Jeff Haanen

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Work

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CulturePoliticsWork

From Rage to Responsibility: Why Our Work Matters More Than Our Vote

 

“Against stupidity we are defenseless.” German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer could have written this about the 2016 GOP election race.

I’m like most Americans. Religious, white, middle class, and ticked off.

But far from supporting either Trump or Bernie Sanders, after months of feeling outrage and then disbelief, my anger at the American political machine has subsided, and now I find myself looking for hope far outside of Washington—and much closer to home.

Here’s what I mean: the past six months of political campaigning have given me emotional heartburn. The unpleasant reflux came in three phases.

The first emotion was shock. When Trump calls Mexicans who cross the border rapists, enthusiastically endorses torture, hints that Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia was assassinated, and advocates the killing of terrorist’s families, my blood boils. How could Americans be voting for this man to lead the party of Abraham Lincoln? And how could 37 % of evangelicals support him? What on earth is going on here?

Second, moral outrage gave way to disbelief. Twitter battles about Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz grab headlines, Ted Cruz threatens to “make the sand glow” by flattening the Syrian city of Raqqa (innocent families and all), and Ben Carson’s friend supposedly gets a divine vision telling him to endorse Trump.  And he does it.

We have entered the Twilight Zone.

Bonhoeffer saw the same inexplicable stupidity overtake so many of his countrymen during Christmas of 1942: “In conversation with him [the stupid person], one virtually feels that one is dealing not all with him as person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him.”

Make America great again. Feel the Bern.

Finally, disbelief gave birth to apathy. The world is going to pot (quite literally here in Colorado), and what can do about it? News pours into my iPhone, and I’m no longer surprised at anything. Nor do I feel responsible.

And this creeping cynicism is what turned my heartburn into shame. Czech playwright, philosopher and former president Václav Havel (pictured above) once said:

“Whenever I have encountered any kind of deep problem with civilization anywhere in the world — be it the logging of rain forests, ethnic or religious intolerance or the brutal destruction of a cultural landscape that has taken centuries to develop — somewhere at the end of a long chain of events that gave rise to the problem at issue I have always found one and the same cause: a lack of accountability to and responsibility for the world.”

After reading this, I thought, Maybe the problem isn’t our dysfunctional political system. Maybe it’s us.

Working for Good 

Several months ago, Pastor Greg Thompson of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia spoke to a small group of leaders in Denver. Speaking at the Taxi Development in the RiNo (River North) district, which overlooks the Mile High city, he said, “Politics does not in fact create culture change, but actually expresses a larger cultural system of which it is a part.”

For Thompson, a civil rights scholar and social theorist, culture isn’t created by government officials. Instead, it flows from “the public,” or a network of institutions in fields like economics, energy, art, medicine, religion and education that form a “social ecology.”

Culture, in other words, is formed by our work.

When I heard this, I felt a release of tension from my neck. So many Americans believe the next president will either save us or doom us. But neither is the case. Politics is downstream from culture. In reality, we create culture everyday.

As much as I respect Franklin Graham, this is why his nationwide tour to “Pray. Vote. Engage.” feels like an empty drum of water. Rod Dreher, columnist at The American Conservative is right: “Voting Republican, and expecting judges to save us, is over. It’s all about culture now.”

And culture change starts when we pull into the office.

For example, Karla Nugent, the Chief Business Development Officer at Weifield Group Electrical Contracting, created an apprentice program that hires would-be electricians from Denver Rescue Mission, the Stout Street Foundation, and other programs for men coming from addiction, incarceration or homelessness.

It’s one thing to gripe about jobs and the economy, as so many Americans do. It’s yet another to take responsibility for the issue and create career-track jobs for the American underclass struggling to keep pace, as did Nugent.

For thousands of Christians, work is the best avenue to obey Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbor as yourself” and take responsibility for the direction of society.  

Robin John, for example, CEO of Omaha-based Eventide Funds, a mutual fund, expresses his faith by only investing in businesses that create genuine value for communities, especially customers and employees. He believes an ethics-based approach is more socially responsible and also more profitable.

Similarly, Josh Mabe, owner of Twenty1Five, a reclaimed wood furniture business, believes he can reflect Jesus own vision of cosmic renewal (Rev. 21:5) through crafting artistic tables and chairs. Mabe says, “The ugly wood I use is a metaphor for our lives. Most of this stuff,” pointing to a knotted board, “is beat up, discarded lumber. But if you see beyond some of those scars, you can make something really beautiful out of it.”

Work isn’t only a paycheck for Mabe. It can also be an act of beauty.

I’m often tempted to fall prey to cynicism when I see the cycle of anger and disillusionment with presidential candidates turn into a blazing cannonball of destructive rhetoric. But people like Nugent, John, and Mabe give me hope.

And hope starts with seeing Monday morning with new eyes.

A Hopeful Exile 

Whatever might happen at the Republican convention in July, three things look likely:

1. The exile from the Republican party, especially among millenials, will continue. Today half of all millennials are politically unaffiliated. Blame Trump, Cruz, or Fox News, millions of us now largely share the sentiment of evangelical writer Trevin Wax, “I don’t feel at home in the Republican Party anymore.”

2. New methods of Christian public engagement will continue to surface. From Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” to sociologist James Davison Hunter’s paradigm of “faithful presence,” in post-Christian America, more believers will continue to experiment with new ways to live out their faith in public.

3. We’ll still have to go to work. And when 148 million working adults in America arrive at offices, clinics, schools, stores, and construction sites, they’ll have to make decisions about what is good, true and beautiful. And in so doing, they’ll shape American culture, for better or worse.

I’m not saying that voting doesn’t matter. It matters deeply. But the best way to affect cultural change is through our daily work, not voting.

In an election year like this, it’s tempting to imitate Pontius Pilate, wash our hands of a messy world, and ask, “What stupidity must I endure next?”

But that’s the wrong question.

“The ultimately responsible question,” says Bonhoeffer, “is not how I extricate myself from a situation but how a coming generation is to go on living.”

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Architecture and DesignNonprofitWork

The Tree of Life: The Story of 600 Grant St., Suite 722

 

As I awoke, I heard a voice. “In the beginning, God created the tree of life.”

My guide took me to a garden, green and blooming, with four rivers running through it. And at the center, the tree of life stood tall, giving life to all of creation. A man and a woman tilled the soil, ate of its fruit, and were satisfied.

“But it came to pass,” he explained, “that man and woman ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When sin entered the world, so did death.” And I saw an angel drive the man and the woman out of the garden. With a flaming sword, flashing back and forth, the angel blocked the way to the tree of life.

Banished from the garden, the man worked the ground. But no longer did it produce fruit. Up sprang thorns, thistles, and the desire to rule. Work became toil. Splinters caused pain. A curse frustrated man’s best efforts to once again eat from the tree of life. Labor left him with an incomplete longing.

1

Wood gave way to bronze, iron and stone. “And men,” my guide explained, “sought to build their own city, forged in iron, as a hedge against death, a man-made source of life.”

Then I saw men from every tribe, tongue and nation build a tower, rising to heaven. It was a monument to Self. And suddenly I saw it crash to the ground, its workers babbling in confusion.

The curse worked its way from cement to cities, from single projects to civilizations. I looked onto the world, and I wept.

3

“What can be done?” I cried out. “Is there no way home?”

And then he said, “The ancient storytellers have seen far into the future. And they see another tree. Listen to their words.”

4

I lifted my head. My guide said, “I have seen the throne of God. And flowing from the throne down the great street of the city is a river, clear as crystal. And behold, bursting through the city street is the tree of life. It yields fruit forevermore, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of nations.”

5 - Tree of Life

“Let me sit in its shade,” I said. He replied, “You cannot. You must see one more tree.”

And he took me to a small, dusty carpenter’s shop. At the center was a man, humble yet fierce, crafting a table for his mother. “Why have you taken me here?” I asked as I saw the unfinished  table surface.

6

He simply replied, “Behold, the man.”

As I turned around, I felt a cool rush of darkness sweep over me. I saw a crowd, spitting, mocking the carpenter. As he lay on the ground, a soldier threw a beam on him, rough hewn, splintered. The solider forced the man to carry the harsh beam up the hill, as clouds overtook the sky.

7

They pierced his hands and feet, and hung him to the wood, the object of his work. “Why?” I cried out. “His eyes are good. Why?” And my guide simply said, “Cursed is the man who hangs on a tree.”

“Must I watch?” I begged. “There is only one way back to the tree of life,” He replied. “And it is through this tree of death.”

I wept.

And then there was silence.

“Look,” he said. I saw another garden. The sun was rising. And the carpenter’s tomb was empty. And two angels, clothed in light, said to me, “There is no death here. He is alive. He is alive! Now go and do his work.”

“What work shall I do?” I asked. Suddenly, I saw the city, but now light was streaming over the mountains onto its spires. And I saw the carpenter’s work before me, now complete.

8 9

I received no answer to my question. He only said, “Come, follow me.”

“Sir, one more question,” I asked. “When may I eat once more of the tree of life?”

And he replied simply with a promise. “For like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

He finally whispered into my ear, “Behold, I make all things new.”

10 11 12 13

The above pictures were taken at the new offices of Denver Institute for Faith & Work at 600 Grant St., Suite 722, home of the 5280 Fellowship. The furniture was made by Josh Mabe, owner of Twenty1Five, a reclaimed wood furniture business based in Monument, Colorado ([email protected]). 

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Craftsmanship & Manual LaborWork

Let There Be Light: How Karla Nugent Is Transforming the Trades

“Come, let me show you around.”

As we rise from the conference table, Karla Nugent—cofounder of Weifield Group Contracting, a commercial electrical company in Denver—leads me into the pre-fabrication shop. Coils, wires, and electrical boxes are being assembled for installation. The only woman in the room of more than a dozen men, Nugent introduces me to employee Justin Hales.

“Electrical work is art,” Hales, an electrician’s apprentice, tells me. “Two years ago, they put me on the platform at Union Station. I would lay out the floors, locate everything, like a switch or outlet on the wall.

“When you turn your pipes, make them uniform—that’s art.” He pauses. “It probably goes unnoticed to the average person, but we see it. We take pride in our work.”

Nugent co-founded Weifield in 2002 alongside three business partners. Since then, the company has grown to 250 employees and has emerged at the forefront of electrical construction. For example, Weifield was behind the Net Zero, a LEED-Platinum research facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. It’s one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the world, operating solely on power generated at the building site.

Denver’s business community took notice of Nugent because of her philanthropy. As leader of sales, marketing, and human resources, she’s created a culture of generosity at Weifield. The company donates to more than 30 nonprofits in the city, including organizations that support women, veterans, at-risk youth, and the urban poor. Employees join in the generosity as well, taking bike rides to raise money for MS and building houses for Habitat for Humanity on company time.

In 2014, Nugent won the Denver Business Journals Corporate Citizen of the Year Award as well as the award for Outstanding Woman in Business for architects, engineers, and construction.

But light began to flood into Weifield when, several years ago, Nugent decided to bring the community’s needs into the company. After seeing growing income inequality in Denver, she created the Weifield Group apprenticeship program.

Becoming an Apprentice

Scott Ammon, a journeyman electrician at Weifield Group, joined the Army after high school. After serving in Desert Storm and four years in the Middle East, he worked for 11 years in the US Postal Service. “I’d actually been suffering from PTSD while I was there,” Ammon tells me. As a result, he “jumped into a pretty bad coke and meth addiction.” To get treatment, Ammon spent two years at the Stout Street Foundation, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility.

During rehab, Ammon heard about an opening for an electrical apprentice at Weifield. The four-year program trains employees in a pre-fabrication process (preparing electrical materials for on-site installation) while paying for their education to become state-certified journeymen electricians.

“I was really nervous when [Nugent] interviewed me because I was in treatment at the time,” Ammon says, figuring he’d be passed over because of his struggle with substance abuse. “But she looked me straight in the eyes and just nodded her head.”

When he got the offer, despite his rocky past, “That made me feel so good,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘From now on, they’ve got my full dedication.’”

In Colorado, 49 percent of all jobs are known as “middle-skill jobs”—one of 11 sectors requiring a GED but not a four-year college degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that in 20 years, 47 percent of all US jobs will still be middle-skilled, since building, plumbing, and wiring cities cannot be outsourced. But Colorado has struggled to find enough skilled tradesmen to keep up with the meteoric pace of Denver’s population growth.

So in addition to leading statewide workforce initiatives like Build Colorado and Skills to Compete, Nugent began reaching out to their charity partners—Denver Rescue Mission, Peer One, Stout Street Foundation—to find more electricians.

When they started the apprenticeship, they had low expectations. “If we get a 25 percent stick [employee retention] rate, we’ll be happy,” Nugent recalls thinking upon launching the program. “Now we’re in our fifth year. I just ran the statistics the other day. We’re at an 85 percent stick rate. They’re ready to work. They’re excited.”

The three keys to success, says apprentice program manager Brad Boswell, are attendance, attitude, and the ability to learn mechanical skills. “If they can do those things, I can make them into an electrician.” Some apprentices who have become journeymen have—in four years—gone from homelessness or addiction to making upwards of $50,000 per year.

After one of the many Weifield fundraisers for a community partner, a teary-eyed mother approached Nugent. “You gave my son a chance,” she said. “He was on his last leg. Nobody believed in him. But you did.”

A Conduit of Hope

“I pray that people see the good we’re trying to accomplish here through the workplace,” Nugent says.

Nugent’s Christian faith began in fourth grade, when she would hop on a Sunday school bus every week to attend church. Though nurtured by church and youth ministries, it was her mother, Rosemarie Craig, an executive at United Airlines and single mother, who gave Nugent a work ethic and vision for the good that business could do in the lives of others.

Today, she is a pillar of support to many employees who come from broken homes. “People start gravitating to you because they see you’re stable and sound, but they don’t realize that it’s your faith.” She’s also become an ethics gauge at her company for everybody from executives facing tough decisions on high-profile projects to apprentices contemplating divorce.

Nugent believes being a woman in a male-majority industry allows her to have conversations that many men couldn’t. “I have meetings with developers, executives, and other owners and usually guide it to some sort of eternal piece,” she says. “Most guys would just talk projects and numbers. But I can pull off that conversation because I’m a woman. It’s my challenge; it’s kind of fun.”

Through these conversations, two of her business partners have become Christians.

“I could live in a little bubble, in my comfortable Christian community,” Nugent says, “but here I [reach] a little bit of everybody, people I normally wouldn’t share life with. I hear their stories and help them find a home.

“Our buildings are really cool, but at the end of the day, it’s about the people. Jesus gave us community to serve each other.”

Rhythms of Rest

Nugent’s husband, Jack, owns an auto transportation company, is a NASCAR driver, and hunts on the weekends. As they raise their two children and excel in their professions, I expected to find a trace of exhaustion in her voice from the demands of work, life, and family.

Instead, Nugent shared with me a set of simple rhythms of rest, prayer, and dedication to her calling to be a wife, mother, and business leader.

As one of Denver’s most networked women, she turns off her phone every Sunday. “It can wait until Monday,” Nugent says. Her emails are brief, her social media presence is minimal, and she takes vacations with her family over the summers.

And when she considers a less busy life, she simply prays for direction. “Every time I pray about it, I say, ‘God, maybe I’m not supposed to be here. Am I supposed to do something else?’ But each time, God brings in a new relationship with somebody who’s having a tough time. For now, God wants me here.”

She also is committed to both her husband and two kids as well as her “work family.” “I’m on the front end of this ship, closing deals,” she says. “And if we don’t win deals, we can’t provide for all the families here. And so I balance that with, ‘I’d like to be home for dinner.’”

“As a woman in this industry, it’s easy to be soft. I’m not the construction guy’s guy. But I can be totally different because I’m a woman.”

“She really cares about us,” says Justin Hales.

And as Nugent quietly transforms the trades in Denver, the work of her hands is giving light to a new generation of electricians.

This article first appeared in Christianity Today, the first in a new column entitled “The Work of Our Hands.” I’m writing this column with HOPE International’s Chris Horst, with whom I’ve written about about manual labor and have contributed to This Is Our City. The article first appeared under the title “Light for Electricians: How Christians Bring Hope to Business.” 

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CulturePoliticsWork

The MLK Option

 

Tim Keller once said we’re now living in the autumn of Christianity’s influence in the West: the leaves are falling to the ground and winter is approaching.

For many of us, the cold wind that reminds of us the coming winter storm is the loss of religious freedom so many evangelicals see in American life today.

A Christian student group at Vanderbilt University loses official school recognition; Chick-Fil-A gets grilled by the Denver City Council for trying to move into theDenver International Airport; in California an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship is forced to elect non-Christian leaders.

Many evangelicals feel like a cat backed into a corner. A combination of fear and outbursts of rage (usually on our Twitter feeds and Facebook pages) often define our response.

Times have changed. Christians committed to the public implications of their faith are now a minority in American life. 

Today many Christians are frantically searching to find a way to live in American society without cultural power.

New options are being proposed.

For example, Rod Dreher, the conservative editorial writer, has suggested the “Benedict Option. Keep the flame of faith alive in private communities as the larger culture deteriorates. Though I’m not sure Benedict — who believed his monastic communities were essentially a missionary endeavor — would opt for this route, I’m not sure how this option works with the essential Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord of all.”

In response, Michael Gerson, columnist for the Washington Post, has suggested the “Wilberforce Option,” which advocates for defending human rights in the seats of power. Yet the “Wilberforce Option” assumes Christians actually have power to change laws, which seems to be less true with each passing year — and has been untrue of Christians of ethnic minorities for centuries.

Where in church history should we look for faithful, public responses to persecution, discrimination, and marginalization? I suggest we look to the preeminent expression of public faith in American history: the American Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps moving forward, we should embrace a distinctly American legacy: The MLK Option.

The MLK Option

Instead of a non-stop protest against unfairness or unequal treatment, we’d be wise to embrace Martin Luther King Jr’s model of social change and cultural witness. MLK can help the white church see what has been true for hundreds of years for the black church: the meaning of a faithful public life without cultural power.

Now more than ever the entire American church needs to come and learn at the feet of MLK’s counter-cultural, yet deeply Christian, vision of nonviolent love, even for our enemies.

In an age of caustic political debates and divided communities, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words echo as true today as they did a half century ago: “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil. The greatest way to do that is love.”

What would the way of love look like for evangelicals in America today? Here are four places we could start:

1. Acknowledge that Christians are a minority in American culture (and this isn’t going to change any time soon).

What does it mean to be a minority people in a majority culture? The black church could be a wise counselor to white churches that are now experiencing this for the first time.

Suffering and lament choruses, like the blues, might need to become just as common as praise and worship songs. Being prepared to respond to discrimination with dignity may be just as important to church discipleship as quarterly marriage seminar. I admit, as a white evangelical myself, I have a lot to learn here.

But it’s important to first recognize that we’re not going to “take America back for God” and become a majority culture any time soon. That ship has sailed. As MLK said in 1956, “We must prepare to live in a new world.”

2. Embrace the central principle of Martin Luther King’s leadership: love your enemies. 

After centuries of oppression, public shame, and suffering, it’s incredible that MLK could conjure such character to counsel African Americans “to meet the forces of hate with the power of love…We’ve got to learn not to hit back. We must learn to love the white man.”

This makes me wonder: could Christians be known centrally for their acts of grace in American culture?

To do this would require us to bring gourmet meals to pro-choice co-workers; to pray deeply and honestly for our political leaders of that other political party (whether that be Democrat or Republican); it would mean finding those we despise in our neighborhoods and treating them as if they were Christ himself.

In the famous words of Abraham Lincoln, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

“Love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” is not an impossible ethic.  It is a logical plan of action for a persecuted minority.

3. Expect to suffer. 

In September 1958, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta accompanied Ralph Abernathy to the courthouse.  Abernathy had been assaulted by police and spent several days in the hospital.

As King began to explain their reason for coming, two officers raced up to King, grabbed him and yelled, “Boy, you done it. Let’s go.” King later recalled, “The police tried to break my arm. They grabbed my collar and tried to choke me…When they got me to the cell, they kicked me in.”

King endured injustice at the hands of those in power in order to awaken the conscience of America. He suffered for his cause. We should be prepared to do the same.

Very few white evangelicals in America have ever experienced this kind of persecution for their faith. But should the day come, and it might, suffering for doing what’s right is perhaps the most powerful act of public witness possible.

“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult,” the apostle Peter commands us, “On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called.”

4. Remain resolutely hopeful. 

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The forces that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage…This requires the exercise of a creative will that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.”

We need not despair over American culture, nor believe that we will return to a golden age of American Christianity.

We have lost cultural power, but to live in the fullness of Christ requires neither influence nor power. It merely means we are willing to take up our cross and walk in the way of the Suffering Servant.

In the end, the goal for Christians in American culture today is not triumph but love.

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EconomyWork

Banking Alone

 

Recently I received an urgent plea from Mike, a young investment banker in New York.

Mike had just graduated with his BA in financial economics from Columbia University. Having read my review of Kevin Roose’s Young Money, he knew that investment banking meant 100 hour work weeks, acidic professional environments, and often working for the kinds of banks that Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone in 2009 called, “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

Mike knew he needed to prepare spiritually before jumping into a position even as a junior analyst. Before he started his job, he wrote me in an email, “I’m taking advantage of this in-between phase to search for ways to sustain some semblance of a devotional rhythm once my time becomes exceptionally scarce in the near future.”

Mike then confessed the reason for reaching out to me. With utter humility, he wrote, “I’ve been on the hunt for someone, anyone, whether a notable figure or otherwise, who is a force in their craft and who lives a purposeful life of working to usher in the fullness of God’s kingdom in the financial capital of the world so that I can emulate their practices.” Mike was searching for a guide, whether in history or alive today, who could help him navigate through the treacherous waters of a soul-suffocating industry — and leverage capital markets as a force for good.

But after searching for books on Christianity and investment banking, he came up empty- handed. “Nearly all of my own personal discipleship has come from books,” Mike confessed. “I just haven’t had many great leaders in my life (until recently)—so I was tempted to think that I’d find someone who has written something. My approach hasn’t worked.”

After I read that line, my heart sank.

Here Mike had the foresight to see that work isn’t morally neutral, and that working in his industry will present both deep temptations as well as opportunities. And so he searched for mentors who could guide him. But he found none.

He felt alone.

Mike then concluded by saying, “The last line in your review says ‘perhaps it’s time for more Christians to head straight into finance,’ which I obviously agree with. But where will industry relevant discipleship come from when we get there? If you have any resources for me, I would hugely appreciate them.”

After I read this email from Mike this past fall, I felt a resolute conviction to finish building the 5280 Fellowship.

Mike was humble and wise enough to reach out for wisdom on how live out his faith in his work — but he also was isolated from those who could speak truth into his profession. Depending on that path he takes moving forward, he could either leverage billions of dollars of capital to fuel healthy businesses and bless communities around the world — or end up a disillusioned, exhausted, depressed spreadsheet jockey who measures his personal value as a human being in dollar figures. The decisions he makes about his work life will affect him forever. 

The 5280 Fellowship won’t be a silver bullet for all our working woes. But I think it can provide young professionals like Mike a broader theology that touches even investment banking; a community of discernment focused on morally thorny professional issues; a network of like-minded friends working in diverse sectors across the city; practical way to engage the hard issues of our city; and a disposition to listen to God’s voice in the midst of trials.

Mike is taking a noble path. He’s chosen neither retreat (condemning a “godless, money-obsessed” industry), nor accommodation (adopting the prevailing secular values of his profession). He’s headed straight into the darknesses as a bearer of light (Matt. 5:14). After I read his email, I couldn’t help but admire his courage.

I think it’s time we joined him and started journeying this path together.

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Work

Guest Column for the Boulder Daily Camera: “Moving west for meaningful work”

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Boulder Daily Camera on January 27, 2016. 

Erik Nelson, a former VP with a large financial service company, is on the hunt for meaningful work.

He recently moved from Texas to Colorado to find a job in the nonprofit sector, hoping to discover a career with more than monetary benefits.

But after a few months, his search became a maze. He recently asked me, “Honestly, can work be anything other than mundane, routine,  and pressure packed?” In other words, isn’t there more to life that working a 9-5—and then escaping to the mountains for the weekend?

Like the 19th century gold rush, Erik is one of thousands of people are flocking to Colorado. As the economic center of the United States shiftswestward, cities like Boulder are brimming with new faces – especially millenials. We seem to be following Henry David Thoreau’s prophetic words, “Eastward I go only by force, but westward I go free. This is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen.”

But why come to a city like Boulder? Why did Colorado gain over 100,000 residents last year? Is it our snow-kissed slopes? Our booming craft brewing industry? Dreams of trading the congestion of New York for a leisurely bike ride to work in the Colorado sunshine?

Certainly those perks play a role. But I have a thesis: what we’re really longing for is meaningful work. And for most, that search is riddled with anxiety. 

In generations past, many took jobs merely as a means to a paycheck. Sign on with a large company, stay for 30 years, and find fulfillment on the weekend. But the new norm is to find a job with a social mission.

For example, JJ Oslund of Boulder left his job in human resources at Target to join the Global Accelerator Network, a network of short-term schools for entrepreneurs, because “I was in a system where I couldn’t effect change. I knew I wanted my work to make an impact.”

The American historian and broadcaster Studs Turkel described this longing well,“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying.”

If work is just a dollars-for-hours swap, then we’re spending nearly 100,000 hours of our lives like Sisyphus — pushing a rock up hill only to see it roll down again. It’s no wonder 75 percent of young adults want to live a more meaningful life.

The trouble is, most aren’t finding what they’re looking for. The average job tenure for millennials is a staggeringly short 16 months. For the rest of the market, it’s only 4.6 years. The search for meaning in work is elusive; as soon as one opportunity knocks, thoughts creep in of a better job around the corner.

Tech entrepreneurs often have the toughest time finding satisfaction in their work. A recent survey by TINYpulse, a specialist in monitoring employee satisfaction, found only 19% of tech employees say they are happy in their jobs, and only 17% feel valued in their work.

Tensions with work are often hardest for women with children. Jesse Minassian, a mother of two and writer living in Aurora, says, “I love what I do. Yet working from home while homeschooling my kids makes it hard. Between working, housekeeping, mothering, teaching and being a wife, I never feel a sense of being ‘finished’ with my responsibilities.”

At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, these are the kinds of tensions we explore. Tensions between faith and work, aimlessness and purpose, family and career, what is and what should be.

Denver founder and city builder John Evans (1814-1897), whose efforts to connect the Denver Pacific railway to Cheyenne saved the metro area from obscurity, once said, “It is the imperative of the Almighty that we shall do all the good we can.” For Evans, his work in medicine, business and higher education, was driven by a deeper meaning than mere personal success.

Evans didn’t just have a career. He had a vocation. A person choosing a career balances financial and psychological benefits with professional advancement. But someone with a vocation obeys a summons, even if it leads to obscurity or suffering. The good of others trumps personal comfort.

Tensions in our work will remain. But hope for the masses moving West for meaningful work won’t be found in self-actualization but instead in the freedom of self-forgetfulness.

Jeff Haanen is the Executive Director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a Colorado based educational nonprofit, and co-founder of the 5280 Fellowship

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Craftsmanship & Manual LaborWork

Want an Affordable Home? Thank a Craftsman

 

What is causing soaring home prices in Denver right now? This is the question on many would-be buyers’ minds. In June, the average home price in Denver was $366,419 — the highest in Colorado state history.

The Denver City Council has spent significant time trying to find solutions to the shortage of affordable housing. (Recently, The Denver Post reported that Mayor Michael Hancock wants to raise $15 million a year to subsidize projects as part of a much larger plan.) But how did we get here?

My wife and I asked our real estate agent, Trish Hopkins of RE/MAX, the same question. As we sat down to coffee, expressing our woeful prospects of ever finding a house we could afford, Hopkins said at least one problem is obvious. Inventory. She told us the average number of houses on the market for the Denver area is around 12,000 at any given time. Right now, it’s less than 3,500. With Colorado’s population boom, it just comes down to math.

So why don’t we just build more houses?

I recently asked that question to the CEO of Shea Homes, Chetter Latcham. He shared my bewilderment at the historic prices, but added that he has nearly 100 houses just waiting to be built. There simply aren’t enough people to build them. 

The shortage of skilled manual labor in Colorado has been a challenge for some time. The Denver Business Journal wrote about it nearly a year ago. Yet the shortage of skilled tradesmen is not limited to Colorado. Manpower Group reported in 2014 that skilled labor jobs are among the hardest to fill internationally. In 2013, Forbes reported that the skills gap will worsen as nearly one-third of all tradesmen are 55 and over and will retire without nearly enough young craftsman to take their places.

Workers are certainly moving to Denver, but not to become plumbers, electricians or contractors. A Brookings Institution study showed that from 2010-2013, Denver attracted the second most young adults (25-34-year-olds) of any American city (just behind Houston, and tied with San Francisco). Great, right? Well, it looks like most young adults would rather work in other industries. The Colorado Home Builders Association sees this and has tried to combat the labor shortage with a new training program for young tradesmen.

Now the labor shortage is growing into an economic problem. Many millennials and transplants of other generations are priced out of the Denver home market. Without more affordable housing — and without more skilled laborers to build those houses — Colorado’s economy can’t continue to attract high quality talent to sustain long-term growth. And, we risk losing talented young workers to more affordable places like the Midwest.

The Root of the Problem

So, if Denver desperately needs houses that can be built by skilled tradesmen who are paid a good wage, then why the persistent shortage of manual laborers?

I have a theory: We’ve devalued the American Craftsman. I’ve written about this for Christianity Today (“The Work of Their Hands”) and the academic journal The City (“How We Lost the Craftsman”). Still, to date we’ve underemphasized how deeply biased our educational systems are against the trades.

Pursuing a four-year liberal arts degree has become not only the norm, but essentially the definition of the purpose of education. David Coleman, a former McKinsey & Company consultant, president of the College Board, and one of the architects of Common Core, has said that he intends to “help the [Common Core] movement towards agreement that college- and career-readiness is the goal of K−12 education in this country.” The strong implication is: go to a four year college or we’ve failed to prepare you for a good life.

A Different Kind of Intelligence 

I recently had dinner with my friend Jim DeWeese, a small electrical contractor here in Denver. He’s thriving: His business is growing, and he has recently hired his first employee. But when we spoke he shared with a tinge of shame in his voice that it took nearly a decade for him to get through community college. And it was difficult the whole time. He isn’t a classroom and lecture learner. He is gifted to work with his hands.

But culturally, we don’t value the intelligence and skill of those who work with their hands. Consider this passage from Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod in his short story “Closing Down for Summer,” where a miner reflects on his dirty, yet beautiful, work:

“That they might journey down with me in the dripping cage to the shaft’s bottom or walk the eerie tunnels of the drifts that end in walls of staring stone. And that they might see how articulate we are in the accomplishment of what we do. That they might appreciate the perfection of our drilling and the calculations of our angles and the measuring of our powder, and that they might understand that what we know through eye and ear and touch is of a finer quality than any information garnered by the most sophisticated of mining engineers with all their elaborate equipment.”

DeWeese, like this miner, exhibits a skill and intelligence that is displayed at the intersection between mind and hand; it is intuitive and spacial. They both have been called to be craftsmen. Why do people like Jim feel compelled to apologize to take up the work of a craftsman?

Why, when our crumbling American infrastructure is longing for craftsman, have we shamed the pursuit of “vocational school” or a career in the trades as second rate? When we live in a culture where lattes are served up by English lit majors on federal assistance, why have we failed to realize that craftsmanship is not only a good way to make a competitive income, but it’s a noble way of life? 

The Remedy

Maybe a better question is: What will motivate more young men and women to go into the trades? 

There have been a few efforts to address this issue, such as Build Colorado and Skills to Compete, two Colorado initiatives designed to fill the skilled labor shortage. But most efforts fall short. Many only address compensation: Choose the trades because you can make more money than your college-educated peers. But this approach has limited results. After all, people are not motivated only by money, as Daniel Pink tell us. (His thesis is that people are ultimately motivated by mastery, autonomy and purpose.)

As Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore professor, wrote in a recent New York Times article, “The truth is that we are not money-driven by nature. Studies show that people are less likely to help load a couch into a van when you offer a small payment than when you don’t, because the offer of pay makes their task a commercial transaction rather than a favor to another human being.” Research proves that people want their work to be more than an hours for dollars transaction — they seek the chance to be creative, to do their work with excellence and to serve a greater purpose in the world.

Humanities 101

To provide enough tradesmen for America’s economy, we need more than numeric arguments. We need the humanities. To influence more young people to take up a career in the trades, I believe we need to elevate three aspects of the trades: intelligence, beauty and vocation. 

1. We’ve overlooked the intelligence of the skilled tradesmen, assuming that office jobs are where intellect thrives. Mike Rose, author of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, argues we’ve seen the laborer “muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no thought bright behind the eye, no image that links hands and brain.” In contrast, Rose sees the lightening-fast decisions of a waitress, the complex spatial mathematics of a carpenter and the aesthetic dexterity of the hair stylist as work to be praised and respected.

2. A vision of craftsmanship is directly connected to beauty. Before the industrial revolution, a city’s artists and its tradesmen were often the same thing: Each made structures for both  utility and beauty. The medieval guilds had high standards. Weavers, painters, metalsmiths, bakers, butchers, soapmakers and leatherworkers contributed not just to the local economy, but also to a city’s social fabric. Those who proved technical competence in the trades often entered the social elite. Rightly so — they contributed significantly to the well-being and beauty of a city.

3. The vocation of the craftsman is not only noble, but Christians remember that Jesus himself was a tekton, a craftsman. Theology gives a new honor and dignity to doing the work that God Incarnate himself did for thirty years. In contrast to the Greeks, who saw manual work as the work of slaves (and mental work as the proper work of philosophers and the like), the first churches iassigned dignity to everyday work, an idea incomparable in the Roman world. They reasoned, if God himself is  the architect and builder of the heavenly city (Hebrews 11:10), should we, too, not be willing to do all kinds of work?

Work, in the Christian vision, is ultimately about serving God by loving your neighbor. And as it turns out, this moral vision is what motivates the work of people across industries. Again, Schwartz writes:

“We need to emphasize the ways in which an employee’s work makes other people’s lives at least a little bit better (and, of course, to make sure that it actually does make people’s lives a little bit better). The phone solicitor is enabling a deserving student to go to a great school. The hospital janitor is easing the pain and suffering of patients and their families. The fast-food worker is lifting some of the burden from a harried parent.”

What we think about work matters to individual workers and whole networks of workers — that is companies and  the economy. And the answers to our questions about affordable housing can be found in our best thinking about motivation, work and purpose.

Photo credit: Where have all the home builders gone? 

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ArtCraftsmanship & Manual LaborCultureEconomyEducationFinanceMediaNonprofitPoliticsScienceTechnologyTheologyWorkWorld

Announcement: Launch of the 5280 Fellowship

Today is a big day.

Today my colleagues and I at Denver Institute for Faith & Work, in partnership with Gordon College, announce the launch of the 5280 Fellowship, a 9 month experience for emerging leaders beginning in the fall of 2016.

After years of planning, design and forging partnerships, each element of the program has fallen into place. And now what we are now offering is, I believe, one of the best faith-based fellowship programs in the US, and perhaps Denver’s premiere leadership experience for young professionals.

I know those are big claims. But I believe the 5280 Fellowship has the potential to deeply impact Denver for generations to come. And I’m not alone.

Some of Denver’s finest pastors – like Robert Gelinas (Colorado Community Church), Brad Strait (Cherry Creek Presbyterian), Rob Brendle (Denver United), Brian Brown (Park Church) and Hunter Beaumont (Fellowship Denver) – believe the Fellowship can be a life-changing experience for young professionals who want to deeply engage themes of calling, work, and culture.

Young professionals like Steven Strott (Cool Planet Energy Systems) and Amy Wofford (The Commons at Champa) see the value of connecting to a community of faithful leaders in Denver and articulate how important work is to the flourishing of a city.

And Dr. Michael Lindsay, the president of Gordon College who has deeply studied the world’s most effective leadership program, the White House Fellowship, believes this program, which has been modeled largely on his research, will give young professionals:

  • “deep relationships that span the city,”
  • a vision for how “the gospel provides a kind of connective tissue, helping us to see how does science and technology relate to the arts and entertainment,”
  • and a “catalyst in your career for the prospering not only of the wider culture, but also your life.”

Needless to say, if you’re asking big questions about the role of Christians in culture; if you’re interested in the relevance of the gospel to all of life; if you’re wondering about your own calling; and if you’re up for a challenge that could catalyze your career — then I encourage you to learn more at an upcoming info session.

Some of you may also be interested why we built the program as we did. On this blog, over the next several weeks, I’d like to peel back the veil on the principles underlying the Fellowship and why we built the program as we did. Blog posts will cover topics like:

  • Why Some Doctors Read the History of Opera: Leadership and Liberal Arts Thinking
  • EQ: Why Being a Good Conversationalist Might Be More Important Than an MBA
  • Why Nothing Before Age 20 Matters (And Why Your 20s-40s are the Most Critical to Career Success)
  • Calling: Learning to Listen to the Caller
  • Spelunking, Cave Formations and Culture Change
  • Our Common Longing: Meaningful Work
  • The Church in the World: Reformation, not Revolution
  • The Future of Higher Education: Friendships and the Information Deluge
  • The Golden Web: Mentors, Networks, and the Hidden Leadership Curriculum
  • Mission: Larger Than A Two Week Trip Overseas
  • Scattered: Being the Church Monday-Saturday
  • Significant Work: Developing a Taste for Tackling Big Problems

The launch of any new educational experience is really just the beginning of a conversation. This is a conversation on what it means to be fully human in this time and this place. I’d like to take the chance to invite you into this community.

I’d love to hear any and all feedback as the conversation grows. I hope you’ll consider joining me on this adventure into our own souls, the life of our city, and the heart of God.

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CultureTheologyWork

What Greg Thompson Can Teach Us About Living as Christians in Cities

Occasionally you meet somebody that shines with such virtue that you are, perhaps for the first time, made aware of your own poverty of spirit.

When I met Greg Thompson during our Thriving Cities symposium in late October, I almost immediately felt the weight of his glory. Before speaking to the crowd, he almost desperately asked me to let him know if there was anybody I knew at the event who had a particular hurt or pain that he could pray for. Unlike my concerns (Will the event be a success? Will people “like” the evening?), it seemed to me that his vision for the renewal of cities was almost completely driven by an other-worldly love.

It’s rare that I go back over a talk that a DIFW speaker has given several times to take notes, underline, and to pray. But when Greg spoke about our “shared wound and shared calling” to reimagine what a virtuous civic life might look like, it was not just my mind, but through sitting under his teaching, quietly my heart was drawn to the beauty of his vision.

Here are six movements Greg Thompson encouraged us to make as Christian people living in cities today. 

1. We need to move from a posture of victimhood to servanthood.

“It’s true, of course, that [Christians] are in fact an increasingly marginal people, a trend that looks to continue for a really long while — like a hundred years probably. And it is true that simply by virtue of having moral norms that we cling to, we can be seen as a moral threat to the aspirations of our nation. But it’s also true that Christ is risen, and that while we may be marginalized, we can never be victimized, for heaven’s sake. And to the contrary, we don’t live in this world either as masters or as victims but as servants.”

Fear is rampant in American culture, says Pulitzer-Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson. And I’ve felt this fear too. Just saying you’re a Christian can be a recipe for career sabotage or becoming socially ostracized.

But fear is not a Christian habit of mind  love is. Even as Christians are losing public influence and public voice, Greg reminded me that night at the event that we may be pushed to the margins, but we need never adopt a mentality of victimhood. We are here neither as “culture-shapers” (masters) nor culture-defenders (victims)  we are simply servants.  Those who have a deep, abiding hope in the risen Christ, and a enduring reason to love those with whom we live.

2. We need to move from hostility to hospitality.

“One of the most painfully evident aspects of the Church’s life  at least in public  is our fear and our contempt of those who differ from us. It is true that we do have and we must have deep differences with our neighbors. That’s what it means to have convictions in a pluralist age. And it is true that some of our neighbors are going to be hostile to us because we’re Christians… But it’s also true that God loved you and me while we were enemies. Our neighbors, every single one of them, is made in his image and they have an irreducible dignity. And we have to be the people  the poets  who can recognize the beauty where it is and welcome them in.”

As Greg said this, I was convicted. Do I assume that I’ll be persecuted for my faith in a secular city, and is that why I’m always defending myself before a conversation has ever begun? Why is it that as a shrinking minority I feel the need to assert my “rights” to live a Christian? How might I simply open my workplace, my office, my dining room table and share my life with those that disagree with me? This is what Christ has first done for me  yet what I also find so uncomfortable in the reality of my Tuesday mornings  and Saturday evenings.

Yet inviting in the stranger is perhaps one of the most powerful things people of Christian faith can do in this pluralistic age. 

3. We need to move from competition to collaboration.

One of the most disappointing afflictions in contemporary Christianity is the way that we seem more eager to build a brand for ourselves than to build a common good for us all…

“It is actually as we join together that we grow up into what [Paul] calls the full stature of mature, Christian personhood. And because of this, we’re called to labor diligently to situate our gifts not simply in relationship to our own personal sense of calling, but to our brothers and sisters — to not simply get up in the morning and ask ‘What do I want to do?’ but ask ‘What needs to be done?’ ‘Who’s doing it?’ and ‘How can I join them?’”

I’m guilty of this. We all are. Brands must be built  it’s the only way we can market our products in a noisy world. I get this. But can the boundaries between brands and competitors melt a bit? Can we find ways to work together with rival schools, rival tech companies, rival businesses  even “rival” churches  for the good of all? (Could we even find ways to bless our competitors?)

Finding a way to live in distinctive conviction yet humble collaboration is a huge challenge for the church today. And for me personally as I try to walk the narrow path of both conviction and compassion.

4. We need to move from an emphasis on the individual to the institutional.

Social healing in a disintegrated age cannot  it literally cannot  be a product of focusing on individuals, or even of focusing on individuals in aggregate and hoping by some math it will add up to a transformed society. It doesn’t work that way.

“We have to have an institutional horizon to our love. And the reason for this is because the social order that we inhabit and all the individual lives that we have are inescapably institutional in nature. We are formed by institutions at every point, and so if we’re going to be a people who reimagine a civic ecology, we’re going to have to take institutions very serious and learn that it’s not unspiritual to do that.”

Government employees, professional service providers, waitresses, nurses, engineers and even pastors are formed not only by individuals, but by the shared values, ethos and pathos that grow up in groups of people. Renewed cities require renewed institutions.  Perhaps if we begin the counter-cultural work of thinking institutionally, our witness and service to the city start to take hold.

5. We need to move from the merely political to the public.

Politics does not in fact create [culture change], but actually expresses a larger cultural system of which it is a part. And so politics emerges out of this larger network of interpenetrating institutions that I’m calling the ‘public,’ or economics and politics and art and medicine and religion. All of these things together are forming an ecology. And because of this, we have to renounce our obsession with merely political change, because that is not how social healing works.”

Politics is downstream from culture. Because this is true, efforts to change the culture through electing the right officials will nearly always fail. Instead, culture springs up from an ecosystem of work  oil & gas, health care, finance, education, religion, restaurants and hotels.

Politics is important. It always has been for people of Christian faith. But being people of Christian faith in cities does not start in Washington D.C. It starts at work.

6. We need to move from a focus on cultural triumph to a focus on the common good.

“One of the saddest features of our current cultural setting, which is definitely on grim display during the political season, is our tendency to think of the goal of all of our labors is actually the goal of conquest. To think that we’re trying to win. This aspiration is to defeat our neighbors in a high-stakes culture war…

“But listen: It is true that we serve a king  King Jesus  who right now is enthroned on heaven. Right now. Ruling all things. And as an expression of his reign sends light and wind on the righteous and on the wicked alike. He’s giving gifts to people who are opposed to him.

“And what that means is, if that’s true of him, if we seek to inhabit his kingdom, where we seek the good not simply of ourselves, but of our neighbors… We are not trying to win; we are trying to love. Because of this, as we think about what it means to engage the city and to reimagine a civic ecology, we have to remember that our goal is not cultural conquest; it is to seek the common good.”

We are not trying to win; we are trying to love.” This is what I meant earlier by the beauty of Greg’s vision. He’s on to something  a way of civic responsibility, yet also one of deep peace and deep joy.

In the end, the way of love is the path toward a renewed city.

This post first appeared on denverinstitute.org. 

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NonprofitWork

Stories of Hope: A Reason to Be Generous

 

Today is Colorado Gives Day, Colorado’s biggest one-day event to give to your favorite nonprofit. As I take a look at the past year, I can see all kinds of reasons to give to Denver Institute for Faith & Work (but hey, since I’m the Executive Director, I’m biased!). But perhaps one of the best reasons to give is the stories of hope we’ve told this past year.

As you give today to your favorite charities, enjoy these stories of men and women in Colorado being a cultural witness to the “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) through their work. Merry Christmas!

Jim DeWeese, Owner of Trademark Electric, shares about his calling to hire a man from transitional housing and the satisfaction he finds in being a part of “God’s redemptive story” as an electrician.

Jim DeWeese – Trademark Electric from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

 

Ellen Snyder, a 91 year old volunteer, shares about her calling to serve at the St. Francis Center and live a more redemptive retirement.

Ellen Snyder – Saint Francis Center from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

 

Trevor Lee, pastor at Trailhead Church in Littleton, shares about his calling to pastoral ministry, and why he’s found joy in helping other men and women find their callings.

Trevor Lee – Trailhead Church from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

 

Matt Turner, CFO at MorningStar Senior Living, shares about how his company serves seniors and gives them a chance to live out their own callings in the last third of life.

 

Helen Hayes, a mother and former investment manager, shares about her struggle to balance work and family – and the joy of knowing she lives ultimately for an “Audience of One.”

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