminary at Finkenwalde. A random half-quote from the book once stuck with me. The Christian, says Bonhoeffer, is simply a “brother among brothers.” With God as our Father, and Jesus himself as our brother (Heb. 2:11), Christians are family. On an equal playing field.
Holding on to this phrase “a brother among brothers” has been hugely helpful to me as I walk into appointments. In the faith and work world, I have the tendency to exalt myself over other ministries or individuals who need my help, and, conversely, cower before high powered professionals or CEOs who make my paltry experience seem microscopic in comparison. Yet when I repeat the phrase “a brother among brothers” before appointments, it does two things for me.
- It eliminates superiority. How could I, a servant of Christ, really be superior to anybody else? I’m justified freely by God’s grace, and the person I’m sitting across bears the image of the King of the Universe, and is my brother (or sister). Manual laborer, Latino pastor, retired grandmother, 15 year-old high school student – all family, and worthy of my attention and careful respect. When the apostle Paul appealed to Philemon to receive back his former slave Onesimus, he reminded him that in Christ his social rank had changed. Onesimus, once a slave, is now a brother (Philemon 16).
- It also eliminates groveling. If this executive sitting across from me is really my brother, do I really need to build myself up, prove my worth, or beg for their approval? Would I do this with a family member? Of course not. It wasn’t for no reason that Joseph spoke squarely and honestly to Pharaoh. He had been with God (or, more accurately, God had been with him) and that freed him to speak truth – but never lacking love – to the most high powered man in the world. Since we are both made in the image of God, there’s no need to vet competition by checking academic credentials, examining work attire, or (when getting home) measuring the green-ness of their grass. Christians are free to listen, serve and love, without the need to conquer, achieve, or exalt ourselves.
Our worth comes not from our professional success or rank. It comes from Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross and the gift of His righteousness on our behalf. Since all the treasures of heaven have been poured out freely into the lives of Christians, there’s no need to play the game anymore. Here is where we find freedom, peace and rest. Here’s also were we find an eager desire to serve those “below” us, and a strong confidence to engage with those “above” us.
My friend David Hyams, at Rothgerber, Johnson & Lyons, a law firm in Denver, has suggested a good way to put this into practice at work. Change the question. Instead of asking asking questions about which law firm, which law school, etc., when meeting another lawyer, he simply asks the question: “So why did you go into law?” This question goes to purpose and intent. It also often draws out a lawyer’s highest ideals – of justice and equality – which are often in need of refreshing amidst the challenges of litigation, clients, and daily stresses of practicing law. Questions about rank tend to have the purpose of quietly finding ways to exalt and prove oneself; questions of purpose draw peers into re-envisioning the good purposes for which God has designed their work.
Discussion question: In your field, what questions are asked that are subtly intended to “rank” one another? How can you “change the question” when meeting people in your field?
Photo: Two Lawyers Conversing
(PS: Have a restful Labor Day.)