Jeff Haanen

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Jeff Haanen

RetirementVocationWork

A Conversation on Retirement and Investing with Jeff Haanen

Our Executive Editor Tim Weinhold talks with Jeff Haanen on the biblical challenge to the modern concept of retirement, and how redeeming a biblical vision of our latter years frees us to see investing as God intends.

Tim Weinhold:

Well, we’re really thrilled today. We get a chance to visit with Jeff Haanen. Jeff is the executive director of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work. And although I’m very familiar with the work that you guys have been doing for quite time, Jeff, I’m going to let you briefly describe if you would, for our viewers, the work of the Denver Institute and what you guys focus on when you’re not talking to us.

Jeff Haanen:

Yeah. Well, thanks Tim, for having me on the podcast, and I’d be happy to explain what we’re doing at Denver Institute.

So we’re an educational organization here in Denver. Our mission is to form men and women to serve God, neighbor and society through their daily work. And we’re really trying to bring together a culture separated, which is faith and work, public and private, fact, value. We actually think that the life of faith is a single response to God’s voice in all areas of life. So what we’re doing is we do educational content, we do convenings, we do leadership programs and we work with other organizations in the United States to really help with their local expressions of faith and work and what that looks like in their own cities.

So it’s been a very fun journey leading Denver Institute.

Tim Weinhold:

Something you said during the course of that jumped out at me, the idea that the Lordship of Jesus is meant to apply to every single aspect of our lives. And a lot of what has motivated the establishment of the Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is exactly the sense that a better understanding of how the Lordship of Jesus is meant to apply in the investing world is really needed and something we hope to be part of, which allows in turn an easy segue to what you wrote for us, because you have written a three part series that we consider really meaningful. And I think our readers will as well. You really are talking about the deep intersection in America, between the ideas of a particular kind of retirement and much of the investing that happens in America.

So let’s just start at the very macro level. And if you would just tell us some of your thinking about the relationship between retirement as it’s currently generally understood in America and our investing practices.

Jeff Haanen:

Well, yeah, let me just give you a brief overview to this. I think sometimes we don’t often connect the idea of retirement, particularly it’s popular notions in America, graying hair and swimming pools and pickle ball games with the stock market, with investing. But it is, I think the elephant in the room, why do the majority of people in the United States invest, right? It is because they’re saving for retirement. So the motive behind investing is very much connected to retirement in the United States for most people. And that motive I think, is very fraught on a lot of different levels. And we need to really question why we’re investing into what end and that question is I think very connected to what do I think about retirement? What do I think about my future? What do I think about aging? All those things are very much connected to the why behind most people’s investing.

So that’s why I think it really makes sense for the Eventide Center for Faith in Investing to address those questions.

Tim Weinhold:

So your three part series sort of follows the sequence in part one, how does America tend to think about retirement and to a degree investing related to that.

Part two is how does the Bible really think about our later years? What sort of corresponds to retirement in American thinking. And then once you’ve established that biblical understanding in part two, part three is, okay, how does that really change how we think about investing? So if we could, let’s just go through all three of those and let’s start therefore, with flesh out for us, if you will, how America tends to think about investing

Jeff Haanen:

Yeah. Well, I think that the number one thing that we need to think of about is what have we been sold as the retirement dream? That if you save, if you invest, if you put money in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, you will one day have a utopian life. Maybe it’s in Florida, maybe it’s in Europe. Maybe it’s happy, fun times with grandkids on your lap, but there’s very much of a utopian vision that is sold that I would say is only partially true and sometimes maybe even completely false in terms of just the realities of life.

We’re always on the side of Eden and there’s good things about any stage of life and there’s difficult things. So I think that’s the first thing that we did think about. But one of the couple of the things that I explored in this first article for you guys is really why I think this is problematic as a core motivation for our investing, that’s retirement.

And it gave a few different reasons I wanted to share. One is what I call the fear-greed combo. I think if a lot of people in the United States are afraid that they’re not saving enough for retirement, there is almost every article that you read about environment says, this is how much you should be saving by age 20, 30, 40. And when you take a look at the statistics, the vast majority of people aren’t doing that and aren’t doing enough. And so there’s a little bit of that fear of will I have enough, which in turn can actually drive greed of thinking I need to accumulate more and more and more and more, which prevents our mind thinking about what is God’s good purpose of investing. It sort of pushes that out for the only purpose of investing is how much can I pile away, so they have the maximum I need for retirement.

So I think that’s a significant fear, particularly with human longevity. People are living longer than ever before. People can expect to be retired 20, 25, 30 years almost as long as their entire career. So the idea of hitting this mythical number could be 1 million for some people it could be two, it just depends on sort of your lifestyle and how much you’ve made during your career.

How do I get there and how do I get there as quickly as possible? I think it’s a very difficult proposition.

The second one, though, just in general with the concept of retirement that’s really challenging is this concept of work. Work is very intrinsic to human beings, God himself worked for six days and rested for one. And he is never tired. He had no need of either retirement or even to actually ever be exhausted, but it was a part of the rhythm of that he put into creation and a lot of people retire as soon as they can. Actually statistics bear that out, but I also think a lot of people miss the contribution in the community of working.

I’ve talked to lots and lots of different folks about this. And so there is a little bit the belonging that’s usually backfilled with what I call just the retirement entertainment complex, which is enormous actually in the United States and thinking about how do I keep myself busy and activities that kind of look like work, even thinking the kind of the false sense of accomplishment after you’ve done 18 holes of thinking, I did my day’s work today and I like golfing, but it can’t be the only way of living.

So I think that’s one thing. And then another thing too, is that a lot of people just say that retirement, if it is seen as what, the number one way, I think America sees it as a never ending vacation.

A lot of people, it’s not satisfying.

How long can you possibly vacation for before you kind of lack a sense of purpose, direction, a real intrinsic desire to contribute to your community. So I think there are various different problems that I explore in the article about why retirement as we conceive of it is a major problem for how Christians think about investing even as well as Christian finance advisors, maybe even that might be watching this too, what are the assumptions going on behind why people are stashing away money? Those I think are where spiritual formation happens, is understanding what are those assumptions? What is good and then what needs to be challenged, particularly from biblical worldview.

Tim Weinhold:

All right. You’ve sort of sketched out some of the problems with the version of retirement that Americans have been sold, as we move into your second piece for us. How does the Bible really suggest we ought to be thinking about our later years?

Jeff Haanen:

Yeah, that’s a good question. So obviously retirement is a modern social construct that’s not necessarily in the Bible, but I do think the Bible gives us some very strong hints. So I have a sentence from my article that I’ll read to you. My conviction is the Bible paints a picture of retirement as laying down past work identities, entering a new season of rest renewal and re-engagement. And then as elders filled with blessing and wisdom for a coming generation.

So there’s a few parts of that. The first is laying down past work identities. Retirement is actually mentioned a couple places, the Bible one’s in Numbers, and it talks about hauling around the furniture of the tabernacle that God calls the older men to lay down the heavy lifting and to give that to the younger men, but to keep on essentially mentoring and caring for them and ministering at the tent of the meeting.

I think this talks about the concept of laying down a past work identities. This is actually particularly true with men, a little less so with women, but your identity can get very much wrapped into your work that prevents actually people from letting go. And I actually think that of a letting go and allowing others to lead and mentoring a new generation is actually very, very important.

The second part I talk about entering a new season of rest renewal and re-engagement. The Bible paints an interesting picture of work and rest. That’s not only one day out of every seven, but Leviticus 5 talks about the biblical could you… I’m sorry, 25 talks about the biblical Jubilee, talks about resting or letting the fields lay fallow for one year out of every seven. Now I think it would be a myth for most people to think, oh, I could take one year off out of every seven years of working and it just doesn’t economically work out very well.

But I do think actually when most people move into early in some sort of a real sabbatical season and sabbatical, not just right for pastors or academics, but for anybody moving into this thinking before I hop into something, either the never ending vacation version or I’m going to finally find my dream job that I never had during my career. I think a season of rest is actually very important. And the concept there in Sabbath really is to reorient the heart toward trust in God, that to really be living a life of worship, as well as to reorient your heart to justice.

There’s a lot of connections in the Bible between Sabbath and justice. So I think this season of thinking about, take a season of rest and for the sake of renewal of the heart before you think about, and this is the third part that I think is strong in the Bible is reengaging.

As elders filled with wisdom and blessing for a coming generation. The Bible has this word elders, of course the new Testament, it’s an office and local churches, but that actually comes from the old Testament. The elders were the leaders. They were the leaders of Israel. So our modern American notions of elder or elderly, that’s an insult, right? But the Bible, these are people filled with nobility with the fruit of experience that are meant for the wellbeing of a society.

So I think elders in the biblical, they don’t do the hard work either of lifting or warfare, right. But they do do the work of leadership and to think about, I’m going to take a season of rest and then reengage as an elder, as a person of wisdom that I’ve collected of my life, a blessing of caring for a coming generation of giving that. I think that’s a real needed way of thinking about re-engaging as a servant of God for all of life. That is not only continuing your same job for 50 years, it’s a different type of a work, but nonetheless, it is a work a service to the world that I think the Bible paints that picture very clearly of what elders can be for the coming generation.

Tim Weinhold:

So your piece has actually spoke to me and made me think about this issue of the transition between if you will, the primary product, the years of our career, and then our later years, whether that’s still a version of career or whether that might be in volunteer type activities. But it made me think quite a bit about that. And it struck me that there is such a meaningful difference in a lot of ways between the productivity thrust, the carrying the heavy furniture, if you will, during our many career years before we get to our senior years and what those senior years need to look like.

And we’re not very light actually to transition from the first to the second very well, unless we’ve actually taken some time to do what you say, to lay down essentially the identities we had adopted during those productive years and to then embrace the very different sort of understanding for our senior years. So I really, really love that.

I wonder whether that will become a more conscious part of how Christians make that transition. I think for many of us, myself included, we didn’t really think about that transition. We’re just sort of doing life. And so I hope that people, as they read your pieces, it may strike a sympathetic chord with a lot of people and they may say, ah, I really do need to think very consciously about how to do that transition.

Jeff Haanen:

Yeah. Well, thanks for saying that, Tim. That’s yeah, very kind. I’m obviously not quite to retire myself, but the need to rest and renew is universal. And I felt that even in late ’30s, ’40s, not that I’m at is that I think it’s just an essential aspect. And I think one thing to think about too, for our, our listeners today, if you liked your work, usually the laying down will be past identities where I was over identified with my work and my productivity, and this is really who I am and the challenge there to be recentering yourself just on Christ.

And if you didn’t like your work, laying down those things, that’s not very difficult actually. There was one article that I read saying, if you worked at Walmart for a career, you don’t just go in the basement and retirement and just scan stuff for fun to stay busy.

This is just not what you do. That’s stuff you do for your pay, then you never ever do again once you’re done with it. So I think the challenge a lot for particularly a working class America in this conversation is to rest and renew. But a sabbatical is a fixed period of time, say six months, nine months, 12 months. But I am now going to deeply rest and say, God, what do you have for me next? Because there is, almost everybody has a lot of pain connected to their work too. And it takes time to heal that.

It could be humiliation of a boss, it could be an unmet expectation, it could be under appreciation, it could be a lot of these things in our work, but whether it’s one side of the identity work or the other side of healing, some of the pain in our work, I do think those seasons are really necessary. So future contribution can actually be kingdom fruit rather than me trying to solve a problem I couldn’t solve during my career.

Tim Weinhold:

Well, that’s good. So let’s assume somebody has done a good job of this interim sabbatical between the productive years and when senior years, which have a shift in focus, how do you think they really ought to… What’s the overarching objective that they ought to bring to how they think about what they’re doing during those senior years?

Jeff Haanen:

Yeah. Well, I think the overarching objective, I think, in some ways that’s very much connected to an overarching objective with all of our years, love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor has yourself. So I think that equation, it just changes a little bit. Rather than either the extremes of I’m going to work forever and never rest, or I’m going to take my never ending vacation over here. I actually think it’s now as I live in this responsive relationship with God in a moment by moment, as I listen to his voice, what is he actually calling me to in this next season? And so I think those ways of contribution, they do look different in senior years.

It could be working full time. It may not be working at all for a while and it might be spending time with a sick parent that’s dying. These are very noble ways of thinking about caring for family. It may be caring for grandkids as a vocation, as a commitment as something that you’re going to limit yourself from, or it might be working part-time either volunteering or for pay again, there’s I think a lot of openness and flexibility here, but there is, I think some things this scriptures say that is out of bounds.

Idleness is out of bounds, a life of self focused pleasure, where I just wake up thinking about how I can entertain myself rather than care for the wellbeing of others. This is out of bounds. Actually, Paul speaks about this of people that make their gods their stomachs, actually there’s some very strong, I think words Paul would have for retirement culture that’s very kind of self focused and pleasure focused in the United States.

So there are some things that I think are out of bounds, but there is I think great freedom and a responsiveness to God’s voice of saying, what do I, then, if I laid this down, this past work identity, Lord, what are you now putting in my hand to take up once more?

Tim Weinhold:

And if I could, let me ask you though, very specifically around the idea of being an elder or being a mentor might be a word we would more commonly use today. What does that look like in particular, how should folks approaching their senior years be, or who may like myself be into their senior years, how should we think about what that elder mentor role ought look like?

Jeff Haanen:

Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I included a chapter on that in my book “An Uncommon Guide to Retirement” about mentoring and I actually started off with a few mentoring relationships that I had had where I was being mentored that didn’t end very well. They weren’t very fruitful and it was sort of mentoring as the awkward we’re going to get together once a month. You’re going to download what I need to be doing as the younger person for about 60 minutes, and I’ll go home and kind of do all of that.

And it feels actually true I think one way. And I think actually a lot of people that are in retirement think, do I have anything to give? I’m not sure. I don’t know if I want to do that. I don’t know if anybody will want to listen to the experiences I’ve had.

The short answer is what I think is the most fruitful way of thinking about mentoring is intergenerational friendship. I think it’s actually genuine friendship where older is listening to younger. Younger is listening to older. There’s a real exchange of both experience, but also of pain and difficulty. I found that the people that have most powerfully affected me as mentors are those that I was baffled that they listened to my experience because I didn’t have much, I still don’t in many ways, but that opened up my ears to listening well from their experience of thinking they’ve been there beyond, but it’s that sort of gentle humility of real friendship. I would love to see more intergenerational friendships between people in their 60s and 30s or 70s and 20s, whatever it might be of a real interest.

And I actually think with that kind of, that humble perspective of we’re both here to listen and we’re both here to give. I could see a lot of the starting to grow.

Tim Weinhold:

I love that. That said it strikes me that America doesn’t make that intergenerational friendship connection easy. And so it’s probably something that we’ll have to put, for many of us, real thought into how to find the opportunities, find particular, maybe organizational or nonprofit ways to engage with others and so forth. Because probably normally it’s just not going to happen that much on its own.

Any particular advice about that, about how to be intentional about finding those opportunities for intergenerational friendship?

Jeff Haanen:

Yeah, I would just say, I think young people and old people can do this equally. Don’t close yourself from people that are different. It tends to be that churches are very homogenous communities, whether it be racially, ethnically socioeconomically, but even generationally as well.

So go to a church where there’s a bunch of young people and the music is too loud or when you’re at hanging out with your friends, genuinely invite friends, 20s, 30s somethings to go and hang out with you without sort of an agenda. Think about what you want to do with your friends, think about what are the interests that you have and then go find people that actually could do the same same things, right?

Again, I’ll redeem golf here. Golf could be a context for that, right? It could be a context for actually building those friendships rather than just playing with the other people like in retirement communities. I think there are some values, there are particular values to retirement communities in terms of healthcare and actual onset of old age. I think that’s a very good thing and needed thing, but the kind of enclaves where you separate yourself off from the world, as well as for people that are different. I think we can do better.

Tim Weinhold:

Maybe I’ll need to take up, hang gliding.

Jeff Haanen:

There we go. There we go. Hang gliding. Sounds fun.

Tim Weinhold:

At the end of your part two piece for us, you said something approximately that if we shift the narrative about retirement, that changes our motive for investing.

Jeff Haanen:

Well, let, yeah, let’s talk about that.

So two different motives for investing. Investing for retirement and the retirement dream or investing for human flourishing. Okay. So when we think about even the greed-fear combo driving so much investing day, I think what if we were to replace that with a simple trust that God will provide for me over a lifetime, that I’ll have enough in the future, I have enough now.

I think it will temper down some of those need for a huge asset buildup by age 65, knowing that income, but maybe continue later in life with working, but also actually staying connected to work will even statistically reduce some of the health care issues that actually set quite quickly oftentimes for people that retire and disconnect from work environments, I’ve actually seen it with my family as well as with people that I’ve interviewed as well.

I also think that early in life, we have sometimes a very unhealthy drive and unhealthy work rhythms that really kind of crush into family and emotional health, but really this myth of financial freedom of thinking once I have this amount of money in the bank, I can finally retire and have sort of the dream. I just think we need to drain the retirement myth of its false promises of thinking of this side of Eden will always be longing for the kingdom. There’s always work for us to be done. And I think that sort of myth of financial freedom can be replaced by just a deeper freedom of contentment and this life that we have now as well as our future life.

I really think that so much of even just day to day work culture is driven by how much longer do I have to do this until I have enough money where I don’t have to do it anymore. You can hear the pain in that, but that’s actually a lot of the narrative of people’s entire working life that’s really driven by once I have this, then I’ll finally be free into the retirement. The truth of the gospel is you are free right now. You are free right now because of what Christ has promised and given to you.

So I think if we actually have that sort of steadiness of heart of thinking about a lifetime of work, rest, re-engagement, right? It allows us to temper a little bit of thinking, if I invest and investing is good and saving is actually good. The Bible talks a lot about saving as well. Maybe I should be thinking about my investments more in terms of their social and cultural impact rather than I just have to get the maximum returns to fund my lifestyle, right. That I think is a critical change that could happen and open up much more people to thinking about investing first and foremost, as a subcategory of human flourishing.

Tim Weinhold:

If you would spell out the particular kinds of changes that you think are possible when one shifts from an investment as a way to fund my retirement to investment as calibrated to human flourishing. Tell us about the particulars of that.

Jeff Haanen:

Yeah. So I have a few different things that I wrote about in the articles. One is that a biblical view of retirement, I think opens a door to your portfolio being really wholly focused on human flourishing. Obviously you can have returns and thinking about human flourishing, even tied to the net for a very long time too, but you have to, I think start that conversation with redemption is more important than returns and very particularly, I think that we need to think about if we’re thinking about our work in our daily life, in terms of how can I contribute to the common good? How is God calling me to serve? What does this look like now? And even as I age long time into the future, that sort of work as a category of human flourishing, we can marry that to investing as a category of human flourishing, because what you’re investing in is businesses where people are working, of businesses of which you’re a partial owner.

So I do think it really opens up to think, I want a lifetime of human flourishing for myself. I want to be invested in those businesses that are going to and do that for others too. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing I wrote briefly about is particularly it’s a better vision for, I think that the vocation of financial advisors. I have spoken to a lot of financial advisors is am I just here to help wealthy people get wealthier so they can have more things in the future? There’s a lot of pain there. There’s a lot of pain there for a lot of financial advisors. And I think financial advisors are really the cultural caretaker of this idea of retirement, because they’re constantly talking with people about money and investing about financial planning as well as about people’s future. Right?

But I think financial advisors is to saying, okay, let’s think about work and rest over a lifetime than me tacitly propping up this myth that if you bring me all this capital we’re going to be finally happy together. Right?

I actually think the vocation of financial advisors of thinking about challenging some of those narrative about work for a lifetime it’s much more fruitful. Thinking I am here to contribute both with investing, but also for my clients, a vision for their good and for their health and for their wholeness as well.

A couple other things that I put in the article is I think a biblical view of retirement REITs show investing in proper proportion to giving, saving and spending money. I mean, how much do we need for retirement?

There are millions of articles online of how much you really need, but it’s really dependent on what your vision for retirement will look like. And if you have a more humble vision for your future, you actually may right now with your money decide to give more of it or save up for an angel parent’s condo. Or you actually may decide to take your family on the big vacation now when they’re young and you actually can shape their life rather than the big vacation in your 70s, when you actually can’t get your kids time anymore, because they’re too busy with other things.

Like you just need to put the, I think, saving for retirement back in proper proportion. And I think a biblical view of retirement does that because it humbles sort of our expectations for what we need in the future.

And then a basic idea too, is I think a biblical view of retirement heals our vision of work and rest over a lifetime. We need to work because God himself worked. We need to rest, even though God himself can never tire it’s as in Isaiah 40, right? God himself rests as well. And so us thinking about what that could look like even now in our life, these visions of work and rest and how to finance that. I think it actually has some interesting policy implications for how we even think about retirement savings account and using some of those resources now. So those are four ideas of how I think it could practically influence how we’re thinking about our life in a way that both brings about human flourishing to our visions of work and our life as well as to what we invest in and why we invest in it.

Tim Weinhold:

What you seem to be saying is that a financial advisor ought to be thinking not just about how they help a client prepare financially for classic American retirement, they ought to be in a sense helping their clients rethink whether that’s really going to be the approach that makes best sense for their later years. That’s a different understanding, a richer, deeper understanding of maybe the role that a financial advisor can play in the life of a client. Can you just elaborate on that a little bit?

Jeff Haanen:

Yeah. I’d be sure to share some thoughts.

So saving probably talked about savings is wise, giving there’s lots of scripture, synchrony eight and nine about giving and generosity. It won’t talk much about that too, but when we even think about investing in values based investing, I think there’s a fun role for advisors to sort of surface questions in terms of what are your core values and would you like your investments to align with values? That’s I think a very important conversation and that’s really the foundation. I think of financial advisors can actually suggest those rather than say, well, my clients didn’t demand this product, so I’m not going to talk to them about that. Well, it’s a relationship. You can talk to people. You can actually suggest stuff of aligning your values with your investments. I think there’s a strong reason as well to say, what are your values and do those align with your vision of the future.

Do those align with how you’re thinking about your family, with how you’re thinking about work, with how you’re thinking about contribution and legacy? Is it only in terms of money or are there other things that you want to be thinking about in terms of season of rest and re-engagement? Is there a different type of a work? How do you want to help prepare your kids for the future? I do think those conversations of financial advisors becoming savvy and saying, what’s the worldview here? What is the desire? What’s the tell us, that’s really driving this person to use their money.

There is an important role, I think for financial advisors to think about what are the values and how does that play out investing, but what are the values, not only how does that play out, but with the money right now, but how does that play out to their vision of what kind of life they want to live? What’s good there that they can be cheered on and what can be gently challenged as friends that want the best for other friends?

Tim Weinhold:

I love that. It reminds me one of my favorite financial advisors was telling me about the transition that had occurred in his own life as an advisor, from how he viewed it in his earlier years and then how he came to view it much more in the ways you’ve just described. And he said specifically that when he started to have those values kinds of conversations with his clients, suddenly the conversations with those clients went way deeper, became more personal, became more substantive. And he really said I’ve ended up becoming as much or more a pastor in the lives of my client as you know, the pastor at our church does.

I, in fact, in many cases, I think I get a chance to have deeper conversations with my clients than a pastor typically even gets to have with those same people. So I think that conversation, honestly for me, sort of changed my understanding of the potential significance of financial advisors. So I love that you’re emphasizing the very same idea.

Any concluding thoughts that my questions haven’t allowed you to share yet that you’d like to offer to our listeners.

Jeff Haanen:

Yeah. It’s worth rethinking what is the story behind retirement? That’s it. Let’s just rethink it.

Let’s rethink what’s going on there, because it’s a huge, huge influencer of everything from stock markets to investing to financial advisors, to how we think about our work today, to how we think about our future, to how we think about big policy issues. It’s worth rethinking of what stories behind retirement and how does the book less story influence that and hope those conversations can grow and continue.

This interview first appeared at the Eventide Center for Faith & Investing.

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RetirementWork

Reform Retirement, Redeem Investing

In Al Wolters’ book Creation Regained, he makes the point that Christians are reformers, not revolutionaries. A revolutionary wants to wipe the slate clean and start over, but a reformer seeks to restore something that’s been tarnished, acknowledging that it was once good. “Humankind, which has botched its original mandate and the whole creation along with it, is given another chance in Christ; we are reinstated as God’s managers on earth,” writes Wolters. “The original good creation is to be restored.”1 

This is a helpful framework for investing. Needless to say, investing has often been sullied with greed and idolatry. Throughout church history, warnings against usury have echoed from pulpits and town squares. But God’s original intent for investing is entirely good. As with our vocational endeavors, God intends that our investing be done with the aim of furthering human flourishing.

We do that by sharing in ownership of good businesses — ones that provide ‘goods and services’ to meet the world’s needs, that create meaningful work, and make real contributions to their communities and society.2 Indeed, our task as Christians in investing is not to wipe our hands of a fallen world, but to find ways to redeem what has been disfigured by sin and evil.  A restored vision for retirement (i.e., for our later years) is, I believe, critical to that redemptive view of investing. 

How, then, might this biblical view of retirement (aging) contribute to a more holistic vision for investing? Here are four ways. 

1.A biblical view of retirement opens the door to portfolios that prioritize human flourishing.

Concern for the vulnerable, environmental stewardship, the curing of otherwise intractable diseases — these are the sorts of human-flourishing-focused business outcomes that often fall by the wayside when investors narrowly focus on maximizing their retirement savingsYet if we have a vision of retirement not as a 20-year vacation but as a time of humble contribution as elders committed to the good of the world that God loves, investors are freed to take a closer look at their portfolios and make a foundational shift. God believes redemption is more important than returns.3 So should we.

If you plan on working for a lifetime, albeit less as you age, you simply don’t need as much to fund your retirement lifestyle. More importantly, you can see your work, and your investing, as contributions to human flourishing over a lifetime — provided, that is, that your investing is appropriately calibrated to a vision for the human flourishing brought about by the good businesses of which you’re a partial owner. The fear/greed combo subsides in the context of God’s promise of provision for his children, and opens the door to re-envisioning investing beyond a narrow focus on returns (2 Corinthians 9:84).

2.A biblical view of retirement provides a better vision for the vocation of financial advisors.

The idea of retirement sits at the core of the work of financial advisors. In a short piece I once wrote for financial advisors, I said:

Financial advisors have the privilege of encouraging people to prepare for the day when they cannot work due to old age or health. Saving is wise (Proverbs 21:205). They also have the honor of helping clients still have enough to share with others (Proverbs 13:226; 1 Timothy 6:17-197). 

But Christian financial advisors resolutely resist the narrative about saving for retirement built on utopian dreams of travel, never-ending vacation, and a care-free lifestyle. They recognize that sin and the Fall have affected all people, both wealthy and poor, and that there is no such dream of heaven on earth until Christ comes again. They also boldly call into question fear-based motives for saving in retirement, pointing people to trust God alone for their daily bread. 

Also, since retirement (the cessation of work for the balance of one’s lifetime) is essentially a foreign concept to the Bible, Christian financial advisors work diligently to help people save for the day when they can no longer work due to health concerns — but not for the day when they simply don’t want to work.8 

Financial advisors serve as caretakers of their client’s investments, but also as gatekeepers (protectors from) our secular contemporary notions of retirement. A biblical view of retirement gives financial advisors a broader, more faithful vision for their vocations. 

3.A biblical view of retirement re-situates investing in proper proportion to giving, saving, and spending money.

How much do I really need for retirement? 

This question is entirely dependent on your vision for what you want your retirement to look like. If you want a perpetual vacation, that’ll be expensive. You’ll need to invest as if maximized returns are all that matters. 

But if it’s a biblical view of growing older — which includes a mix of family, work and rest over a lifetime — you might consider giving more to charity now. Or spending money on vacation(s) while your kids are young rather than waiting for your own vacation in your seventies. It may mean spending money on private school tuition, saving for an aging parent’s condo, or adopting a teenager from foster care. Service comes in a great variety of forms.

Jesus told a haunting parable about a rich fool who stored up wealth for himself by building bigger barns on the very same night his life was demanded from him (Luke 12:16-219) He also says that our confidence in having enough for tomorrow should ultimately be more like children who ask a parent for bread each morning, simply trusting that it’ll be there (Matthew 6:1110). 

Investing for old age is important, including as a means of loving and serving our neighbors through the human flourishing work of good businesses. In fact, this is one of the primary ways we fulfill the cultural mandate, the sacred assignment given to humans in the Garden of Eden. Still, investing must be put in its proper place among other biblical priorities for money, including giving, saving, and spending (Genesis 1:2811). If God promises to care for us now, he will most certainly care for us as we age (Matthew 6:25-3412).

4.A biblical view of retirement heals our vision of work and rest over a lifetime.

In Leviticus 25, God called his people to give the land a rest one year out of every seven — the origin of our concept of sabbatical. Yet today, we stack up all our years of rest onto the end of life and call it retirement. 

Could you imagine taking one year off after every six years? Could you imagine the kind of investment in your family, your heart, and your professional growth if you took even 6 months off every 7 or 10 years? For most, this is financially impossible. Though some voices are encouraging sabbaticals in corporate America, this is mostly a luxury for the rare senior executive.13 But a biblical view of aging gives us a vision for rhythms of work and rest of which a workaholic American culture knows nothing. 

If you see retirement more as a different season of productive service, what would that mean for how you prioritize rest now? Rather than “scale quick and exit,” as is common in the tech startup world, or the FIRE movement (Financial Independence by Retiring Early), which is common among white-collar professionals, a humbler vision for vocation over a lifetime opens the door to new possibilities. Do good work today, even if you’re paid less, because this is your life today. Get enough rest today, because God himself, who never tires, nevertheless chose to rest after six days of creation. And be content with enough today, because your God, not your portfolio, is your final provider. 

This vision for retirement has long-term policy implications as well. Could ‘retirement’ accounts be used, in part, for mid-career sabbaticals? Might companies build sabbatical policies into their benefits packages as a way to invest in employee health and retention? 

A biblical view of retirement (aging) is one small part of creation regained. It heals the motive for investing, the work of financial advisors, our relationship to money and our vision for work. 

It also points us to a better and truer vision of Del Webb’s “paradise town,” a lasting inheritance for those whose treasure is finally in heaven (Luke 12:33-3414). 

This article first appeared at the Eventide Center for Faith & Investing. Subscribe to get more updates on topics related to faith, investing, and the economy. For references, please visit the ECFI website.

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RetirementWork

A Biblical Perspective on Retirement

“What am I going to do with my retirement?” 

The anxious question came from Anne Bell, a recently retired teacher at the University of Northern Colorado. Bright and soft-spoken, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and carrying a teacher’s bag, Anne came to our offices at the Denver Institute for Faith & Work one day with questions she wasn’t prepared to answer. “I’m really searching for what I’m called to,” she said with a quivering voice. “I need to know what’s next.”1

The first step in re-envisioning the connection between retirement and investing is to begin by answering Anne’s honest questions. That involves rethinking the idea of retirement itself. 

Rather than seeing retirement as a never-ending vacation, the Bible paints a picture of our later years as a laying down of past work-identities and entering a new season of rest, renewal, and reengagement as elders filled with wisdom and blessing for the coming generation(s)

Though the Bible doesn’t speak directly to our modern social construct of retirement, it does hint at the maturing of vocation over a lifetime. In the book of Numbers, the LORD said to Moses, “Men twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer,” (Numbers 8:24). Since hauling around the furniture of the tabernacle was physically demanding, God commanded older men to lay down the heavy work and give it to younger priests. 

Gordon Smith, author and president of Ambrose University, writes, “I am convinced that part of the essence of vocational identity during this period of our lives [the senior years] is that we let go of power and control: people listen to us because we are wise and because we bless, not because of our office or any formal structure of power.”2 In contrast to a vision of aging as either the ‘retirement dream’ or a ‘work-’til-you-drop’ alternative, Scripture is realistic about aging and the need to lay down past responsibilities, while still embracing loving service to our neighbor. 

Doing the hard work of disassociating our identity from work in early retirement requires an intentional space to rest, reflect, and seek renewal. 

I believe the first step in developing a better, more-biblical, vision for retirement is to invite men and women not into the complete cessation of work, but into a purposeful sabbatical. This is an intentional three, six, or twelve months of rest and interior renewal to heal from past wounds and re-orient the heart toward trust, worship, and justice.3 The Bible suggests that we all need not just days of rest, but seasons of rest (Leviticus 254). Early retirement is the perfect time for just such a period of healing and reflection. 

Sabbatical can also be a time to openly challenge secular notions of retirement by thinking about the different seasons of work over a lifetime. Work in the Bible is intrinsically about service, an activity from which we never retire (Matthew 20:285, Ephesians 2:106, Colossians 3:237). The opportunity here is for retirees — and their financial advisors — to embrace a vision of work (paid or unpaid) in later life as public contribution rather than as punishment for not having saved enough in one’s 401(k). 

The Bible portrays elders as those possessing wisdom, character, and leadership ability, the assumed fruit of experience and age (Lev. 19:328). Far from being an insult, the Hebrew term for elder (zaqen) is used as an indication of one’s nobility. The elder taught at the city gate, the ancient place for public dialogue (Job 32:6-109).

Today, we’d be wise to recover older traditions of honoring our elders, including the work they do later in life.

Rather than endless conversations about maximizing financial benefits for retirement, financial advisors could plant visions of elders as community leaders, giving generously their insight, money, time, talent, and prayers on behalf of the coming generation(s). 

The secular vision of retirement is weighed down with images of sail boats, gag retirement gifts, vacations to the tropics. But the Bible has a very different vision of aging.  “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar of Lebanon,” writes the Psalmist. “They are planted in the house of the LORD; the flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green,” (92:12-14, ESV). 

Redeeming the Motive for Investing

Take a sabbatical rest. Ask questions regarding calling later in life. Seek healing for our vision of work. Reemerge ready to offer your experience, talents, and wisdom to a coming generation. 

These simple activities could radically shift the motive we have for investing by shifting our narrative about retirement. 

The greed and fear driving so much investing today would give way to a simple trust in the provision of God over a lifetime (Matthew 6:25-3410). It would also temper the need for a huge buildup of assets by age 65, knowing that income can continue later in life. Also, health issues (and, hence, expenses) would lessen due to continued connection to community and purpose through work. It would also calm the endless drive and unhealthy work rhythms earlier in life by giving us a vision of work that continues over a lifetime, and hence, a deeper investment during our careers in our families and our emotional health. The myth of “financial freedom” would be replaced with a deeper freedom given by God alone and a contentment in our current life and current circumstances, thereby draining the retirement myth of its false promises (Gal. 5:111; Ps 23:112).

A healed vision of retirement embraces a vision of rest, renewal, and reengagement as elders. 

What, then, does this mean for investing? Stay tuned for Part 3: Reform Retirement, Redeem Investing.

This article first appeared at the Eventide Center for Faith & Investing. Subscribe to get more updates on topics related to faith, investing, and the economy. For references, please visit the ECFI website.

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RetirementWork

The Trouble with Investing for Retirement

“Wake up and live in Sun City, for an active way of life! Wake up and live in Sun City, Mr. Senior Citizen and wife. Don’t let retirement get you down! Be happy in Sun City; it’s a paradise town.”

In post-World War II America, this Del Webb jingle was one of many popularizing not just retirement communities, but an idea that quietly sits underneath most investing in the United States — the hope of a blissful, care-free retirement.

Though we rarely connect the behemoth of the American stock market to images of gray hair, shuffleboard matches, and Florida swimming pools, we should. Underpinning nearly all investing is a vast web of IRAs, mutual funds, and financial instruments that are sold to the public with promises of a utopian retirement where every day is a vacation.1 Invest enough and you too can live the dream.

But today major voices are calling for a sweeping reconsideration of how we think about aging and retirement.2 Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, recently wrote in Barron’s that as Americans are living longer and longer, the idea of a permanent vacation at age 65 (or earlier) seems less and less appropriate. She noted that most 65-year-olds today will live into their 90s. That’s an awfully long vacation.

Nevertheless, most Christian investors fail to ask this most essential question: exactly what vision of the future is actually driving my investing behavior?

The Problem with Investing for Retirement

Retirement as the driving motivation for investing needs to be challenged. In fact, there are a host of problems with retirement as the principal motivation for our investing.

The Fear-Greed Combo.  Will I have enough for retirement? This subtle fear — in two opposed manifestations — lurks around the edges of countless articles on Yahoo Finance or MarketWatch. It causes workers to stash away increasing amounts of money in order to survive a retirement that could last 20, 30, or even 40 years. And most know they’re sorely behind what they should be investing. The result is that more and more Americans — contemplating longer lifespans and growing doubts about Social Security — are afraid they won’t have enough money to see them through old age.

But there is another version of this fear. For those who have amassed meaningful resources, they contemplate the rather considerable costs of the retirement idea that they’ve been sold. Its high points are periodic trips to exotic destinations — an African safari next month, followed before long by a leisurely cruise down the Rhine or a tour of the Tuscany vineyards. In between are the ‘ordinary’ days — golf and cocktails at the country club, punctuated by regular lunch and shopping trips with friends. Throw in the occasional trip to DisneyWorld with the grandchildren and even those who’ve saved a good deal feel anxious about affording the retirement they’ve imagined.3

It is this combination of fear and greed, often bound together, that actually drives much of our investing. The net result is a largely unquestioned drive to accumulate more and more, motivated by the sense that ‘enough’ seems always farther down the road.

The task of stockpiling assets to last for decades in retirement often then obscures seeing investing as God intends — as a means of providing capital to businesses to enlarge human flourishing. What’s left is a focus on maximizing returns in portfolios that often fail to assess the consequences of a company’s impact in the lives of others.

To Work is to Be Human. God worked for six days and rested for one, baking into the created order a rhythm of work and rest that’s as natural as the rising and setting of the sun (Genesis 2:2). Yet our modern notion of retirement evidences a quite different understanding. Instead of the biblical idea that work and rest should exist in an ongoing balance for as long as God gives us strength to serve, we have embraced the idea that at age 65 (or earlier) our working life is over, to be followed by a permanent life of leisure.

Most retirees experienced frustrations and disappointments over the course of their careers. No doubt more than a few feel the truth of Ecclesiastes: “The work that is done under the sun is grievous to me, a chasing after the wind” (2:17). They are understandably eager to swap commutes and deadlines for long walks and happy hour on the 19th hole.

Yet many more feel they still have much to contribute well into their later years — a feeling that is crowded out by the retirement-entertainment complex that prizes pleasure over productivity. They also report missing the sense of purpose, and of human community, that work provided.4 Unfortunately, our public systems built around retirement have created a sharp cliff, disconnecting work over a lifetime from a vision for human flourishing in one’s later years.

Retirement Doesn’t Satisfy. Many are coming to realize the vision of retirement as a never-ending vacation simply doesn’t satisfy. “I’d done all the preparation, except to really think about what life was going to be like,” said Sue Ellen King, a care nurse and educator at the University of Florida, in a New York Times feature. In her first three months of retirement, she organized photos, took a trip to Hilton Head, and enjoyed a good many long lunches. But after a brief honeymoon period, she says she felt more and more adrift.5 Many swap the feeling of meaninglessness in work for meaninglessness in retirement, a phenomenon a growing number of Christian financial advisors see regularly.6

Retirement Isn’t Healthy. One BBC study found that retirement can increase chances of clinical depression by 40 percent.7 And retirement often accelerates aging as people disconnect from purpose, often driving up health care bills well before the actual onset of ‘old age.’ Conversely, another study found putting off retirement can keep your brain sharp for longer.8

The Majority Can’t Afford the Retirement Dream. For a growing number of Americans, the retirement dream is a mirage, like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of a vanishing rainbow. In 2019, savings in the average retirement account totaled just $65,000. 25% of Americans had no savings at all, and 28% of those in their sixties had less than $50,000.9 Many believe retirement is actually exacerbating the yawning economic and social divides of America, splitting those who own public equities from the 45% who own no stocks at all.10

Retirement, of course, is not all bad. It was formalized in the US with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, which had as its original intent the care for the elderly poor in post-Depression America. Indeed, a Christian, Frances Perkins, helped to pass the New Deal out of concern for the vulnerable.

Today, though, the very idea of retirement has metastasized. It provides the foundation for much of our investing yet, overall, it tends to diminish rather than enlarge the human flourishing God intends.

How, then, should Christians think about retirement? Join us for Part 2: A Biblical Perspective on Retirement.

This article first appeared at the Eventide Center for Faith & Investing. Subscribe to get more updates on topics related to faith, investing, and the economy. For references, please visit the ECFI website.

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NonprofitTheologyWork

Meaning in Work

There once was a violinist who could move audiences to tears with his music. Having played since he was a child, he ascended the heights of the classical music world and joined a prestigious orchestra. Yet as he looked at the culture around him, he realized that an appreciation for classical music was rapidly fading. He feared a crisis: if things continued this way, there would be no audiences, no careers in music, and the beauties of Mozart, Bach, Handel, and Beethoven would be lost.

So, he decided to step away from a career in performance and launch a nationwide campaign to promote classical music. He visited and spoke at local schools. He hosted fundraisers with wealthy donors to sponsor music ensembles. He launched a nonprofit to advocate for the arts. He traveled to conferences, spoke on podcasts, and had dinners with elected officials to raise awareness about the decline of classical music and their importance for our communities.

After years of effort, one day he sat down with his violin. He realized the crisis would not soon be solved, and to comfort himself, he opened his case and got out his bow to play a sonata. As he grabbed the neck, fingered the strings, and lifted the instrument to his chin, he found himself distracted. Notes felt elusive and the rhythm disjointed. His mind raced, not with Chopin, but with tasks, goals, targets, and the mountain of emails he had yet to answer.

After months of effort, he found himself, paradoxically, less interested in the violin and classical music. He had become a shadow of his former self.

Adrift

This story, inspired by Baylor professor and political philosopher Dr. David Corey, illustrates a truth about our careers: gradually and subtly, we give up “ends for means.”

Titles, position, money, power, success — these are rarely what motivate us when we start our careers. But these “means” become “ends,” and we forget why we got into our fields in the first place. Take, for example, the lawyer who goes to law school out of a burning for justice, yet ends up with law school debt, a corporate job to pay the bills, and a daily grind of the billable hour which makes her original ideals feel almost naïve. Slowly we get comfortable with the life we’ve built for ourselves. But our work makes us feel diminished, like a spent, wilting flower in a vase once so filled with promise.

Over the years, I’ve seen a pattern in the lives of successful professionals. Take, for instance, a small business owner. He builds a company, sells it for a big pay day, and takes time off, but struggles to find a sense of meaning in life after “the exit” (the sale of his company). Like a ship adrift in a windless sea, he struggles to regain a sense of direction. He simultaneously rues the thought of going back into the pressures of business, yet also longs for it, hoping to recover a sense of meaning and purpose that felt closer in the struggle of finding customers, solving problems, and building teams. Instead, he dabbles in charitable causes, buys a bigger house, or spends extra time with kids or grandkids, in a subconscious search for meaning he knows can’t be found in something so ephemeral as “success.” Yet those activities, too, feel fleeting, never quite delivering on the promise of a full, human life.

What is it, then, that happens to us? Is it the drone of “success stories” on social media — the bigger job, the fancy degree, the big social impact — that draw our hearts away from the simple pleasures of, say, playing the violin, and set us on a heroic crusade to save one piece of the world? Is it that we find that our original ideals were just that — ideals? A realization that the quicksand of the marketplace swallows our original intentions, and all we have left is the comfort of our paychecks? Or is it that somewhere, somehow, we became confused about what we actually should be pursuing with our lives?

Ends, Not Means

It was a weekday afternoon in November, and I sat in a room of two dozen people, listening to Dr. Corey lecture on “Politics and Friendship” at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. I had been invited to participate in a roundtable discussion on faith and public life. Dark glasses, flowing white hair, blue blazer, and an intense gaze — fitting of a man with truth burning in his bones — Dr. Corey addressed our small group. He leaned onto the table. My body quieted, my eyes widened. He said:

When people focus on means, they find their lives meaningless. But to the degree that they focus on ends, they find their lives meaningful.

When people focus their life’s goals not just on money, titles, and power, but even on noble goals like activism for a social cause, they mistake means for ends and find happiness fleeting. It becomes a life of constant “more” – more impact, more influence, more wealth. Yet they fail to realize that those should have been mere “means” toward a greater “end.”

But when people focus on ends they find meaning. What, then, are these “ends?” He continued, pausing after each phrase.

Love. Friendship. Goodness. The appreciation of beauty. The worship of God. The delight in truth. Work for the sake of work well done.

Here are the intrinsic ends where meaning could be found. For example, the violinist’s enjoyment of a sonata because it was beautiful was indeed a higher good than advocating for classical music. Indeed, believing that 1,000 people playing classical music was the end was a confusion: the end was the beauty of music.

Or take, for example, the businessperson who believed that the “exit” and sale of his company was the “end” for which he was working, only to realize — as soon as the bank sent him the money — that wasn’t it. What, then, was the end he was longing for when he was in the trenches of building a company? It was something like friendship,or working alongside others from a common love. This togetherness gave meaning even in the trials and suffering.

This idea of pursuing ends rather than means has planted itself in my heart and gave me a new vision for my work.

As I was on the plane home to Denver from my conference in Washington D.C., I looked out the window and saw a beautiful, cloudy sunset, with whisps of pink and orange painting the horizon. My first thought was, “Oh, I need to write an article about this!” But instead, I decided to pause and simply drink in the beauty of the sunset, not wanting to sacrifice an “end” (the appreciation of beauty) for a means (writing an article about it). The moment felt like the quieting of my soul; I felt like a weaned child with its mother, simply content and whole (Ps. 131:2).

Meaning in work is elusive. But what if meaning is found not in the gods of “success,” but in the moments where our work is a medium to experience the core purposes of human life? Not just hitting a sales goal, but the laughter between coworkers in the meeting. Not just in perfectly engineered products, but in creating a product so well it feels as if you’re doing art. Not in a promotion or pay raise, but in a simple moment of learning that becomes a genuine delight in truth itself.

There is another layer of this story for the Christian. These moments can become ways we experience God himself.

“Finally, brothers and sisters,” says the Apostle Paul, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Phil. 4:9). Paul counsels us to not turn away from the created world, but to embrace it, to appreciate it, and to fully experience what is good in God’s world. Why? “And the peace of God will be with you.”  God is here, with us, in our hearts, our homes, our work, our world. This is why there is meaning in life and in work.

God is present with us and he gives us a thousand signs each day if we will only quiet our ambition and listen for the sonatas all around us.

Faith and Work MovementVocationWork

A Season of Change: Denver Institute CEO Transition Planned for 2022

Today I announced to the DIFW community that this will be my last year as the CEO. Here’s what we wrote on the transition website: “Denver Institute for Faith & Work’s board of directors announced January 7, 2022, that Jeff Haanen will transition the CEO role to a new leader in 2022. This leadership handoff was initiated by Jeff and comes after 10 years of dedicated service to the organization. The DIFW board will immediately begin preparing to conduct a search for the next leader. Jeff will continue as CEO until a successor is named later in 2022.

I also composed a letter to the DIFW community, which I’ve included below. For more information, see our CEO Transition web page.

Dear Denver Institute Community,

I write today to share the news that after much conversation, reflection, and prayer with the board of directors, I’ve decided to step down as CEO of Denver Institute for Faith & Work at the end of 2022. It has been a privilege and honor founding and then building DIFW over the last 10 years. We believe that now is the right time for a transition that will allow for the right amount of lead time to carry out a search process for a new CEO. I will stay in my role as CEO until a new CEO is appointed in late 2022 and will continue to serve DIFW for the next 9-12 months with the supportive help of our stable and talented staff leadership.

As I reflect on my own professional journey, there are three reasons why I believe now is the right time to transition to a new leader. The first reason is God’s call. Starting and growing an organization has been a gift; it has also come with challenges. Months ago, I began to sense God’s call to “release” Denver Institute. Like many founders, I’ve found that my identity has often been too wrapped up into my work and professional success. I believe God is calling me to love the Caller more than the calling, and open-handedly let go of the CEO role. The time is right to rest, seek renewal, and recenter my heart on Christ himself, my final and deepest gift.

The second reason is institutional renewal. For years I’ve observed the careers of leaders in American Christianity I deeply respect. Several of them made the decision to step down after 10 years of very successful leadership. They realized that institutions need seasons of renewal, like people, and that fresh vision, perspective, and leadership is often key to long-term institutional strength. I believe the Christian church needs leaders who can take up the mantle of responsibility; it also needs those who can just as easily lay it down.  I also believe that leadership is stewardship, not a personal possession. I also believe that ultimately the Resurrected Christ is the leader of DIFW, and He will be faithful to continue his good work through a new leader. 

The third reason is about long-term organizational health. I believe healthy transitions of power are critical to healthy institutions that have staying power – and they’re all too rare. A healthy process of giving power to a new leader is key to seeing DIFW grow and thrive for the next generation. Moreover, DIFW is in a healthy position. We have a strong leadership team, a budget of more than $1M, a group of 250+ committed donors, and highly effective programs such as the 5280 Fellowship, CityGate, public events, the Faith & Work Classroom, the Faith & Work Podcast, and our national events, Women, Work & Calling and Business for the Common Good. The organization is healthy and well-positioned for a new leader.

The board will begin a process of searching for my successor. Board Chair Bob Larkin will be in touch with our constituents over the coming months to answer any questions. I’m deeply grateful to the board of directors for their work in this process. It’s a joy to work alongside such a capable group of leaders. Long term, I intend to stay connected to DIFW not just as the founder, but as a fellow donor, learner and friend.

Paul once wrote to the church in Thessalonica, “We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Truly, for so many of you DIFW has been a labor of love, prompted by faith and ultimately inspired by the call of Jesus himself. As my wife and my four daughters await God’s call in this next season of our life, we want to express to you our deep gratitude for all you’ve given, and continue to give.  

You believed. You gave. You came. You worked. You prayed. You loved. And what we have built is a strong, healthy institution centered on the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and its far-reaching effects for our work and our world.

Thank you for the honor of leading for ten, wonderful years. You have my sincere gratitude.

Grateful,

Jeff Haanen

Founder & CEO

Denver Institute for Faith & Work

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Theology

Mary Consoles Eve

As the father of four daughters, I sometimes wonder how to express the meaning of Christmas to my family.

This year my wife found the perfect image to convey the essence of Christmas: grace.

Would love to hear your thoughts below…

NonprofitWork

The Incredible Power of Monthly Giving

Denver Institute for Faith & Work just launched a new monthly partner community. Above is the video we created to accompany our new webpage denverinstitute.org/give

It came after a year of thinking and research about a single question: How does a nonprofit scale its impact?

It’s a good question, one that many nonprofit leaders are also asking. And it makes me think of another question many people have about their giving: how can I make the biggest impact on the issues I care most about?

Last fall I started to dive into our numbers at DIFW. Though our budget had consistently grown, one area had remained flat for years: the number of monthly givers supporting our work. 

This was troubling because any nonprofit has recurring expenses (such as staff salaries, program expenses, office space, etc.) and monthly givers were our most consistent and predictable source of revenue for years.

So I decided to step back and do some research on how nonprofits scale their impact.

Viktoria Harrison is the co-founder of Charity Water, a nonprofit focused on clean water projects. She said three things that stuck out to me about nonprofit growth:

  • Most nonprofits raise money in slow, inefficient ways: expensive galas, direct mail, one-time gifts, corporate sponsors, auctions.
  • Because of this, revenue is often inconsistent and makes it very hard to plan for the future.
  • Every January 1st many nonprofits have to start over again at $0 just to try to reach the same level of impact as the previous year.

I’ve found that these insights are very true. Many nonprofits see 40%-50% of their entire revenue come in just November and December. One nonprofit recently sent me a year-end packet that says 75% of their $429,000 budget comes in just in December!

What that means on the nonprofit side is that when you look at your financials each month, you see a high point on January 1 and then 11 months straight of losing money each month. And we wonder why nonprofits have a scarcity mindset! If somebody forgets to give in December, the boat is sunk!

Harrison also said something I won’t soon forget: recurring givers have a lifetime value 5 times greater than that of a one-time donor. Not only do monthly givers provide more consistent revenue and more predictability, they actually give more when they automate their giving.

And so many nonprofits try to encourage their community to give monthly by creating programs. But again, Harrison says there are five reasons why most monthly giving programs fail:

(1)  The program is an afterthought, not a flagship product.

(2) There is little to no inspiring marketing content on their giving page.

(3) There is no follow up other than a tax receipt.

(4) Donors don’t understand how their money is being used.

(5)  Donors feel like a means to an end, not a valued community.

I realized that we at DIFW had been guilty of at least three of these! 

Not yet fully convinced, I decided to do more research. Gabe Cooper, the Founder of Virtuous Software, works with hundreds of nonprofits and sees what’s working and what isn’t. 

I asked him more about this monthly giving approach, and he said three things:

  • Most of the largest businesses in the world, from Amazon to CostCo, have moved to a subscription model approach. “As a result, monthly memberships and monthly giving products have become an incredibly powerful way to grow revenue. I’m a huge fan of this approach.”
  • Monthly giving programs tend to work best with people giving less than $3,000/year. Most people giving over $3,000 tend to give year end based on annual income and tax benefits.
  • Businesses tend to do better giving single, annual gifts. They’re still recurring, but on an annual basis rather than monthly. 

This again helped us at DIFW to think about serving the unique needs of business leaders versus everyday givers who want to support the causes they care about.  It also made me realize that for much of my career, we spent a disproportionate amount of time going after “the big gift” rather than focusing on the actual power of monthly givers to scale our impact sustainably.

So what can a nonprofit actually do to scale? The Stanford Social Innovation Review put out an article entitled “The Secret of Scale” that argues, “The largest civic organizations have all scaled up using the same basic approach. All of these organizations provide benefits and services that cater to the everyday needs of their members.” 

Peter Murray, the author, says “For me, ‘growing to scale’ happens when a civic organization both builds deep relationships with a significant portion of the people in its community (measured by frequency of interactions and ability to influence members) and develops a robust, sustainable financial base (measured by percentage of revenue that is self-generated).”

From AARP to the NRA to Planned Parenthood to megachurches, the evidence is clear: each of these organizations reached scale through a growing base of monthly members or givers.

The business world essentially takes the same approach. The businesses (particularly SaaS businesses) that get most investor dollars are those that can show strong ARR, or annual recurring revenue. They are also those who can show that they have frequent engagement with their customer base.

After several more months of research, here are the summary conclusions I came to for DIFW.

  • Initial Question: How do we scale?
  • Recurring or monthly donors have been nearly flat since DIFW’s inception.
  • Recurring donors are 5x more valuable than one-time givers, yet most organizations don’t have an intentional way to serve this community.
  • Membership or partnership programs can be a way to meet this need and scale.
  • Monthly giving works better for individuals; an annual gift works better for businesses and larger donors.
  • DIFW directly serves its donors/constituents, whereas for most nonprofits, donors and constituents are different communities.
  • Generosity and deeper ways to engage an organization’s mission can and should co-exist.
  • Scale is built on finding ways to serve the everyday needs of its members or monthly partners through investing in deepening relationships, creating engaging media platforms, and providing tangible experiences or benefits.

If you’re reading this and you work in the nonprofit sector, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Since we launched our own monthly giving community 3 months ago, we’ve increased monthly revenue from our monthly giving base by 50%.  Though we have a long way to go, monthly partnership and working with high capacity givers are the two core revenue strategies for DIFW moving forward. 

If you’re reading this and you simply support various nonprofits and want to see them scale their impact, here’s what you can do:

1. Decide which nonprofits you want to support and set up monthly giving. Rather than a shotgun approach of giving to any charity that sends you a letter, be strategic. Think hard about the causes you care most about and then set up monthly giving on their website or from your bank or DAF. Want to make a bigger impact? Increase the size of your monthly gift.

2. Communicate to the nonprofit that you intend to consistently support them. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t give year end gifts. Go for it! Simply communicate the amount you’ll give each month, and as the spirit leads, then give one-time gifts to special projects such as capital campaigns or new program launches. Knowing about this baseline level of supports allows nonprofits to comfortably set their annual budget and then take strategic risks in the future knowing their core operational costs are covered by committed givers. 

3. Encourage others to do the same. Encourage people you know to give monthly to the charities they care the most about! It’s the way smart givers make the biggest long term impact.

Truly, this is the way you can help nonprofits make the biggest, long-term impact. If you want to make a huge gift, consider giving a large gift for an endowment that can provide annual returns for your favorite church, ministry, school or nonprofit. If all you can do is a small monthly gift, still give generously! Small, sacrificial gifts are the kind that Jesus praises the most (Mark 12:41-44).

So how does a nonprofit scale? The huge foundation gift? The mega donor? Most often, no.

A nonprofit scales by caring for and growing a community of donors who provide faithful, consistent support and who commit to a cause over the long haul.

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Work

A Reflection on Hope for Advent

On the first Sunday of Advent each year, around the dinner table my family lights the first candle of our wreath, the candle of Hope. Well, my four daughters first battle for who gets to light the candle – and then we light the candle.

Not only do we await the coming of the Christ the child in the season of Advent, we also await his Second Coming, which is the most basic hope of Christians.

At our offices at Denver Institute, our Wi-Fi password happens to be Isaiah 65:22 (actually [email protected], in case you ever drop by.) The reason is because the message of hope in Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and new earth includes our work. 

The LORD says in this passage, “See, I will create a new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” You might recognize this language – this is where John got his language of “a new heavens and near earth” in the book of Revelation.

What will this new heavens and earth be like? Isaiah sees a place where the effects of the curse are reversed. He imagines a place of:

  • Spiritual transformation. “The sound of weeping and crying will be heard in it now more,” says Isaiah. And “Before they call, I will answer.” God promises a place where pain and sin have been dealt the final blow, and intimacy with God will be the air we breathe.
  • Ecological transformation. “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food.” As the curse of creation is reversed, predators and prey will live together in harmony, and the earth and its creatures will know lasting peace.
  • Biological transformation. “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old many who does not live out his years.” The tragedy of dying young will be forever gone, and the blessings of a long, fruitful life will finally be the inheritance of God’s people.
  • Social transformation. And here’s a that verse 22 I was referring to: “They will build houses and dwell in them, they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands.” In today’s economy, those building our houses can rarely afford to buy a house. And those working in the fields can rarely afford the fresh vegetables we find at the grocery store. But in that day, people will not just enjoy their work, but they will enjoy the fruit of their work. They won’t any longer labor in vain, but each will have enough, and the curse of toil, thorns and thistles in our work will one day be no more.

Why do I share this passage about hope and the new heavens and new earth, especially in Advent? First, let’s remember that this world is coming, and it’s a gift. “But be glad and rejoice in what I will create.” We don’t earn it or work for it. Just like waiting to go to college if you’re in high school, or waiting until Christmas to open presents if you’re a child, waiting is hard. But it’s important we regularly look to this vision of hope and rest in that this is a GIFT. In a sense, we have no work to do – we simply receive.  

But second, in another sense, there is work for us to do. Imagine a mirror. You can look at the frame, the craftsmanship, and how it fits in a bathroom. But what you usually look at in the mirror is yourself. It reflects yourself back to you in a way that makes you see yourself, and even your surroundings, differently.

What we see in this vision from Isaiah is like a mirror. When we stare at it long enough, we start to see not just the future differently, but ourselves. And our vision for work, for our communities, for our world starts to reflect the new heavens and the new earth. We begin to study, work, and lives in a way that reflects this new world. Our job is simply to participate with the God who is making all things new, allowing him to bring about tastes of heaven in biology, social work, business, retail, or education.  

This is a vision that we have a Denver Institute: not just enjoyment of our work, but of “all things new.” This is a vision I hope my own kids embrace as they consider college, their careers, and ultimately their place in this world.

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Work

Resetting Your Career in Midlife

“Midway upon the journey of our life,” writes Dante in the first lines of his Inferno, “I had found myself in the dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true.”

I wonder if Dante was making a comment on the crafty nature of sin, creeping up from behind like a silent fog when we least expect it…or just the bewildering challenges of being middle-aged.

Several weeks ago, I called Dan, one of my friends, who’s nearly forty. “How are you?” I asked. “Well, nothing new,” he said with sigh. “Same job. Same family. Same house.”

He went on to explain that nothing was wrong, per say, other than feeling the reality set in that he was no longer in his twenties, filled with notions of changing the world. He wasn’t depressed, but aspiration had slowly given way to some combination of responsibility and reality, seeing in one hand a mortgage statement and in the other the scars of a thousand tiny disappointments after almost two decades on the job.    

“Midlife, especially for middle-class American men,” wrote Robert Bellah, American sociologist and author of Habits of the Heart, “often marks the end of a dream of a utilitarian self established by ‘becoming one’s own man’ and then ‘settling down’ to progress in a career.” Bellah says that around midlife, many realize that they’ll never be “number one” — senior partner, Nobel laureate, principal, CEO. As these dreams die, finding one’s identity in work dissipates and career trajectories flatten. “For many in middle age, the world of work then dims, and by extension so does the public world at large.”

For years in my own work at DIFW we have seen a trend: young professionals in their twenties and thirties come to our events, press into big social issues, and become Fellows, but participation in our programming drops off in one’s forties and fifties. What’s happening here?

Both my friend Dan and Robert Bellah explain what’s happening. First, in middle age, we must reckon with the crushing loss of professional dreams. You have a job, but the idea that you were going to “change the world” is shown for what it is: a postmodern mirage, built around the slippery, individualistic notion we had believed since we were teenagers: “you can be whatever you want to be.” A cloud of grief, loss, and disillusionment fills our horizon — one we’re quick to push back with entertainment, busyness, or consumerism.

The second reason: golden handcuffs. We reach the midpoint of our careers and we find we’re better paid now than we were in our twenties, but our expenses have grown as well. Mortgage payments, grocery bills, and kid’s activity fees all tamper down our desire to risk building something new, step out on a limb at work, or start a new career. Better to play it safe, even if we feel something inside of us crumbling.

Yet not all submit to the resignation of our hopes in midlife.

I’ve observed that some take an alternative path in midlife that acknowledges our limitations, pursues interior freedom, and embraces failure as the only pathway to growth.

Acknowledge Our Limitations

Gordon Smith, author of Courage and Calling, writes, “To embrace our vocations in midlife means that we accept two distinct but inseparable realities. First, we accept with grace our limitations and move as quickly as we can beyond illusion about who we are. Second, it means, positively, that we accept responsibility for our gifts, and acknowledge with grace what we can do.”

Bishop Ken Untener makes a similar point, very applicable to life at midcareer, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”

Our individualistic society is built around “your success.” And most weeks I see people who mistakenly believe that they can find their life’s purpose in their job. When this illusion dies, they often become disengaged — both from their job and the broader culture. And for those who do make it to the top, often they’ve done so by making work their religion.

But some take a humbler path. They take stock of what they are, and what they’re not. They look squarely at their talents and their limitations. They realize that won’t change culture. But they also realize that they can change the world right around them — co-workers, community, church, and family.

And perhaps even more importantly, they become ok with knowing people who are richer, smarter, better looking, and more talented. Seeking approval for performance is calmed by the steady, lasting approval of God.  

Pursue Interior Freedom

When New York Times columnist David Brooks set out to explore his own road to character growth, he realized there are two sets of virtues: résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. Résumé virtues are those you bring to the marketplace and post on LinkedIn — degrees, job accomplishments, accolades. Eulogy virtues are virtues people will talk about at your funeral — humility, kindness, courage.

Our careers tend to compensate and reward us for résumé virtues, but at some point, we realize these goals are thin, and we’ll have to decide whether we’ll make the journey into the interior world.

Rev. Jacques Philippe, author of Interior Freedom,says that if we’re continually looking to the external world for our approval, we’ll never be happy because our circumstances are constantly changing. However, he says we can cultivate deep interior freedom by practicing the virtues of faith, hope and love and by connecting deeply to the source of inner freedom — God himself — which no external power can take away.

Philippe and Brooks both are calling us to making a momentous shift in our lives: from exterior success to interior depth.

In this way of thinking, work becomes not just a way to achieve, but the primary context for our spiritual formation and interior growth. When we’re passed over for a promotion, slighted by a prospective client, or enduring a toxic workplace culture, the question becomes not one of escape to a better job, but instead: who am I becoming?

When the journey toward success in midlife lost its luster, a few decided to take a new, and much more exciting journey, toward whole-heartedness and deep emotional and spiritual health.

Embrace Failure as the Only Pathway to Growth

Winston Churchill once said, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of determination.” Commenting on this paradox, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “It is not their victories that make people leaders; it is the way they cope with their defeats — their ability to learn, to recover, and to grow.”

Most people move into middle age with a growing set of disappoints and failures that lead to resignation. “I’ll never get the job.” “I’ll never make a big impact. That was just the naivety of my twenties.”

Yet there are a few who experience the same set of consistent failures and they learn from them. They adopt a growth mindset. They don’t let their ego get in the way and they instead welcome feedback from family, friends, and co-workers. In the process, they ask questions like: What did I learn from that situation? How did I react? And what does this mean for me and for those around me?

The path to leadership is narrow because the majority want to blame others for their problems. The few decide to take ownership over what they can and let the harsh lessons of life refine them like a fire.

Dante had to make the journey first into the inferno before he made his way to purgatory and then ultimately to paradise.

Perhaps the only way out of the dark wilderness of midlife is first to go further in.

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