Jeff Haanen

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Work

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Work

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.

Summary

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.

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Work

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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Craftsmanship & Manual LaborWork

How We Lost the Craftsman

 

It was a crisp, winter morning and I stood outside Manual High School, traditionally one of Denver’s lowest performing schools. Along with twelve other seminary students on an urban ministry site visit, we listened to our professor. “Manual is one of Denver’s oldest institutions,” he said, pointing to the brick edifice. “It opened in 1896, and was named Manual because it was originally intended as a vocational school to train students for manual labor.”

We quietly shook our heads in disbelief. How could educators have such low expectations for their students? Didn’t the founders believe all students could go to college? So great was our 21st century disdain for manual labor that we naturally connected Manual High School’s low academic performance with its original intent: preparing students for the manual trades.

Americans today devalue manual labor with an almost righteous indignation. We can see it in our economy, in our schools, in our entertainment, and even in the church. And it’s causing all sorts of problems. Let’s take these one by one:

Economy. Consider these statistics. The average age of today’s tradesperson is 56, with an average of 5-15 years until retirement. As skilled laborers retire in masses, America will need an estimated 10 million new skilled tradesmen by 2020 (such as a pipefitters, masons, carpenters, or high-skilled factory workers). But even today, an estimated 600,000 jobs in the skilled trades are unfilled, while 83% of companies report a moderate to serious shortage in skilled laborers. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and BusinessWeek have all recognized the huge shortage we have of skilled laborers.

Schools. Across the US, as the need for skilled laborers has increased, the number of classes in “tech ed” – traditionally known as “shop class” – have all but disappeared. For example, in Jefferson County Public School District in Colorado, only three remaining schools have any kind of “tech ed” programs – of a district of over 84,000 students. And in Denver Public Schools, there are only two shop classes remaining – and one of them is currently selling all their equipment to local buyers. As high schools prepare youth to be “knowledge workers,” they unload lathes, table saws, and other “vocational ed” equipment in droves.

The assumption that every student should go to a four your liberal arts college has almost become sacrosanct for urban, suburban and rural students alike. Going to a two-year trade school is seen as a path for “average” to underperforming students.  As educator Mike Rose has said in his book The Mind at Work about the cultural image of the tradesmen: “We are given the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no thought bright behind the eye, no image that links hands and brain.” Real thinking, our schools have taught us, happens in the office, not the shop.  And today have a veritable mountain of student debt – an estimated $1.2 trillion in the US alone – and the lowest labor participation rate since 1978.

Culture. Even in entertainment, we’ve persistently devalued trade schools and community colleges. NBC’s satirical TV show “Community,” portrays American community colleges (which train many skilled tradesmen, among other professions) as the pit of the academic world. The show takes place at Greendale Community College, where “Straight A’s” are “Accessibility, Affordability, Air Conditioning, Awesome New Friends, and A lot of fun.” Perhaps community college is “a lot of fun,” but such merciless mocking finds its way into the future plans of high school students – plans to avoid trade schools and community college at all costs.

Church. In the past 5-10 years, there’s been a renewed interest among protestants in the topic of work. Three years ago Christianity Today launched the This Is Our City project, which profiled evangelicals working in various industries for “the common good” of their city. Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has launched a “Center for Faith and Work.” Gabe Lyons’ Q Cities convenes conferences of culturally-minded evangelicals who work in industries like art, media or education. Conferences, books, and seminars on God and work have multiplied, and evangelicals in finance, business, technology, art, science and nonprofits have received renewed attention. But one sector has largely been overlooked: skilled manual labor.

James K.A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, recently wrote, “Do people show up to your ‘faith & work’ events in coveralls? With dirt under their nails? No? Then whose ‘work’ are we talking about?” Though surely not everybody in the modern economy will have “dirt under their nails” after a day’s work, he makes a good point: where are the examples plumbers, landscapers, carpenters, and electricians among this renewed interest in vocation? And more broadly, where are the examples of craftsman and “blue collar” workers who are intentionally living out their vocations in and through their trade? Are executives and professionals the only ones privileged enough to wed meaning with work?

All of this is strange for at least two reasons. First, we all depend on the work of craftsmen every single day. Whether it’s your HVAC repairman, plumber, or electrician, heat, clean water and even light flow as a direct result of their work. The work of the trades is of the utmost importance for nearly every aspect of modern life.

But as a Christian myself, this cultural situation strikes me as even more strange. After all, the Bible is replete with craftsmen – masons, goldsmiths, gem cutters, potters and weavers. The Bible even states that the first person explicitly filled with the Holy Spirit is Bezalel, whom God filled “with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts,” (Ex. 31:3-5). And, lest we forget, Jesus was a tekton, translated literally as “craftsman” or “one who works with his hands” (Mk. 6:3).

What has gone wrong here? How is it that we came to devalue the craftsman, to the detriment of our economy, schools, churches and culture? To find answers, we need to look to history.

Losing the Craftsman

Such a disdain for the trades was not always so. In the mid-nineteenth century, craftsmen were an integral part of the professional and scientific community. For example, the Mechanics Institutes of Britain had over 200,000 members, which hosted lectures that satisfied the intellectual curiosity of millwrights, metal workers, mechanics and other tradesmen with evening lectures by professors and scientists.

Likewise, in the 1884 book The Wheelwright’s Shop, George Sturt relates his experience of making carriage wheels from lumber. Previously a school teacher with literary ambitions, Sturt was enraptured with the challenges of shaping timber with hand tools: “Knots here, shakes there, rind-galls, waney edges, thicknesses, thinnesses, were for ever affording new chances or forbidding previous solutions, whereby a fresh problem confronted the workman’s ingenuity every few minutes.”

Manual labor was not only integral to scientific discovery, it attracted many of the best minds of its day. In the 18th and 19th century, some of history’s finest scientists – Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), James Watt (1736-1819), Samuel Crompton (1753-1827)– were also craftsmen who built what they designed, and knew no separation between working with the hands and the mind.

Yet the forces of industrialization were changing the skilled trades. Even as early as The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith marveled at the efficiencies of the factory: “One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head…Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins a day.” The division of labor could produce more pins in a day between ten people than one person alone could produce in a lifetime.

Although the factory had been around for generations, the automation of work took on a new dimension in 1911, when Frederick Winslow Taylor published his Principles of Scientific Management. As Matthew Crawford has pointed out, Taylor’s work focused on gathering the knowledge of craftsmen, organizing it into high efficiency processes, and then re-distributing that work to laborers as small parts of a larger whole. After extensive time and motion studies, Taylor was able to design processes, overseen by management, which allowed employers to cut labor costs by standardizing much manual labor. According to Taylor, “All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or lay-out department.” Thus the previous harmony of craftsmen and thinker, skilled labor and scientist, began a long process of separation. A “white-collar” labor force of planners and “blue-collar” mass of workers began to emerge.

The positive side of mass manufacturing was unprecedented wealth creation. In 1913, Henry Ford’s assembly line was able to double worker wages and still produce cars more cheaply than his competitors, allowing thousands to afford an upgrade from a carriage to a Model T. Yet the negative side of automation was the monotonous routines for workers, which, according to Ford’s biographer, meant “every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.” Skilled craftsmen would simply walk off the line, with a sour taste for work that made them feel like machines themselves.

(Perhaps business philosopher Peter Drucker was right: “Machines work best if they do only one task, if they do it repetitively, and if they do the simplest possible task…[But] the human being…is a very poorly designed machine tool. The human being excels in coordination. He excels in relation perception to action. He works best if the entire human being, muscles, senses and mind, is engaged in the work.”)

At the turn of the 20th century, engaging work seemed like it was being lost in the cogs of industry – and in the mean time, craft knowledge was bowing to mechanical processes.

In the days when Teddy Roosevelt was preaching the virtues of the strenuous life to East Coast elites, many felt education needed to change to ensure the survival of craft knowledge. Only 4 years after Ford’s assembly line, the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 gave federal funding for manual training. Yet because the bill established separate state boards for vocational education, it had the unintended effect of separating the trades from a liberal arts curriculum. General education would be focused on the liberal arts (college), and vocational education would focus on specific job skills (trade schools).

The advent of shop class began to track all “blue collar” work – whether the high skilled tradesmen or the low skilled assembly line worker – into a single category. Over time, shop class meant children of “white collar” workers could make a bird feeder or toy car in shop class, but they had little remaining skills of the craftsmen, which for centuries had been passed on through a process of apprenticeship.

We feel the lingering effects of this division between “vocational ed” and a liberal arts education today. Most of those who graduate with degrees in film studies, sociology, or even mathematics or physics haven’t the foggiest idea how to actually fix a car engine, build a table, or wire a light fixture.

Yet the greater effect is the enormous economic problem we now have before us – there are literally millions of “dirty jobs,” as Mike Rowe, the former host of the Discovery Channel Show, would call them. But swathes of young people would would never consider a career in plumbing or construction, despite evidence that these jobs both pay well and are here to stay. Computers and technology have certainly changed our labor force (and will continue to change the economy, as a recent article in The Economist convincingly argues), but they will never change the fact that we live in a physical world – and we will always need physical things because we are physical beings. We will always depend fundamentally on the physical goods – whether made or repaired – that are the unique domain of the craftsman.

Signs of Hope

What is to be done about this problem? Although this is a monumental challenge, we can do at least two things. First, praise examples of excellent craftsmanship – from chefs and jewelers to masons and electricians –  that arise from above the criticism and display an ethic of skill, beauty and manual intelligence in their work.

For example, every four years, France hosts the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) competition. One event features a fierce three-day competition between 16 international pastry chefs jockeying for the blue, white and red striped collar that signifies culinary excellence. Chefs are judged on artistry – the visual appearance of the desserts, buffets and, for example, sugar sculptures – taste – entries have very specific size and ingredient specifications – and work – how clean and efficiently the chefs work; including spotless aprons, no waste (exact planning is required), immaculate kitchens. Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, producers of the documentary “Kings of Pastry” said in an interview , “The idea of recognizing excellence in manual trades and elevating them to a status equal to intellectual or academic fields is what is uniquely important about the MOF Competition” (emphasis mine).  Indeed, Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, when translated, is “Best Craftsman in France,” a title won only by the finest chefs exhibiting the highest levels of skill and manual intelligence. And France’s competition isn’t just limited to chefs; there are also competitions for stonemasonry, plumbing, tailoring, weaving, cabinetmaking, soldering, glassblowing, diamond-working, and a host of other trades.

In America, Tad Landis Meyers, a photographer, recently published Portraits of the American Craftsman – a stunningly beautiful photo journal of the work of a “lost generation of craftsman.” Scotty Bob Carlson of Silverton, Colorado makes hand-crafted skis; Nell Ann McBroom of Nocona, Texas cuts, dies and sews baseball gloves; Steinway and Sons Pianos in Long Island New York makes pianos “designed to last not just for years, but for generations.” Meyers’ five year journey of photographing American craftsmen has revealed an almost forgotten way of life, defined by careful skill, mastery of the physical world, and satisfying work. Brett Hull of Hull Historical Millwork in Fort Worth Texas says, “The simplicity of the clean lines or the intricacy of the detail are exciting to me. It’s something that just fills my soul.”

But praising excellent craftsmanship can also be more commonplace. Drop a laudatory comment to the construction worker who’s laying pavement; marvel at a gang of conduit that winds itself above light fixtures; choose to buy a table that will last not for years but generations. The simple act of recognition is powerful.

But second, and most importantly, encourage more young people to go to trade school. That’s what more people are doing around Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They recently announced a $2.5 million dollar grant to expand training programs for high-wage, high-demand manufacturing jobs. And with a a 95 percent job placement rate, minimal student debt, and jobs like an industrial apprentice that can start at $60,000 with full benefits, more students are taking a look at choosing trade school over a 4 year college degree.

I’m not encouraging more young people to be vocational mercenaries (go get the quick money!), but for those students who nod off in British literature (God forbid) but come alive when rebuilding an engine, we must acknowledge that some people are designed to be builders – and that’s okay.  It may even get them a better job than their peers who end up as debt ridden, college-educated baristas who can make a mean latte, but find trouble getting into a career.

The craftsman lives on – yet still in the corners culture more enamored with the virtual world than the physical world. But for the sake of our economy, schools, culture and even our churches, we would profit to once again appreciate our culture’s makers and fixers – the craftsmen.

Photo: American Craftsman Project

This essay first appeared in The City, a publication of Houston Baptist University. Also, Chris Horst and myself have a feature essaying coming out in Christianity Today this summer on the topic of craftsmanship and the gospel.

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Work

What would you ask Eugene Peterson about your work?

 

If you could sit down with Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message, and ask him any question about your work or career, what would it be?

This fall, Denver Institute for Faith & Work, along with Cherry Creek Presbyterian, New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Littleton Christian Church, and Bloom Church, is hosting a special dinner for the residents of Colorado.  The dinner will feature several short video clips of Eugene Peterson answering your toughest and most honest questions about calling, theology, and career.

To get the video, this Spring we will be traveling to Eugene Peterson’s home in Montana to ask him your questions about work, vocation, career and the Bible. And so before we go to his home, we want to hear your heart and thoughts. We will be collecting questions from you for the next two week on anything related to calling, work, career and the Christian faith. The top three questions will both actually be asked to Eugene Peterson for the video recording and will earn you a free dinner this Fall.

So, if you were sitting next to Eugene Peterson, what would you ask him about your work?

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Work

The Entrepreneur’s Dilemma

 

I sat in the car, waiting for my next appointment. I was about to meet with two CEOs back-to-back. My bag was filled with literature for my start-up. And I was ready to take the stage.

That’s what it feels like, becoming an entrepreneur. Taking the stage. After months of work, day and night, you put yourself out there to sink or swim. You believe in your idea whole-heartedly, almost to the point of being surprised that others don’t see as you do. But in the midst of the risk, the excitement, a temptation can worm its way into our hearts: I am my idea. 

Several months ago, I remember speaking with a pastor in Boulder who works with young tech entrepreneurs. The temptation for entrepreneurs is to so wholly identify with their new start-up that their soul becomes bound up with the new venture’s success. This is the entrepreneur’s dilemma.

Usually one of two things happen: (1) We are successful. We get the venture capital, our insane hours produce a killer product that takes off. The cash begins to pour in. We believe those who reverently call us “founder,” and soon we begin to whisper to ourselves, “Look what I have done.” And pride begins its cancerous growth. Or, conversely, (2) We fail. Either we get the venture capital and the product flops, or the idea never takes off at all. And because our identity has become so tied in with our logo, our website, the global impact we had envisioned, when the business crumbles, so do we. This failure can lead to caverns of isolation, despair, or a simmering cynicism that bubbles over into subtle anger toward the world who couldn’t see our “true genius.”

Being an entrepreneur myself, I have acutely felt both of these temptations – pride and fear, desire for glory and the specter of failure. But as I sat in the car that day, waiting for my two appointments, I turned on the radio. A song came on, and as I was listening to it, it was if I was experiencing a small taste of a Beauty so much larger and more soul-delighting than a mere song. As I offered a quiet prayer before my appointments with the two CEOs, all of a sudden I felt a rush of emotion. I felt point to a Beauty beyond me, a Beauty so rich, so filled with life, that I remember thinking: He is my great treasure, my eternal song, and he is mine, all mine. He can never be taken from me.

As I grabbed my bag, got up from my seat and shut my car door, I remembered a quote from C.S. Lewis: “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.” That is, the Christian with wealth, power, prestige, pleasure – “everything” – has no more than the Christian with none of those things.

As both my pride and my fear began to melt away, I came to see what I wish all entrepreneurs could see: Christ himself is already the highest treasure and sweetest gift. So, if I succeed, and I can build my new venture to mythic proportions, I will have no more than what I have now. I can be no wealthier, and have no more enduring happiness than here, in this moment. And if I fail, and all my plans come crashing down, I will still have all the riches of heaven, for they are a gift that cannot be taken from me. As St. Patrick said, “Thou and Thou only, first in my heart, High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.”

It’s here that the Christian faith is the truest and best support for both entrepreneurs and economic development in general. The Christian faith is based solely on God’s gift of grace. And when risk-taking entrepreneurs bring His grace into their hearts, they neither ruin themselves nor others by their new enterprises, because they become neither prideful CEOs or despairing “failures.” Instead, they are liberated to both risk everything and, ironically, nothing at all, for their greatest treasure is secure.

On a societal level, I believe Christians have the best reason of all to take big risks. Secular humanism means the risks are real and failure can crush the human person with no reference point beyond him or herself. And it can often lead to Founder’s Blues, an all too common emotional roller coaster that can swell egos but also can lead to suicidal bouts of depression. But for the Christian, to win all or to lose all are both minuscule in comparison to the unsurpassed gift of God himself.

It’s been noted that entrepreneurs are the fuel of the modern economy. What risk. What reward. What responsibility to fuel our modern way of life. But I’ve come to believe that it’s only in the Christian story that an entrepreneur can truly answer take risks without damaging his very soul and ultimately those around him – for in Christ, he already has his great reward.

It is with this confidence that I walked into those corporate offices that day. But the confidence was certainly not in my own ability. But it was with a deep sense of peace that offering my idea was not the same as offering myself. I could confidently share my business plan, and our future prospects, and not try to wrangle him for money or support. Instead, I held my idea loosely, with a balance of eager expectation and an openness to a future that is ultimately in the hands of the One who gave me this idea in the first place.

If I had just thirty seconds with every entrepreneur, I would share with him this mystery. I would give him a soul-filling reason to work, to risk, to build a new business. I would tell him: “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.

Photo: Entrepreneur 

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Work

How To Choose a Career: Advice From a Puritan Pastor

“What am I called to?” That’s the question it seems most of us are asking. My friend Nathan is a pastor of young adults, and without a doubt, nearly everybody he knows hates their jobs. The question “What am I called to?” is often followed by “It can’t be this!”

The fact that 70% of Americans are disengaged from their work should be cause for concern. But it should also cause us ask better questions – and seek better answers. History can help. Richard Baxter, a 17th century Puritan pastor, answered just such questions about calling from his flock. But he didn’t answer them the way we would. To wrestle down some answers, he first outlined what can’t be a calling, and then gave some plain advice on how to choose a career.

What Can’t Be a Calling

1. Sinful or unlawful work can’t be a calling.

“Think not that a calling can be lawful, when the work of it is sin; nor that you, or your labor, or your gain in an unlawful calling shall be blest.”

This may seem obvious, that any form of institutionalized cheating, stealing or oppressing can’t be a response to God’s call. But it’s worth mentioning. What about industries that are legal but morally questionable?  Gambling? For Coloradoans, selling pot? Tobacco? Or at what point have certain industries systematized greed – the accumulation of more – or consumerism – the desire not to have, but simply to purchase? However specific cultures answer these questions, when considering a calling, let’s try to avoid overt sin.

2. Just because a job is legal doesn’t mean it can be a calling.

“Think not that because a work is lawful, that therefore it is lawful to make a calling of it.”

Interestingly enough, Baxter illustrates this point by writing, “It is lawful to jest in time and measure, but not lawful to be a jester as a trade of life.” Well, I think I disagree about his view of comedians, but his point is well taken: just because there’s a market for a particular line of work doesn’t mean we should do it for a career. The question Baxter makes us ask is strange for modern ears: is this job honorable? More to be said about that below…

3. Don’t choose a job that drains your soul.

“It is not enough that the work of your calling be lawful, nor that it be necessary, but you must take special care also that it be safe, and not very dangerous to your souls.”

Baxter illustrates his point with beer sellers; he says their calling is “lawful and needful” yet depends on people drinking to excess to make significant profit. I live in Colorado, and I’m under 35, which means I’m more likely to agree with Benjamin Franklin most days: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” But again, he’s got a point. Some industries have deep temptations embedded in their nature: high finance can be lured by greed, fashion by vanity, and politics, power. We shouldn’t necessarily avoid these lines of work, but we should ask, “Will the temptations in this job be more than I can handle?”

How To Choose a Career

1. Choose a career that contributes to the public good.

“The principal thing to be intended in the choice of a trade or calling for yourselves or children, is the service of God, and the public good, and therefore (other things being equal) that calling which most conduceth to the public good is to be preferred.”

Interesting first qualification, isn’t it? It’s not about your college major, your resume, your Meyers-Briggs, a personality profile, or even the hot job opportunities bubbling up on LinkedIn. Find a need, and meet it. Baxter is even willing to name names: pastors, teachers, layers, shepherds, graziers, ploughmen, clothiers, booksellers, tailors, and others employed in work “most necessary to mankind” are to be preferred. I think this list is rather narrow for folks living four hundred years later, but again, point taken. What, then, careers are to be avoided? “Lace-sellers, feather-makers, periwigmakers” and careers that are “a prison and constant calamity to be tied to spend one’s life in doing little good to others, though he should grow rich by it himself.” I take issue with his deprecation of lace-makers (especially those nice laces on doyles), but those dastardly periwigmakers – be rid of them!

But seriously, if you’re looking for a career, don’t first think about yourself or your personal dreams! Think about what the world needs and the good of your community. And most of all, think how you can best serve God, and so enjoy a life of great satisfaction employed in doing the greatest good you can with the time you’ve been given.

2. If two careers both contribute to the public good, pick spiritual benefit over cash bonuses.

“When two callings equally conduce to the public good, and one of them hath the advantage of riches, and the other more advantageous to your souls, the latter must be preferred, and next to the public good, the soul’s advantage must guide your choice.”

There’s nothing wrong with earning a good living, but at least first ask the question: which career choice has a better chance of restoring both body and soul in God’s kingdom? Different people will answer this differently, but ask deep, hard questions about the job before you: what does this do to your own soul? Others? And ultimately, which career can I do more good in?

3. Choose a career that won’t crush your Sabbath rest.

“If it be possible, choose a calling which so exercises the body as not to overwhelm you with cares and labors and deprive you of all leisure for the holy and noble employments of the mind, and which so exercises your mind as to allow you some exercise for the body also.”

You need to rest. You need to worship. You need to exercise. You may even need to read a book on a lawn chair with a cup of lemonade here and there. But certain careers by their very nature tend to crush Sabbath. Indeed, some professions make such outrageous claims of time and mental energy on their slaves (I mean, employees) that working 80,90 or 100 hours per week is normal. This just in: God did not design work to function like this! Six days work, one day rest. Choose a career where this rhythm can be observed – at a bare minimum.

I agree that at times jobs will make big demands on people. Fair enough. But if careers regularly run people into the ground, then we need to step back and ask ourselves: What really is the vision of a good life I’m pursuing? Some John Coltrane, walks by the river and a slow, home-cooked evening meal ought to be a part of such a vision.

Before accepting a job, ask yourself the question: What good is it for a man to gain the whole world but lose his very own soul?

4. It’s fine to make a decent salary; choose a job with a reasonable wage.

“It is lawful and meet to look at the commodity of your calling in the third place (that is, after the public good, and after your personal good of soul and bodily health).”

There’s no sense in getting paid well below market rates or claiming you’re more noble than others because you work for a nonprofit. It’s fine to make a profit, and it’s fine to choose a career where you can support your family and even righteous to have something to share with others. And if we believe the parable of the talents in any literal sense, then we ought to double our money by the time our master returns. Of course, if you make riches your chief goal, you’ve made it an idol. But if they’re #3 on the list or lower, you’re probably on the right track.

5. Ask a veteran in that field or company before making a final decision.

“Choose no calling (especially if it be of public consequence) without the advice of some judicious, faithful persons of that calling.”

Good, commonsense advice. Check the temperature of the water before jumping in by asking somebody who’s already in the pool.

So, if you’re looking to make a career change in 2014, take this list to heart as you choose how to spend your most precious resource: your time.

A Summary of Richard Baxter’s Advice on Choosing a Career

What Can’t Be a Calling

1. Sinful or unlawful work can’t be a calling.

2. Just because a job is legal doesn’t mean it can be a calling.

3. Don’t choose a job that drains your soul.

How To Choose a Career

1. Choose a career that contributes to the public good.

2. If two careers both contribute to the public good, pick spiritual benefit over cash bonuses.

3. Choose a career that won’t crush your Sabbath rest.

4. Yes, it’s fine to make a decent salary. Choose a job with a reasonable wage.

5. Ask a veteran in that field or company before making a final decision.

This post first appeared on the Denver Institute blog.

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ArtWork

Where Love and Need Are One: A Vision For Work

 

In the Fall 2013 Issue of Comment magazine, James K.A. Smith tells the story of a beautiful vision of work.

In 2009, US Supreme Court Justice David Souter retired to his New Hampshire home. Chief Justice Roberts wrote, on behalf of the court, “We understand your desire to trade white marble for White Mountains, and to return to your land of ‘easy wind and downy flake,’” citing a Robert Frost Poem.

Justice Souter responded with a quote from a Robert Frost poem of his own: “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Souter wrote that Frost set out “the ideal of a life engaged,” when he wrote work should be “where love and need are one.” The finest moments of Souter’s professional life were described by this unity of love and need, work and passion.

In the context of the simple task of splitting wood, Frost wrote about his vision more fully:

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future’s sake.

For Frost, and for Justice Souter, when work and play are united, we are most useful God, to society, and to those who would come after us.  

As I speak with an increasing amount of people in Denver about their work, occasionally I am lost in somebody’s description of their craft. And it seems they’re lost in it too – so engaged with the task they almost emit a fluffy, self-forgetful delight.

My neighbor Jodi is an artist. She painted a picture for our home of our oldest daughter near a river with balloons, inspired by the quote by Jean Pierre de Caussade, “The soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responding to every movement of grace like a floating balloon.” As she was doing the last touches in our living room, her eyes, her hand and her canvas almost became one. She was “out of time” – for that moment, her work and her delight were one.

Broadly speaking, Americans don’t like their jobs. Over 70% of America’s workforce is either passively disengaged or actively disengaged from their work. It seems to me that if we’re going to chip away and this soul-emptying number, we need to collectively pay attention to the times when we notice our love and need becoming one. As Fredrick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

If you feel that delight, share that experience with somebody. Here is where “the deed is done / For Heaven and the future’s sake.” Here’s where manual laborers, teachers, nurses, business leaders, and even Supreme Court Justices come alive.

Photo: Splitting Wood

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Work

Denver Institute for Faith & Work: A Beginning

 

For me, today is a landmark. Today we launch the website for Denver Institute for Faith & Work. (To celebrate, we’re giving away a copy of Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. To enter the drawing for the book, just “like” our Facebook page from 8am-5pm today. We’ll announce the winner tomorrow.) Today is a small, humble beginning, but nonetheless, one that reminds me of God’s faithfulness. As I look back over the last year, there were many “firsts” that confirmed that this project was not just my own, but was growing in the hearts of many – and was being led by God himself.

First ideas.  It was August 2012, and I sat on my bed scribbling out ideas for a new organization. Inspiration came from both the confluence of many streams of thought – Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, JD Hunter, Andy Crouch, Dorothy Sayers – and the newfound realization that work was the heart of influencing and creating culture. Three weeks of ideas eventually led to a simple business plan of what I was calling The Denver Institute. But of course, I’ve never lacked for ideas. My wife can testify to this! Would this idea be any different? Could it actually happen?

First meetings.  Q Cities Denver took place only a month later. Being completely cash poor, I reached out to the organizers and asked if I could write an article in place of a registration fee. They graciously accepted my proposal (even though the editor at The Gospel Coalition eventually rejected my article – sorry Q!), and I met a city full of people interested in the gospel, work and culture. Having really no idea how to start a new organization after the conference, I started recruiting church advisory council members and board members from the list of conference presenters. The first three meetings were with Stephen Redden, pastor at New Denver Church, Patton Dodd, Executive editor of Bondfire Books, and my pastor, Robert Gelinas, of Colorado Community Church. I felt a bit odd recruiting people for what was at that time a figment of my imagination – but it was also in those early meetings that an idea was starting to become a reality. We drank coffee, talked, dreamed, and something amazing happened – each of them actually took me seriously.

First calling. And so I spent my evenings in my office, working, planning, reading, praying. One afternoon, however, my wife and I were struggling deeply with finances. Before church on Saturday, December 1, I broke down in my office in tears. Here I was, pursuing this dream, while we could barely pay our bills. Yet after church that day, something I’ll never forget happened. (You can read the full account here.) Terri Powell, a fellow member of Colorado Community Church, approached me after the service, and boldly said, “I have a word from God for you.” Not being a charismatic, I didn’t know what to make of this! She said, at just the right moment, at just the time I was wondering what God was doing in my career and vocation, Terri said, “God says to you, ‘Your work matters to me.’ He sees what you’re doing, and it’s important to him.” That moment converted a personal interest to a divine mission – from that time on, it was clear I was only a part of God’s larger plan, one that he himself was orchestrating.

First donation. My dear sister was our first donor. (Thank you sis!) She gave enough in November of 2012 for our logo and identity package. Having the spiritual gift of discernment, she could see something that I could not yet see. When the check came in the mail, I was really astounded. Here was faith that I barely had yet! But of course, it was her prayers that led me to Christ, and now her faith that led me to step out in faith myself.

First board member. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was sitting on a Lazy Boy in my sister’s living room, checking my email. For the previous three weeks, I had been pitching the idea to potential board members. Yet one person stuck out. I had coffee at Stella’s one day with Chris Horst, the Director of Development for HOPE International and the de facto leader of faith and work efforts in Denver. As one of the Q Cities Denver organizers, I knew he was an important voice. But after our meeting, I said to myself, “If I can get this guy, the whole plan works.” He was a passionate follower of Christ, humble, intelligent, and had networks a mile deep in the Mile High City. A couple weeks after our meeting, I sent him an impassioned plea for joining the board (unconvincingly trying to prove what a great leader I was!). While checking my email that afternoon, January 24, 2013, this is part of what he wrote:

Jeff,
Thanks for your patience in walking through this decision-making process with me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and praying about this…The longer I considered it, the more excited I became about the opportunity. It’s right in my “enthusiasm wheelhouse” and a cause and leader—you—I deeply believe in.
I’m excited to roll up my sleeves and help you move toward the vision God’s planted in your heart. I’ve concluded a few commitments I made for 2012 and believe I have the margin to support this fully…
There are many whose life experience and natural intellect exceed mine by (very) wide margins and I’m really honored that you even considered asking me to join. I’m looking forward to serving however I can to bless The Denver Institute and, hopefully, bless our churches and communities in the process.
Warmly,
Chris

Immediately I jumped up from my chair, and triumphantly shouted, “Yes!” My mother, sister, brother-in-law, and wife all thought I had lost it. I said, “It all works! Now the whole plan works!” Not only was Chris the first board member, he was the first to take a huge risk and dance with me. Having just one other person willing to join meant number two, three, four, ten and twenty were not far behind.  Know I new that this vision now would become a reality.

First Church Advisory Council meeting. In February I first met with our church advisory council. As I looked around the room, I thought, “There’s one person here who doesn’t belong. Me.” Honestly, to see nine top-notch pastors come together and express support for this new project was an odd feeling. To me, it was both a confirmation of God’s work, and a cause for deep gratitude – something I would be feeling a lot in the coming months.

First board meeting. Shortly after, we had our first board meeting. Chris introduced me to Hunter Beaumont, Jill Hamilton, and Jim Howey. Patton Dodd and Bob Cutillo, who would become the chair of our board, also joined. Each yes to a board invitation was further evidence that the Spirit was working in hearts and minds. He was working in soil I had not tilled, and bringing a harvest I had not worked for.

The 501(c)3 app. Through my friend Gary Hoag, God also provided Scheffel and Associates, and Matt Paulk, who generously offered to front us the costs associated with filing a 501(c)3 application. Things were moving fast – and on March 22, I signed on the dotted line.

Confirming the Call. Over the summer, we worked on program design, board development, and our first fundraising request. One meeting, however, stuck out. I met Bob Cutillo at Blueberries in Littleton for coffee on a Saturday morning. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about whether he would chair the board. What stuck out, however, was his deep wisdom – especially about calling. That morning, Bob clarified my own sense of “boundness” to this project. I’ll paraphrase what he said.

People often say, especially to high school graduates, “You can be whoever you want to be.” Well, that’s a bunch of bologna. When you discover your calling, you can either choose your destiny, or become less of who God created you to be…In my career, at times I’ve stepped away from being a doctor to the medically underserved. Things didn’t go well. I stepped outside of my calling, my “fit.” Do you feel the same way about starting this new organization?

After that day, it became clear: truly embracing the call to lead this organization actually was limiting my freedom. I don’t have the choice to do something else (a very un-American idea)!Well, I do, but if I did choose to go another direction, I would be denying my very own shape, the way God formed me for a particular purpose. In a world where people will change careers an average of 12 times in a lifetime, this view is exceedingly rare. Nonetheless, the call to this project was not only confirmed by others, but was being solidified in my heart as I peered into the future.

First event. Toward the end of the summer, we put our first event on the calendar. In partnership with The Well Boulder, The Tango Group, and All Souls Boulder, we’re bringing John Dyer, author of From the Garden to the City:The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology, to Boulder to equip those who work in the tech industry to better integrate the gospel with their work. In addition to our first event, we have leaders for 5 vocation groups, one that’s going now, the other four which will begin this Winter.

New Website.  And today, we have a new website. Little did I know what I was getting into when I started this project! Words like widget, plugin, and CSS code have all moved into my vocabulary. But thanks to friends like Stephen Redden, Jill Hamilton, and Andrew Wolgemuth, we have a reasonably good website (with over 40 pages!) and three social media outlets. The website was a good reminder for me – living out your call doesn’t mean the absence of frustration or hard work!

God calls us to remember. It is one of the most frequent commands in the OT. Remember how I brought you out of Egypt. Remember the covenant. Remember the LORD your God. As I remember this past year, I can see how true Cathy Pino’s “Servant’s Prayer” is:

Lord it’s you who has brought me to this day

Who has carried and kept me in your care

I look back and I see you in all my years

And so forward I go, knowing you are there

God does something truly amazing with our work when we offer it to him. He takes our feeble attempts at service, in all our wandering confusion and persistent sin, and uses it in his great plan of redemption. What grace! What love! What creativity! To use such a tainted pallets as us, and to paint such masterpiece of salvation – what an exhilarating life to live.

If I was to share any piece of insight from my own story in the past year, it would be this: trust in his providence, and offer all your work to him. He will make it beautiful in its own time.

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Work

Man vs. Man: Ranking Ourselves at Work

 

Nice to meet you. So what firm do you work for? I wonder if my firm is bigger.

Webster & Associates. Just took the job last month; I was over at Leeland & Keller before that. Forward progress for me. Bigger, better…This guy’s pretty confident. I wonder where he comes from. How about you? You local? Where did you go to law school?

University of Denver. After that I clerked for Judge Merriweather downtown. Geez, Webster & Associates? I bet he went to Harvard Law. How about you?

Yale Law. I clerked federal in D.C. A long few years, but worth the sacrifice. Good thing I didn’t meet my wife until law school. Too busy.

Comparison. We all do it. A recent blog post entitled Mom vs. Mom highlighted the subtle ways moms compete and compare – organic mom, slender fit mom, working mom, super-godly mom. The push to do it all, be it all, thrives amidst mothers and their kids. It’s no different at work. Pastors subtly ask one another how many people are attending their churches on Sunday. Lawyers vet their competition by making small talk about law school. Business leaders compare balance sheets over happy hour. Entrepreneurs, feeling ‘small’ when around a venture capitalist, inflate their ideas. Authors discuss which publishing house picked up their last book. In admissions and student enrollment (where I work), of course, the marker of success is the number of students each Fall. LinkedIn profiles grow and grow – even when people aren’t changing jobs. Just look at all those endorsements.

It’s not like anybody does this overtly. But in certain contexts the feelings of inferiority – or superiority – take over. The small talk may seem innocent, but at the heart of it is the desire to prove our own worth. We play a never-ending game of professional (and personal) rank. Why? To show the world our worth. To justify ourselves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor in WWII, wrote a little book called Life Together about Christian community during his time leading an underground seminary at Finkenwalde. A random half-quote from the book once stuck with me. The Christian, says Bonhoeffer, is simply a “brother among brothers.” With God as our Father, and Jesus himself as our brother (Heb. 2:11), Christians are family. On an equal playing field.

Holding on to this phrase “a brother among brothers” has been hugely helpful to me as I walk into appointments. In the faith and work world, I have the tendency to exalt myself over other ministries or individuals who need my help, and, conversely, cower before high powered professionals or CEOs  who make my paltry experience seem microscopic in comparison. Yet when I repeat the phrase “a brother among brothers” before appointments, it does two things for me.

  1. It eliminates superiority. How could I, a servant of Christ, really be superior to anybody else? I’m justified freely by God’s grace, and the person I’m sitting across bears the image of the King of the Universe, and is my brother (or sister). Manual laborer, Latino pastor, retired grandmother, 15 year-old high school student – all family, and worthy of my attention and careful respect. When the apostle Paul appealed to Philemon to receive back his former slave Onesimus, he reminded him that in Christ his social rank had changed. Onesimus, once a slave, is now a brother (Philemon 16).
  2. It also eliminates groveling.  If this executive sitting across from me is really my brother, do I really need to build myself up, prove my worth, or beg for their approval? Would I do this with a family member? Of course not. It wasn’t for no reason that Joseph spoke squarely and honestly to Pharaoh. He had been with God (or, more accurately, God had been with him) and that freed him to speak truth – but never lacking love – to the most high powered man in the world. Since we are both made in the image of God, there’s no need to vet competition by checking academic credentials, examining work attire, or (when getting home) measuring the green-ness of their grass. Christians are free to listen, serve and love, without the need to conquer, achieve, or exalt ourselves.

Our worth comes not from our professional success or rank. It comes from Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross and the gift of His righteousness on our behalf. Since all the treasures of heaven have been poured out freely into the lives of Christians, there’s no need to play the game anymore. Here is where we find freedom, peace and rest. Here’s also were we find an eager desire to serve those “below” us, and a strong confidence to engage with those “above” us.

My friend David Hyams, at Rothgerber, Johnson & Lyons, a law firm in Denver, has suggested a good way to put this into practice at work. Change the question. Instead of asking asking questions about which law firm, which law school, etc., when meeting another lawyer, he simply asks the question: “So why did you go into law?” This question goes to purpose and intent. It also often draws out a lawyer’s highest ideals – of justice and equality – which are often in need of refreshing amidst the challenges of litigation, clients, and daily stresses of practicing law. Questions about rank tend to have the purpose of quietly finding ways to exalt and prove oneself; questions of purpose draw peers into re-envisioning the good purposes for which God has designed their work.

Discussion question: In your field, what questions are asked that are subtly intended to “rank” one another? How can you “change the question” when meeting people in your field?

Photo: Two Lawyers Conversing

(PS: Have a restful Labor Day.)

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