At some point in our entrepreneurial journeys, we need to not only ask What am I accomplishing? but instead Who am I becoming?
I spent 10 years building an organization I truly loved, from the early founding days in an office by myself to an exit and transition to new executive leadership. After I was finished, I realized, however, that the journey took an emotional toll. The process of entrepreneurship had changed me emotionally and spiritually.
As I shared my story with friends and other founders – and listened to theirs – I found that entrepreneurs often experience four phases in our spiritual and emotional journeys.
The first phase is the launch. This is fun. Entrepreneurship at its inception is filled with casting vision, convening investors, building a product, growing a team, iterating a prototype, raising capital, and seeing your dream become a reality. Customers, employees, revenue all materialize, it feels, from an entrepreneur’s wild idea. The overriding emotion here is exhilaration.
The second phase is trial. This is much harder than I thought. Now the entrepreneur experiences real difficulty. The product line doesn’t fly; capital begins to dry up; employees quit; investors start pressing for outcomes. At this point, the entrepreneur doubles down and works twice as hard. Stress becomes as normal as breathing, and many times it’s here that entrepreneurs develop unhealthy habits to cope. The overriding emotion now is anxiety.
The third phase is divergence. Can I really keep this up? At this point, the organization has reached some kind of scale, and many entrepreneurs experience a divergence between their external and internal lives. Externally, they project confidence to investors, employees, and customers. “We can do it!” they say. We have to. Internally, however, they face real doubt. They’re not sure if the company will survive. And though their community has placed the entrepreneur on a social pedestal, they now seriously doubt their own gifting. They genuinely wonder if they can make the transition from Founder/Entrepreneur to CEO/Manager. And they feel trapped because they’ve made promises that they now must keep, though they don’t know if they can.
This phase is the most dangerous because here the entrepreneur gets used to being two different people: the confident, risk-taking, leader in the spotlight, and the chaotic, uncertain, stressed, frustrated, even fearful individual who wakes up at 4:00 a.m. solving problems. Sometimes entrepreneurs here start to believe their own legend and disconnect from reality. This is when friendships and family relationships begin to suffer. They also can be drawn into the face-paced speed of entrepreneurship, and find it difficult, if not impossible, to slow down, rest, and truly pay attention to others. The emotion in the divergence phase is doubt. Not far behind is often shame, knowing there’s now duplicity buried in their character.
The fourth phase is reckoning. Who am I becoming? is the question that quietly rumbles under the surface. Generally, before or during an exit (deciding to sell the business), the question of burnout arises. They look for a way out. After putting so much into their business, they often ask daunting questions. What have I sacrificed? What habits have I developed? What is worth it? Did I demand too much from others? Will they love me when I’m gone? Who have I become?
Externally, people wonder why the now-wealthy entrepreneurs who’ve sold their businesses aren’t ecstatic. They lived the entrepreneurial dream. But internally, they often feel lost. Am I now better off than when I started? What will I do next? Who am I if I’m not leading this business?
Our work forms us – and deforms us. Of course, not all entrepreneurs experience these four phases. But I’d argue most do. We might ask ourselves: How might a relationship with God influence the emotional and spiritual journeys of entrepreneurs? And secondly, What practices might help entrepreneurs lead more emotionally and spiritually healthy work lives?
But for now, we need to acknowledge that entrepreneurs don’t just change the world; they themselves are being changed by the world around them. This move toward self-awareness is the first step toward living healthier emotional and spiritual lives as entrepreneurs.
This post first appeared at the Center for Faithful Business at Seattle Pacific University.
How Businesses Can Take Meaningful Action on Forced Labor Through Greater Supply-Chain Transparency
My coffee cup sits next to my glowing laptop, steaming. My iPhone sits on a paper task list. I splurge today and get a mocha. Wearing a black vest, blue zip-up pullover, jeans, and sneakers and feeling comfortable, warm, and well-fed on a rainy day, I wonder for just a moment: Where exactly did all these comforts come from?
It’s disturbing to find out that each of these rich-country comforts I so often enjoy—coffee, chocolate, rechargeable batteries in smartphones, and the cotton in my clothes—has been implicated in using forced labor somewhere in a long, complicated, and oftentimes opaque supply chain.
When I hear the phrase “supply chain,” I think of the inconvenience of sold-out toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic. Sometimes I think of container ships coming from China, bringing untold numbers of widgets to American shores.
What I rarely consider, however, are the questions surrounding supply-chain transparency. How responsible am I for using and enjoying a product that well may have been made by a modern-day slave? And how would I even know if this was the case? And what can business do about it?
Forced Labor Is a Problem for Everyone, Including Business
Forced labor is hauntingly common in the modern world. Matt Friedman, CEO of the Mekong Club, a Hong Kong–based organization, works with a range of businesses and partners to prevent modern slavery within their supply chains. Friedman notes that in 2011, the United Nations estimated that the number of people in modern slavery was 21 million. The new revised figure that recently came out in November 2022 is 50 million. This increase resulted from better data and more people falling prey to trafficking during the pandemic.
When I hear the word “slavery,” I often think about transatlantic chattel slavery from the 16th to 18th centuries. Yet today, slavery wears a different mask. Friedman painted a picture for me of how a worker is first deceived into, and then trapped in, forced labor.
Imagine you’re a Nepalese man who earns $50 per month. A recruiter says you can make $250 per month working in a factory in Malaysia. You say, “Great—where do I sign up?” He says the process costs $1,500, but he’ll lend you the money to make it happen. The rough calculations still make sense.
But once you get to Malaysia, you sign an employment contract you can’t read, you earn $125 per month rather than $250, and your debt actually is $3,000. After working for a year, you realize your debt is only growing with interest, and you ask to go home. But your manager confiscates your passport and says you must keep working until you’ve paid off your debt. If you go to the local police, it’s your word against the company’s. Hope turns to despair, and you’ve become a modern-day slave.
Sometimes these workers’ conditions look like a cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the topic of Siddharth Kara’s book Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. Sometimes people are trafficked through wide-ranging criminal networks moving them from Latin America to the United States. Other times, forced labor is even state sponsored, as in the case of the estimated 100,000 Uyghurs in western China reported by the US Department of Labor.
What’s clear is that the practice persists because it’s so profitable. Human trafficking and forced labor are second only to drug trafficking in profitability. The US Department of Homeland Security estimates forced labor makes about $150 billion in annual profit. And on a pound-to-pound basis, humans are often far more valuable than drugs. Ashleigh Chapman, founder of the Alliance for Freedom, Restoration, and Justice, says, “[Somebody] can sell a drug or a weapon only once. . . But [you] can sell a child 20 times a night.”
Despite widespread condemnation of modern slavery from governments and civic leaders across the world, forced labor is growing, not shrinking. And though it’s obviously a human rights issue, highlighted by everyone from the United Nations to International Justice Mission, it’s a huge problem for business, for at least three reasons.
First, if a large business is found to have forced labor somewhere in its supply chain, that can crush the brand’s reputation, especially given that 83 percent of socially conscious young consumers say they want to support brands that align with their beliefs. If you sell clothes and, say, the French government files a lawsuit against you for committing “crimes against humanity” by using cotton made by slaves, needless to say, you have a big public relations problem on your hands.
Second, if forced labor or human trafficking is found in your supply chain, it can be hugely expensive. Australia’s Westpac, one of the country’s largest banks, was hit with a $578 million fine for enabling payments between known child sex offenders. Governments are holding companies accountable for not only whose payments they process but also whom they hire and purchase from.
Third, government regulation against forced labor is ramping up across the world. The US is cracking down on child labor and passing legislation on supply-chain transparency and human trafficking. Australia, Britain, Canada, France, and Germany have strict legislation regarding forced labor and supply chains. Clean and transparent supply chains are necessary to doing business with Europe and the wealthy West. Conversely, US Customs and Border Protection can seize a shipment if there is forced labor at any stage of its supply chain.
Yet supply chains can be anything but transparent. Say you’re Microsoft, and you have 58,000 suppliers. How would you know if any of them used forced labor? Or say you’re a college student launching a fulfilled-by-Amazon e-commerce business. How would you know which of the goods you purchased on Alibaba were made by modern-day slaves?
Investing in Supply-Chain Transparency
“I’m descending through a cloud layer to reveal the city of Marawi, Philippines. . . . The crew of 11 under my command is tired from night after night of combat missions,” remembers Wes Lyons, a general partner at Eagle Venture Fund and former Navy officer. “The radio crackles with our tasking for the day: ‘. . . ISIS . . . children . . . bait for an ambush . . . find them before it’s too late.’”
Lyons became passionate about combating human trafficking after a harrowing experience hunting ISIS in the US military and seeing firsthand how the vulnerable are exploited globally. After his experience in the armed forces, he sought ways to combat forced labor and human trafficking through investing in scalable, sustainable solutions. One such solution is Evidencity, a “Knowledge as a Service” provider that “seeks the truth about your network of professional relationships: customers, suppliers, or vendors.”
Samuel Logan, CEO of Evidencity, worked in the 2000s as a journalist specializing in black-market economics. He wrote stories about coyotesmoving immigrants to the US, drug dealers shipping cocaine via plane to the Caribbean, and secret networks in northern Mexico trafficking people in manufacturing. “Illicit economic actors overlap with licit economic activities,” Logan told me in an interview. “Say you have a 20 foot semi-truck, the last 5 feet are golf balls and the other 15 feet are human cargo. The company controls the trailer, but the truck is loaded by a subcontractor. The only person that knows about the people is the guy running the loading dock at 3am.” Rooting out forced labor, Logan came to see, would require a hybrid approach, combining data and on-the-ground investigation to find out what was going on.
Logan says there are three options for understanding whether there’s forced labor in your supply chain. The first is a tool such as Sourcemap, a supply-chain mapping software. Yet the challenge here is that since companies self-report, not all the information may be entirely accurate. The second option is a big data solution. Upload an entire supply-chain spreadsheet, and tools such as AI can highlight areas of risk, principally by region. So if you have 30 suppliers in Bangalore, India, big data will tell you where to look, but not how.
Third, and this how Evidencity works, is a hybrid solution that combines big data and a boots-on-the-ground approach. Say you’re a golf products supply company in Mexico with 1,000 suppliers. By monitoring criminal watch lists, derogatory social media posts, and sanctions and using other tools, you can narrow down that list to 120 flagged suppliers. Evidencity has a suite of products that, depending on the customer, takes a list anywhere from a basic review to a deep dive. From there, Evidencity takes a consultative approach, and, leveraging networks in 88 countries, it can find investigators to get offline information about potential practices involving human trafficking or forced labor.
Businesses can also use other tools to address forced labor and human trafficking. Investors can use broad tools such as World Wide Generation, which collects data on companies that track with UN Sustainable Development Goals, of which sustainable supply chains are one part. Companies can hire businesses such as Arena CX, a platform for business process outsourcing that provides alternative jobs for people in areas most susceptible to forced labor. The Mekong Club has worked with partners to innovate tools such as DiginexLUMEN, which helps companies collect standardized and comparable information about working conditions through anonymous surveys.
Businesses now have a suite of options to shed light on their supply chains, as well as a practical ethical and financial reason to do so.
“The first question I get,” Lyons told me, “is ‘what can I do?’” Most—including me—want to know practically how they can address forced labor in their supply chains.”
The first action step we can take is building awareness. “You cannot address an issue you don’t understand,” says Logan. Fortunately, there is a wealth of resources to help you better understand the issue. You can learn about the types of goods child labor produces and which fast-fashion trends depend on forced labor. You can learn how many slaves work for you and which products you purchase likely depend on modern slave labor. You can read books such as Where Were You? A Profile of Modern Slaveryand listen to podcasts about reforming systems of care, identifying slaves in everyday life, building multisector partnerships, and advocating change. Education is the beginning of change.
The second step is pursuing vocation,or taking action right where you live and work. Vocation suggests that we can’t do everything, but we can do something. And that something is right in front of us. Take, for example, Kurt Johnson. Johnson is CEO and founder of FreightPOP, a software startup for shipping and transportation management. Because the majority of trafficking goes through trucking, Johnson and his investors at Eagle Venture Fund saw an opportunity. Being at a crucial nexus in the supply chain, Johnson decided to display on FreightPOP the truckers who had received training from Truckers Against Trafficking, a group that educates and equips truckers to recognize and report human trafficking. “Would you like to show your customers which truckers have been through this training? All things being equal, they may pick your company to ship their products,” Johnson told me in an interview. Johnson found one small area where he could make a change, and he took action.
Of course, few people actually work in supply-chain logistics. But if you’re a teacher, you can educate students about human trafficking. If you’re a nurse, you can learn to see the signs of human trafficking in hospitals. If you work in HR, you can hire an engineer who has survived human trafficking. If you attend a church, you can host a study on the topic and how your church can address the need. Vocation is a summons to respond to a call to love your neighbor wherever you are and whatever your field of work.
Finally, invest in change.Sometimes, this may include divesting yourself of public equities or businesses profiting from forced labor in, say, the solar panel supply chain. Other times, it may mean investing in for-profit businesses committed to designing market-ready solutions for eradicating forced labor from supply chains. By investing time, charitable capital, investment capital, and influence, businesses can take meaningful action on forced labor through greater supply-chain transparency.
Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Am I responsible for the products I consume, the supply chains that bring them to me, and the people’s lives affected along the way? As I sip coffee, wear comfortable clothes, and type on my laptop, I cannot help but think that the global economy has linked us all together in a common fabric of a single, human story.
We are buyers and sellers, employers and employees, suppliers and purchasers—but most fundamentally, brothers and sisters who all yearn to breathe free.
This article first appeared at Eagle Venture Funds.
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Investing for the majority of Christians is a puzzle for at least two reasons.
First, investing is incredibly de-personalized. How many of us have actually gone into our 401(k)s or IRAs, looked at what mutual funds we own, then taken the additional step to research those fund’s top ten holdings – and then learned something about the companies we actually own a share in? In my experience, almost nobody. For everyday investors, most simply want to put the quarter in the vending machine, press “buy,” and get a bigger coin back out. In a heavily financialized economy, investing is complex and veiled under layers of lingo, financial instruments, and specialized professionals. Seeing an investment as caring for a group of people operating a business never crosses our minds.
Second, most of us feel powerless. With total investable assets in the US at an estimated $42.1 trillion – which are often controlled by mammoth institutions like Vanguard, Blackrock or sovereign wealth funds – what impact can my widow’s mite tucked away for retirement really have? Wall Street is a powerful system that is beyond our control; even many” powerful” asset managers feel powerless, ever at the whim of market forces and corporate titans that seem almost trans-human.
And yet, most of us don’t feel completely powerless when we go to work and engage in business. Business is a set of human relationships between investors, management, employees, and customers that most of us do have some say-so over. We can’t – and shouldn’t – wash our hands of responsibility for why, how and what we do working in a business; can the Christian really claim that the provision of capital for that same business doesn’t also carry at least some moral responsibility?
If investing is simply ownership over a share of a business, Christians might say that we’d prefer to both invest in and work in businesses that better reflect the kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of this world. This tricky business because, of course, every business we invest in is a mix of good and evil, sinners and saints, redemptive products and depraved practices. No business (like no person) is perfectly, fully situated in the kingdom of light or the kingdom of darkness.
Yet I believe the New Testament gives us a way to understand what kinds of business better reflect (though not completely embody) God’s will for human relationships, business, and investing. The key, I believe, is wrapped up in a single idea: power.
It’s been said that all models are wrong, but some are useful. This one is no different. However, I believe we can contrast business and investing activities that function in two different paradigms: the kingdom of the world versus the kingdom of God. One is characterized by power accumulated; the other, by power given.
In this world of business, investors exercise power over managers, managers wield power over employees, and employees have power over customers. Simply put, “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” It’s the way the world functions. Those with the most money exercise power over those with the least. In the ancient near east they were called “Benefactors.” Today, we’d simply call them investors.
Yet over all of these people, another Power seems to be at work. Sometimes the power is “money,” or “the market,” or a corporation that is so large no one human can control it. They are nameless, faceless powers that seem to be controlling even the lives of the powerful men and women.
The New Testament can be shifty speaking about these powers. They’re sometimes called principalities, thrones, or authorities. Some see a hierarchy of angels and demons. Others see them as powerful institutions. But what’s clear is that they wield enormous control over human affairs, they’re generally associated with darkness, and Christ “disarmed” and “subjected” them through his death and resurrection (Romans 8:38, Colossians 2:15, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 3:22). And they’re invisible. You can’t see the “powers,” but something certainly seems to be “there.”
As it relates to the economy, those inside this system tend toward power-seeking and using others to gain more power. Investors extract money from companies, management uses labor for profit goals, and employees manipulate the desires of customers, ultimately decreasing their freedom and agency. Dominance of others and fear of losing power characterize this economy.
It should be noted that these powerful systems are impersonal and faceless. Again, whether that be Mammon or the economy or a multinational corporation or “market returns,” people serve powerful systems that seem to have a super-human life of their own. Even the “customer” is often made into faceless avatar, holding even a seat on the board of one of the world’s most powerful companies.
Ultimately, in this system, power itself rules, and each person serves others who wield more power than they do.
In contrast, God’s kingdom functions principally by pushing power down a system. The Christian gospel begins here, with the Incarnation of God himself, taking on human flesh as baby in a manger. God empties himself of his immense power, and for the sake of lost sinners, he takes on the nature of a servant (Philippians 2:6-8).
In God’s kingdom, power is given away sacrificially for the benefit of others. It progressively lifts up “neighbors” with less power, particularly those in close proximity. It functions on an upside down logic, where the last become first, you find yourself by losing yourself, and servants are greatest of all.
A “love your neighbor” ethic for business is most obviously seen, I believe, when investors give power to managers, managers to employees, employees to customers, and ultimately customers buy goods and services that raise human potential. Business here becomes an engine of human blessing, a way God provides for the needs of his people and lifts up the poor. The self-giving love of the Trinity is best displayed, economically speaking, when each person first looks to the good of the other.
In stark contrast to the faceless and nameless powers and principalities, God’s kingdom is always personal. God is a person (actually, three persons), and he summons people to know and love people. Rather than fear and dominance, God’s kingdom is characterized by joy and service. Money is dethroned as a power that controls human affairs and instead repositioned as a part of the created world to be used, enjoyed, and given (1 Timothy 6:6-10; 17-19).
Love is an active force in God’s kingdom. Whether it be managers lifting up employees, or employees working for the well-being of customers, love – defined as actively working for the good of your neighbors, and even your enemies – is central to God’s kingdom. It’s also the center point of a healthy economy. Desire in this kingdom is ultimately not for power, but for Christ himself who gives of himself for others.
Again, the problem with both of these models is that we lived in a “mixed” reality, caught between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. And it’s not just on a social level. Each of our hearts are a battle ground between good and evil. Some days we’re self-dealing, other days we’re self-less. Some days I bow the knee to Jesus; other days, I bow the knee to Myself. Unfortunately, there are no perfectly clean lines between a business that is fully redeemed or fully depraved. We’re living perpetually on Holy Saturday, somewhere between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
And yet, I do believe we can notice signs that a business or economic system is moving toward the kingdoms of this world or the kingdom of God. For instance, I’ve noticed management can often “skip over” or use employees in route to giving a customer whatever he or she wants. Rather than empowering employees to serve customers, they’re often treated as expendable inputs that can be changed out at will. Companies with perpetually low wages, low employee satisfaction, and high turnover often fall into this pattern. Indeed, there are ways to be highly profitable both through lifting up employees or oppressing them.
Or, think of investors with no other ends than high returns. This naked focus on profit at all cost is often veiled with excuses like, “I have to. I’ll lose my own investors if I don’t maximize profit and give them what they want.” This passing on of responsibility for others – rather than taking responsibility for the well-being of others – is characteristic of systems built around the nameless, faceless powers.
This power-accumulating approach also applies to the types of products and services that are created in business. There are many ways to make money, including through manipulating customer’s more base desires. I’d argue that the rise in sports gambling, for instance, while it may be very profitable, does not serve a genuine human good. It preys often on those who are the most vulnerable – a key characteristic of a fallen world (Isaiah 3:14).
In contrast, we can also see signs when business is moving closer to God’s kingdom. Good jobs that incrementally lift up the poor; products and services that meet real human needs; companies that restore the planet through thoughtful environmental stewardship; money invested sacrificially, which takes into account economic as well as social, spiritual, and cultural goods – business as God intended it is indeed a part of God’s will for his creation and can be a part of life in his Kingdom.
Movement toward the kingdom of God looks like power used for the well-being of others. When proximity is brought back to investing, the practice of business itself begins to heal. Co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher once said, “We take great care of our people, they take great care of our customers, and our customers take great care of our shareholders.” Indeed, when investors serve managers, managers serve employees, and employees serve customers – when each serves their economic “neighbor” – business itself can be a noble activity.
The Faithful Investor
How, then, should a Christian invest?
First, Christians serve God and not the market, money or any other power. Because this is true, all Christians should minimally begin conversations about investing with “What is good for people in and around this business?” and not only “How do I maximize my returns?” Christians, who follow a Suffering Servant above all, have the reason to persistently ask questions around moral and relational dynamics of business, especially those we invest in.
Second, Christians can start to pay attention to the power-dynamics even in the businesses in which they work. Is my company moving toward a system where power is hoarded or given, where people are served or used? The first step in noticing the tremendous impact of faith and investing is by paying attention first to your own workplace, and allowing the Spirit to re-shape relationships around the core principle “whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.”
Finally, Christians can lead the way in re-humanizing investing – even in public equities like stocks or bonds – by knowing, praying for, and finding ways to serve management. If the first “neighbor” an investor has is management, which I believe to be the case, Christians ought to first, learn what companies you own, and second, learn who are the people leading those companies. This may occasionally result in shareholder activism; it also may result in divesting yourself of some equities and buying others. But if an investor’s first job is not to realize returns, but instead to serve, we can only serve people we know.
When we take this simple step of knowing and caring for the managers of the companies in which we invest, we take a first step toward transforming investing. In doing so, investing is no longer de-personalized, and we are no longer powerless. We are people with real decisions to make, made in the image of the Son of Man, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Our job, in short, is to turn investing upside down.
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the founder of Denver Institute for Faith and Work, an educational organization that creates content and experiences around topics related to faith, work, the economy, and modern culture. He’s the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life as well as two forthcoming books from InterVarsity Press on work, spiritual formation, and the American working class. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver, Colorado, and attends Wellspring Anglican Church.
The Internet is Becoming Three-dimensional. How Should We Respond?
“What? Facebook changed its name to Meta?”
I remember thinking how bizarre this sounded when I first saw the news on my smartphone on the morning of October 28, 2021. The idea that one of the world’s most powerful companies was going all in on virtual reality – what it called the “metaverse,” a term coined by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book Snow Crash – felt strange, and somewhat dystopian. Am I really going to put on a headset and live in a virtual game-like world, eschewing the physical world all around me? I furrowed my brow in confusion, returned to my coffee, and woke my kids up to get ready for school.
Less than a year later, Meta was in the news again – now, though, for investing billions in a mostly empty metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg’s big bet on the world bringing its social interactions to virtual reality – as it did with social media – seems to be fizzling at epic proportions. Some reviewers of the newly released Oculus Pro, Meta’s most recent virtual reality headset, said it’s good for gaming, but probably not much else. Sure, it has devotees in the gaming world, but after laying off 11,000 people and losing a staggering $800 billion in market value, I couldn’t help but wonder: is this just an enormous miscalculation of a tech giant, or is something else going on here?
For me, I had a hard time separating dystopian visions of virtual reality and what was really going on in the market. Hollywood hasn’t helped. Stephen Spielberg’s 2018 film Ready Player One, set in 2045, paints a picture of humanity living in OASIS, a virtual reality simulation used to escape the real world. More recently, Amazon has produced The Peripheral, a story about Flynne Fisher’s connection to the future through a virtual reality headset. Complete with decaying buildings, cunning villains, and a depressing vision of tomorrow, for a non-tech professional like myself, virtual reality seemed shrouded in power, wealth, and escapism.
When I started to dig in and pull back the veil, something far less sinister – and far more expansive – started to emerge. The metaverse refers to the world of computer generated extended reality, or XR, which contains augmented reality, mixed reality, and virtual reality (AR, MR, and VR). Users engage with AR and MR through apps, tablets and iPhones, and with VR through headsets. I experienced AR for the first time when touring Gaudí’s Casa Batlló in Barcelona. Looking at a tablet while walking around the house helped me envision everything from furniture to how nature inspired Gaudí’s art. Not exactly dystopian.
Extended reality technology has been emerging for years – and slowly improving. What seems to be changing is the tidal wave of interest from corporate America, and how businesses anticipate using virtual reality for the future of work. In a Time magazine article, Matthew Ball writes that in the first six months of 2022 the word metaverse appeared 1,100 in regulatory filings; the previous year saw just 260 mentions. McKinsey and Company estimates that corporations, private equity firms, and venture capitalists made $120 billion of metaverse-related investments in the first five months of 2022 and have the potential to generate up to $5 trillion in value by 2030. For the first time, in 2021, VR headsets outsold all video game consoles combined. Corporations like Marriott are beginning to advertise in the metaverse, and some restaurants are even using AR to tempt hungry customers.
Adoption may lag behind what Meta would like to see, but something is shifting, and it’s a shift all the tech giants are preparing for. Apple is planning its own AR/VR headset, now set to release mid-2023. Google is making major investments in AR and VR, seeing applications in everything from maps to students in the classroom. And Microsoft has been lurching its way through building its Hololens, its mixed reality tech for business. The metaverse may be unfortunately empty right now as a social world, as the European Union just discovered after throwing a very expensive party for no one. But the growing consensus is that virtual reality will change the way we work – and it could be sooner than we think. Gartner, a global consultancy, believes that 25% of people will spend at least an hour per day in the metaverse as soon as 2026. And a 2022 PWC study found 51% of companies already have a VR strategy, and 67% of business leaders say their metaverse experimentation will be fully integrated across their business in the next few years.
The future probably won’t look like the dystopian world of Ready Player One. But it also probably won’t exclusively look like laptops and web browsers. The merging of the digital world and the physical world is at our doorstep.
The question we need to ask is what kind of world will this be?
An Immersive World
To answer that question, I went straight to the entrepreneurs and investors creating the metaverse.
The first person I spoke with was Quinn Taber, the Forbes 30 under 30 founder of Immerse, a metaverse platform that launched with a focus on language learning. When learning Arabic in 2017, Taber was introduced to VR and saw an opportunity: virtual reality could help foreign language learning and break down barriers to human connection rather than create them. “VR is best used when it’s contextualized, where you go somewhere, and where changing your persona can help learning,” Taber says.
Taber believes that virtual reality doesn’t always make sense, but it can offer a significant level up from the 2D world of laptops when five qualifications are present. Taber calls these characteristics “the five affordances.”
First, would it help to go anywhere? For example, would it be easier to learn about the moon on the surface of the moon rather than one-dimensional text and images in a book?
Second, what could you learn if you could be anyone? When would it help to walk in the shoes of somebody who’s, say, a different gender or ethnicity than you?
The third qualifier is manipulating the laws of physics. When would it help to, say, shrink yourself down to the size of a microchip or a red blood cell?
The fourth situation where virtual reality comes in handy is high stakes situations. VR can help in training the operation of, say, heavy machinery or a fighter jet. (The military has used VR for years.)
Finally, VR can be a helpful tool if you want to buy and sell digital goods. (You can now finally afford a Tesla, or a designer purse.)
Early in his entrepreneurial journey, Taber realized language learning checked off each of those boxes. Learning a language in a virtual environment can immerse you in a foreign country, allow you to be, say, an Arabic teenager (rather than middle age white male), and interact with others in a low-stress environment while learning vocabulary and grammar – while getting real-time feedback from other users.
Taber believes virtual reality holds real promise for education, and it’s getting real traction. Immerse was recently highlighted at the Metaverse Summit, and plans to expand into brand partnerships, creating virtual worlds for advertising partners like Westin Hotels. Yet Immerse stays principally rooted in research about improving foreign language learning through VR. As the son of an Iranian mother and former worker with Syrian refugees, Taber says, “I always dreamed of creating a company that was scalable, profitable, and impactful.” Motivated by increasing access to language tools, Taber sees VR as an opportunity to serve those who otherwise couldn’t access quality, affordable language learning tools.
Renji Bijoy sees virtual reality’s strength not in education or language learning, but instead in transforming how we work. Bijoy, 29, is the Founder & CEO of the similarly-named Immersed, which allows users to work on multiple computer screens in virtual reality. Immersed is the only app in the metaverse used 40-50 hours per week because it centers on work rather than play. “Immersed allows you to work remotely more productively,” says Bijoy, which has been a major challenge at least since the pandemic.
For Bijoy, mixed reality (you can see virtual screens as well as your actual office) and virtual reality allow users to better focus. Popular initially with coders who need multiple screens yet few distractions to write software, Immersed got attention from Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and professor of computer science at Georgetown University. Newport wonders if VR may be a way to cut out the bells, red bubbles, endless emails, and other distracting features of the modern workplace. “When it comes to knowledge work,” writes Newport, “we long ago stumbled into the digital wastes east of Eden. Now that we’re here, we should be open to whatever might help us regain some clarity.” The “immersive” nature of a VR headset can be one way to cut through the non-stop noise.
Jake Thompson, managing partner at Sovereign’s Capital, a values-based venture capital firm that invested in Immersed, says, “You have to think about VR not in competition with reality, but with Zoom and web browsers. VR is not a substitute for real life; it’s about faithful presence to the tasks before us in this world.”
This potential for greater collaboration than a video call has some leaders experimenting with VR in unlikely places. “The metaverse could help us create one virtual campus,” says Joel Morris, the president of Union School of Theology in Wales. “It could enhance the virtual experience – not just connecting one-on-one, but a whole community together, collaborating, throughout the world.” After a donor gave a dedicated gift to Union School of Theology to help them innovate their online education, Morris is now experimenting with how the metaverse may improve training for ministers and church planters. And he’s not the only one. Ten universities, ranging from Morehouse College to New Mexico State University, are now testing classes in the metaverse, “traveling” the Underground Railroad or sitting on the judge’s bench deliberating the fate of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Josh Chapman is the co-founder of Konvoy Ventures, the third largest venture capital firm in Colorado, which focuses exclusively on gaming. Currently, he writes, VR is anti-social. Though he’s bullish on the future of virtual reality, as you can imagine, he believes the technology (as do others) has a long way to go. Right now, it’s too isolating and he believes it won’t be broadly adopted until the social experience improves. Yet, he, too, is hopeful that the technology could be improved to make it more social, for gaming applications as well as educational.
Could, for instance, a low-cost virtual reality solution be designed to help the one-third of Americans experiencing an anxiety disorder who can’t afford therapy? Could kids who hate math learn to love it through VR? Could an apprenticeship program teach a mechanic more effectively through seeing the location of a carburetor while wearing, say, Google Glass?
The technology, most agree, is still early. It’s not going to replace your Macbook anytime soon, and those virtual shopping malls are still mostly empty.
Those who are getting traction in the XR space are staying human-centered and market-responsive, focused on using technology to solve everyday problems – just what customers want. We may still be in the “wild west” of the future of a 3D internet. Yet with use cases from remote work and team collaboration to rethinking the online college experience, virtual reality is here to stay, and quite possibly coming sooner than you think to a company near you.
Evaluating Virtual Reality
I once had a mentor who told me when I was dating my future wife, “It’s better to go into marriage with eyes wide open, and when you’re there, keep them half shut.” For new tech, however, I’d say it’s worth dating for quite a while (maybe forever), and honestly evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of the latest world-changing tools with eyes wide open.
Let’s start with drawbacks. First, it’s expensive. The Oculus 2, though getting cheaper, is around $400, and the new Meta Quest Pro is $1500. That’s a hefty price tag for those who could easily imagine life without a headset.
Second, we’re still learning how extended use of VR affects the body. It’s safe to say that 24 hours straight in the Metaverse is a bad idea. But how much is ok? How does it affect the brain long term? The data is still coming in (and the bad hairdos from wearing something on your head all day).
Third, it can feel isolating, which may cause mental health issues. As we noted, isolation helps block out workplace distractions, but for most Americans who are getting more and more lonely, that’s no good. VR has a long way to go to make it truly a communal, social experience.
Fourth, we live in a physical world. Bright philosophers like Matthew Crawford have noted that virtual reality makes us believe we can overcome the laws of gravity or the realities of having flesh and bones. Yet, here we are, in a physical world made up of engines, tables, trash bins, mountains and bodies. Even as the digital world continues to blossom, we must learn to live in a physical world that resists our will.
Fifth, virtual reality can be used – like any technology – for all sorts of evil things. Preying on children, stealing money, spying on employees in order to control rather than serve. Web3, virtual reality, and the metaverse will require a whole new set of regulations to keep bad actors in check.
Finally, the biggest critique of virtual reality is that it’s escapist. America (and other countries like Japan) already has a national crisis of men disengaging from work, family, and education. If VR makes this even worse, we’ll have to ask hard questions about how technology can help to re-engage rather than retreat.
Fair enough. Virtual reality has potential drawbacks.
But there are real benefits, too. Take, for example, education. A biology lab at Arizona State found that student learning and engagement significantly increased when using virtual reality. This makes sense: what student wouldn’t want to swap dry, technical textbooks for swimming around in the body to see first-hand an aberrant protein that is making a person sick? Or learn Latin in ancient Rome from Julius Caesar himself? I’m no futurist, but I predict that early experiments in higher ed and VR will expand rapidly, and one day push out pre-recorded lectures, Zoom screens, and threaded discussions as the future of online education. The underwhelming experience of pandemic-isolated students learning at home in front of Zoom will one day bow to a 3D, immersive classroom. And that future may not be all that far off; Immerse had 45,000 VR users download their language learning app in the last six months.
Early innovators like Immersed are showing that virtual reality has the power to transform the workplace, too. The implications for, say, training new workers are promising. From electrical safety training to forklift operations, companies are preparing to make a major leap forward to training and developing their workforces through virtual reality and augmented reality. It’s not just for Pokemon Go anymore. The future of work will employ extended reality to produce, connect, train, and educate. Indeed, even today, giants like Koch Industries and Wal-Mart are already using VR in worker training.
Eventually, virtual reality will create new markets, and with that, new jobs and economic growth. Entrepreneurs should now prepare for the future of business, and social reformers should be asking how to include low-income workers in the digital economy of tomorrow. (And on a lighter note, VR may finally herald in smell-o-vision. Watch out, WoodWick candles.)
Some aspects of virtual reality I personally find odd, like church in the metaverse. Why not just walk down the street and brave meeting a real-life person? Church – like all of our most precious human relationships – requires being in the flesh. But if I could get my fourth grade daughter interested in math, or find help for my own anxiety issues at a fraction of the cost of going to a prohibitively expensive therapist, or help frontline employees develop new skills in order to spur on career advancement – isn’t it worth experimenting with a new technology – albeit, with eyes wide open?
Who Are We Becoming?
Your vision of virtual reality really comes down to your philosophical view of technology. There are, in my view, essentially two poles to avoid. One is technological determinism, or the view that technology has a mind of its own and is actually deciding our culture’s values for us. Every evil-robot movie you’ve ever watched is playing on this fear. The fear is that as AI or other technology gets more powerful, we’ll simply be pawns and find our world ruled by machines. The natural response here? Smash the machines. People have been doing this since the industrial revolution.
The opposite view is instrumentalism – the idea that technology is just a tool or an instrument, without any inherent purpose. The phrase “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people” expresses this view. Since the beginning of time we’ve had new technology such as, say, shovels, that we can use to either dig an irrigation canal or knock a neighbor on the head. Don’t blame technology for human choice, so goes the argument.
I think we miss the point, however, if we see virtual reality and simply double down on our pre-existing anti- or pro-technology biases. New technology is generally neither a cure-all or a cancer. It’s an extension of human potential – and human morality. We should neither fear new technology nor be enamored with it.
The question we need to ask is: what is this technology for? I mean that not only in the sense of “what problem does this solve for a customer?” but what does this technology help me become? Isolated or connected? Productive or lazy? Addicted to a game-world or educated for my future?
Though widespread adoption of virtual reality may not be immediate, I do think it’s coming. We can either avoid it or ask better questions.
Around dinner last week, I asked my four daughters what they thought of virtual reality. My oldest had played a game on the Oculus at a sleepover with her middle school friend. Between bits of meatloaf she shared her enthusiasm for the experience. “It was awesome. It was like you were really there!”
After some healthy banter over the benefits and drawbacks of VR, I then asked, “When this technology comes to your school or a sleepover with friends, how do you think using virtual reality will shape your character?”
That is the question the tech giants need to ask – and keep asking – as we open the windows to a brave new world.
This article first appeared at Eagle Venture Funds. To get updates for more articles on impact, investing and entrepreneurship, subscribe on the Eagle website.
From school and work to fatherhood and friendship, we need a vision of manhood that both sexes can celebrate.
Years ago, a friend told me about an awkward conversation with a female coworker. In between 5meetings, he had mentioned a Wall Street Journal article about declining college enrollment for men across America, a trend so advanced that men now trail women by record levels and colleges are ramping up their efforts to recruit men. Expecting a sympathetic response, he was caught off guard when she declared, in a nonplussed tone, “And now whose fault is that?”
At this point, he remembered that his coworker was a strong advocate for women’s rights. He guessed her harsh response was pinned to a belief that sympathy for men would detract from women’s longstanding struggle for gender equity. Yet he didn’t want to picture these causes as locked in a zero-sum contest. As he put the question to me one afternoon, “Can’t we care both about women’s rights and vulnerable men and boys at the same time?”
Reeves, a Brookings Institution scholar, marshals an array of eye-opening statistics to make his point. For instance, did you know that girls regularly outperform boys in education? Girls are 14 percentage points more likely than boys to be “school ready” at age 5, and by high school, girls now account for two-thirds of students ranked in the top 10 percent, according to GPA. The gender gap widens even further in higher education: In the US, 57 percent of bachelor degrees are awarded to women, and women receive the majority of law degrees. In contrast, men are significantly more likely to “stop out” (pause their studies) or drop out of college.
Men are also losing ground in the labor market. Labor force participation among prime-age men (25–54) has dropped by seven percent in the last half century, due at least in part to automation and a shift away from well-paying manual labor jobs to a service economy. The median real hourly wage for working-class men peaked in the 1970s and has been dropping since. And while it is true that men tend to make more than women, Reeves shows that the gender pay gap is largely a parenting gap, in that it has all but disappeared for childless young adults. We primarily have women, not men, to thank for rising middle class incomes since the 1970s.
And dads are increasingly in short supply. Traditionally, the male role was culturally defined as a provider for the family. But with greater economic independence for women (a good thing), men are increasingly unable to fill the traditional breadwinner role. “The economic reliance of women on men held women down, but it also propped men up,” Reeves writes. “Now the props have gone, and many men are falling.” If men aren’t necessary as providers anymore, many men question whether then they’re really necessary to families at all.
What’s puzzling scholars is that interventions to help men seem to not be helping. Take, for example, Kalamazoo, Michigan. Thanks to a group of benefactors, students in its k–12 education system can get their tuition covered for almost any college in the state. Women in the program experience large gains, including a 45-percent increase in their college completion rates, but men, as Reeves observes, “seem to experience zero benefit.”
Of Boys and Men has won awards and garnered widespread praise, and for good reason.
Reeves isn’t content to simply point out a dispiriting social problem and be on his merry way. He offers solutions. He argues eloquently that we should adopt policies that start boys a year later in the classroom to give their brains time to develop. He makes the case that we need to get men into “HEAL” occupations, meaning jobs in health, education, administration, and literacy—both because these jobs track with forecasts about the future of the workforce, and because they help remove the stigma against men in traditionally “female” jobs, like nursing or elementary education.
Beyond this, Reeves argues, we need to make a major investment into fatherhood. “Engaged fatherhood,” he writes, “has been linked to a whole range of outcomes, from mental health, high school graduation, social skills, and literacy to lower risks of teen pregnancy, delinquency, and drug use.” It’s time to think about paid leave for dads, equal child-custody rights for dads after a divorce, and father-friendly, flexible job structures.
Reeves has written a tremendously thought-provoking, well-researched, and convincing book on the plight of the modern man. As a policy wonk, he proposes policy solutions. And yet, as a Christian, I couldn’t help thinking past the question of what to do, essential though it is, and wondering more about the question of why. What kind of male malaise is spreading in our culture?
In a piece for the journal National Affairs, Reeves offers a succinct answer. “The problem, he writes, “is not that men have fewer opportunities; it’s that they’re not seizing them. The challenge seems to be a general decline in agency, ambition, and motivation.” Though this problem appears particularly bad for working-class men, professional men too are experiencing a broad, global slump in desire.
Since Reeves himself argues that policy interventions are rarely helping men, I couldn’t help but wonder: Have shifting economic and cultural norms around male roles have caused not just a social crisis, but a spiritual one?
Humility and Compassion
What does it mean to be a man? It’s a hard question for evangelicals to answer. Many Christian men know what they shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t conflate Jesus and John Wayne, say, or join the ranks of Christian nationalists. Despite their biological wiring to be more aggressive, risk-taking, and sexually-driven than women (there really is science behind this), they know they shouldn’tbe domineering or unfaithful. In short, they shouldn’t live down to the stereotypes of what we often call “toxic masculinity.”
It’s easy to mock chest-beating men’s ministries or criticize the “good old boys club” in a local chamber of commerce. It’s much harder, though, to come up with a pro-social definition of masculinity. Yet many men who’ve lost their sense of direction and purpose long for exactly this: a vision of manhood that both women and men can celebrate.
Of course, there are wonderful examples. Peter Ostapko’s beautiful Kinsmen Journal, a magazine heralding faith, fatherhood, and work, comes to mind. As does Arthur Brooks’s call to faith, work, family, and friendship. I think even an appreciation of the art of manliness can help. Yet these calls to healthy masculinity are too rare.
Christians can get to work here. We can normalize conversations among men about both work andfatherhood. We can-and should—invest more time in friendships. We can support lower-income neighbors and coworkers, we can embrace sexuality as a gift of God within marriage, and we can redefine “men’s work” to better include a wider array of occupations.
But can we graciously have a theological conversation about God’s design for both men and women? Can you imagine if women’s ministries discussed Of Boys and Men and men’s ministries discussed Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood? Humility, after all, is a core virtue of the Son of Man.
I’m not sure this will happen any time soon. But after reading Reeves’s balanced, thoughtful book, I can confidently say that if you’re a woman and you know a man, he’s probably having a hard time. Show him compassion.
And if you are a man, well, let’s at least find a way to struggle together.
Advocate for greater access to mental health care through the workplace.
“In my way of thinking, the most important kind of medicine we can practice is the kind of medicine for those who otherwise wouldn’t otherwise receive care,” says Abraham Nussbaum, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who also works at Denver Health, a public safety net hospital. But because mental health services are often not covered by insurance – or are arbitrarily limited by most insurance plans – those who receive mental health care are predominantly wealthy and white. “This is a long-standing social disaster,” says Nussbaum.
One solution to improve access to mental health care is the growing number of options provided through the workplace.
It’s becoming more common for employers to offer mental health support to their employees as a workplace benefit. For example, workplace chaplaincy has been a life-line for many blue collar employees. Corporate Chaplains of America serves over 500,000 people and their families nationwide. Marketplace Chaplains employs 2,025 chaplains who serve at 5,461 locations and touch nearly 1.3 million employees, family members and patients.
There are also a growing number of tech tools and communities available. Stephen Hays, the founder of What If Ventures, a mental health venture capital firm, had an encounter with Jesus that freed him from a lifestyle of addiction. Today he invests in companies that move people from mental illness to mental wellness to mental performance.
His research has found that the mental health ecosystem is vast. Companies such as Calm, Headspace, Mindstrong, and Pear Therapeutics have reached substantial size. Types of companies include digital therapeutics, telehealth, business-to-business benefit providers, peer-to-peer platforms, non-tech businesses, measurement and testing companies, and companies focusing on mental health, wellness and sleep.
Some Christian companies, such as Abide, a biblical medication and sleep App, have reached millions of people, as have devotional apps like Pray.com. Others are just launching into the space between mental health and soul care. William Norvell, a former partner at Sovereign’s Capital, recently launched Paraclete, “The World’s First Soulcare Platform for the Workplace.” Norvell, who has also struggled with addiction, says, “In seasons of life where I had community I was always able to find pockets of light creeping into the darkness.” Paraclete offers businesses “on-demand, confidential conversations” through coaches who help employees with spiritual and emotional needs.
Whereas government leaders have focused largely on equitable access to public services and preventing more severe cases of mental health like suicide, workplaces are often becoming a primary place to advocate for and receive mental health care.
Rediscover the link between emotional health and spiritual formation.
“It’s impossible to be spiritually mature by remaining emotionally immature.” This punchy subtitle comes from Pete Scazzero’s best-selling book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Scazzero, his protege Rich Villodas, author of The Deeply Formed Life, and a host of others are sounding the bell to dissolve the barriers between emotional and spiritual health.
Brian Gray, the VP of Formation at Denver Institute for Faith & Work believes that growing anxiety calls for a deeper daily spirituality based on the classic spiritual disciplines. “It was the wise man who put Jesus’ words into practice that built his life on the rock,” referencing the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ call to practices, not just doctrine. Because work is a major source of anxiety for most people, a part of Gray’s work is forming leaders to live out the spiritual disciplines at work, further dissolving the barriers between daily life, emotional health and spiritual vibrancy.
Others are drawing on medieval traditions like Ignatian spirituality to address anxiety and mental health issues that church leaders face. Patti Pierce, a former staff member at Menlo Church (formerly Menlo Presbyterian Church) started a nine-month program called SoulCare after seeing several colleagues fall to sexual temptation. The program, which introduces ministry leaders to practices on interior freedom, paying attention to the movements of the soul, and living a “with God” life, has spread to Orange County and Denver, under the name the Praxis. “I found that the movements of the Ignatian exercises, which are based in the life of Jesus,” says Pierce, “really helped people experience Jesus, not just have cognitive information about him.”
The renaissance of spiritual formation, led in the past generation by leading figures like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, addressed the growing evangelical desire for a deeper spiritual life past preaching and singing on Sunday. Today, those threads are being rediscovered as a lifeline for those searching for more enduring answers than what popular psychology and self-help books can provide alone.
Our hearts and souls, our emotions and our spiritual lives, are woven together and need to be addressed together. “Ignoring our emotions is turning our backs on reality,” says Scazzero. “Listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God.”
You’re Not Alone
In an age of increased anxiety and depression, where mental health struggles seem to be an almost universal experience, Christ uniquely offers the world neither distraction nor temporary remedies, but everlasting good news: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid,”(John 14:27). As a result, I believe the church’s unique contribution lies at the intersection between therapy and spiritual formation, mental health resources and the life of God.
The church also uniquely offers an anchor for a tormented soul. “The deepest truth of who you are is that you are known and loved by God,” says Kinghorn to those struggling with chronic anxiety or mental illness. “And nothing about your situation can possibly change that.”
As I think about my own anxiety, I still experience the tingling neck, racing heart, and shortness of breath. Honestly, it still feels like there’s something wrong with me.
But I’m learning not to avoid it and flee. Instead, I try to exercise, do meaningful work, be patient with others, and open up to friends. I’m leaning into the slow disciplines of naming my feelings, practicing welcoming prayer, and seeking community. And when I need help, I now just ask for it.
As I do, I’m reminded of a central truth of the historic Christian faith: we are not alone.
This article first appeared in The Reformed Journal.
How to Respond Faithfully to the Mental Health Crisis
Here’s what I’m learning from the best pastors, business leaders, psychiatrists, counselors, and spiritual directors addressing America’s mental health crisis.
Notice and address anxiety first in yourself.
“You have to name it to tame it,” says Steve Cuss, author of Managing Leadership Anxiety and Australian-born pastor, speaker and writer. Cuss’ journey as a hospital chaplain sparked an enduring interest in helping people notice and address anxiety. He helps people reduce anxiety by noticing how it shows up in everyday life and controlling “reactivity,” or the impulse to overreact when our bodies are in a fight-or-flight state.
“Anxiety shrinks the power of the gospel because it presents a false gospel – one of self-reliance rather than reliance on God,” says Cuss. Anxiety may be universal, but he says learning to notice it in yourself and others is a first step toward becoming calm, aware, and present.
A growing number of pastors have latched onto the concept of “non-anxious presence” to combat anxiety. Christian leaders like John Mark Comer, Mark Sayers, and Todd Bolsinger have all latched onto the idea in sermons and books. The term was popularized amongst clergy by the late Edwin Friedmann, a rabbi, family systems theorist, and author of books like A Failure of Nerve and Generation to Generation.
One pathway to non-anxious presence is what the late Murray Bowen, the founder of family systems theory and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, called the “well-differentiated self.” The key is to strike the right balance between independence and connectedness, and thereby avoid becoming enmeshed with others or, conversely, emotionally cut off.
The well-differentiated leader, according to Friedman, is “someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence.” The first step in addressing anxiety is found in taking responsibility for your own personal presence, and diffusing anxiety both internally as well as between others.
Be the first to bring up anxiety and mental health at church.
John Swinton, a Scottish theologian and minister specializing in faith and disability, believes the church offers a unique message from the broader culture. There’s a difference, he says, between inclusion and belonging. Inclusion, says Swinton, is just a technical requirement to not exclude, sustained by law and policy. “But to belong,” Swinton says, “you have to be missed. To belong you have to have a space where, when you’re not there, people long for you.” Churches offer this sense of family and connectedness that is often missed in secular culture.
“Everyone is struggling with anxiety,” says Trisha Taylor, a psychotherapist and co-author of The Leader’s Journey: Answering the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation. Taylor and her ministry partner Jim Herrington help congregational leaders increase their emotional intelligence and navigate conflict. She also encourages all Christians to normalize conversations about mental health.
“First, let’s just talk about it. Second, we need to make a point to understand how emotions work. We need to learn from them rather than try to eliminate our negative emotions,” says Taylor, who believes that chronic anxiety is one major factor for why pastors leave their jobs. “Finally, anxiety is physiological. It’s our body’s natural response to stress. We often need to start by getting help for our bodies.” For every 400 adults sitting in a congregation, on average 112 of them are struggling with chronic anxiety and 88 have symptoms of depressive disorder. For churches wondering how to restore community after the pandemic, here’s a place to start.
This article is the second of a three part series. The full essay was published by The Reformed Journal in November 2022. Next week I’ll publish the final article in the series.
How to Respond Faithfully to the Mental Health Crisis
I shut my laptop abruptly late one afternoon. I realized I was holding my breath. My neck and scalp were tingling and my shoulders were tight. I put my hand over my chest and felt my heart racing. It was just an unpleasant email, I thought. Why am I feeling like this? I stood up from the kitchen table, only to feel dizzy. I sat down again, just to breathe.
It was early 2022. For months I had been experiencing increased anxiety, often making work and family responsibilities hard to manage. Tensions in my extended family and at work, mixed with intense cultural polarization, caused me to honestly ask myself two questions: Is there something wrong with me? And am I the only one feeling like this?
The Real Pandemic
After some digging, I came to learn that anxiety and challenges around mental health may be one of the most universal human experiences of the past several years. The CDC reported in July 2022 that 28.8% of Americans report symptoms of anxiety disorder; for 18-29 year olds, it’s a staggering 42.9%. In December 2021, the Surgeon General warned of a growing youth mental health crisis. And today, nearly one-quarter of Americans over age 18 are medicated for anxiety, depression or ADHD. No wonder President Biden called for national response to the growing mental health crisis in his 2022 State of the Union Address.
The pandemic didn’t create a global mental health crisis, but it did make it worse. “I believe we saw the exacerbation of mental health issues during the pandemic,” says Marvin Williams, 57, the lead pastor of Trinity Church in Lansing, Michigan. Williams, a Black pastor in a predominately White church (“which carries its own anxieties,” he says), believes the convergence of the pandemic, political division, and growing issues around race created a perfect storm. “Those three things coming together at the same time revealed even more of what was under the hood,” says Williams. Globally, the World Health Organization found the pandemic sparked a 25% increase in anxiety and depression.
Chronic anxiety is increasingly commonplace and even severe mental health issues have been on the rise for years. In the last two decades, suicide rates have risen 30%, and in 2020, 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide. Princeton researchers Angus Deaton and Anne Case found that “deaths of despair” – death by drug overdose, suicide, and alcoholism – have risen sharply, particularly for working class communities. For the first time in the modern era, even before the pandemic, life expectancy rates started to decline.
So what’s causing the growing mental health crisis? Many point to a loneliness epidemic. NPR reports 60% of Americans are lonely, which the pandemic perpetuated when workplaces and schools were shut down, impacting a generation of young people. The inability to gather during COVID led to fewer in-person relationships, sapping people’s resilience to stress.
Many also point to heightened social tensions in the past two years. “In our culture we’ve seen increasing political and social polarization, increasing awareness of sexual assault and racial violence and inequity, and we’ve had two very polarizing election cycles,” says Warren Kinghorn, a psychiatrist and co-director of the Theology, Medicine and Culture program at Duke University. “Our experience has been that mental health clinicians are in high demand, especially since the pandemic.” Kinghorn notes colleges and universities are reporting a significant increase in demand for student mental health services.
Others point to another plague for young people: the rise of social media and smartphones. Not only has social media led to growing political division due to an inability to effectively communicate, but studies have also found that overuse of smartphones actually warps teenage brains, causing anxiety, depression, impulse control problems, and sleep disorders. Dr. Jean Twenge, author of the best-selling book iGen, has found that this generation of teens, when compared to teens in the 1970s, are less likely to go out with peers, more likely to say they feel left out or lonely, and more likely to report they don’t enjoy life. These rates went up markedly since 2012 – the first year smartphones hit the market.
It may still be that something is wrong with me. But if the statistics are right, I’m certainly not alone.
Pioneers in Compassion
The church has been responding to mental health issues since its inception. The ancient Romans thought mental illness was caused by divine punishment, evil spirits, or an imbalance of the humors. Treatments ranged from philosophizing to bloodletting. Yet, noting Jesus’ compassion for the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 8:28-34, Luke 8:26-39), early church fathers innovated in devising new methods of care for the poor and mentally ill.
In 370, St. Basil opened a ptochotropeion, a hospital intended to serve the poor, indigent, and ill. In contrast to Greek hospitals of the time, who would only serve those who could pay, Basil offered care to all, founding what historians believe to be the first public hospital.
The Medieval Church continued to innovate ways to serve the mentally ill. The 7th-Century Irish Saint Dymphna inspired the town of Geel, located in modern Belgium, to pioneer de-institutionalized care for the mentally ill, where patients would interact with townspeople during daytime and sleep at the hospital at night.
A century later, Father Joan Gilabert Jofré (1350-1417) was on his way to the Cathedral in Valencia for the first Sunday in Lent. When he saw two men brutally attacking a “madman,” he rescued the victim, took him back to his convent, and preached a sermon about establishing an institution to care for the mentally ill. Afterwards, eleven patrons gathered to found arguably the first psychiatric care institution in Europe.
Indeed, anxiety and depression have been present throughout church history, including the 20th century. We’ve always had reasons to worry, whether they be the anthrax scare, 9/11, school shootings or the cultural turmoil of previous generations, like the Vietnam War or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mental Health Awareness Month wasn’t founded in 2020; it has been observed in the US every May since 1949. “Cast your anxiety on him because he cares for you” is a comfort and mandate for all generations (1 Peter 5:7).
And yet, something does seem different today.
Many in the modern world experience unprecedented levels of wealth and physical comfort, but report being deeply unhappy – actually at the highest rate in the last 70 years, reports Gallup. The speed of technology and rapid cultural fragmentation are undoubtedly influencing us, especially young people. And the lines between mental illness and everyday experience seem to be blurring for millions.
Can the church offer unique insight today for those battling anxiety, depression, and mental illness?
This article is the first section of a full essay to be published at The Reformed Journal in November 2022. Next week I’ll publish the second of the three part series.
Why Investors and Entrepreneurs Need Both Authority and Vulnerability to Heal the World Through Business
One fateful, icy afternoon in Burnsville, Minnesota, I learned the difference between authority and vulnerability.
I was in seventh grade and a friend invited me to snowboard at Buck Hill. I had never snowboarded before, but I figured, how hard could it be? Late that afternoon, I found out. I got off the lift and cautiously slid back and forth, carefully cutting my edges. Then I began to pick up speed on an icy slope. Before I knew it, I was bombing down the hill and lost control. After I regained consciousness, my friends said the crash was “epic,” like a test dummy flying wildly down a hill. I separated my shoulder and had to be carried off the hill by medics.
That day, little did I know when strapping on my boots, I was highly vulnerable to disaster – and the authority of an expert (or even amateur) snowboarder was but a distant dream. For years, whenever I would watch the Olympic games, I would marvel at the exploits of snowboarding legends like Shaun White, who combined the vulnerability of high-flying acrobatics with the authority of an expert snowboarder. The combination of the two led to both drama and admiration. Risk and expertise, I came to learn, was the pinnacle of achievement.
Andy Crouch’s wonderful little book Strong and Weakcombines these two ideas – authority and vulnerability – in a beautiful little 2×2 that I believe has tremendous implications for both investors and the entrepreneurs they serve.
The 2×2 has four quadrants: Flourishing, Suffering, Withdrawing, and Exploiting.
I. Flourishing. First, Crouch says human flourishing comes when you combine authority, which he defines as the capacity for meaningful action, with vulnerability,which is exposure to meaningful risk.
Take, for example, parenthood. Parents can shape flourishing families when they have the ability to lead, love, and care for their children, as well as open themselves to the pain of real relationships with their kids. A healthy family requires parents who take action for the well-being of each other, and open themselves enough to pain that love becomes real. Authority and vulnerability together lead to flourishing.
II.Suffering. Suffering comes, however, when we have vulnerability without authority. Crouch describes poverty as the inability to change one’s circumstances. All risk, no power. Suffering can come in many forms – physical, emotional, psychological, social or spiritual. And it’s something every single person has felt at one point or another in their lives.
The best thing you can do to help somebody who’s suffering is to help them build lasting authority. For example, if somebody is in poverty, giving them a chunk of money rarely has a lasting, positive impact. However, giving that person job training, counseling, new social networks, or a sense of hope increases their agency, their say-so over their lives. People are raised out of poverty when they have the means to take meaningful action once more.
III. Withdrawing. Those who have both low exposure to risk and low ability withdraw from the world around them. This could be an addicted video gamer, men who’ve withdrawn from the workforce, or a wealthy person who’s withdrawn to a country club life of golf and long lunches. Safety becomes the sole aim of these people who become, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
The temptation for most is not complete apathy, but “busying ourselves” with activities that neither ask much of us nor transform us. We need safety as children to properly grow, but a life without meaningful sacrifice tends to feel empty. Withdrawal is a major problem in the modern workforce, and it’s a temptation that those in rich countries especially face almost daily.
IV. Exploiting. Exploitation is found wherever people maximize power while seeking to eliminate risk, says Crouch. Authority without vulnerability leads to enclaves of separation. On the extreme side, this could be a warlord in sub-Saharan Africa; a more daily experience of this would be hoarding resources for ourselves, hedging our futures against risk through stockpiling money or assets.
Crouch also notes that, in general, risk shed by one group is inevitably borne by others’ suffering. A slumlord who is completely separated from the lives of his tenants, for example, creates unhealthy living environments for his poor renters. Movement out of the exploitation quadrant is characterized by a willingness to take on the risk of those who suffer.
Linking Arms to Move Toward Flourishing
Crouch’s framework is a helpful way to look at both investing and entrepreneurship. In my experience, most investors by default tend to live in the exploiting quadrant, and most entrepreneurs tend to live in the suffering quadrant. Here’s what I mean:
The task of modern investing is sadly often reduced to maximizing returns while minimizing risk. But what does this reduction lead to? Returns at all cost cause for those who allocate capital (either professionally or passively) and the expectation of those returns regardless of the volatility and challenges of real life business. Investors who don’t open themselves to meaningful risk can inadvertently cause oppression by forcing entrepreneurs to make choices that maximize returns, but don’t serve the best interest of employees, customers, or communities. Those who only look at quarterly returns, I’d argue, are at a high risk of finding themselves in the exploiting quadrant by default.
Entrepreneurs, however, usually live in the suffering quadrant. Our culture tends to make entrepreneurs into heroes, people with the utmost agency to chart the course for the future. But entrepreneurship is a wild, uncertain, and highly stressful ride. Take for example, the case of Rivian, the electric vehicle startup. Recently I listened to Guy Raz’s interview with Rivian founder RJ Scaringe. To build a car company, Scaringe had a nearly impossible task: not only invent an electric truck, but raise enormous amounts of capital (over $1B), hire staff (and keep up staff morale), pivot numerous times even when it wasn’t clear what problem they should be solving, and project confidence despite internally struggling with doubts (I bet he was even doing this on the podcast.) Entrepreneurs look powerful from the outside, but are hugely vulnerable, and their authority to make significant change is often far less than the news stories would make us think.
What entrepreneurs need is an investor who truly believes in what they’re doing, is willing to take meaningful risk, and be patient. Entrepreneurs living under returns-at-all-costs investors may be unable to invest in important, long-term choices that are needed for the holistic health of employees, customers, and the broader business. Long-term decisions often must bow to short-term returns, and true growth becomes difficult to fund. Short-term thinking also renders it challenging to build company programs that, say, provide flexible work schedules for single moms or second-chances to ex-offenders. The ‘minimize risk, maximize return’ profile trickles down into decisions that have real, long term impact on the poor and vulnerable.
What would the healing of this dynamic look like? I believe it would look like investors who take meaningful risk, seeking to level the playing field of information disparities between professional investors and entrepreneurs through transparency, and through structuring financing that is a win-win as co-owners of a business alongside the entrepreneur. They’d be willing to invest first in the long-term health of the entrepreneurs they serve, rather than succumb to the all-too-common dynamic of entrepreneurs serving investors. They wouldn’t pressure them for an exit, but would work collaboratively with CEOs to understand what’s best for the business.
It would also mean investing expertise along with capital in entrepreneurs, helping them to deeply understand their customers, lead their employees, and make decisions for the business that lead to long-term health. In short, investors would team up with entrepreneurs to take meaningful risk together, putting the tools in entrepreneurs hands that give greater capacity for meaningful action, so that the investor and entrepreneur can flourish together.
This healed vision of business would also start to remedy the supposed trade off between impact and risk. Business is fundamentally about serving an unmet need, yet for millions around the world, their most basic needs go unmet daily. Moving into “risky” markets, like sub-Saharan Africa, or building businesses in underserved markets, like a low-income area of Dallas, requires investors and entrepreneurs who exercise authority and vulnerability together. When this happens, the enterprise itself becomes thoroughly good, pulling people at all levels of the business from the quadrants of exploiting, withdrawing, and suffering into the realm of human flourishing.
Today, I still marvel at the skiers and snowboarders who expertly conquer moguls or jumps. Yet in Crouch’s book, he asks an interesting question about the skiing metaphor (that I shamelessly borrowed from his book): what if at the bottom of the hill there was an injured child, alone and in the snow, that only the skier could save? Would that change how you view the task ahead, and the risks involved?
To become this expert ‘champion’ who sees business as a noble calling requires forging new alliances between investors and entrepreneurs who have their sights set higher than simply maximizing shareholder return.
This week, Comment published my essay “Where Are All the Workers? How to Revive a Wilting Workforce.”
In the essay, I address something we’re all feeling, whether at the airport or the local restaurant: the labor shortage. We are facing a historic pinch: the global workforce is aging, birthrates are declining, labor participation rates are decreasing, and many people are not willing to take middle skill jobs – or really any job. In my paper I argue, however, the pandemic has changed our mood around work. From China to the US, we’re now living in an age of anti-ambition, characterized by what the medieval church called acedia, or sloth – which is not just laziness, but a sorrow at having to do good, challenging work.
I make three key points in the paper. First,work as an expression of one’s gifts, interests, and talents, rather than simply extracting maximal wages for minimal effort, is the critical element of a dynamic, growing economy.Second, historic ideas of Christian vocation can be translated into a secular economy to revive a weary workforce.And third, work, and the plight of the world’s workers, is the great social issue of our age.
Here’s how I begin the essay:
It was a Sunday afternoon and I was setting up for a game of musical chairs on my back deck. As the sun shone, I carefully counted black lawn chairs and placed them facing out, in a circle, with one chair less than the number of RSVPs for my daughter’s seventh birthday party. It felt a little cruel to set up a rigged game like this, but I reasoned it was a classic of childhood competition. What could be more American?
Before the pandemic, the labour market felt like a game of musical chairs. Employers created jobs, expected more applications than positions, and when the music stopped, they chose the best employees for the role. Of course, some were left out, but they could be trained to run faster next time and grab a chair, right?
But in the last two years, for both employees and employers, it feels like somebody tipped over the chairs, threw some into the yard, and shut off the music. And half of the kids left early from the birthday party, deciding they didn’t really want to play musical chairs anyway.
Not only has the pandemic has created a labour shortage, it has changed the world of work for all us. We now desperately need to find new ways to infuse life into a weary workforce.