Jeff Haanen

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faith and work

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NonprofitTheologyWork

My Two Cents on Not Losing Our Hearts on the Job [Audio]

Since Working from the Inside Out has released, I’ve been honored to speak on numerous podcasts with hosts way smarter than me.

Here are a few of my favorite, where I share about everything from how to handle conflict with co-workers to spiritual rhythms that can infuse life into the work day.

Enjoy.

Faith in the Workplace with Jeff Haanen on Christianity Today_Being Human Podcast with Steve Cuss

Live Faith First Podcast with Eliot Sands_Work Can Be a Good Thing with Jeff Haanen

Unhurried Living: 289: Working from the Inside Out (Alan w/ Jeff Haanen) on Apple Podcasts

E 354 How Inner Work Transforms Your Outer World with Saddleback Church on YouTube

A Brief Guide to Inner Work that Transforms Our Outer World with Apollos Watered on YouTube

Episode 274 – Working from the Inside Out with Jeff Haanen with Faith Driven Entrepreneur

Working from the Inside Out with Eric Most and Laurie Bossert on Generosity Now

God’s Story Podcast – Working from the Inside Out with Jeff Haanen

Episode 58 Manly with Andy – Working from the Inside Out with Jeff Haanen

Denver Institute for Faith & Work _ Working from the Inside Out featuring Jeff Haanen

Here’s the Full Audiobook on Audible: Working from the Inside Out: A Brief Guide to Inner Work That Transforms Our Outer World

Free Study Guide: Study Guide_Working from the Inside Out

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Craftsmanship & Manual LaborFaith and Work MovementWork

Sacrificial Service & the Sapp Bros. Cheyenne Travel Center

It’s one thing to embrace customer service. It’s quite another to live a life of sacrificial service.

Jesus calls his followers to “take up your cross and follow me.” Peter wrote that serving as Christ did will entail suffering (1 Peter 2:21). It’s one thing to follow Christ when things are going well. But, in the words of biblical scholar Bruce Waltke, how many of us would qualify as the “righteous” – those willing to advantage others, even if it means disadvantaging ourselves?

People who commit to sacrificial service of a community through their work are rare. New York Times Columnist David Brooks wrote in his book The Road to Character that the median “narcissism score” has risen in the last two decades. When young people were asked about whether they agree with statements like “I am an extraordinary person,” or “I like to look at my body,” Brooks says, “Ninety-three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago” — they score about 30 percent higher, to be exact.[i] Behind the thin veil of careers with social impact is often the Almighty Self, ever ready to find the perfect mix of social impact, comfortable work hours, and financial reward in “meaningful work.” Especially since the pandemic, I believe the willingness to sacrifice for a cause greater than ourselves is diminishing.[ii] Especially if it costs us.

Yet, meaningful work is found not in success or financial reward, but in sacrificial service. When people struggle to find a cause worth sacrificing for, boredom and meaninglessness tend to creep in. “Far too many people in this country seem to go about only half alive. All their existence is an effort to escape from what they are doing,” writes author and dramatist Dorothy Sayers about how most people view their work. “And the inevitable result of this is a boredom, a lack of purpose, a passivity which eats life away at the heart and a disillusionment which prompts men to ask what life is all about.”[iii]

People need a reason to sacrifice for something beyond themselves. It’s what puts wind in sails, feet on the ground, and energy in a workday. Paradoxically, what we’re really looking for is the right cross to bear, not the best throne from which to rule.

We live in a cultural moment in which there are multiple issues calling for sacrificial work. Take, for example, the growing inequality in American society. In 1989, the Federal Reserve Reports that the bottom 50% held $22 billion in wealth while the top 10% held $1.7 trillion. Fast forward to 2021, and the bottom 50% held $260 billion in wealth while the top 10% swelled to $36 trillion.[iv] To make that clearer, the top 1% of US households has 15 times more wealth than the bottom 50% of households combined.[v] The simmering discontent and anger so prevalent in American society has its root, I believe, in millions of people seeing the wealthy get much wealthier — even in the last 20 years — while their standard of living stagnates or declines.

And yet, some decide that sacrificial love for others trumps personal comfort.

Julie (Sapp) Stone works as an investment director focused on family economic mobility at Gary Community Investments, a philanthropic organization in Denver. Before that she worked at Teach for America, an organization that places talented young teachers in low-income schools. Bright, energetic, connected, and committed, Julie was deeply formed by Catholic social teaching, which motivates her work on behalf of low-income families. When I asked Julie about her commitment to issues around justice, I was surprised to learn it didn’t come from academic study. Rather, it came from growing up at a truck stop on the Wyoming-Nebraska border.

Julie’s grandpa and his brothers were Depression-era survivors who bought a car dealership, which turned into car leasing and eventually into a small truck stop chain headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. Her dad became the general manager of Sapp Bros. Cheyenne Travel Center, and her mom the store manager. The establishment employed over 100 people between a motel, gas station, restaurant, and store. Julie grew up just a few miles away and started to work in the family business alongside her brother at just age five, picking up trash around the truck stop because of her parent’s pride in their work. As she grew, she waited tables, stocked shelves, and served the truckers. Her dad would famously pause mid-bite while eating in the restaurant to check out a customer after their dinner because “nobody should have to wait to pay.”

“I’ll pound the table in defense of truck drivers. They are an extraordinary community,” Julie says. “They’re hard working, responsible, God fearing, family centered, and make tremendous sacrifices for their work.” Julie pauses, with almost reverence in her voice. “My dad always trusted that I’d be okay at the truck stop, whether he was there or not. Truckers know that their actions reflect on other drivers, which creates a sense of shared responsibility. If there was ever a conflict or a tactless comment, without fail, another driver would step in and sort things out.”

Sapp Bros. was employee-owned, provided full healthcare coverage, and even paid for college tuition, which was practically unheard of in the 1980s. Julie’s parents believed that their job was to lead and serve their employees sacrificially. “I remember one Christmas my dad had it out with corporate. Since the combined portfolio of travel stations didn’t turn a profit that year, there would be no Christmas bonuses,” she recalls. “I watched my mom and dad divide their past and future paychecks to make bonuses happen for the Cheyenne employees.”

Julie believes her parents’ leadership was built on love. “At the end of the day Mom and Dad recognized that each employee was giving of their time and talent to help make our company successful. My parents were genuinely grateful for their people, which explains why so many who were hired on opening day in 1983 were still there when I graduated from college in 2003.”

Julie’s commitment to justice today isn’t abstract. She sees the faces of those who worked for her parents for 30 years in front-line jobs — people of enormous integrity. “I see working families first. They show up for the physical work. They provide services and make products the rest of us rely on, they almost always go unnoticed. These are the families whose sacrifices benefit us all.”[vi]

***

This is an excerpt from my new book Working from the Inside Out: A Brief Guide to Inner Work That Transforms Our Outer World (IVP, 2023). Buy a copy or listen to the audio book today.


[i] David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016).

[ii] See my article: Jeff Haanen, “Where Are All the Workers?” Comment, September 1, 2022, https://comment.org/where-are-all-the-workers/.

[iii] Dorothy Sayers, “Vocation in Work,” quoted in: William C. Placher, Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[iv] See: The Rationale, Ownership Works,https://ownershipworks.org/the-rationale/.

[v] Tommy Beer, “Top 1% of U.S. Households Hold 15 Times More Wealth than Bottom 50% Combined,” Forbes, October 8, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/tommybeer/2020/10/08/top-1-of-us-households-hold-15-times-more-wealth-than-bottom-50-combined/?sh=3067585a5179.

[vi] Candidly, this was my favorite interview in the book. A special thank you to Julie Stone for sharing her story, and for her beautiful revisions.

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TheologyVocationWork

Launch Day! “Working from the Inside Out: A Brief Guide to Inner Work That Transforms Our Outer World” (IVP, 2023)

God is working, I believe, “from the inside out.”

Big day! Today InterVarsity Press is publishing my second book: Working from the Inside Out: A Brief Guide to Inner Work That Transforms Our Outer World.

The book comes from my 10 years of experience leading Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the deepening conviction that “faith and work” is not first about impact, success, or even a way to advance the Gospel in the world—it’s about who we’re becoming in the process of our working lives.

The idea of the book is to give us a place to start this journey of living in a relationship with God in all areas of life. First, I believe we need to focus not on the world’s problems but on our own hearts and minds, seeking deep spiritual and emotional health and theological truth. Second, inner transformation impacts our core relationships and work. And finally, I believe we’re called to engage culture not as conquerors, but as sacrificial servants. God is healing the world first through our interior life, second through our exterior life, and third through our civic life.

What’s the book’s unique value?

●  It’s a great intro on faith and work. Not sure where to start on all things faith, work, and culture? Here’s a good starting point.

●  It’s blessedly brief. We’re all busy! This book has 10 brief chapters you could get through in a sitting or two.

●  It offers a simple model for integrating faith and work. The book simplifies an otherwise esoteric and complex subject through five principles.

●  It’s written for any believer. The book isn’t targeted exclusively to business leaders or professionals. It’s for any believer, from maintenance technicians to journalists to teachers to recent graduates to managers.

●  It has 50+ stories and examples. The book is chock-full of examples, from working in restaurants and manufacturing to selling used cars and caring for patients.

●  It’s holistic. The gospel changes all of our lives—our hearts, the way we think, our relationships, the work we do, and how we engage with the needs of the world. This book is a simple, brief introduction to whole-life discipleship.

Also, a couple bonus points: I’m personally narrating the audio version so readers can hear directly from me—about all the mistakes I’m hoping others can learn from! And all future royalties will be donated to Denver Institute, so sales will help to spur on the faith and work movement.

You can grab a copy today: https://rb.gy/smc90x

And I narrated the audio book(myself!), which will be available on December 19. https://lnkd.in/guqWrGZA

Not ready to buy yet? Here’s an excerpt: https://lnkd.in/gZm8BtzQ

For a 20% discount (from Oct 1 through February), put in the code IVPHAANEN at check out at Intervarsity Press

What are people saying about Working from the Inside Out?

“Jeff Haanen is one of the foremost thought leaders of this generation on the topic of faith and work. In Working from the Inside Out, Jeff provides anecdotal and prescriptive insights that will inspire and move you to action. Jeff’s wisdom and perception are profound in helping readers bridge the sacred/secular divide. This book helps you understand how your work can serve as the most valuable tool Christians have to make a difference in the world. However, we must change internally before we can change the external world.

David Stidham, Vice President of Business Affairs and General Counsel for The Chosen

“I can’t wait to give this book to some important people in my life! As the title suggests, Jeff Haanen’s most valuable contribution is his focus on our inner spiritual life and the promise that a life attuned to the hope, love, and grace of the gospel changes us. Work is a crucible; it forms and shapes us—for better or for worse. Jeff’s five guiding principles (seek deep spiritual health, think theologically, embrace relationships, create good work, and serve others), developed and tested during his decade with Denver Institute for Faith & Work, offer a way toward work forming us ‘for better.’ Read with friends; take this journey together.”

Katherine Leary Alsdorf, Founding Director of Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s Center for Faith & Work

“You don’t need this book—if you love your job, live a balanced life, can’t wait to get up in the morning, and feel content in your relationships with people and God. If not, consider this collection of deep wisdom from an expert in the crucial, but often ignored, intersection of faith and work.” Philip Yancey, Coauthor of Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image and Where the Light Fell: A Memoir

I cannot tell you what a blessing this book is. I cannot wait to be able to share this with others. The wisdom and guidance in this book is what I wish I would have had when I was graduating college and starting my career and starting out as a young professional. It is also the book that I, as a more seasoned business leader and fledgling entrepreneur, need to cut through the hardened layers that can calcify the soul. With every turn of the page, another piece was chiseled off, providing a fresh reminder for me of the calling I have as a Christian in the work God entrusted to me. I’ve been challenged, convicted, and blessed.

– Josh Rogers, Head of Operations, Leif

Free Study Guide

Considering reading the book with a group? Here’s a free study guide anybody can download, thanks to our friends at Denver Institute: DenverInstitute.org/Working-From-the-Inside-Out. The guide is a great resource for church small groups discussing the book.

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TheologyWork

Why Faith & Work? (Pt. 1) – Gospel

It was a Sunday afternoon. I walked out my back garage to toss the trash. I opened the green can, heaved in the white plastic bag, and breathed in … the stench of smoke. As I shut the can I moseyed out to my driveway to investigate. I looked up in the sky. The sun was a dull yellow, filtered through an unnatural cloud that covered the horizon. Smoke from the worst wildfires in Colorado history hung like a lingering ghost. Ash slowly fell around me and the street in my neighborhood was completely empty.

As I turned to walk back inside I heard something. It was a song coming from a truck around the corner. As I paused and peered through the sullen glow, I saw an ice cream truck, driving as if children were going to happily skip outside, eager for an afternoon treat. Yet none emerged from their homes, sequestered by their parents from the pandemic. The truck jingled by, as if from the set of a post-apocalyptic movie.

What a fitting metaphor for our world today, I thought. Our society is burning and our consumer culture offers us an “ice cream cone” to forget our troubles. Of course, as we grow, the “ice cream cone” changes: new car, job promotion, dinner parties, binge watching endless movies in our homes. But each can be a thin veneer that masks what each of us senses: the world we live in is frightfully broken. So many of us live a life distracted by entertainment, but we sense internal emptiness and desolation, one that spreads from souls to jobs to cities. 

We long for a deeper hope that can animate our daily lives. 

Why faith & work? Of all the pressing causes in our world, why care about this one, especially in a time of growing economic disparities, decaying social trust, and the shrinking of the church? Why invest time, attention, and resources in a vision that prioritizes both historic Christian faith and its influence on our daily work?

In this first of three articles, let me suggest three theological truths that open up new horizons for the meaning of Christian faith for our work and world today.  

Gospel. The word simply means “good news.” In the ancient Roman empire, Caesar had his own euangelion, whose reign through military strength was thought to be the guarantor of peace and prosperity. One ancient coin even called Caesar a “Son of God.”

Yet a small group of Jews said that there was another gospel. They claimed that a carpenter from Nazareth was the true Son of God, not Caesar. They said that though he was crucified as a criminal, he had been raised from the dead by God and freely offered forgiveness of sins and eternal life to any and all as free gift. And the essence of this “Son of God” was not power to conquer his enemies but love. Even for one’s enemies.

Fast forward to 21st century America. Today we’re used to hearing the word “gospel” in reference to gospel music or to the notion of “getting saved.” In many conservative Protestant circles, believing the “gospel” means soul salvation: Jesus died, I receive forgiveness, and I go to heaven when I die. Yet this version of the gospel would have seemed very strange to the early Christians. The apostle Paul believed there were four essential elements to his “gospel”: the incarnation of God himself in the person of Jesus (Romans 1:2), the crucifixion of Christ for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:2-3), the resurrection of Christ for our salvation and the salvation of the world (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:19), and the Second Coming of Christ to judge the world and ultimately restore the world as God had originally intended it (Romans 2:16).

In our modern world, we’ve reduced the “gospel” to an individual, private experience involving only me and God. But this is a severe reduction of the breadth of the historic Christian faith. The truth is that sin is much worse than we thought. It has not only infected my heart, but has spread like a cancer into workplaces, industries, cultures, and cities. But the good news, the gospel, is also much better than we thought: Jesus is healing not just our souls but also those same workplaces, industries, cultures, and cities (Colossians 1:20). Indeed, he is not just light for my heart, he is the Light of the World (John 8:12).

Why, then, should we care about work? Teaching kindergarten, practicing law, manufacturing air filters, serving tables: work is the public arena in which the breadth of the gospel can heal our fractured world. When George Washington Carver discovered new uses for the peanut, he listened to the voice of God for scientific discovery. When Bach wrote symphonies, he did so soli Deo Gloria for the glory of God. And when the salesperson wonders if he’s wasting his life in retail, it’s the good news that crowns him with glory and dignity, even in difficult circumstances.

Christians have been entrusted with a spark of good news — one that claims salvation is far bigger and deeper than we had once thought.

Kingdom. The central message of Jesus’ own earthly ministry was about the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). To Americans who are used to electing their highest political authority to office, talk of kings and kingdoms can seem strange. Yet it’s a common theme in the Old Testament (Psalm 10:16; Isaiah 37:16; 2 Chronicles 20:6). And Jesus insisted on emphasizing it, even commanding his people for all generations to pray, “may your kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

What does the Kingdom of God have to do with our work? First, saying that Jesus is the very highest authority both in your life and in the world is a deeply political, and public, commitment. Every nation, as well as every company, school, or hospital, has a set of values. Immediately, the Christian comes into any work situation first being a citizen of another country (1 Peter 2:13-17). That means when working at Amazon or at the local gas station, some of your values align with your workplace; others are different. This stubborn declaration that Jesus is king over all means your work is a contested arena between His Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world (Revelation 11:15). Each meeting, each project, each task, each relationship takes on a new significance in an age-old battle between darkness and light (Colossians 1:13). Whether you’re in politics, business, or education, the Kingdom of God makes every Christian a reformer.

But second, and more importantly, Jesus is inviting us into a new reality. I’ve often heard Protestants speak of “building the Kingdom.” But this is not how Jesus speaks about the Kingdom. He simply calls people to enter and receive the Kingdom (Matthew 7:21, 23:13, 25:34). That means, in a sense, there is no work to be done. Simply receive the gracious gift of living in a new creation, partaking in the divine nature, and resting in the “easy burden” of the way of Christ. Work is the sphere of life in which we live, day-to-day, in the fullness of the life of God (John 10:10b). Rather than believing spiritual matters are just for church, spiritual depth and joy can spill over into your daily work.  

Mission. Old Testament Scholar and framer of the Lausanne Covenant Dr. Christopher Wright popularized the term the Mission of God. When we hear the word “mission” we often think of missionaries overseas or paid Christian professionals sent by a church either to evangelize or serve the poor. Yet Wright makes the strong — and lengthy! — case that God himself has a mission. From the calling of Abraham and the people of Israel to the culmination of human history in the book of Revelation, God himself is initiating a grand project to restore his fractured creation (Genesis 3).

How, then, does this involve our daily work? The marvel of the grand narrative of Scripture is that God calls us — flawed, deeply broken human beings — into his purposes to heal and restore his world. This may include overseas work in microfinance. Yet it may be far closer to home. John Stott, the preeminent 20th-century missiologist, pastor, and author, believed our vocations are the central way we partake in “mission.” Police officers protect and serve, farmers feed their neighbors, teachers educate the mind, janitors and mechanics clean and repair our buildings. It’s through our work that we reflect Jesus’ own high calling “to serve, and not to be served” (Mark 10:45).

So, why faith & work? Ultimately, we live in a story of good news. Death is overcome. The darkness does not win. And God summons all people first to himself, and then sends them back into the world as his ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20).

In a time when it feels like our culture is burning and sending smoke into our nostrils and lives, our spiritual lives can feel desolate like an empty street on a dull Sunday afternoon. Yet the breadth of gospel, the promise of a coming Kingdom, and a call to participate with God in his mission reframes how we live and work. 

This is good news indeed.

 This is the first article of a three-part series on “Why Faith & Work?” The next article will focus on the reality of our jobs and working lives. 

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Work

A Letter to the Denver Institute Community

Dear Friends,

In the last four weeks, our work and our world have changed dramatically. Millions are now unemployed, nearly 3.5 billion people are confined to their homes, and each of us is trying to adjust to what feels like a different world. 

Two weeks ago, when I drove down Denver’s 17th Street, I was reminded of the prophet Jeremiah’s lament, “How deserted the city lies, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who was once so great among the nations! … The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed festivals. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her young women grieve, and she is in bitter anguish” (Lamentations 1:1, 4). 

In the last month, I’ve been on calls with dozens of people in our community. Business owners are shocked that they must shutter the doors of what they’ve worked to build for a lifetime; young professionals have been fired from what seemed like promising careers; families buckle under the pressure of school, work, and isolation. All of us are bewildered by uncertainty. Last week, as I walked through King Sooper’s and saw empty shelves and people wearing face masks, I wondered: what is happening to our world? Anguish is the right word.

But it is not the final word. 

Here at Denver Institute, we remain committed to forming men and women to serve God, neighbor, and society through their daily work. Our call — now more important than ever — is to love God, serve our neighbors, and demonstrate the gospel through our vocations.

As we think about this task, and each of us seeks to listen to God’s voice amidst such pain, it is my conviction that we must first begin not with society, but with ourselves. We must look squarely at the fear and anxiety clouding our senses, and then redirect our eyes toward Jesus, who is the Bread of Life (John 6:35). Each day, we must practice soul care for uncertain times and learn to give our anxieties to God, who cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). The Living Water is ever present to each of us, if only we will drink. We must first learn the spiritual practices and adjust our daily rhythms that will allow us to firmly rest in God’s unchanging love and care for each of us (Matthew 6:25).

Second, we must care for each other. As we all struggle with isolation, now is the time to be present, be vulnerable, and be hopeful. Whether it’s a coworker, a mother-in-law, or a single friend, we need each other. At Denver Institute, in the next 90 days, in lieu of events, we will host more online gatherings for business leaders, for women, for the brave souls in health care, and for those who work in a variety of industries. 

Third, to the best of our ability, we must keep working. We were designed for work. And though we are confined to our homes, and many of us are struggling with grief over work that has been lost, we recognize that work is good for our souls. As such, each day provides opportunity for paid and unpaid service to the common good. Searching for a new job, delivering food to a neighbor, doing homework with children, and doing sales calls — all are needed. The economy — and our neighbor — needs us to inhale the peace of God and exhale the creative goods and services that this brave new world needs the most. Though it feels like we’ve been carried into exile, now is the time to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (Jeremiah 29:5). 

Also, as we are bombarded daily with haunting news, we must aggressively limit our intake of media and learn to think theologically about our work and cultural moment. What is most needed in a situation without easy answers is wisdom. At Denver Institute, will continue to publish content and courses that reframe our work and our world in light of the biblical story

Finally, now is the time to serve. Now is the time to double down our generosity toward the causes we care most about; now is the time to serve others while physically distancing; now is the time to find innovative solutionsto serve our coworkers, neighbors, and family members. 

We are still here for you. If you have a need of any sort, please reach out to us. We are actively praying through how our programming might expand to better serve our city. In this season, we will commit to calling, praying, thinking, networking, teaching, learning, and finding ways to serve you in an unprecedented moment in our nation’s history.

This is a time to lament, but not to panic; a time to pivot, but not to stray from our core convictions; a time for public concern, but also a time to trust that Jesus is the savior of the world, and we are not. 

As we head into Holy Week, I’ve chosen to fast on Good Friday as I pray for our city, our country, and our world. Yet on Easter Sunday, my family and I will also go outside to our front porch, dial into “zoom” church, and sing a song of resurrection as the sun rises.

The world has changed, but our joy is unchanging. 

Your friend,

Jeff Haanen,
Founder & Executive Director
Denver Institute for Faith & Work

This letter first appeared in an email to the Denver Institute community. If you’d like to receive more updates from Denver Institute on articles, events, educational resources and other opportunities, please subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

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BusinessWork

“I am not alone as I work in the world.”

This is what one brave woman wrote in a post-event survey after Business for the Common Good, our annual business conference. I decided to post it here simply so I wouldn’t forget her insight and courage.

“This was the perfect mix of addressing all different levels of how to follow Jesus by honoring him in our work. I loved that there was an emphasis on building a foundation of valuing our own mental health and bringing our shame to Christ. If we don’t allow God to reconcile ourselves – inside of us – it will be hard to bring kindness, patience, and lasting change to our neighbors, coworkers, and the workplace structures we seek to improve.

“As a woman, I have increasingly found myself facing fears of being discounted and undervalued in a society that historically does so to women in the workplace. At this conference, however, I found myself being moved to empathy toward men instead of defensiveness as the sessions pointed towards faith in Jesus as the ultimate redemptive force inside of humanity.

“Seeing so many Christian men in business sitting under this teaching at the conference gave me a sense that my fight is not against them, but rather injustice. And this fight I can only navigate when I am rooted in my value in Jesus, not the salary I successfully negotiate or the roles I obtain. He holds my concerns close to his heart, and he does for all of us, men and women, and I am not alone as I work in the world.”

VocationWorkWorld

“A Fully Activated Workplace” (Global Workplace Forum, Lausanne Movement)

This last summer I was deeply honored to serve on a panel in Manila on “A Fully Activated Workplace.” I shared the stage with a clinical psychologist in Nairobi working with refugees, an electrical engineer in Canada, a manager at Apple, and a man doing church planting with nomadic tribes in central Asia. I shared about my research on the American working class.

Incredible what God’s doing around the world…Bravo Lausanne Movement. And bravo to all of you for stepping into God’s call in your life wherever you may be walking on the planet earth today…

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BusinessCultureEconomyTheologyWorkWorld

Dreading Monday (Comment Magazine)

The spiritual crisis underneath our jobs.

Reviewing: 

Working The New Press, 2004. 640pp. 

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory Simon & Schuster, 2018. 368pp.

The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change Currency, 2018. 416pp.

“I had no concept of the horrible dread I would feel getting up in the morning to spend all day sitting in an office trying to waste time.”

Rachel grew up in a poor family yet graduated from a prestigious British university with a physics degree. Yet soon after graduation, student debt forced her to take a job as a “catastrophe risk analyst” at a big insurance company.

Rachel recalls the day she hit an existential tipping point at her new job:

The final straw came after months of complaining, when I met my friend Mindy for a drink after a week of peak bullshit. I had just been asked to color coordinate a mind map to show, “the nice-to-haves, must-haves, and would-like-to-have-in-the-futures.” (No, I have no ideas what that means, either.)

She ranted at me, and I ranted at her. I made a long, impassioned speech that ended with me shouting, “I cannot wait for the sea levels to rise and the apocalypse to come because I would rather be out hunting fish and cannibals with a spear I’d fashioned out of a fucking pole than doing this fucking bullocks! . . . We both laughed for a long time, and then I started crying. I quit the next day.

Rachel ended her tear-strewn reflection with a response to those who would call her experience of work just a “Millennial problem.” “So, yes, I am the queen crystal of Generation Snowflake melting in the heat of a pleasantly air-conditioned office,” she said, remembering her grandmother’s words to toughen up. “But good Lord, the working world is crap.”

Nearly five decades earlier, Nora Watson, a twenty-eight-year-old staff writer for an institution publishing health care literature, shared her own lament for her new career.

Jobs are not big enough for people. . . . A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has become so divorced from my job except, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.

Much has changed about the global workforce in fifty years, yet there are two feelings, felt deeply by millions of Rachels and Nora Watsons across the world, that have endured the test time: the feeling that the modern workplace is an assault on our human dignity, and that work ought to have some broader purpose than just a paycheque, but seems forever beyond our grasp. 

In an age of abundance, we are better fed, housed, and cared for than at any time in world history. Yet three books on work—two new and one old—show that our core longing for our jobs is not fundamentally economic, social, or political in nature.

It’s spiritual.

Purpose, Pain, and PR Researchers

In August 2013, American anthropologist David Graeber published an essay titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” After more than a million website views in seventeen different languages, stories came tumbling into Graeber’s inbox. A corporate lawyer who believes, “I contribute nothing to this world and am utterly miserable all the time.” An advertiser, whose job, by his own admission, “is a combination of manufacturing demand and then exaggerating the usefulness of products sold to fix it.” Judy, an HR assistant, whose job never requires more than one hour a day. “The other seven hours were spent playing 2048 or watching YouTube.”

Graeber had a hunch that many jobs don’t “really do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists.” His book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory tells the stories of hordes of men and women who believe their very own jobs are just that—bullshit. Rachel, quoted above, is one of those people.

Lest we think Graeber is just cursing to sell books, he offers a technical definition: “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Graeber even has a taxonomy to describe these largely white-collar workers: “flunkies” exist only to make others look important; “goons” are those whose work is to aggressively propagate their employer’s agenda; “duct tapers” exist to fix some kind of glitch in a large bureaucracy; “box tickers” do jobs that allow their companies to say they’re doing something that it is not, in fact, doing; and finally, “taskmasters” are those whose work consists purely of assigning more work to others.

And lest we think these are isolated incidences, one poll in Holland found that 40 percent of Dutch workers believe their jobs have no reason to exist. Graeber dedicates nearly a third of the book to describing these jobs as acts of “spiritual violence.”

Ellen Ruppel Shell, a journalist for The Atlantic and Boston University professor, takes a different approach in The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change. Shell zooms out to tell us the broad story of work in our time, told through the eyes of educators, technologists, manufacturers, and laundromat operators. The overarching story is one of middle-class jobs slipping away as the working class languishes, and the new global aristocracy holds ever more power.

There are plenty of jobs left, but they’re mainly bad ones. In 2016 the American unemployment rate sank to below 5 percent. “But many Americans had a reason to feel less gleeful. Fully 58 percent of the job growth was in occupations with a wage of $7.69 to $13.83 an hour, while 60 percent of jobs in the midrange—$13.84 to $21.13 per hour—had vanished.”

Shell’s odyssey for a solution to the growing divide—which extends far beyond the size of a paycheque—takes the reader from Finnish classrooms to small manufacturers in places like the Navy Yard of New York’s Lower East Side. Makershops, employee-owned co-ops, and universal basic income are all proposed as the balm for the wounds of a digital age.

Shell calls her readers to embrace the worker’s own ability to construct meaning for themselves. The source of that meaning floats somewhere between creativity, agency, relationship, and economic dignity. “Rather than credit employers with giving us the ‘gift’ of ‘meaningful’ work, let’s agree that the meaning we gain from our work is no gift, but very much a product of our own efforts,” Shell writes. In this story, it us up to each worker to make meaning for herself.

A half century ago, another journalist, Studs Terkel, took up his tape recorder to listen to the American worker in his book Working. A collection of oral history, Working records the knotted, unfiltered voices of farmers, switchboard operators, spot-welders, hair stylists, proofreaders, and industrial designers. (Nora Watson, quoted above, is one of Terkel’s interviewees.)

Terkel gives voice to near universal human experiences at work.

  • We bemoan jobs we feel we can’t control. (“Who you gonna sock? You can’t sock General Motors . . . you can’t sock a system,” says Mike LeFevre, a steelworker.)
  • We feel like our jobs make us into machines. (A receptionist says, “A monkey can do what I do.” A bank teller confesses, “I’m caged.” A fashion model bemoans, “I’m an object.”)
  • And we often feel the need to defend our dignity in the face of “daily humiliations.” (Peggy Terry, a waitress, hears from a customer, “You don’t have to smile; I’m gonna give you a tip anyway.” She replies, “Keep it. I wasn’t smiling for a tip.”)

Terkel ends his introduction to the book with the insightful Tom Patrick, a banker turned fireman. “I worked in a bank. You know, it’s just paper. It’s not real. Nine to five and it’s just shit. You’re lookin’ at numbers,” Patrick remembers, as if to remind the ages that the phenomenon of bullshit jobs is nothing new. “But [as a fireman] I can look back and say ‘I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.’ It shows something I did on this earth.’”

Patrick hints at the sense of participating in a larger story through one’s work—a story that has, like a dream, been largely forgotten by a secular society.

Falling to Pieces

Spiritual atrophy is spreading amid many of the world’s workers. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic makes the case that work has become a religion for the college educated, and, as with all idols, is making its adherents miserable. Charles Duhigg of the New York Times seesthe same sickness plaguing his fellow Harvard-educated elites. Yet researchers like Princeton’s Angus Deaton and Anne Case believe that “deaths of despair” among white, middle-aged Americans—who are largely working class—are a part of the same “moral and spiritual crisis.”

Secular society is indeed beginning to crack.

Richard Rohr once said, “When people lose a meaningful storyline for their lives, they disintegrate both personally and culturally.” We rarely connect the spiritual and the cultural, but reading WorkingThe Job, and Bullshit Jobs side by side makes this connection hard to miss.

Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs may fall short in supporting many of its claims (I do actually know quite a few PR professionals and corporate lawyers who do good, important work), but it rises to the surface a vast and very real phenomenon: most people don’t like their work, and they spend the majority of their time doing something they’d rather not. And to those experiencing such a crisis of meaning, it feels something like spiritual death. And the spiritual consequences quickly become cultural. Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute shows that loneliness is tearing America apart. And even though GDP has grown at a healthy 3.5 percent, evidence of social collapse is all around us.

“Only if a man works can he live,” wrote American theologian Landon Gilkey in 1966 about Japanese internment camps in World War II. “But only if the work he does seems productive and meaningful can he bear the life that his work makes possible.” The story of work in our secular age is increasingly about finding ways to make meaning in our lives and careers from activities that feel abjectly meaningless.

The Job is written with warmth and optimism. But what’s missing is also what’s telling. Ruppel doesn’t even consider religion or belief in God as a valid motivation for work, but instead forces people into a secular box that calls people to create meaning for themselves, apart from any religious sources. (She briefly mentions the idea of vocation in connection with Yale researcher Amy Wrzesniewski’s research in job, career, and calling, but the context is about calling as “passion”—not a response to the voice of God.)

Again, if our cultural problem is intrinsically moral and spiritual, can we expect a healthy labour market when the labourers in that market are feeling the effects of a deep spiritual sickness?

Terkel’s Working is perhaps the most honest book of the bunch. It suggests no solutions and allows humans to express their deep humanity. Yet it also shows us injustice, despair, envy, shame, and pride. To where should a secular world look for hope?

From Soul to System

The Anglican priest George Herbert (1593–1633) believed that the elixir for our work was found in Christian teachings of vocation: “Teach me, my God and King / In all things Thee to see, / And what I do in anything / To do it as for Thee.” Christianity teaches that work is not first a social phenomenon, a policy problem, or an economic activity. It is first a response to God, an act of obedience that makes manifest our freedom and reflects God’s love.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky adds in his classic The Brothers Karamazov, “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”

From the perspective of secular society, this instinct is often overlooked, but at other times we subsume it into a larger humanistic narrative of being the captain of our own souls. Yet from the perspective of Christianity, worshipping yourself, your company, your family, or your workplace identity creates chaos. It is idolatry. The only way to heal society is to first heal the soul.

The challenge with both Bullshit Jobs and The Job is that they suggest political policies to fix spiritual and moral problems. The two are related of course; policies are certainly worthwhile and important, and corporate structures can certainly make living dignified, meaningful lives either harder or easier. But cultural issues facing workers can’t be considered in isolation from our deepest beliefs about God, ourselves, others, and our place in the world.

Christianity sees the need for redemption for both individuals and powerful systems. It crowns workers considered lowly by society with unsurpassable worth and dignity. Hotel janitors, landscapers, HR consultants, and even goons, flunkies, duct-tapers, box-tickers, and taskmasters have deep value. They may have bullshit jobs. But there are no bullshit people.

Yet Christianity also casts a wide net of responsibility on the powerful, and calls for reform. Policy makers, entertainers, CEOs, nonprofit leaders, and unions—indeed workers themselves—are called to reorient systems toward what’s good for employees, customers, and communities as persons. To whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48).

A recipe for healing cannot be found in policies alone, but must move from souls quickened by divine love to reforming systems designed for human flourishing. This is what Christianity can offer our global conversation about work.

The enduring value of all three of these books is that they clearly show a world that’s dreading Monday. Each of these books is worth an honest reading to hear the unedited (and often profanity-laced) anguish of so many of those whom God so dearly loves (John 3:16). Yet they also make clear a call for Christians and their neighbours to look squarely at the systems—and morally questionable jobs so many despise—in need of reform.

Christian faith offers a secular world a picture of a God who was crucified on the roughhewn beams of his own work, and offers hope to all people at all times and in all situations.

Even to those melting in the sweltering heat of pleasantly air-conditioned offices.

This essay first appeared in Comment Magazine.


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CultureTheology

Subversion

These three paragraphs, penned in 1991 by Lesslie Newbigin, changed my life as soon as I read them. Part of a larger treatment of “the gospel as public truth,” I repeat them here so I don’t forget the central why behind my seemingly endless (and multiplying) labors at Denver Institute.

And I post them for you, my fellow “undercover agents,” so that we might both know that we are not alone.

First, while the Church as a corporate society cannot identify itself with particular political programs, it must be the responsibility of the Church to equip its members for active and informed participation in public life in such a way that the Christian faith shapes that participation. Public life is the area where the principalities and powers operate. There are structures and forces which have a transpersonal character. The person who operates within them is not free to act as if he or she was a free individual. There is some freedom, but it is limited by the structure of the whole. If I understand the teaching of the New Testament on this matter, I understand the role of the Christians as that of being neither a conservative nor anarchist, but a subversive agent. When Paul says that Christ has disarmed the powers (not destroyed them), and when he speaks of the powers as being created in Christ and for Christ, and when he says that the Church is to make known the wisdom of God to the powers, I take it that this means that a Christian neither accepts them as some sort of eternal order which cannot be changed, nor seeks to destroy them because of the evil they do, but seeks to subvert them from within and thereby bring them back under the allegiance of their true Lord.

There is a beautiful illustration of this in Paul’s dealing with the runaway slave Onesimus. In the letter which goes to Colossae he tells Christian slaves to obey their earthly masters, because they are in fact serving the Lord in doing so. He does not tell Onesimus to go underground in Rome or wherever. He sends him back to his master as a slave, but he sends him back with the status of an apostolic nuncio. The structure is not simply smashed – as so much popular political rhetoric advocates; it is to be subverted from within.

But undercover agents need a great deal of skill. We do not spend enough of our energies in training undercover agents. A psychiatrist who was a devout Christian was recently asked whether her Christianity informed her work in the consulting room. She replied: “But that would be unprofessional conduct.” What kind of preparation is needed to enable a psychiatrist to discern the ways in which her profession could be subverted from its allegiance to other principles and become an area where the saving work of Christ is acknowledged? What would be the specific kind of training for a teacher in the public schools, for an executive in a big corporation, for a lawyer or a civil servant? Do we not need to invest much more of the Church’s resources in creating the possibility for such training? It cannot be done by clergy, though they have a part. It calls for the vigorous development of lay programs in which those in specific areas of secular work can explore together the possibilities of subversion. I know that much has been said along these lines, and yet there is little to show for it. In small enterprises of this kind in which I have been involved I have found that there was great enthusiasm once the purpose was understood. For undercover agents, it is a great thing to know that you are not alone.

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