Jeff Haanen




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.


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


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:

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.

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.


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.)


Reengaging America’s Workers


Generally speaking, most Americans either hate their jobs or are just simply “checked out.” A recent Gallup survey showed that of the 100 million Americans working full-time, 70 million were either “not Engaged employees” or “Actively disengaged.” That means only 30% of Americans were “engaged employees.” What do these categories mean? Gallup defines them as:

  • Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward.
  • Not Engaged employees are essentially “checked out.” They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work.
  • Actively Disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.

In 2012, 30 percent of American workers were ‘engaged,’ 18 percent were ‘actively disengaged,’ and the majority – 52 percent – were not engaged at all. The bottom line? America’s workers are generally bored or unhappy.

So what has caused such widespread dissatisfaction? Some note that 30-somethings today will be the first generation since the Great Depression to make less than their parents. Timothy Eagan at The New York Times doesn’t think it’s wages, but bosses that are the problem. Most companies tacitly “promote a view that everyone is replaceable” and don’t spend enough time focusing on the strengths of employees, says Eagan. Nor do they allow enough “flex-time.”

Eagan concludes, “Regular praise, opportunity for growth, and the occasional question from a higher-up of a lower-down about how to improve things would go a long way toward getting the checked-out to check back in.”

Though Eagan certainly has a good point here, I think he’s missing something more basic. People long for both creative work and deep sense of purpose. Re-engagement happens when both of these factors are built into a company or organization.

First, creative work happens when there is a deep connection between thought, activity, and relationship. For example, when an author writes a book, she (1) conceives of the book in her mind, (2) does the hard work of actually producing a book and works with a publisher to get it to the shelves, and (3) receives feedback about her book from the audience.

The modern world, however, has aggressively separated thought, activity, and relationship into different categories, and thus different jobs. Many jobs are simply a list of tasks that neither originate in the mind of the worker nor are ever really embraced by the worker. With the advent of the franchise in post-WWII America, millions of jobs became systematized, offering highly specific tasks (predictable products at lower cost) but jobs that don’t care much for the creative input of employees. What became important was the doing – not the thinking. “Thinking” will be left to management. Unfortunately, this kind of separation leaves people quite literally “checked out” from their jobs. They don’t need their minds anymore. Of if they do, they feel not like they’re not challenged or encouraged to engage both thought and activity, mind and body.

Moreover, huge swaths of the American economy are run by workers who have little if any connection to the outcome of their work. They occupy one small step in a global production chain, but never see their product influencing the life of another. The typical example is of a factory – pulling a lever or assembling a table leg hundreds of times a day. Not only is the repetitiveness of the job soul-squelching, but the worker can’t have the satisfaction of seeing the car or table being used by a family – and then hearing how they appreciate the work. Satisfaction at work is found in this third element of work – relationship. We need to see the work of our hands providing a valuable service to a customer. Without this experience – well, we see what we’ve got today – widespread disengagement.

So what can be done? If you lead a company or organization, provide each employee with these three elements of creative work – significant say-so in the work that is to be done (thought), an intentional and significant responsibility to turn the employees own ideas to realities (activity), and intentional interaction between the employee and the actual person who uses the product (relationship).

Second, workers need a deep sense of purpose.  Several years ago, Howard Gardener did a study on what constitutes “good work,” that is, not just high job performance ratings, but work that contributes significantly to the communal good. Gardner found three elements were key for good work:

  • A strong sense of moral commitment to the larger purposes one brings to a job
  • A professional ethic exemplified by those doing early job training
  • Lineages of worthy models from the past with whom one identifies in working toward the future.

In Hugh Heclo’s masterful On Thinking Institutionally, he summarizes this model of good work as “being around and identifying with people who model and reinforce one’s appreciation for institutional values.” In short, being in a company of moral purpose, not just high returns, makes for meaningful work.

For example, take Denver Schools of Science and Technology (DSST). Their founder, Bill Kurtz, often speaks of a “values-based culture.” He expects employees and students alike to know school values – courage, curiosity, respect, hard work, etc – and to live them out. In so doing, he has created a culture that does these things well: teachers are committed to the moral purposes of the school (offering an excellent STEM education to inner city students in a context of ethical integrity) and a lofty professional ethic (all new teachers get a month of training in June to introduce them to DSST’s values and expectations).

DSST is consistently one of Denver’s best places to work because employees have a mission (not just a job) and they are willing to commit themselves to the moral good the  institution they are a part of.

So, action point? If your company is motivated only by the bottom line, and you’re expecting to motivate employees only with greater compensation packages, you’re in trouble. Especially among Millenials (I’m one of them!). A deep sense of purpose, of accomplish a greater good to which the company or organization is committed is fundamental to employee engagement.

Conclusion: To overcome America’s widespread on-the-job boredom, leaders will need to rethink how their institutions are organized. Jobs descriptions will need to be re-written around two focal points: creative work and moral purpose.

Photo: Office Desk

Discussion Question: Are you “checked out” of your job? Why do you think this is? Or do you have employees who work for you that are disengaged? How can both creative work and a deep sense of purpose change how you organize your department or company?


Doing Your Job Artfully


My bright friend Reilly Flynn recently brought up a helpful quote for those struggling with job satisfaction. On 5 Sept 1957, Martin Luther King Jr said

[We] must head out to do our jobs so well that nobody could do them better. No matter what this job is, you must decide to do it well. Do it so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn (Yes) can’t do it better. (Yeah) If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Raphael painted pictures; sweep streets like Michelangelo carved marble; sweep streets like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: “Here lived a great street sweeper (All right), who swept his job well.”

Though I had heard the quote before, I was not aware of the context. MLK was encouraging blacks to do their jobs with distinction and excellence, knowing that they’d be competing with their white counterparts for the same job. The only way to level the unequal racial playing field was to do their jobs with such distinction that their superiors would have to recognize their ability and give them promotions and higher wages.

Last week Chris Horst and myself did a Q & A session at The Next Level Church in Englewood, Colorado on the topic of “How We Work.” I expected questions perhaps on how their Christian faith related to, say, their work in corporate America or even as a barista. Instead, what we mostly got was various levels of dissatisfaction. “What do you do to avoid thinking about how meaningless your job is? What do you do if your boss hates your guts?”

It’s not uncommon to be a “street sweeper” in today’s economy. But what do you do if you’re a street sweeper and you don’t feel entirely called to sweeping streets? I counseled people to not give up hope, and serve well in whatever job you may find yourself. MLK counseled his people to not only serve well, but to serve artistically, as a testimony to the nobility of African Americans living in the US.

This isn’t bad advice. As Reilly pointed out, Christians ought to be known for excellent work. Too often “evangelical” is equated with shoddy, half-baked work. But we’d be wise to remember we are made in the image of the Craftsman who does all things with artful excellence.

Discussion question: Do you see your current job as being a “street sweeper?” What would it look like to sweep streets as Raphael painted pictures or Beethoven composed music? Do you think it’s harder to do this in some jobs than others?


Volunteering for Justice or Working for Justice?


Homelessness, immigration, poverty, access to health care, pollution, sex trafficking, educational reform, mass incarceration – the justice issues of our day are seemingly endless. The good news is that many evangelical churches are not only addressing these issues, but are encouraging their congregations to get involved. But as a whole, churches have adopted very limiting strategies for living out Amos’ (and Martin Luther King’s) cry to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” This is what I mean:

Typically churches will address a topic like poverty in a sermon series or at a conference, and afterward they will encourage participants to do one of two things: (1) donate to a local ministry, or (2) volunteer. If pastors can manage to convict hearts of the unacceptable injustices of our world, and that’s a big if, the “ask” is to give money or to go and volunteer once a month cleaning graffiti or packing food boxes.

Now, volunteering through a nonprofit to serve the poor is good. And so is giving money.  However, it leaves the other 45 hours of a parishioners work week untouched. On the church level, we’ve largely overlooked the centrality of work for bringing about justice.

Let me illustrate. A classic justice text is found in Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah, and most of the minor prophets, issue thundering critiques of injustice. But what kind of situations were the prophets addressing? Here are a few examples from Micah:

(1) “Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate together what they desire – the all conspire together” (Micah 7:3). Political rules were corrupt, accepting bribes and using power to advance their own interests. What’s the implied call to action? Volunteer through a local organization? Or is it a call for those working in government to maintain the highest ethical standards, never forgetting the weak whom the LORD cares for?

(2) “Am I to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house, and the short ephah, which is accursed? Shall I acquit a person with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?” (Micah 6:10-11). The critique here is of a business culture that has a single bottom line: maximize profit. Dishonest scales and false weights cheat consumers out of a fair price. Again, what’s the action point? For those who work in business, turn from dishonesty, set fair prices, make quality products, and let justice before the LORD drive business practices.

(3) A final example from Micah: “They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they defraud them of their inheritance” (Micah 2:2). Here the powerful take the fields and homes of the powerless. Again, I’d ask, how should we best address issues of predatory lending, affordable housing and even homelessness? Should we not first talk to Christians in finance, mortgage, and lending and see if we can’t build practices that get and keep the poor in affordable homes and restrain the temptation to “covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them?”

The point is simply this: pastors need to shift how they tell their congregations to get involved in justice issues to include both volunteerism and work. Volunteerism is good – America’s civic culture has always been strengthened by volunteers. But at work is where Christians (1) have far more time to address justice issues and (2) are in positions of influence to actually change structural realities.

For example, after a sermon series on immigration, why not encourage small business owners to hire immigrants as a practical way to show concern for the foreigner (Ex. 22:21)? In education reform, can we encourage teachers to spend extra time with students who struggle to read because God wants all young people to be able to read and hear his word? Could we encourage city officials to adopt environmentally friendly policies to care for God’s creation? Couldn’t we even encourage employees at gas stations or fast food restaurants (those without ‘power’) to serve customers as they would serve Christ himself, or be courageous and name the idols that drive unethical practices?

On a practical level, for pastors this means different sermon illustrations. It means different tables in the foyer that, for instance, gather Christian engineers to talk about building a beautiful, environmentally friendly, and community-building neighborhoods. It means publicly praying over your “royal priesthood” and commissioning them to be salt and light in the workplace. It means seeing your congregation not as a crowd of potential volunteers, but as teachers, nurses, construction workers, hotel employees, and marketers who have been called by God to bring about truth, beauty and justice through their vocation.

It means deeply believing James Davison Hunter’s words: “Fidelity to the highest practices of vocation before God is consecrated and in itself transformation in its effects.”

Discussion question: For pastors and ministry leaders, how might “working for justice” versus “volunteering for justice” change your calls to action?


Meaningless jobs?


What might Christianity say to those who are “stuck” in entry-level, hourly jobs? What can we say to those organizing clothes at The Gap, steaming espressos at Starbucks, or selling laptops at Best Buy?    High ideals are perhaps not hard to find in medicine, law or social work. But what about the rest of us who deliver juice, sit at the front desk, or just find ourselves trying to get by? Are these jobs just “meaningless” ways to earn money, or can there be ways to apply the Christian faith here too?

Two conversations I recently had shine light on this very question. Jim is an architect. Today he designs homes and hospitals with one other partner in Denver. As we grilled out and watched our families play by their apartment pool a week ago, I asked him about his work.

He explained to me that his firm was built on biblical principles. “What do you mean ‘biblical principles?’” I had to ask. He explained that it primarily meant an attitude of genuine service toward their clients. Because they’re driven not only by the bottom line, he’s free to design what his customers genuinely need. He also said it influences how he does his work; buildings are spiritually formative. To that end, he regularly asks, “How will this design influence my client’s day-to-day life?”  Besides service and the spiritual dimensions of design, he also accepts projects for nonprofit clients like Colorado Coalition of the Homeless.

“Jim,” I asked, “But what would you say to an entry-level architect that has no influence, and must simply serve the bottom-line in a larger corporation?” Jim replied, “Yes, that was me for several years. I would say find ways to create value. When I was an intern just trying to get my license, I worked in a huge corporation. But when a task was given to me, I found ways to do it with distinction and create value for both my boss and my clients.” The projects given to him turned out better than his boss expected. It was that attitude that gave Jim the reputation and relationships that set the foundation for his firm today.

Jim didn’t change the corporation, but he decided where he did have influence, and started there. His influence had a leavening effect on his small circle of clients and co-workers his first years after college. Jim created value through doing excellent work and serving the needs of others – and eventually his influence grew.

Dave is a bus driver. A dear friend from church and a wise follower of Christ, Dave told me he was laid off from his job of testing car emissions a few years ago. When he left his shop, he took a job driving a bus for special needs children. His new job was highly interpersonal in nature – a vast difference from his previous work. Although it was an unforeseen career move, Dave applied his Christian faith in bold ways.

Over burgers at a recent cookout, he recounted to me, “One day, I spoke to other bus drivers about our jobs. So many people just see this job as a paycheck. But I said to them, ‘When a kid walks onto your bus, each and every one of them is important. They’re not just a paycheck – each of them has a unique story and life. We have a responsibility to greet them with a smile and take care of them.”

“What was their response?” I asked. His jaw dropped, visually showing me the dumfounded responses of the other bus drivers. “They had never thought about that before.”

Dave had influence over the students he saw daily and on the network of other bus drivers he knew. In a job where it was just about getting the route done, he insisted that all people, including children with special needs, are made in the image of God – and through his words and example spoke a shocking gospel to his co-workers. Like Jim, Dave knew he actually did  have influence, and he used his influence to speak truth and serve.

So, how should we counsel those who are in “meaningless” jobs? First, decide where you do have influence. Then, give both clients and customers the benefit of work well-done, an ennobling experience fitting for image-bearers, and, most importantly, words of hope.

Discussion question: In what ways have you seen others bring meaning to a “meaningless job?” In what ways have you shared the gospel through your work?


Work as Witness


Often our first ideas are the most clear. Writing a book, drafting the design for a new cell phone case, mapping out a family vacation – often the foundational work comes in a short flurry. Last fall, this is what happened to me as I imagined the reason for a new faith and work nonprofit. I quickly wrote down five goals that would address the six tragedies of modern public life.

Five Goals For Our Work 

  1. Our work should be a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. I’m not sure work can “transform” the world, nor do I think we can “redeem” culture. But as Christians live in God’s reign now, so each element of the Christian’s life can be a sweet foretaste of the world-to-come. Writing a book, designing a shopping mall, or teaching a lesson can all point to God’s kingdom when Christians can articulate the reality of God’s reign, and connect theologically how the work of their hands points to the authority and majesty of King Jesus.
  2. Because most of us work in “public,” work should be the place where we make public witness to the Gospel.  Our work can and should be a witness to the gospel when we connect revelation with our daily deeds. Question whether that ad accurately portrays the product you’re selling – and do so with the knowledge that our work bears our image, and we reflect the image of the God of all truth. Construct buildings that draw the heart to beauty, and are not only focused on the bottom line, for God himself is the author of all beauty. Work is the place where we can potentially have the greatest influence for the gospel, both by our words and our deeds.
  3. We need a new framework for our fields based on God’s revelation in Jesus Christ as elements of the Enlightenment project deteriorate our shared public life. The West, and nearly all global cities that call themselves modern, share a very similar culture, which is based on thought that comes out of 18th century Europe.  Today, the underlying Christian roots of modernity have been increasingly pushed out of public life, and what’s left is an ever-critical, individualism that doubts nearly all authority and people who live, as Maslow has said, increasingly for “self-actualization.” The way to give public life a rejuvenated moral fabric and sense of purpose is by re-imaging our respective fields in light of the gospel, a story that both challenges other gods and casts down idols, and lifts up all that is good, true and beautiful in the world, whether it comes from the hands of Christians or non-believers (for it all comes from the hand of God). The task before us is to create spaces for Christians to ask how the gospel influences their work in community, and do it with the desire not to conquer, but to speak truth in humility and to serve the needs of our neighbor.
  4. We need the vocational resources of the Christian community to be unleashed for serving the common good of our cities. A city well-served and deeply loved; this is the task of nearly every urban church, but far too few see the inherent power of equipping the saints not just for volunteer opportunities once a month, but for using their God-given skills to advance the common good 40-50 hours a week.
  5. We should strive for creative, joyful work. God worked with joy, and he created simply because it was good. So should Christians be known for craftsmanship, doing a thing well simply for its own sake. Become lost in your task, adorning society with your art. Be filled with wonder and use your mind and hands to bring a smile to the face of another. It is in this self-forgetfulness that we unwittingly sow the seeds of cultural renewal.

Photo: Urban Architecture


How to Change Your Company’s Culture


I recently wrote a dual book review for Christianity Today. One book, Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture and the Church, was cogent, clear and helpful; the other, Christ + City: Why the Greatest Need of the City is the Greatest News of All was chatty, poorly argued, and at times misleading. In my review, I argued there was a key difference that separated the two volumes: “one book is merely in the city; the other is engaged with the city.”

One book brought Bible stories “into” an urban context (the author was from Chicago), yet showed very little understanding of  the city nor engagement with its culture. The other book, Why Cities Matter, combined social analysis and ministry application to produce a useful tool that helps ministry leaders not just move into the city, but to winsomely engage its culture.

“In” a city versus “engaged with” a city is a helpful distinction that can shed tremendous light on the faith and work conversation. Many Christians are simply “in” a company or organization, and even are very “Christian” there (personal evangelism, ethical decision-making), but are not in any meaningful way influencing their organizational culture or the culture of their industry. I would venture to say that the majority of faith and work ministries unknowingly encourage versions of this kind of isolation by promoting a “protect and defend” mentality. Christians gather, circle around the Bible, and defend their personal morality against the pressures of cut-throat competition, secular humanism, or unsavory influences.

Of course, other Christians are not just “in” an organization, but are actively engaged with its culture, and do so winsomely. Some strands of faith and work ministries do this extremely effectively, and though the means for influence is indeed work, the outcome is actually cultural influence. So how do you move from simply being a Christian “in” an organization to actually engaging its culture with the gospel?

Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard offer five clear questions for determining the “storyline” (culture) of a city, which also works well for a company or organization. There are five key questions to determining your organization’s culture.

1.       What is your organization’s history? When was it founded and by whom? Where did it start and when? What was the original mission statement and how has it changed over time? Answering these questions is foundational to understanding your organization’s unique culture.

2.      What are your organization’s values? Entrepreneurship, faithfulness, long hours, creativity, success at any cost, the bottom line? What does your organization reward at the end of the year? 

3.      What are your organization’s dreams? Global influence, millions of dollars, brilliant scholars, Broadway? Perhaps a better way to ask the question: if your organization found $10 million in a treasure chest, what would be done with it?

4.      What are your organization’s fears? Past non-existence, what is the worst case scenario? Generally, flip its dreams upside down, and you get its fears. 

5.      What are your organization’s ethos? An organization’s ethos is shaped by its unique geography, history and climate. It’s no accident that REI thrives in Colorado, and even that the tech executives of sunny Silicon Valley wear t-shirts and sandals. The climate affects their casual culture.

If you can find time to hammer out these questions with your co-workers, you can begin to define your organizationally culture. When Um and Buzzard applied this framework to cities, they labeled (accurately, I believe) key urban centers with their corresponding idols: Boston: Knowledge; Paris: Romance; London: Influence; Boulder: Adventure; San Diego: Health; Singapore: Order; Oklahoma City: Family. If you can understand your organization’s culture, which is always ruled by a god, you can begin to engage it’s culture with the gospel. 

Engagement is twofold: (1) Challenge your organization’s storyline, and (2) Re-tell it with the hope of the gospel. The Scriptures frequently command direct confrontation of idols. Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, Josiah crushed the Asherah poles, and Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city [Athens] was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Taking the step to say your firm, school, or guild’s focus of ultimate significance is not ultimate is no easy task. In my personal experience, one of two things will happen: (1) People will think you’re crazy and say there are no such gods in this place, or (2) Try to drive you out (he’s really not our kind of person after all). Nonetheless, challenging the idols is a necessary part of ministry within your industry.

Second, and perhaps this is the way to not get fired, retell your organization’s storyline with a renewed hope inspired by the gospel. A friends of mine works at a public relations firm in Denver. In the world of PR, there’s a tendency to “bend” the truth for your clients, as there is across the world of marketing. The Christian story points to a person who is himself the way, the truth, and the life, and calls his children to live in the truth. The gospel also points to the day when light will expose all darkness, and the truth of Jesus’ kingly authority will be made known to all.

Truth, as it turns out, is good for marketing and PR. In a culture of “noise”, people are skeptical about advertising and marketing campaigns, expecting to be bamboozled, if even subtly. Seth Godin recently advised marketers to lead with the unattractive parts about your product or service. This kind of “leading with truth” can actually surprise people enough to cut through the noise and potentially win more clients. Perhaps not. But the reward of telling the truth is reward enough for the Christian who values integrity over pandering for more business.

This is just one example. Other industries will have other idols to confront, and Christians will have other (better) stories to tell. But I believe this is where cultural influence begins, first on the micro level and then at the macro level.

(1)   Understand your organization’s culture.

(2)  Challenge your organization’s storyline.

(3)  Re-tell your organization’s story with the hope of the gospel.

Of course, all this talking by itself is insufficient to change the culture of your company. Ideas must be incarnated; they must put on flesh. Re-telling must culminate in creation, in new kinds of work. We must take a better hope and make new processes, policies, programs, or products. Here is where we can plant the seeds of renewing the face of the earth – and the office.

Photo: Denver Panorama

Discussion Questions: What is your organization’s culture? What are its idols? And how would you re-tell your organization’s (or even your industry’s) story with the hope of the gospel?

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