Jeff Haanen




How should I choose a career?

Today most career counselors and well-meaning friends would respond to this question with: What are you good at? What do you love to do? What’s your personality type? Where do you want to live? What kind of lifestyle do you want? These are good, normal questions. Yet I have to wonder, are the goals of self-fulfillment and maximizing my personal potential the best way to think about a lifetime of work?

These views are hardly uncommon. According to the Barna Group, the top career priority for millennials (I’m one of them) is “finding a career they’re passionate about” (42%). David Kinnamen, the CEO of Barna, says about millennials, They cite working for themselves, a job adaptable to their strengths, having a lot of variety, and the freedom to take risks as essential career priorities, in addition to being able to fund their personal interests.” He adds they also have a strong desire to make a social impact through their job. Somewhat tongue in cheek, he remarks Young adults want to make their own hours, come to work in their jeans and flip-flops, and save the world while they’re at it.”

Despite these good intentions, for many of us (not just millennials) job choice has become little more than a calculating process of maximizing psychological or financial gain while minimizing discomfort. Career selection is a process that begins with the self and ends with the self. And if I’m not satisfied, just change jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker today changes jobs every 4.4 years.  We’ve embraced the logic behind William Henry Ernest’s poem Invictus:I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Consider the example of Frances Perkins, the former Labor Secretary under Franklin Roosevelt and a key player behind the New Deal. Perkins attended Mount Holyoke College, a member of the class of 1902. At Mount Holyoke, the end goal of education was not only knowledge, but virtue. She enjoyed history and literature, but she struggled in chemistry. So one of her teachers, Nellie Goldthwaite, badgered her into majoring in chemistry, with the idea that if she could overcome her greatest weakness, she could handle any challenge life threw at her. So she majored in chemistry.

Having been formed by Mount Holyoke—a college that sent hundreds of women to missionary service in places like India, Iran, and Africa under the motto “Do what nobody else wants to do; go where nobody else wants to go,”—a vision of sacrificial service was embedded in her at an early age. Self-denial, not self-fulfillment, was the bedrock of her vocational vision.


Yet it wasn’t until 1911, when Perkins watched in horror as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground, that she received the “call within the call.” As she watched hundreds of workers desperately trapped by fire on the ninth floor (over 47 people jumped to their death from a window to avoid being roasted by the flames), Perkins made a life-long commitment to advocate for worker’s rights. She felt summoned by a force outside herself, not by a desire for “success” or to accomplish her personal “life plan.”

Her calling led her into politics, which culminated in her joining FDR’s cabinet. She took the job on the condition that FDR would commit to a broad array of social insurance policies: massive unemployment relief, minimum wage laws, the abolition of child labor, and a Social Security program for the elderly. Her entrance into government followed her calling, not vice versa.

Politics took a toll on her, and she often felt as if she would buckle under the pressure. To strengthen her soul, she would frequently make trips to All Saints Convent in Catonsville, Maryland, where she would pray two or three days at a time. In one particularly stormy season, after she had been accused of being a Communist, she said of her trips to All Saints Convent,I have discovered the rule of silence is one of the most beautiful things in the world. It preserves one from the temptation of the idle world, the fresh remark, the wisecrack, the angry challenge…It is really quite remarkable what it does for one.” (She preferred to use the word “one” to “I” to refer to herself. Self-effacement even worked its way into her vocabulary.)

In David Brooks’ brilliant new book The Road to Character, he writes, A vocation is not a career. A person choosing a career looks for job opportunities and room for advancement. A person choosing a career is looking for something that will provide financial and psychological benefits. If your job or career isn’t working for you, you choose a different one.

A person does not choose a vocation. A vocation is a calling. People generally feel they have no choice in the matter. Their life would be unrecognizable unless they pursued this line of activity.

Vocation in this sense is not doing what you love nor finding the ideal job. It is a response to something already chosen for you. It expects suffering. It doesn’t run from it. When Albert Schweitzer left a successful career in music to become a jungle doctor, he said,Anybody who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll any stones out of his way, and must calmly accepts his lot even if they roll a few more onto it.” Difficulty was to be expected.

Having a vocation is not about fulfilling a personal desire or want, in the sense of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. It’s opening yourself to be used by God as He chooses. Perkins said this mentality develops in “a man who’s more an instrument than an engineer. The prophets of Israel would have called him an instrument of the Lord. The prophets of today could only explain his type of mind in terms of psychology, about which they know so pitiable little.”

Is having a vocation all pain and suffering? By no means. Being devoted to a work that is given to you often is accompanied by a deep, inner joy. As Dorothy Sayers says, there is a deep sense of purpose when working reflects the creative work of the Creator.  A desire to serve God and “the work” is not merely responsive to the ever-changing demands of the community, but is an expression of simply doing a thing worth doing and obeying a call. In such unswerving commitment over the long haul, work takes on a deep, quiet satisfaction that modern job hoppers struggle to understand.

To desire the path of least resistance may be normal, but it is to desire too little. As C.S. Lewis says, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Questions like What are you good at? What do you love to do? What’s your personality type? Where do you want to live? are not inherently wrong. But they should be secondary, or tertiary, to a greater purpose, one which may call us to do things we’re not good at, things we don’t love, that don’t fit with our personality and in a place we may not find ideal.

When Jesus foretold his own death and resurrection in Mark 8, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” How could Jesus, the paragon of human life, suffer and die? Jesus responded to Peter with perhaps the harshest rebuke of the New Testament: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

In our desire for career success and fulfilling our dreams, have we not also set our minds on the things of man? What would it mean to choose a career with a disposition open to God’s purposes, even if it means hardship for a greater purpose beyond ourselves? Could fulfillment actually be found in self-denial instead of self-actualization?

“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.’”


Hearing the Call

[The following blog post was first given as a brief introduction to Palazzo Verdi, the site of our 2015 Women, Work & Calling Event. Two elements of the venue – the Chardin Chandelier and the replica of the prayer labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France – tied in directly to our theme that evening: hearing the call of God.] 

“Oh the beauty of spirit as it rises up adorned with all the riches of the earth!” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic priest, wrote this in his book the Hymn of the Universe. Indeed, the entire creation is singing with the beauty of God. From Mars to parking meters, from the Himalayas to high school soccer practices, the glory of God is present. With us. Here. Now.

Look up.


This is the Chandelier Chardin, created by Lonnie Hanzon and brought to Palazzo Verdi in 2008. I look at this, and I think: “Just look up! And we will see His beauty in all of his creation and in the everyday if we only look up! And he and my spirit will rise to His!”

But as I look up, I think to myself, “Why can’t I see his beauty most days? Many days I’m caught between an un-ending inbox of emails, meetings, and trips in the mini-van.  I live not in heaven, but on earth! Where is heaven between the dirty dishes and the office?

What is the solution?

“Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.” Augustine said this.  And it is by walking that the sorrows of pilgrims through the ages have been solved.

Look down. 


You are now sitting on the Chartres Labyrinth, a recreation of the 13th century Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth in France.

The Middle Ages was a time of pilgrimage. The destination would often be Jerusalem, considered at that time the Center of the World, symbolizing the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet many poor pilgrims, pilgrims like ourselves, could not afford to go to Jerusalem. Maybe they too had to clean the kitchen for the fourth time that day.

So they made a pilgrimage to cathedrals – like the Cathedral at Chartres. Inside the cathedral was a prayer labyrinth, forty feet across, in the nave of the church. Once at Chartres, they walked. They walked the prayer labyrinth, and brought their heart, the questions, the joys and sorrows until they reached the center. Heaven. Where God is.

And they would retrace their steps as they left, once again to enter the “outside world.” Where perhaps heaven might follow.

What draws us here tonight, for an event on women, work and calling? Each of us has a question. What is the answer?

How shall we hear the voice of the Caller?

“It is solved on pilgrimage. It is solved by walking.”


Lincoln on Being a Lawyer

I came across this quote while reading the late Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy Continued, and it was so rich I wanted to pass it on to you:

There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. I say vague, because when we consider to what extent confidence and honors are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonestly is very distinct and vivid. Yet the impression is common, almost universal. Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief—resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgement you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.

Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser—in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough. 

Well, there you have it. In two paragraphs, Abraham Lincoln gives us both the problem with the law and the solution. Society confers upon lawyers the high responsibility of interpreting and upholding the law, without which the justice system would crumble. Yet most people distrust lawyers. When Gallup does its annual poll of public perception of honesty/ethics in the professions, lawyers are toward the bottom, just above advertisers, car salesmen and member of congressmen (many of whom are lawyers!).

Is this deserved? Maybe, maybe not. But all the same, Lincoln says, Don’t yield to this perception. Be honest. And if you can’t be honest while being a lawyer, quit law, and be honest anyway.

Not so easy. To be sure. But he offers practical wisdom to the young lawyer: Discourage litigation. Find compromise. Count the cost. Be a peacemaker.

And have no fear, says America’s greatest president, there will be plenty of business to go around.  Not only will there be legal disputes a plenty because of fallen human nature, but if you were to actually practice these things, clients would likely beat down your door because you’d have the reputation of being the most honest lawyer in town.


Video Release: Eugene Peterson on Vocation

On New Years Eve, 1868, Andrew Carnegie sat alone in his room in the St. Nicholas Hotel in New York. Only 33 years old, he had already been successful beyond his wildest dreams. That year he made $56,110 and had accumulated $400,000 in assets. But his heart was restless.

New Years Eve was a time of sober reflection for Scottish Calvinists. Though an atheist, Carnegie the Scot picked up a pen and wrote that night, “To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery.”

Though he delayed in taking action, that night he committed to get a thorough education, take part in “public matters especially those connected with education and the improvement of the poorer classes” and “choose the life which will be the most elevating in character.”

For many of us, New Years is a time to examine our lives and make plans for next year. Many of us have questions about our work. What am I called to? If it’s not just making money – what’s the purpose of my work? What if I don’t like my job? These are tough questions for any of us. Many of us need a guide.

Today, on New Years Eve, we release four short interviews of Eugene Peterson’s wisdom on work and vocation. If you find yourself with a moment of quiet reflection before 2015, watch these brief videos and ask yourself the questions below. Take time to write in a journal your answers and what you might change in 2015 about your work, your family, or how you spend your time.

I wish you a Happy New Years, and a heart that finds its rest ultimately in Him.

The Role of Work in the Plan of God from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

  • Peterson says that taking a Sabbath “activates” and renews our work. How does weekend rest and worship influence your motivation to work on Monday?
  • In what way is your job “creation work” – work the participates in the creative work of God himself? Could your work next year be more creative?
  • Peterson mentioned that many people feel like they don’t have any worth unless they’re making money. Have you ever felt this? If so, why do you think this is?


Cultivating Vocation from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

  • Peterson said that some write poems, but others are poets; some have jobs as doctors, but others are doctors 24 hours a day. What has God made you “24 hours a day?”
  • Do you have mentors in your life who speak truth you need to hear? Are you mentoring others? 
  • What practices can you integrate into your weekly rhythm in 2015 that help to cultivate a sense of vocation or divine calling? What activities hinder your ability to hear God’s call? 


Suffering in Work from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

  • Peterson says: “Not many people have the ability or the opportunity to have a job that fits them.” Does this describe you? Are there ways to be faithful to Christ in your work even when you’re suffering?
  • Peterson’s dad was a butcher. Though he didn’t particularly enjoy his work, he had “contempt for the hackers who just wanted to get through the day as fast as they could.” Have you felt this way before? Is there a way to serve with excellence even in a job you don’t particularly enjoy? 


Busyness, Sabbath, and Work as a Gift from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

  • Do you find yourself so busy that you feel like you don’t have any control of your life? Why is this?
  • What role does technology play in our busyness? What does a truly restful Sabbath look like for you?
  • Peterson says, “Work is a gift.” How might your attitude change toward your work if you truly believed that your daily work was God’s gift to you? 

Four Sermons on Work

In the past several months, I’ve been honored to give four different sermons on work in the Denver Metro area. If you have some time this week, download them onto your iPhone or iPod (remember those?) and listen on your way to or from work. I’d love to get your feedback.

Here they are. I’ve included the title, time & place, biblical text, description, brief outline, and highlights for your scanning pleasure. Happy listening.

“The Gospel as Public Truth”

Listen Now: The Gospel as Public Truth

Date: July 27, 2014

Location: Fellowship Denver Church

Key Text: Acts 25:23-26:27

Description: Why does it seem like the public worlds of business, politics, technology or art seems so isolated from the world of church? In this sermon, Jeff Haanen explores Paul’s testimony before King Agrippa and Festus in Acts 25-26 to find a model for cultural engagement for our modern culture. Based on Paul’s own call, Jeff explains what it means to be a witness and servant of the gospel of grace in our work and culture today.

Brief Outline:

I. My Story: Does God also care about the public world?

II. Paul testified to the gospel publicly before King Agrippa

III. Modern culture – like ancient Rome – divides public truth from private values

IV. Living out the gospel as public truth: What Jesus didn’t do in his culture

V. Living out the Gospel as public truth: Servant and Witness

Three Highlights:

“Before King Agrippa, Paul testified to the gospel in the most public of places.”

“The early church believed Jesus’ message: Repent, believe the good news. The kingdom of God is near. They refused to privatize their faith because they believed that the first and final affirmation they made about all of reality was that Jesus is Lord.”

“When engaging culture, Jesus didn’t choose the path of the Essene or the Zealot…He chose a third path. That of servant and witness.”

“Wisdom and Work”

Listen Now: Wisdom and Work

Date: July 6, 2014

Location: New Denver Church

Key Text: Ecclesiastes 3:9-13

Description:  With growing student debt, nagging unemployment, and an epidemic of workplace disengagement globally, how should we understand our work? Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, could see the futility of seeing work only as a means to accumulation, ambition, or self-actualization. But he could also see that work was a gift from God, and a way to “do good” while we live. In this sermon, Jeff Haanen unpacks the wisdom of the sages and applies it to our work lives today.

Brief Outline:

I. Globally the world is disengaged from their work

II. Qohelet – the author of Ecclesiastes – saw the futility of accumulation, abmition, and self-actualization through our work

III. Work is a gift.

IV. Work is an opportunity to serve.

Three Highlights:

“Money is not nothing. It’s important. But if it’s the driving factor in work choices, we’ll have found ourselves exchanging the hours of our lives for cars, houses, trips, and REI camping gear that we’ll leave to somebody else.”

“Do what you love. We’ve said it for so long to graduating college seniors it’s become almost gospel. Do what you love. Do what you’re passionate about. Don’t settle for just a job. Follow your dreams. But is this wisdom or just hot air?”

“The door into God’s will for our work is not my talents, my opportunities, or even what the world needs. It is gratitude.”

“Sheep and Goats: Loving the World Through Work”

Listen Now: Sheep and Goats: Loving the World Through Work

Date: November 23, 2014

Location: Littleton Christian Church

Key Text: Matthew 25: 31-46

Description: The parable of the sheep and the goats is one of Jesus’ most well-known calls to justice. Yet what is he talking about when he said “I was hungry, thirsty, and in need of clothes” and you cared for me? In this sermon, Jeff Haanen connects this parable to daily work – the way we serve the needs of others every day. In it he notes the difference between sheep and goats today, and draws lessons for our modern success-oriented culture.

Brief Outline:

I. In this parable, Jesus is not just talking about isolated acts of charity, but instead our work.

II. Goats serve themselves – and ignore the needs of others.

III. Over a lifetime, we actually become either sheep or goats.

Three Highlights:

“What does it take for just a single loaf of bread to feed my hunger? … The difference between me going hungry and me being satisfied by just a loaf of bread is the work of dozens – if not hundreds – of other people. It was people working, serving the needs of others.”

“I believe those whose work is the home, with kids and household work, each of these needs to met almost everyday! I’m hungry! I’m thirsty! I’m sad and lonely! I need clothes on! I’m in prison! Ok…maybe not in prison literally. But certainly in the chains of original sin that must be disciplined regularly.”

“As we take a look at judgement, let’s not be afraid, but also let’s not be arrogant. C.S. Lewis once said that we had spent far too much time and energy thinking about who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. The better way to think about it is who’s walking toward God and who’s walking away from him.”

“The Creator”

Listen Now: The Creator

Date: October 14, 2012

Location: Littleton Christian Church

Key Texts: Genesis 1:1-3, 2:2-3; Psalm 104:31

Description: Why is it that we spend so much time and effort at work, and yet find it difficult to speak about our daily work at church? This need not be. God’s own work of creation is a model for human work. From creating skyscrapers to manufacturing silly putty, we are “made in the image of the maker” and to work as an expression of the image of God in us. We were not designed to merely go to work, get money, buy stuff and die. Work is part of our creative calling, and the way in which we offer ourselves to God.

Brief Outline:

I. Why talk about work at church?

II. God’s work is creative.

III. We are made in the image of the Creator.

IV. Too often our work today is defined only by making money, consumption, and then trying to escape from the job.

V. Creativity is a paradigm for shaping culture.

Three Highlights:

“God said in Exodus 20: ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall do all your work…’Why should we rest one day a week and not work? Because that’s what God did. His rhythm of work and rest must become ours.”

“Every week we humans make skyscrapers, sirens and spaghetti dinners. Dorothy Sayers was right: ‘Man is a maker, who makes things because he wants to, because he cannot fulfill his true nature if he is prevented from making things for the love of the job. He is made in the image of the Maker, and he himself must create or become something less than man.’”

“What would it look like to start gather with other Christians in your field, to talk about your work, talk about your creative calling, and needs you see around you, and begin to serve God through your vocation?”


The World’s Best Outreach Strategy


How are we going to reach out to our culture?

It’s a common question in church world. Do we have a fall festival? Sponsor a 5k? Chili cook off? Day of service at the homeless shelter? Mission trip?

The idea seems to be this: We’re here…in church. They’re out there…in culture. We need to “reach out” to them. Hence, the myriad of “outreach” ministries in most American churches.

But the truth is that won’t don’t need to “reach out” to culture at all. We are already “out” there every single day.It’s called work! And not only are we – the laity – inculture, but we actually create culture every day.

A few weeks ago, I saw this firsthand. My first meeting for the day was at a Starbucks in downtown Denver. I met with Eric, who shared with me his  story. For his first job after college, he climbed cell phone towers. After more than a few frozen climbs in the air, he decided he needed a change. He thought for a while. Perhaps he would become a public school teacher – or maybe he should go to seminary. After a stint as a park ranger he applied for and got a job with an engineering firm, designing the physical structures that support electricity stations. It was job I had literally never thought about – and strained to understand! – before that morning.

At 9am I met with Grant. He shared with me his journey as a recently promoted accountant at a big four accounting firm. He spoke of both the enjoyment of helping companies show clear financial pictures of their firm, and the frustration of filing piles of documents for the SEC since the Enron scandal. We ended on mulling over his plan to pitch a work/life balance program to his HR department, noting that young accountants – who often work long, long hours – need this balance in the worst way.

I then had lunch with Abraham, a doctor at Denver Health in their psychiatry department. Abraham is an unbelievably brilliant and faithful catholic. He told me about attending medical school and in the process he got a masters in theology from Duke. He’s now a doctor and leads their psychiatry department, where he endeavors to live out his faith in a very secular field.

From there, I headed out for more coffee, this time with Mike, a brilliant musician. He now plays tympani for the Colorado Symphony. He shared of the incredibly difficult path of becoming a professional musician and how we once auditioned at a prestigious symphony in Canada where the conductor basically sabotaged his chances of being selected.

Then I met with Bradley, a fresh-out-of-college middle school English and History teacher. Sparkling with enthusiasm and in a masters program, he was just happy to be in his career.

And then I met with Susie, the bi-vocational pastor of Platt Park Church. We spoke about church, and her two other jobs: as a small business owner of a painting and wine business in Denver, and as rental property managers.

Keynote Address - Oct 28 Vision Event (Images).019

As I was driving away from that appointment, and I thought about  meeting with an engineer, accountant, doctor, teacher, musician, pastor and small business owner, I had a profound aha! moment. Work is where culture is made. 

I spent a day listening not just to their human stories – of triumph, failure, hope, disappointment, and meaning – but to a microcosm of human civilization in 21st century America. Here, I thought, is culture! And here it is made by human beings every single day.

Andy Crouch and Ken Myers have a pithy definition of culture: it’s what we make of the world – in both senses of the word. It’s both the meaning we make and thethings we make. So, for example, on I225 on my way to Colorado Community Church (my home church), there is a beautiful new overpass bridge that will connect the new light rail system. Why create such a huge, costly yet beautiful piece of transportation in the sky? It’s because we value connectedness and ease of access. That is, wemake something (a bridge) because of a value (connectedness). The engineers, contractors, and laborers who made that bridge created a piece of Colorado culture.

So what? Every single weekday any one local church is scattered throughout the city – and creating products and services driven by certain values. This is culture making. And the irony is that so many Christians wish they could be in church or working for a Christian nonprofit which is seen as “meaningful” work! The edifice of the modern world is made through their decisions! And yet we often fail to see the opportunity to not just be “in” culture but to actually shape culture through our work as engineers, accountants, doctors, teachers, musicians, or small business owners.

The question is not if we’ll be involved in culture, but how?  Will we do it thoughtfully or thoughtlessly? Intentionally or under the tyranny of the urgent? To advance common good or our only our own good? Engaged emotionally or disengaged and bored? Caring for weak and marginalized in society or using them to get ahead? In line with God’s kingdom or the kingdom of the world?

When we ignore work, we ignore the part of culture we actually touch every day. But if we engage work, we engage culture. Here’s where the world is made – for better or for worse.

This post first appeared on


Saving the Three “E”s


I think we’ve been a bit too hard on the three “e”s.

Here’s how the argument often goes. In a past generation, those interested in “faith at the workplace” stressed the three “e”s: excellence, ethics, and evangelism. Each of these are “good but insufficient.” We need people to actually see the value of the work itself, and not just get people converted or be nice to co-workers.

Now, I sympathize with this line of reasoning. I was recently at a Christian business conference, and one man gave his testimony of how he lives out his faith at work. As the owner of a company that produces dental products, he proudly noted how he begins staff meetings with prayer. What he failed to mention, however, was that producing artificial teeth for his clients was itself an act of neighbor love and a way to provide for the needs of the world.

Indeed, for many of us younger folks interested in faith/work integration, we react against a highly individualistic view of Christianity that understood the core expression of “faith at work” was “ethics” in the sense of being kind to co-workers so that they would come to a prayer meeting or Bible study at the office. In our evangelical fervor, we often forgot about the value of the work itself – and that the world needs education, legal systems, restaurants, component parts, and works of art to flourish.

Indeed, work itself can be an act of neighbor love and should always be an act of worship, a living sacrifice offered to Christ the Lord (Romans 12:1-2).

Got it.

Having said that, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. In emphasizing the inherent value of our work, whether that be making tables, providing childcare care, or serving in the military, we don’t want to overlook the centrality of the three “e”s to a Christian understanding of work. 

I’ll give you an example. My friend Bill Kurtz exemplifies excellence in his work. He’s the founder and CEO of Denver Schools of Science and Technology (DSST). In a recent email newsletter, he reported that DSST has 5 of the top 6 schools in Denver (out of 181 schools). With a 100% college admission rate for his student, most of whom are from a low-income background, DSST has drawn national attention. Why does he do it? This is what he says,

“We know that despite our success, we have a long way to go to be the system of schools we need to be. We still aren’t meeting the needs of every single student; students with special needs, students learning the English language, students at the lowest proficiency levels—we need to serve these students better. We must get better. Not because of rankings, but because these extraordinary results remind us of what can be accomplished for all students.”

Why is Bill so incredibly committed to excellence? He’s driven by an undying desire to serve – and to provide an excellent education for every single student.

Secular people, Jews, pluralists, Muslims, and Christians alike have to take note of Bill’s work. He’s literally changing the charter school landscape in America. Because he does work at such an incredibly high caliber, people ask, “Who is this? What drives him?” Indeed, in an article I wrote about Bill for Christianity Today, he confesses that he believes it is his vocation, his calling from God, to serve the needs of students and build these schools.

My friend Matt Turner, who’s the CFO of Morning Star Senior Living in Denver, also exemplifies this type of excellence. In the past five years, he has helped Morning Star go from 5 to 12 properties, each with an acute attention to excellent service of their residents, and the inherent dignity of the elderly in America. (And publicly proclaiming that their work “honors God” to boot.) As a result, the Denver Business Journal recently highlighted Matt and asked him about his work.

Doing excellent work is a testimony to the God who creates. And it allows Christians a voice in a secular culture that they don’t have when they do sloppy, half-hearted or incomplete work. Doing work well, as if we are doing it for Christ himself (Col. 3:23), is an important aspect of living out our faith through our work.

Or take the example of ethics. I can see why so many have criticized the highly individualistic  (and reductionistic view) that sees all  the historic Christian faith can offer to us at work is not cheating our clients or working with integrity. (Don’t our secular friends believe the same thing?) If we mean by “ethics” only how we treat co-workers, then I agree with this critique. We can’t just reduce the world-altering power of the gospel to not sending nasty emails.

However, if we take a look at ethics in the bigger sense, and look at the essentially moral questions that shape and form values in organizations, our interactions with the broader community, and the moral framework that sits at the basis of all “professions” (long ago we used assume that “professing” a set of ethical standards was the basis of many industries such as law, banking, government or the manual trades), ethics needs to be at the core of the faith and work movement.

Let me illustrate. Two weeks ago I had the chance to visit Duke University to attend a round table discussion on “Reimagining Medicine”, which is a part of their program in Theology, Medicine and Culture. It was hosted by Duke Divinity School and led by people like: Warren Kingshorn, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist; Jeff Bishop, a doctor, philosopher, and author of the ground-breaking The Anticipatory Corpse; Rich Payne, a former cancer doctor at Sloans Kettering (one of the nation’s finest cancer centers), and Dr. Ray Barfield, a pediatrician and philosopher at Duke University. As ministers, academics, doctors, and administrators, we gathered to discuss topics like: historical Christian views of the suffering and ill; time and the pace of life for physicians; justice and health equity issues; the mechanization of the dying process; the vocation of nurses and chaplains; and ways congregations can partner with health care institutions.

Upon reflecting on the event, I was struck that every single conversation was essentially debating a vision of “the good.” That is, each was inherently ethical. And in many ways, we were debating competing values, and not merely good or bad, but a better harmony of many “goods.” For example, when many leveled critiques at secular medicine’s unwillingness to acknowledge that we are indeed human and will will actually die (!), nobody took the view that the advances in medical care in the last century didn’t have value! No, instead we sought a more humane way of understanding palliative care and end-of-life issues, acknowledging that despite the powerful tools of modern medicine, we cannot relieve the human condition.

Of course, this is just one example among literally thousands. I wrote last year about the severely toxic environment of investment banking in New York City. As a summary of Kevin Roose’s book Young Money, a portrayal of eight young investment bankers, I wrote:

“If we were making a laundry list of everything that can be depraved about human work, Young Money would hit nearly all the highlights:

  • Boring, Repetitive Labor. “Many entry level bankers conceive of themselves as lumps of body mass who perform uncreative and menial work, and whose time can be exchanged for labor at any moment.”
  • Measuring the Worth of Employees With Dollars. “In Jeremy’s little corner of the trading world, all that mattered was a person’s P&L and a related number, called ‘gross credits’ (or just “GCs”), which measured revenue generated by a single employee.”
  • Isolating your Morals from Your Work. “Many of the Wall Street analysts I’d met were thoughtful, robust ethical thinkers in their private lives. But professionally, they were foot soldiers.”
  • Loss of Freedom. “‘It’s not the hours that kill you—it’s the lack of control of the hours,’ one analyst told me. ‘My life doesn’t belong to me anymore.’”

Now, I’m just pointing out the obvious here. But each of the problems here are essentially ethical. That is, it’s wrong to pile debt onto a struggling company and profit off their demise; it’s wrong to make people work from 9am to 5am in the morning; it’s wrong to reduce people’s worth to a numeric value of how much money they make for an investment firm.

If we reduce ethics to simply how we treat co-workers, then I agree, this view of “good but insufficient” is spot on. But if we open our eyes to the moral purposes of the institutions of which we take part each day, and boldly stand for the good, and expose the evil (both individual and systemic), then conversations about “ethics” are exactly what those of us in the faith and work movement must be doing on a daily basis.

Finally, evangelism. In recent decades, the workplace was seen merely as the venue for personal evangelism – or possibly a way to gain a platform to tell  co-workers about sin and the need for personal salvation at the water cooler. The criticism here is that they’re not looking at how the Christian faith actually informs the work they do, but instead see the workplace only as an opportunity to share one’s personal testimony. And in the process they assume that daily work is just a way to make money, fund “ministry,” or invite people to church.

Again, I can understand the criticism. This view of “faith at work” essentially views the structures of our shared life – whether that be the corporate values of Google or the principles of design for a new apartment complex – as either neutral or simply unimportant. Or it can’t seem them at all, and assumes that “winning one individual at a time” is the only path for fulfilling the great commission.  This, clearly, is a mistake, as the Scriptures see sin as both a personal issue and a systematic power or “principality” that keeps men and women in bondage in unjust structures.

But again, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. First, all Christians clearly do have the responsibility to share their faith in private and in public, when they get up and lay down, when they walk to the board room or when they eat lunch on a construction site. We never, ever want to deprecate personal evangelism. This has always been a part of Christian mission, and always will.

But if we understand evangelism more broadly, the “good news” that through Jesus’ death and resurrection he has been made the King, the Lord of all creation, then we need to be “evangelists” all the more! If Christ is really Lord of all, and everything was made for him and through him (Col. 1:15-20), then we should seek ways to testify to his creative and redeeming work as we consider how to handle a bankruptcy case, how to craft a story for a newspaper, or how to put together a chemistry curriculum. Testimony, here, is both for the sake of personal salvation, and for the sake of co-laboring with Christ in his work of restoring the created order.

Mission always goes forward in both word and deed. I’ve written about this previously on this blog. So for now, I’ll just say that we really can’t have a full, robust understanding of Christian mission without both evangelism and service, a clear verbal proclamation of the gospel and a humble self-giving love manifested in whatever we do, including our work.

Just look at Christian history. Augustine was obviously powerful in word, but he also sought the freedom of slaves in North Africa as a pastor of a congregation. Catherine of Siena too was a strong verbal witness – but she also got involved in politics, and had some very clear words for the pope regarding his involvement in the crusades. Martin Luther King Jr thundered truth from the pulpit and led freedom marches to right the historical wrongs of racial segregation. Evangelism (broadly understood) and service are two sides of the same coin.

To say that our work has value to God simply because we are image-bearers, and we reflect the one who worked for six days and rested for one, is good. But we begin to depart from our historical roots when we say things like, “Let’s just recognize that work has inherent value.” Of course it does. But what makes Christians unique is this message which infuses our work with a sense of purpose and excellence, as it’s done for Christ; a commitment to moral action, as it’s done in response to God’s grace; and a deep love for our neighbors, as it was God who first loved us; and a commitment to justice and shalom, as we follow the Lord, the Prince of Peace.

Well, that was an egregiously long blog post just to say, As we affirm the inherent value of work, let’s not forget to embrace the three “e”s: excellence, ethics, and evangelism.  For many of us, we’ll need to expand our view of each of these, but nonetheless each is a worthy contributor to bringing the gospel into our world. Plus, the alliteration is awfully catchy.


Watching Closely


Have you ever watched somebody at work closely? I mean, somebody really engaged in their work?

Right now, I’m sitting on an airplane, and across from me is a young man, explaining a Keynote presentation on his work for Exxon mobil. Hands animated, hat turned backward (must be off the clock), and utterly fascinated with geology and the contours of the earth’s surface. It’s as if he’s not just explaining his work – but something about himself.

And here comes the Southwest airlines stewardess. She is serving us drinks – coke, juice, Fat Tire. Patiently taking orders, kindly responding to requests, balancing liquid on a moving jet liner. Her eyes look tired. But she smiles. And I smile back, and thank her for her work. I think to myself – our culture has few jobs more obviously fulfilling the role of a servant than that of a server. I sip my cold drink, grateful. She glides down the aisle.

Behind me, a heavy set man with glasses, slightly balding, reads his magazine. I can’t quite tell what it is, but he is engrossed. Whatever he is reading, it is a part of him. His mind is absorbing some information, knowledge, fundamental to his work. His being and his work are one.

Work, to these people, is not the source of their dignity. This comes from simply being made in the image of the Creator. But it is a basic expression of their dignity. It forms the social relationships that we call civilization. It gives us the order to work together as the human family to provide for one another’s needs – and wants. Work is the overflow of culture, and in many ways, it is culture. Work fills our days, engrosses our minds, worries our hearts, yet stimulates our imaginations. When work is dull, we are less than human. When it is exciting, it can become such a bright morning star, we are tempted to worship it as a god.

The Christian must come into the world and direct the world to a God who works, and a God who rests. And as we rest, and worship, our work can be funneled, like a river, to stream of refreshment for ourselves and our neighbors. The simplest of activities can communicate a gentle beauty.

The Gospel is not work. Indeed, when work is the Gospel, life is destroyed. No, the Gospel is the story of the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of Jesus Christ. And when the Gospel animates and enlivens work, the world becomes almost magical.

Look. The magic even animates his excited explanations of fossil fuel exploration, over a glowing Apple computer, with hand gestures and inflected, anticipatory voice tones to complete stranger on an airplane.


How To Get Unstuck From a Mid-Career Plateau


It’s not uncommon for many of us to come out college, full of ideals and ready to change the world. What is uncommon, however, is to see that kind of idealism as a mid-level manager well into his mid 50s.

Often I meet people who are kind, able, and competent, yet they’ve been stuck in the same job for nearly a decade, and they start to “check out.” They don’t want to, but they’ve lost a spark for their work. It seems to me there are at least four reasons why people plateau out in mid-career and get “stuck.”  And there are at least four good ways to get “unstuck” from a mid-career plateau.

I’m Stuck #1: We’ve become technicians. It’s a common career path: go to college, perhaps get a professional degree, and reach a management position – but no further. Many become highly competent as business managers, senior engineers, or perhaps as a partner at a law firm, but become limited by highly specialized education which has prepared many of us to be technicians – competent in one, narrow area, but ignorant of most of the world.

John Gardner, the architect behind the White House Fellows Program, lamented the myriad of well-paid professional training programs that drive potential leaders further down the road of specialization. Academia, government, and public corporations all tend to isolate departments and disciplines from one another, creating silos that prevent broad understanding. Gardner said, “Leaders have always been generalists. Tomorrow’s leaders will, very likely, have begun life as trained specialists, but to mature as leaders they must sooner or later climb out of the trenches of specialization and rise above the boundaries that separate the various segments of society.” Why? Because the higher you go in an organization, the more need there is to be a generalist. Senior executives must know not only their company and product, but also something of finance, cultural trends, ethics, psychology and political processes or current events that affect a large corporation.

Technical competence can get you a good paycheck – but if we’ve become only technicians, our careers are sure to plateau.

How to Get Unstuck #1: Adopt a “liberal arts” perspective.”  I recently interviewed Michael Lindsay, the President of Gordon College, on his new book View From the Top. The book is the the result of a 10 year study of “Platinum Leaders,” 550 elite politicians, CEOs and nonprofit executives who hold many of the most significant positions of leadership in the world. One commonality he found among many of them was that they had developed a “liberal arts” perspective on life. That is, they made a regular habit of cultivating perspectives and viewpoints different from their own.

For instance, Michael told me the story of John Mendellson, one of the world’s best cancer researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. “He was a world class cancer researcher. Really a top flight scientist. When I was doing the interview,” Lindsay, recalled, “he was reading a book on the history of opera. What does the history of opera have anything to do with leading the world’s leading cancer center.” I replied, “It’s so rare to find people like that.” And Michael exclaimed, “But it’s not among these people! They develop a lifestyle that has that kind of breadth. They’re great conversationalists. They make connections. Now not everybody is reading about the history of opera. But they’re intentionally building practices in their life that give them a wide variety of experiences.”

A liberal arts perspective is a conservative willing to watch MSNBC, and a liberal watching Fox News. It’s a botanist reading philosophy, and a mechanic reading history. It’s a Kindergarten teacher attending lectures on foreign policy, or a member of congress  attending a ho-down in rural Nebraska. The first way to get yourself “unstuck” from a mid-career plateau is by reaching way outside your area of expertise, and to start learning from the wider world.

I’m Stuck #2. We’ve overlooked the centrality of emotional intelligence in career development. Our traditional educational and managerial programs tend to treat people like repositories of information that is to be downloaded through webinars or PowerPoint presentations. As a result, we have scores of would-be influencers who are loaded with data, but lack the soft skills necessary to lead.

Recently The Economist did a a major study asking corporations and large employers the most important skills they needed from graduates. The top three responses were all soft skills, (1) Critical thinking/problem solving, (2) Collaboration/Teamwork, (3) Communication. All three of these require significant emotional intelligence. An ability to listen to people, understand other’s needs, empathize, and build positive energy among a team are the rarest of qualities, it seems, yet the most needed.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen dozens of “smart” people – people who always excelled and got good grades and the right answers – who never advance in their career because they are  nearly oblivious of the people around them and how they make their co-workers, employees or even bosses feel. Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what we told them, but they will never forget how we made them feel.”

How To Get Unstuck #2. There are two angles to getting unstuck here.

(1) Spend time with emotionally mature leaders. Emotional intelligence can’t only be learned from books or articles. It must be caught rather than taught. Find people who motivate, inspire, and make you personally feel like a million bucks. It’s likely that they’re high on the EQ quotient. Find time to buy them coffee, go visit them in their office, invite them over to your house for pot roast on Sunday afternoon. This is the best way to improve your EQ.

(2) Get an honest 360 degree evaluation. I have a friend who’s an executive coach. He does this for all his clients. He not only asks them what they’d like to improve, he also asks their employees, co-workers, board members, spouses, friends and even kids what they see needs improvements. Hearing this type of feedback can feel like taking a huge bite of humble pie, but self-awareness is invaluable. And it is a necessary step in getting unstuck from a mid career slump.

I’m Stuck #3. Our work has become stagnant and boring. This is by far and away the most common problem I see among mid-career professionals. Though millenials tend to be highly optimistic about their career prospects, over time, something changes. Today, over 70% of the American workforce is either not engaged or actively disengaged from their work. Globally the numbers are even worse – it’s 87%.  Work for most is a grudging set of tasks to be completed; for many it is simply a necessary-evil that pays the bills.

I believe many would be tempted to say, “You’ve found the wrong work. You should go and explore what your ‘true calling’ is.” But I think for most this is bad advice. First, any kind of work can become boring after doing it long enough – even your dream job. Second, for many with a home mortgage and bills to pay, this is not realistic. Third, this is a narrative of self-actualization, and not one of genuine service. Most people are satisfied in their work if they’re actually lost in a purpose beyond themselves, and not just feeling personally fulfilled by their job. But this disengagement is so common in America, it’s worth asking what we might do if we find ourselves bored with our work.

How To Get Unstuck #3. Here I see three paths forward.

(1) Learn new ideas by studying the best practices of peers. I believe this is usually best done through off-site training or arranging a number of off-site visits. You need to get out of your current context, and see the wide world of possibility outside the four walls of your office. Because we are embodied beings, changing the location of our bodies – and taking in a new array of sights, sounds, images, smells, ideas and feelings – is powerful.  And experiencing first-hand the ideas of your peers is bound to give you a few ideas of your own.

(2) Find a new challenge or tackle a new assignment. Meeting real needs and solving real problems – either for your company, customers, community or even industry – is a fast track out of boredom. Meaningful work has its foundation in being pushed and challenged. Likely, this will need to be done alongside of your supervisor. But imagine your boss’s expression if you come into her office and say, “I’d like to solve the biggest problem on your plate right now.” You may get a snicker – or you may be a jubilant, “Okay! Here ya go!” Either way, you won’t be bored.

(3) Make space for a sabbath rest. Creativity is found in times of leisure, not high production. God created the world in six days, and rested for one. And he commanded the Israelites to observe a Sabbath day to both refocus their hearts and minds on him, as well as to renew their work, which was always intended to be satisfying and creative (like His own work of creating the universe). The Israelites were saved by God from slavery, which meant working 7 days a week, every week, a slavery many self-impose today.

About a decade ago, Andy Crouch, the Executive Editor of Christianity Today, found himself in his mid-thirties and out of a job. The magazine he was editing went belly-up, and he was unemployed for over a year. But this year was the most creative in his career, and during that time he produced the manuscript for what would become the best-selling book Culture Making. It was helpful because he used this time as an extended Sabbath, not unlike God commanding the Israelites to rest from planting one year out of every seven. 

If you’re work has become stagnant, consider observing not only a one-day-per-week Sabbath rest, but build in longer times as well – one week a year, or even 3-6 months every 7 years. And don’t spend this time sitting on a beach for 8 weeks. Find ways to re-discover the liberal arts. Learn to play a new instrument. Visit a museum. Climb an icy ravine (um…with a professional guide). Read Hume or Dante. Pray on a mountain top and listen for the voice of God. Whatever Sabbath looks like for you, use it to renew the call – and your passion for your work.

I’m Stuck #4. We’re isolated. The further up you move in your organization, the harder it becomes to find peers with whom you can share and think openly. Your subordinates expect you to have the answers, and you cannot openly speak about your personal challenges or organizational issues without causing either a firestorm of gossip or, minimally, a breach of confidence. Tom Clancy, the best selling novelist once said, “I wish somebody would have told me that when you reach the top, there’s nobody here.” Nobody here. That’s how many in mid-level to upper level leadership feel. Isolated.

How To Get Unstuck #4. Find a group of peers. Generally speaking, these people should be outside of your organization, and face similar challenges, and thus be in a similar level of leadership. But a group of peers is often the necessary context for choosing paths that take you beyond the world of the technician, can help you grow in your emotional intelligence, find ideas to cut through stagnation, and get out of isolation. These peers, of course, should have similar goals. This could be a university class, a professional society, or even a group from your church. But often the most powerful learning, from Kindergarten through adult education, comes not from teachers, but from peers.

Mortimer Adler once said, “A technician is a man who understands everything about his job except its ultimate purpose and its place in the order of the universe.” He’s right. To get ourselves unstuck, we have to start asking big questions again and humbly accept life as a life-long joinery of learning. And this can by done by mechanics or stay-at-home moms, executives or elementary teachers. For those who step back to re-evaluate and intentionally renew their careers, new horizons emerge around every corner.


I’m Stuck.

1. We’ve become technicians.

2. We’ve overlooked the centrality of emotional intelligence in career development.

3. Our work has become stagnant and boring.

4. We’re isolated.

How To Get Unstuck. 

1. Adopt a “liberal arts” perspective.” 

2a. Spend time with emotionally mature leaders.

2b. Get an honest 360 degree evaluation. 

3a. Learn new ideas by studying the best practices of peers. 

3b. Find a new challenge or tackle a new assignment. 

3c. Make space for a sabbath rest. 

4. Find a group of peers.


What’s Wrong with, “Do What You Love”?


We’ve said it for so long to graduating college seniors it’s become almost gospel. Do what you love. Do what you’re passionate about. Don’t settle for just a job. Follow your dreams. But is this wisdom or just hot air?

Gordon Marino recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about his experience at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. In contrast to the college students who came into his office, “rubbing their hands together, and furrowing their brows,” wondering if they should become doctors, philosophers, or stand-up comics, many people in Northfield delivered papers at 5am or became roofers. Marino’s own father worried very little about “doing what he loved.” He worked at a job he hated for most of his career in order to take care of his family.

The rub, says writer Miya Tokumitsu, is that the “do what you love” ethos is actually elitist because it undermines work that is not done out of “passion.” Moreover, it severs the traditional connection between work, talent and duty. The vast majority of the world’s workers are not working because they love the job, but instead are simply providing for their loved ones, and they had little choice in the matter.

Kate Harris of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture has aptly pointed out that in today’s culture, the word vocation has been twisted from its original meaning of living one’s entire life in response to the call of God. Instead, for many it refers to an ideal job, one that forever seems over the rainbow. In my own experiences in Denver, I’ve found this to be the case as well. Mentioning the word vocation elicits a range of responses, mostly involving: “I feel called to…” or “I don’t feel called to…” The emphasis is on our personal feelings, self-fulfillment, and career preferences, not necessarily on hearing and obeying the voice of God.

Throughout its usage in Christian history  vocation has rarely if ever meant “do what you love.” More often than not, the call of God was actually a call to suffer for the sake of others. Moses was called from the desert to free the Israelites from slavery, only to be burdened with the task of another 40 years of wandering the desert with a bunch of grumblers. Jeremiah was called to suffer as a prophet to the nations; a calling he rued later is his life. (“Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!” [Jeremiah 20:14]). Paul was called to be the great apostle to the Gentiles, and God tells him through Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name,” (Acts 9:16). Not exactly “do what you love.”

Of course, the biblical idea of calling is not for sake of suffering, it’s for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of serving others. This is why Tokumitsu’s critique is so ripe. There is a historical connection between being called, and using your gifts to serve the needs of others. For some this means doing what you love. But for most, it means doing what you must. It means using your skills to bring value and life to your community.

Is this life, this call to do what you must, inherently unsatisfying? I don’t believe so. My mother was a public school teacher in Hopkins, Minnesota for 35 years. Her days were long, and when she came home, she cooked, brought us to basketball practice, and most nights corrected papers for her third graders until she dozed off. Did she love it? Many days, yes. All the time? No way. Being a single mother supporting two kids is a life of duty and a life of service. It’s not one of self-actualization. But in the giving, my mother made a huge impact on the lives of my sister and myself.

Ironically, when we think about work, chasing after our own happiness will never bring us happiness. It is in serving others and pointing beyond ourselves that happiness is tossed in along the way. To find happiness, forget about passion. Give yourself to what the world needs. Or better yet, give yourself to God, and let him use you as He sees fit.

At the conclusion of Christopher Wright’s magisterial The Mission of God, he says, “I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should ask what kind of me God wants for his mission.” Exactly. But be prepared, this just may not be a job that you love.

This article first appeared on the Missio blog at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture. 

Illustration by Leslie A. Wood


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