“How do you measure your results?” It’s usually not the first question I receive from a donor interested in our work, but it is the second or third. And it’s not always easy to answer.
Measuring impact in the nonprofit sector can be tricky business. In the business world, it’s much more straightforward: profitability is still the standard-bearer for an “effective business.” But in the nonprofit sector, especially educational organizations like Denver Institute, our goal is to shape human lives. How would we know if we were effective at a program like, say, the 5280 Fellowship?
In early 2020, we recruited two outside researchers — Stephen Assink (MAR) and Andrew Lynn (PhD), both from the University of Virginia — to help us with that question. As trained social scientists with experience doing research for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the Thriving Cities Group, Stephen and Andrew brought both objectivity and expertise to our question. So, how did we tackle this question of impact?
First, we clarified our outcomes, which are all built around our five guiding principles. What do we mean by “effectiveness”? We mean people who think theologically about their work, embrace redemptive relationships, create good work, seek deep spiritual health, and serve others sacrificially in their communities and city.
Second, we gave them an overview of the 5280 Fellowship program, and the elements we’ve built into the program to bring about real formation. City leader meetings, cohort discussions, mentoring triads, retreats, Saturday sessions, personal formation projects, professional impact projects — each element is carefully chosen to fuel change around our five guiding principles.
From there, Stephen and Andrew conducted both qualitative (interview) surveys and quantitative (online, multiple choice) surveys of pre-program participants (Year 5), and alumni — both recent graduates (Year 4) and our initial cohort (Year 1).
Between 65 participants and 4,000 unique data points, what did they find?
Today we’re publishing 5280 Fellowship Assessment results, which is the first step in a multi-year study measuring the impact of the 5280 Fellowship.
Here’s a sample of what we learned:
|I view my work as a mission from God.
|I know how my work makes my city or culture better.
|I do weekly spiritual disciplines beyond Bible study or prayer.
|My spiritual disciplines improve my work habits.
|I’m active in a nonprofit or civic organization.
In the study, we measured the Fellows’ change in five areas: theology, relationships, views about their work, professional leadership, and civic engagement.
We found strong growth particularly in three areas: theological thinking about their work and our culture, new and lasting relationships between Fellows and leaders in our city, and adopting spiritual practices that lead to internal wholeness and health.
One CEO said about the program, “I can’t stress enough how I’ve seen people’s mentality change as a result of the program.” A seminary lecturer commented about the program, “I think the biggest change for [the Fellows] is a shift from … an instrumental versus intrinsic value of work.” They now ask, “Does my work actually contribute toward the mission of God to reconcile all things to himself?”
Assink and Lynn also measured the 5280 Fellows in comparison with a control group of their evangelical peers across the US and found a marked difference in values and practices, especially with respect to weekly church attendance (49% national average compared to 76% for Fellows), participating in monthly in Bible study or prayer group (28% nationally, 80% Fellows), and pursuing excellence in their work because of their faith (78% nationally, 89% Fellows).
What It Means
Here’s what the report means for us and those we serve:
For more information about becoming a Fellow, visit 5280Fellows.com. For information about how to financially support either the 5280 Fellowship or the CityGate initiative, please email [email protected].
Recently I got good news from my publisher: An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life surpassed 10,000 copies sold.
So I recently re-read portions of the book, and after a 18 months since release (I know, I’m biased), I think the book really does offer a clear, compelling vision for retirement in a faithful, practical, and story-driven way.
My friend Mark Roberts at Fuller Seminary’s Depree Center recently interviewed me about the book. Above is our interview. Enjoy.
If you’d like more information about the book, or a sample chapter or a free discussion guide, can you visit uncommonretirement.com.
What are the major concerns of people facing retirement? How does the “vacation” view of retirement contrast with what the Bible says about retirement? How important a dimension of retirement is Sabbath? What do you believe is the most important component of a godly retirement?
What am I going to do with my retirement?
I was recently interviewed by Paul Arnott, the executive director of Q4:Rethinking Retirement, on my book An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life.
Paul was a delightful, humble host. He exemplifies what it means to be an “elder” of influence and wisdom.
I hope you enjoy this video…
How two couples reflect a growing movement to see retirement not as an end but as a transition.
We’re planning to retire by age 50,”says Rebecca Jackson, 40, from Fort Collins, Colorado. “But it’s not that we wouldn’t work; we just might not do the same thing.”
Rebecca and her husband, Greg Feldpausch, 39, are both doctors. She’s a geriatric physician, and he works in adult medicine at Northern Colorado Hospitalists after spending the first season of his career in the Air Force. As they juggle work and raising their two boys, Clayton, 4, and Jackson, 7, they’re also looking to the future. The end goal for them is to be able to fully walk away from their jobs and be retired for life.
How will they do that? They’ve created a strategy to pay down their student loan debt and save for the future. Clint Jasperson, their brother-in-law (married to Rebecca’s sister) and a Thrivent Financial professional in Timnath, Colorado, has helped them.
“They’re very, very committed to paying off their debt,” says Jasperson. “So many people end up in what feels like indentured servitude by having ‘lifestyle creep,’ by buying a larger house or car than they need. But Becca and Greg have their priorities straight.”
Even though both now make good salaries, Rebecca and Greg essentially live on one salary, as they are aggressively paying off loans and cars, and are saving for their children’s college education.
Jasperson has been a crucial guide in Rebecca and Greg’s financial journey, helping them use their finances to live out their faith. “If we believe everything we have is a gift, then that puts us into a position of stewardship,” Jasperson says.
Their view of retirement reflects a growing movement to see retirement not as an end but as a transition. They’re looking forward to retirement giving them more flexibility when it comes to their family and pursuing other passions. “There’s a high burnout rate in medicine,” says Rebecca, explaining why they want to retire early. “And we’d just like to have options. Time with our family is really a priority.” They’ve also considered retiring in Oregon, and Greg has thought about spending more time working with his hands—possibly learning a new trade.
Jasperson helps Thrivent members save and plan for the future, especially for unexpected circumstances like a death in the family. But he doesn’t believe most people “want to just sit there and idly twiddle their thumbs all day. Retirement is really about transitioning to your next calling. You’ve got to find that next calling.”
Retirement is not always about a complete cessation from work, but often a new season of service that’s enabled by being wise with money.
Planning to Retire—But Not Completely
“I don’t know that we’ll ever actually retire,” says Mike Fornataro, executive director of Buckeye Lake Region Corporation in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. “But because of investing, we’re now in a position to do things we’d like to do rather than chase the dollar.”
Mike, 60, and his wife, Ann, 56, didn’t start investing until their late 40s, when they met Thrivent Financial Professional Jeff Ritter from Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Ann is a senior IT training consultant for Genesis Healthcare Systems.
“Our time frame was shorter,” Mike says, “but we’ve been fortunate. Jeff gauged our comfort level, and we now have stable growth.”1
Ritter helped the Fornataros fast-track their retirement savings. “I share the five principles to live by with my clients,” he says. “Spend less than you make, have a short- and long-term strategy, be wise with debt, protect yourselves against setbacks and give back.” In setting and achieving goals, it’s important to understand that you might need to make some trade-offs as you consider your needs and wants.
Ritter also coached the Fornataros to make a clear budget and ask questions about the values they tie to money. “Are you tracking—literally—the money you’ve spent in the last 90 days. Do you write it down?” he asks them. “And when I first meet a couple, I ask, ‘How were you raised with money? How did your parents define success?’” Clarity on inherited values about money can help explain why budgets either work well for people or are ignored. He also uses one of several money models when he counsels clients to make a 10-10-80 plan: Save 10%, give 10% and spend 80%.
“When I first met Mike and Ann,” Ritter remembers, “they didn’t have a retirement strategy.” So they developed a clear financial roadmap for retirement.
The Fornataros have adopted new habits of saving and investing, but like Rebecca and Greg, they don’t envision completely retiring. “Hopefully we’ll be able to work at lower-stress jobs because we have a cushion. It’s not the traditional, ‘I’m done. I’m out,’ type of retirement,” says Mike. “[We want] the freedom to choose what we do for a living that may not be as lucrative but is more fulfilling. That’s our view of retirement.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, an estimated 10,000 baby boomers retire per day in the U.S.2 Yet couples like Mike and Ann are questioning that idea of retirement as a complete cessation from work. Mike says, “I hope to continue working in a capacity similar to what I’m doing now. A job with real community benefit.”
“What I see going forward,” says Ritter, “is how we can help people get repositioned in retirement to still give back. Maybe it’s volunteering or doing a hybrid retirement, working part time, either for pay or not for pay. What I work through with clients is, ‘What does your picture of retirement look like? Paint it for me so you, your spouse and I are on the same page.’
“I ask people, ‘Have you and your spouse sat down and talked about what you both want to accomplish for retirement? What is your game plan? What are you going to be doing? Is it travel? Write a book? Are you going to work part-time? What are you going to do for yourself, and what are you going to do for others?’”
Finances are just one piece of a fruitful retirement. Ritter guides Thrivent members to think through the stewardship not just of their wealth, but the entirety of their lives as a gift from God.
Prioritizing What’s Important
“Time with family. That really is the priority,” says Rebecca about both her present and future plans. That philosophy was inspired by the early death of her father. “My dad worked really hard, retired early and then passed away two years later, at age 65.” In working with older patients, Rebecca is constantly reminded by the fragility of life and how unexpected events can drastically change our lives.
So she takes off Mondays to take her children to swim practice. Greg recently opted for fewer shifts at the hospital. They enjoy family vacations in Michigan, Colorado and Oregon. They’re living not just for the future, but they recognize each day as a gift.
They imagine that one day they’ll perhaps have a saner balance of work and rest. “I don’t know if we’d completely retire. We may one day work at a nursery or take up a trade. But we want to be able to spend time together. That’s our hope.”
John Beeble recently retired from his job as construction executive in Denver, Colorado. Not wanting to fully retreat from working life, John started his own consulting company.
“There’s only one rule about my consulting company—no employees. I did that for 20 years,” he said, with a note of weariness in his voice. Yet he violated his rule less than a year into starting his firm. As clients multiplied, he needed an executive assistant to manage the demands on his time.
“I’m trying to discern what’s next in this phase of life,” said Beeble, feeling the tug between rest, family, and work. “I want to stay engaged, but not in the same way as during my career. Give me some time to figure this out.”
He’s not alone. Baby boomers are retiring at an average of 10,000 per day; over the next 20 years, an estimated 70 million boomers will stop working. Those over age 65 are the fastest-growing age demographic in the United States.
It’s not just America, either. The world is rapidly aging.
“From 2025 to 2050 the older [over age 65] population is projected to almost double to 1.6 billion globally,” the U.S. Census Bureau reported. In 2015, only 8.5 percent of the world was over 65; by 2050, that number is expected to reach 16.7 percent.
For most of them, retiring from work is not a financial option. Among those who can, many—both Christians and their neighbors—are expressing a growing sense of unease about the future.
Across the developed world, the dominant paradigm for retirement is about vacation—how to afford it and then how to make the most of it. A Google search for the word “retirement” shows articles, ads, and tips on how to save enough money for it and a host of books on how to enjoy it. Retirement gifts follow suit—a coffee mug that reads “Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension.” A kitchen wall-hanging with the acronym R.E.T.I.R.E says Relax, Entertain, Travel, Indulge, Read, Enjoy. A wine glass that reads, “I can wine all I want. I’m retired.”
Yet older Christians are sounding the alarm that retirement as a never-ending vacation promises more than it can ever deliver.
The closest the Bible comes to our modern idea of retirement is found Numbers 8:25: “And from the age of 50 years [the Levites] shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more.”
Since hauling tabernacle furniture was hard physical labor, older Levites were commanded to instead “minister to their brothers in the tent of the meeting”—a hint that God doesn’t intend for our work to completely stop, but rather to morph and mature with age.
Though retirement may be foreign to Scripture, the Old Testament idea of becoming an elder is not. Far from being an insult, the term “elder” was associated with wisdom, character, and leadership ability—the assumed fruit of experience and age.
“Stand up in the presence of the aged,” says Leviticus (19:32). The term elder (zaqen) is always used in the Old Testament as an indication of one’s nobility. One example is the elder teaching wisdom at the city gate, the ancient place for public dialogue (Job 32:6–10).
Scripture is replete with elders playing a critical role in redemptive history. Sarah was 90 when she miraculously gave birth to Isaac. Moses was 80 and Aaron was 83 when they confronted Pharaoh. Anna, an 84-year-old widow who devoted herself to fasting, prayer, and worship, “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:38). Far from being whisked off to desert golf courses or Caribbean cruises, elders were sought out for time-tested wisdom (Proverbs 31:23).
Gordon Smith, author of Courage and Calling, believes two ideas—wisdom and blessing—comprise the biblical model for fruitful living in retirement. “To bless is simply to affirm the other, to take particular delight and joy in the other in a nonjudgmental manner,” he writes. Elders are called lay down former titles and professional roles, yet take up a mantle of wisdom and affirmation for a coming generation.
The issue in today’s culture is twofold: We don’t have clearly marked rites of passage into “eldership” (outside of the formal New Testament church office), and most men and women entering retirement feel the need for renewal—sometimes physically, most often spiritually.
Because of this, rather than completely ceasing from work, a growing number of older adults entering retirement are taking a sabbatical—an intentional 3, 6, or 12 months to rest, worship, remember, and listen for God’s voice in order to discern next steps. The idea is rooted in Leviticus 25, where God gives instructions for a sabbath year to allow the land to rest before resuming productivity.
“When we moved to a new state following my retirement, I decided to take a private sabbatical,” says Lowell Busenitz, a retired professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Oklahoma. “One goal of my sabbatical was to use it to get a clearer perspective on this phase of life in order to get my future launched in the right direction.” Busenitz used early retirement to take long walks in the Colorado sunshine, read, study the life of King David, visit family, and reflect how God has shaped his career and working life.
“While I do not want to continue the teaching and research with the same intensity as before, the Holy Spirit has brought home in me that I was to stay reasonably close to my roots in entrepreneurship,” Busenitz said. “Some directions remain a puzzle right now, but I am becoming increasingly okay with that.”
Some older Christians elect to live out their vocation right where they are.
Ellen Snyder, a retired lifelong hospital volunteer, continues to serve at a day center for the homeless. Verona Mullison, a retired Cru missionary, sees retirement as an opportunity to explore the sciences, which she’s loved since she was a child. Joanne Butler, 68, a cashier at an Einstein Bagels in southern Colorado, makes a countercultural choice to wake up each morning to coffee and cinnamon crunch bagels.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to be retired,” Butler said. “But I like talking to people. This is where I belong.”
After a sabbatical, Barry Rowan, the former CFO of Nextel and Vonage, decided to return to business.
“I came to see that the purpose of business is to bring about a better society as seen through the eyes of God,” Rowan said. After his sabbatical, his work was endowed with renewed peace and purpose. He saw his work as not just a way to make money, but a God-given opportunity to build businesses around “responsible value creation, creating an environment where employees can flourish, serving customers, and being good corporate citizens.” Now in his 60s, he is also seeking to mentor young Christian business leaders. “I don’t think I’ll ever fully retire,” Rowan said.
For many, retirement is a new season to “use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10), yet from a heart being ever renewed by the gospel (2 Cor. 4:16).
Perhaps the coming “gray dawn” of the global church will not produce an economic apocalypse, but rather a movement of older Americans who choose a truly uncommon path for retirement—one of a deeper rest, a deeper sense of peace, a deeper acceptance of the realities of aging, and a deeper sense of responsibility for the world God so loves (John 3:16).
“Give me some time to figure this out,” says retired executive John Beeble. Indeed, now is the time for pastors, scholars, and Christian leaders to paint a more beautiful picture of work, rest, vocation, and aging for the millions of older adults longing to hear God’s voice for the next season of life.
This article first appeared at The Gospel Coalition, and is an adapted excerpt from my forthcoming book An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life.
What really motivates us as entrepreneurs?
I ask the question because in the past 6 months, I’ve started to notice some disconcerting cracks in my own character. In 2018, as an entrepreneur, father and husband, externally, things have thrived. Internally, however, I’ve struggled.
I’ve noticed my patience has gotten shorter with my kids. I haven’t been the kind of husband I want to be. My ability to deal with stress almost seems to be diminishing. I’ve felt spiritually fragile. As I’ve tried to understand what’s happening inside of me, I’ve come back to the question: what is really motivating me to build, grow, and achieve? What is driving me?
In 2013, I started Denver Institute for Faith & Work. It was exhilarating. We pitched the idea to a handful of donors. They started giving and we took off. Beginning in January of 2014, we hosted over 600 people at 6 events over 7 months. More donors came, and we eventually hired a communications director and event director. In 2016, we launched the 5280 Fellowship, our flagship program for emerging leaders in theology, work and culture. Recently, we launched a new online learning platform called Scatter. For a few years, everything looked up and to the right.
Last year, however, I hit a wall. I was doing too much. I was connected in too many spots. I felt exhausted. The this-is-cool thing wore off, and I thought of tossing in the towel. So we restructured. I gave more responsibility to my COO who now leads our internal operations. We built more systems to stabilize and bring about trust and accountability.
Yet even with the changes, I’ve realized that something inside of me is driving me – something that I wish would quiet down. There’s a good desire in me to build, create, make a positive impact on my city. But there’s also something that’s unhealthy that is bubbling under the surface.
What is it? What really motivates me? What really motivates us as entrepreneurs?
At a recent gathering of the Entrepreneur’s Forum at Denver Institute for Faith & Work, I asked that question to a room of 60 founders and early stage entrepreneurs. Stories emerged.
One founder in Denver built a recruiting company. He told me many of the CEOs he works for come home to their families with significant stress, principally because of staffing issues. In a tight labor market like Denver, entry-level employees are tough to come by – and tough to keep. Sometimes they don’t show up, can’t get to work, or they have some kind of personal issue. And at the end of the day, the company can’t fulfill orders due to personnel problems, and it’s the CEOs responsibility.
And so one day I asked my friend, “Why don’t they simply invest more in their frontline employees? Wouldn’t this help to retain their labor and help fix their biggest headache?”
My friend shared with me over coffee that every single CEO he works with says they would invest 10% of their salary if they could solve their staffing issues. But when the time comes, the vast majority don’t. Why?
“Because when you start making over $1 million dollars a year,” my friend at the recruiting company posited, “and you drop below that mark, you feel like you’re failing. And so they protect their salary even if it’s causing them and those around them pain.”
They feel like they’re failing. Though I couldn’t identify with making over $1 million a year, I could identify with the feeling of failure – no matter what had happened in my organization last month. Oddly enough, after I publish a big article or pull off a big event for business leaders, this is precisely the time in the year when I feel like I’m failing the most.
After the big deal is done, so many of founders I know feel like they’re failing deeply. Why is this? Where does the feeling of failure come from?
What is really driving so much of our entrepreneurship? I believe that its fundamentally about our identity. Too many of us are trying to prove our worth in a world that seems empty of it.
At one of the early small groups at DIFW’s Entrepreneur’s Forum, over lunch we shared about how we see ourselves. One day, the topic of our fathers came up. This particular group happened to be mostly men, and a full three quarters of us realized we had really significant issues with our dads and significant pain we’ve taken into adulthood. We realized in our conversation that there’s a part of us that’s longing to be recognized. Because it wasn’t there early in life, there’s something inside of us that keeps driving us. To go, create, achieve. To prove our worth. We simply want somebody to notice out of an internal voice that incessantly says, “It’s never enough.”
No success is ever enough to fill the void within.
Culturally, I believe we’re in a weird spot with entrepreneurship. We have a hero complex we’ve built around entrepreneurs. They’re the formable founders who fuel the economy, suffer the pains of a startup, and finally “make it” and either sell or IPO. They sacrifice their bodies, their relationships, their minds, their time – everything – for the sake of their startup.
Whenever I hear those stories, I must confess, they sound like a savior story. Both the founder – and their fans – are really longing for salvation.
I’ve come to believe that Christianity can offer all entrepreneurs – including myself – the only, final healthy motive for building a business. That foundation is this: in Christ, your identity is already spoken for. It cannot change. It is never at risk. Your success or your failures can’t touch it.
Recently a video of 10-year-old Ivey Zezulka made its way around the internet. It was of a girl who just realized she was going to be adopted. Her adoptive parents gave her a package. When she opened the package, she read a picture frame and said, “I’m going to be adopted?” And when she said this she covered her mouth and began to cry. And so did I.
Why? Because not only do kids in the foster system struggle with deep, internal narratives of who will really accept me – but I do, too. When I am completely exposed and internally sense that I’m a failure who will never really amount to much, where do I turn?
This is the critical difference that Christianity can offer entrepreneurs that no other religion or worldview can offer.
Jesus says to entrepreneurs, “You are mine. All the work has been done through my death and resurrection. You can add nothing to it and take nothing from it. Now be free. To work. To create. To build a business. To fail. No matter what, you no longer need to prove yourself. You are now a part of the family. Your identity is spoken for. You are mine. You are home.”
The freedom for the faith-motivated entrepreneur is that in Christ, all the work is finally finished. Our work, then, is simply to listen, obey, and to tend the vine given to us. And when it grows, to marvel at the handiwork of the Gardener.
Image credit: Inc
Tonight is the final information session for the 2018-19 class of the 5280 Fellowship, the flagship program of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. As the application period closes on April 30, I thought I’d re-post this article I wrote last year on the underlying philosophy of the 5280 Fellowship, along with some new pictures from this year’s class of Fellows. If you’re longing for meaning and a deeper sense of purpose in your work, I’d encourage you to apply an explore if the program is right for you.
How do we change?
I’m 34 years old, have four kids, and have been in the workforce for 9 years. And for me, there is no more pressing question in my life today than How do I change?
In the past three years, the stress of leading a growing organization, trying to be a good father, and accomplishing my professional goals has exposed, well, cracks in the foundation of my character. My precious wife has been so patient with me as I stumble, fall, and get up again – only to find myself back where I started.
As I’ve spoken with peers about their lives, careers, and relationships – especially young professionals in Denver and Boulder – I’ve seen common traits among many of us:
In the last three years, I’ve felt each of these feeling acutely. Changing any of these seems daunting for me. Yet what’s interesting to me is that in the first year of the Fellows program at Denver Institute, I’ve seen what looks to me like genuine change in the lives of 27 men and women.
Why is this? Where is this change coming from?
When I designed the program, to be honest, I kind of had a chip on my shoulder about my previous educational experiences. I loved reading and ideas, but I couldn’t stand reading 500 pages of a boring book, writing a paper about an esoteric topic, or listening to professors lecture for hours without ever asking what I thought. I also developed an affinity for older books (and shorter ones!) that had stood the test of time. Better to build my life on the great ideas and traditions of the past than the latest fad that had become popular in the academy.
In my years after graduate school, I also came to value the primacy of learning from people: people who are further along in their careers, people who have had different training than I have, people who are influencing key conversations across different sectors in our city. Jesus wrote nothing, but he instead gave us his church, a group or people. I could now see why. People were just as important “texts” as were books. And through the Holy Spirit, God actually lives in people. Moreover, as I grew in my career, I saw myself imitating leaders I knew, and putting into practice what they were feeling and doing, far before I understood the concepts behind their actions.
I also began the incredibly hard process of self-knowledge. Only in the past several years have I really started to plunge deeply into how I react in stressful situations, how I come off in front of others, why I feel energized or exhausted, and the impact my own emotions have on everyone around me.
The Fellows program has been designed for those of us in our careers who long for a deeper change that technical training can’t provide. We built in elements into the program that take into consideration the breadth of what human being is. We are relational, social, physical, emotional, intellectual, habitual creatures who are environmentally-shaped, embedded in culture, and designed for work, for others, and for God.
So what does that mean? In the 5280 Fellowship, in means:
Tough thing about the program: it’s a big commitment over nine months. And it’s only for those who are serious about change. But here’s the truth: technology is fast, but character formation is slow. And we can’t do it alone. We need each other.
As I was interviewing two of our senior leaders last month during a Saturday teaching session, I closed the session, and looked up to our Fellows and said, “I just want to say one thing. Seven months ago you were strangers – but I now call you my friends. I genuinely love being a part of this community. Thank you. I needed it.”
Change seems impossible to me most days. But as we near Easter week and I take a look at the empty cross and the light-filled tomb – and the growing community of faith in the metro area – I’m filled with hope.
If you’re interested in learning more about the 5280 Fellowship, fill out the form at the bottom of the 5280 Fellowship page or reach out to me personally. We accept applications for the Class of 2018-19 through April 30, 2018.
“I think I’m gonna quit. I just don’t feel called to this anymore.”
“You don’t just have a job, you have a vocation!” Really? It feels more like I need a vacation.
“Some people have a calling,” my father said to me. “But most of us just have a job.”
“Profession? Sounds like what rich people do. ‘Round here, we just work.”
This is just plain confusing. Work, profession, job, vocation, occupation, career and calling. What exactly are we talking about here?
Does vocation and work mean the same thing? When is a job a career, or just a job? Am I working if I’m not getting paid? Do I really have to be called to every task I do at work? Or is it ok to be called to something completely different than my 9-5? Why does it feel like the hardest work I do is at home, and I go to work to rest?
The language we use around work – especially among Christians – can be mystifying. And a mist in the pulpit usually means a fog in the pew. Defining terms would help. But Webster can’t tell us how we use these terms in relation to one other.
In this short video (6:16) I take a stab at trying to get clear on both how we actually use these terms, and how we ought to use language around the idea of work based on Christian revelation.
My friend is fond of saying, “Change the language, you change the culture.” That’s hopeful. Maybe we can at least get a little less confused.
(The text below is a transcript of the video above.)
Let’s start with the basics: vocation and calling. These two words mean the same thing. Calling comes from a Greek word, kaleo, and vocation comes from a Latin root vox, meaning voice. Each was intended by Protestant Reformers to point to an entire life lived in response to the voice, or call, of God.
Clear enough. But there are two confusing parts: one secular, one religious. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when American culture began to secularize, vocation became divorced from reference to God, and vocation become synonymous with work, particularly manual labor and the rise of “vocational education.” So for most people today, vocation and work mean the same thing. But this isn’t necessarily true for Christians, who see these ideas as overlapping, but distinct.
The second confusion: inside of Christianity, generally there are two meanings behind ideas of vocation or calling. The first order usage is the “call” to love God and love your neighbor. This is the highest calling and is common to all people in all places. The second is specific: God’s call to specific people to do specific tasks at specific times. This is generally where we use the word in relation to work, though not exclusively.
Clear as mud. But let’s at least agree, that vocation and calling is the biggest category, and encompasses the entire life of the Christian, whether that be career, family, hobbies, or friends. Each of these activities belong to God, and should be done for him and with him.
So, then, what is a career? For most, it’s your life work, or the aggregate of all or your jobs or occupations. This is why I chose it as an umbrella category.
However, people see their careers very differently. Some see their life’s work as series of jobs or occupations (which, I think are the same thing). Both jobs and occupations are a set of tasks I do for money.
Others, see their career as a profession. This word has a rich heritage. A profession can be seen as a community of people who profess and uphold a set of moral standards that hold together their industry. Generally, we think about doctors, lawyers, or business professionals here. But the point of this word is about disinterested service to others, not just personal gain.
Fair enough. In today’s economy, where people change jobs on average every four years, it may be tough to describe what your career is. But most do their work as either an occupation or job, or a profession.
Great. Then what on earth does the word work mean? Well, that depends on who’s asking! I think there are three basic options:
Dorothy Sayers says, “[Work] should be the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
Now, John Stott says this: “Work is the expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfillment to the worker, benefit to the community, and glory to God.”
What’s interesting about both of these definitions of how influenced they are by the Protestant vision of vocation or calling. Work may be what you get paid for. But the emphasis is on service of others, fulfilling our role as co-creators, and giving the credit to God. This is what I call “the heavenly view of work.”
I think this definition is too broad, and makes life about work, rather than about God. Work is not just a job, but neither is it everything! When Joseph Pieper says that Leisure is the Basis of Culture (he’s wrong of course – work is!), he’s responding to this totalizing view of work, which was nearly salvific in Marxism. But that’s beside the point here…
So, of course, I opt for definition #2, which means work could be paid or not paid. The vocation-infused definition of work is where we ought to aim.
The challenge is, of course, The Fall. For most people, work sometimes seems divine, but more often is toil. Work is hammering away in the factor or at the task list, and just something I need to do for money. Occasionally it’s a profession, but in an age “beyond good and evil,” agreeing on the moral codes guiding, say, law or health care, can be tricky business – and is often hotly contested.
So, work is caught between Genesis 1 and Genesis 3, with echoes of heaven but often laced with the pain of hell. Sometimes job, sometimes calling, always work. The key is to draw even the “jobs”, with all of their pain, into a sense of vocation. The magic isn’t in an ideal career, job or profession – the magic is in our motivation.
So, work, profession, job, vocation, occupation, career or calling? Well, that depends if it’s raining, and which umbrella you choose to pull out for the day.
“It seems to me,” David Buschart told us over one dollar beers at Old Mill, “that the idea of calling depends on the doctrine of God’s providence.”
The four of us had invited David, a theologian from the seminary, to help us make sense of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. Of course, the book was just an excuse for four guys in our twenties to get together, look smart, and talk about our lives, wives, and jobs. And by choosing Old Mill’s cheapest possible beer, we confessed to the world we were both woefully ignorant of the what a beer should be—and we were utterly broke.
That night I was intent on trying to figure out my winding, seemingly aimless, career path. I got my master’s degree, now had a job in a completely unrelated field, and could barely support my wife and newborn daughter. In my head, the script was never supposed to work out like this. And so when the local wiseman tells me the key to understanding my work was to trust in the sustaining, providential hand of God, I wasn’t sure whether this was just I’m-here-to-make-you-feel-better counseling or if I should pay closer attention.
After speaking with dozens, maybe hundreds, of men and women about their lives and career paths, I’ve now come to think that my winding road may be more the norm rather than the exception.
I think Jayber Crow, the narrator of Wendell Berry’s great novel, understands us. As a young man, he thought he was going to become a pastor, but as he grew older (and wiser) he understood he was called to be a barber in Port William, Kentucky, the smallest dot on the map. Looking back on his days, here’s how he put it:
That is to say that I know I’ve been lucky. Beyond that, the question is if I have not been also blessed, as I believe I have—and beyond that, even called. Surely I was called to be, for one thing, a barber…in spite of my intentions to the contrary.
Now I have had, most of the life I am going to have, and I can see what it has been. I can remember those early years when it seemed to me I was completely adrift, and times when, looking back at earlier times, it seemed I had been wandering in the dark woods of error. But now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible, from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led. I will leave you to judge the truth of that for yourself; as Dr. Ardmire and I agreed, there is no proof.
In the moment, when Jayber was a young man, going to school, then traveling, it seemed like he was “wandering in the dark woods of error.” But as an old man, he now has the feeling “which never leaves me anymore” that he was being led, that the wandering path may have actually been the straightest path laid out for him.
Who of us haven’t doubted whether we are on the right path? And who of us has had a perfectly linear path from college to success to the Heavenly City? Later in the book, here’s again how Jayber explains his journey:
If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked.
(Did John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress only tell us half the truth? That we are indeed pilgrims, but life hardly ever feels like progress?)
Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The name of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there.
I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet, for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will.
I think of my own journey, wandering and unmarked. A waiter at Popolano’s, a family restaurant in Valparaiso, Indiana, learning to balance trays and decorate desserts; a missionary in Latin America, which mostly meant trying to get people to teach me Spanish while crammed into a diesel spewing bus; teaching kids to play lacrosse in seminary (I have no idea how to play lacrosse); leading worship with eight Mexican teenagers at a church in northern Denver, while massacring the Spanish language; the failure of having almost worked at a high-paying, highly respected church in Minnesota – until they said it just wasn’t a good fit; sitting in an an admissions office at a tiny school in Littleton trying to learn what a sales funnel is, and wondering why I had spent three years getting studying biblical Greek, philosophical ethics, and “big idea” preaching.
Yet looking back, I too can’t shake the feeling off that I’ve been led.
My pride while in graduate school was gargantuan – just ask any of my professors. (It now is merely enormous.) My skill set and experience was painfully narrow. I expected the world to be like PowerPoints and writing term papers – and I expected to be handsomely rewarded for getting good grades. My ability to listen to others was dormant, until I was led to a job selling private education, where 90% of the school tours I gave were simply listening to the honest hopes and fears of parents for their kids.
How easy it is to forget that pilgrimage includes suffering. Yet in the suffering, the wandering, it may be that we are being led – shaped, formed, refined – for a purpose that we cannot fully see right now.
Perhaps those of us who desire a “call from God”should first open our hearts to God’s providence, God’s provision, and to simply trust that He is there and leading me right here and right now, in this less-than-ideal situation.
And perhaps like Jayber Crow, looking back on the journey, I might come to see that He’s been there all along. And on the journey, Often I have received better than I have deserved.
Photo Credit: Wendell Berry