Jeff Haanen

Articles Tagged with

Vocation

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Work

Resetting Your Career in Midlife

“Midway upon the journey of our life,” writes Dante in the first lines of his Inferno, “I had found myself in the dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true.”

I wonder if Dante was making a comment on the crafty nature of sin, creeping up from behind like a silent fog when we least expect it…or just the bewildering challenges of being middle-aged.

Several weeks ago, I called Dan, one of my friends, who’s nearly forty. “How are you?” I asked. “Well, nothing new,” he said with sigh. “Same job. Same family. Same house.”

He went on to explain that nothing was wrong, per say, other than feeling the reality set in that he was no longer in his twenties, filled with notions of changing the world. He wasn’t depressed, but aspiration had slowly given way to some combination of responsibility and reality, seeing in one hand a mortgage statement and in the other the scars of a thousand tiny disappointments after almost two decades on the job.    

“Midlife, especially for middle-class American men,” wrote Robert Bellah, American sociologist and author of Habits of the Heart, “often marks the end of a dream of a utilitarian self established by ‘becoming one’s own man’ and then ‘settling down’ to progress in a career.” Bellah says that around midlife, many realize that they’ll never be “number one” — senior partner, Nobel laureate, principal, CEO. As these dreams die, finding one’s identity in work dissipates and career trajectories flatten. “For many in middle age, the world of work then dims, and by extension so does the public world at large.”

For years in my own work at DIFW we have seen a trend: young professionals in their twenties and thirties come to our events, press into big social issues, and become Fellows, but participation in our programming drops off in one’s forties and fifties. What’s happening here?

Both my friend Dan and Robert Bellah explain what’s happening. First, in middle age, we must reckon with the crushing loss of professional dreams. You have a job, but the idea that you were going to “change the world” is shown for what it is: a postmodern mirage, built around the slippery, individualistic notion we had believed since we were teenagers: “you can be whatever you want to be.” A cloud of grief, loss, and disillusionment fills our horizon — one we’re quick to push back with entertainment, busyness, or consumerism.

The second reason: golden handcuffs. We reach the midpoint of our careers and we find we’re better paid now than we were in our twenties, but our expenses have grown as well. Mortgage payments, grocery bills, and kid’s activity fees all tamper down our desire to risk building something new, step out on a limb at work, or start a new career. Better to play it safe, even if we feel something inside of us crumbling.

Yet not all submit to the resignation of our hopes in midlife.

I’ve observed that some take an alternative path in midlife that acknowledges our limitations, pursues interior freedom, and embraces failure as the only pathway to growth.

Acknowledge Our Limitations

Gordon Smith, author of Courage and Calling, writes, “To embrace our vocations in midlife means that we accept two distinct but inseparable realities. First, we accept with grace our limitations and move as quickly as we can beyond illusion about who we are. Second, it means, positively, that we accept responsibility for our gifts, and acknowledge with grace what we can do.”

Bishop Ken Untener makes a similar point, very applicable to life at midcareer, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”

Our individualistic society is built around “your success.” And most weeks I see people who mistakenly believe that they can find their life’s purpose in their job. When this illusion dies, they often become disengaged — both from their job and the broader culture. And for those who do make it to the top, often they’ve done so by making work their religion.

But some take a humbler path. They take stock of what they are, and what they’re not. They look squarely at their talents and their limitations. They realize that won’t change culture. But they also realize that they can change the world right around them — co-workers, community, church, and family.

And perhaps even more importantly, they become ok with knowing people who are richer, smarter, better looking, and more talented. Seeking approval for performance is calmed by the steady, lasting approval of God.  

Pursue Interior Freedom

When New York Times columnist David Brooks set out to explore his own road to character growth, he realized there are two sets of virtues: résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. Résumé virtues are those you bring to the marketplace and post on LinkedIn — degrees, job accomplishments, accolades. Eulogy virtues are virtues people will talk about at your funeral — humility, kindness, courage.

Our careers tend to compensate and reward us for résumé virtues, but at some point, we realize these goals are thin, and we’ll have to decide whether we’ll make the journey into the interior world.

Rev. Jacques Philippe, author of Interior Freedom,says that if we’re continually looking to the external world for our approval, we’ll never be happy because our circumstances are constantly changing. However, he says we can cultivate deep interior freedom by practicing the virtues of faith, hope and love and by connecting deeply to the source of inner freedom — God himself — which no external power can take away.

Philippe and Brooks both are calling us to making a momentous shift in our lives: from exterior success to interior depth.

In this way of thinking, work becomes not just a way to achieve, but the primary context for our spiritual formation and interior growth. When we’re passed over for a promotion, slighted by a prospective client, or enduring a toxic workplace culture, the question becomes not one of escape to a better job, but instead: who am I becoming?

When the journey toward success in midlife lost its luster, a few decided to take a new, and much more exciting journey, toward whole-heartedness and deep emotional and spiritual health.

Embrace Failure as the Only Pathway to Growth

Winston Churchill once said, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of determination.” Commenting on this paradox, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “It is not their victories that make people leaders; it is the way they cope with their defeats — their ability to learn, to recover, and to grow.”

Most people move into middle age with a growing set of disappoints and failures that lead to resignation. “I’ll never get the job.” “I’ll never make a big impact. That was just the naivety of my twenties.”

Yet there are a few who experience the same set of consistent failures and they learn from them. They adopt a growth mindset. They don’t let their ego get in the way and they instead welcome feedback from family, friends, and co-workers. In the process, they ask questions like: What did I learn from that situation? How did I react? And what does this mean for me and for those around me?

The path to leadership is narrow because the majority want to blame others for their problems. The few decide to take ownership over what they can and let the harsh lessons of life refine them like a fire.

Dante had to make the journey first into the inferno before he made his way to purgatory and then ultimately to paradise.

Perhaps the only way out of the dark wilderness of midlife is first to go further in.

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BusinessTheologyVocationWork

The Pearl of Vocation: Why I Bring My Whole Self to Work, Including My Faith

When I was in elementary school, my mother took my older sister and I to Lake Itasca State Park for summer vacation, located in the cool northern woods of Minnesota. A life-long teacher, she would glory in making the outdoor visit into a lesson: spotting the diving loons in search of breakfast, explaining the history of old-growth red pines towering over the landscape, and proudly declaring that we were looking at the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River.

My sister and I, however, were more concerned with the number of times we could skip a rock across the glassy surface and the tiny creatures we discovered on the lakeshore. Barefoot and with a cool breeze in my curly blond hair, I would spend afternoons hunting for tadpoles or grabbing tiny oysters to crack them open, in search of treasure. Though I never did find a pearl in those oysters, the shell’s rainbow iridescence, shimmering in the sunlight, hinted at a joy embedded deeply within creation.

Three decades later, with a wife and four daughters of my own — and nearing forty years of age — I now spend more time landscaping behind my mortgaged house, cleaning dishes, and checking email than I do whimsically searching for marine treasures. Yet amidst the ever-present responsibility of directing a nonprofit, paying bills, and supporting family, I’ve found that my daily work has become the central arena in which I sense the magic of the Creator’s handiwork in my own life.

Like the refracted light of a rainbow, faith shapes the breadth of my human experience, including the one-third of my life I spend working. When I feelthe neck-tingling stress of hitting financial goals or the sadness of a coworker who’s lamenting singleness, I pause to pray. When I discuss future office space needs with my COO and the wild uncertainty of our current cultural moment, I draw on the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation to think through the problem. When I lose motivation to knock out my task list on a long, hot afternoon, I draw fresh inspiration from Christian authors like Dorothy Sayers, who remind me, “We are made in the image of a Maker,” and my work is a part of my humanity. When I read a news story that recounts the millions of women who’ve lost jobs due to the pandemic, I rework plans for our largest annual event, Business for the Common Good, to reflect God’s own concern for the vulnerable (Exodus 3:17). There is simply no extracting faith from my daily work. My working life is spent at the intersection of my human experience. If I was to remove faith from my working life, it would make me not just less Christian, but less human.

Why should we bring our whole self to work, including our faith? Well, for the Christian, there is no other option. The very oldest Christian confession is, “Jesus is Lord,” (1 Corinthians 12:3). For the early church, calling Jesus kurios (“lord”)was a challenge to Caesar’s claim to that same title. Both Jesus and Caesar claimed ultimate allegiance, forcing early Christians to make a choice. The early church chose the name ekklesia tou Theou (“church of God”), refusing the official protection of “private cults” by the Roman empire, precisely because an ekklesia was a public assembly to which all people in the empire were summoned to discuss the public affairs of the city. The followers of Jesus were making their own self-understanding clear: the church would not be merely a “private religion,” but would instead be public assembly by which all humanity is summoned, called by God himself.

Today, our modern notions of a strict divide between public and private, sacred and secular, faith and work trace their ancestry originally to Greek dualism, and more recently to Enlightenment thinking, which places the individual human at the center of the universe. Indeed, the idea that people could be “religious” at some times and “secular” at others is a relatively new notion. (Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Ageare helpful here.) Yet it is that awkward but unspoken expectation of fencing off our deepest convictions that still dominates most government, corporate, and nonprofit entities today. And so, millions of men and women across faith traditions are forced to ask, how am I supposed to be fully human at work, but ignore the very source of my humanity for the majority of my waking hours?

In my own tradition — I am a Presbyterian drawing from the rich well of historic American Protestantism — there has been much handwringing about this question, especially in the context of a changing culture. Pew reports that in just the last 30 years, the percentage of U.S. adults who identify as Christians has declined from 87% to 65%, whereas the number of adults who claim to be “religiously unaffiliated” has swelled from 8% to 26%. That’s 30 million more “nones” than just 10 years ago.

As culture has shifted from a Judeo-Christian social consensus to a secular one in the last 60 years, I lament that the Christian response has largely been around the politicization of faith, the privatization of belief, or the accommodation to culture. In one camp, the culture wars rage on and faith is politicized in a battle for control over the future of America. Others largely retreat from culture, content either to restrict faith to “just my private belief” or live in evangelical subcultures neatly removed from mainstream culture. Yet, by far the most common response is Christians accommodating to popular culture, adopting whatever social, cultural, or economic practices are popular in the moment. Each of these play out as Christians try to answer the question: what does faith mean for my life, my work, and the world I live in?

At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, we believe that work is a way to love God, serve our neighbors, and demonstrate the gospel. We believe vocation is first a call to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Matthew 22:37-40). Vocation is our response to God’s voice in all areas of life, including our work.

I think many people, including much of corporate America, see this view and feel concerned that bringing your faith to work will cause conflict between people of divergent beliefs. But in my experience, the opposite has been the case. Pete Ochs creates and runs Seat King, a company that manufactures car seats inside a medium-security prison and gives prisoners a fair wage, “life lessons,” and a newfound sense of dignity. Young professionals tackle the challenges of social media, innovate new HR benefits for refugees working in pallet company, and highlight the plight of undocumented immigrants in local newspaper — all as an expression of their faith. From tech workers advocating for better family leave policies to investors humbly admitting they have an anger problem and recommitting to emotional healing, faith in the workplace can be a powerful force for good.

Of course, Christians also sin, and as such, “bringing your whole self to work” can also mean bringing greed, lust, pride, envy, prejudice, and laziness to the workplace as well. I myself have been a fine example of many of these vices to my coworkers and family. Yet, it’s in moments of being drawn to addiction, self-aggrandizement, or brute selfishness that I need God in my own work all the more. Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart….” I think many of us are tempted to believe that the problem with our world today is “them.” But daily I’m reminded that the greatest problem our world faces beats within my own breast.

Two millennia ago, when Jesus was being crowded by throngs of admirers, he hopped in a boat, pushed off from shore, and began to teach. Voice echoing off the water’s surface, he told the story of a farmer who found a treasure buried in a field. Wild with excitement, he sold all he had to buy the field, knowing that in the end he was getting an incredible deal. Similarly, he told the story of a merchant in search of pearls. When he found one, overcome with joy, he too sold everything he had just to possess that single treasure (Matthew 13:44-45).

When I was a boy, strolling along the shores of Lake Itasca and hunting for oysters, my work was simply to delight in the world around me. Now as an adult, nonprofit leader, husband, and father, my work now is to allow that same pearl of God’s grace to permeate my daily life. For me, like the headwaters of the Mississippi River, God is the Living Water who has given me new life (John 4:14-16). If everybody worships, as the late David Foster Wallace claimed, is it such a strange thing to acknowledge that source of life in our working life?

So why faith and work? Like a merchant finding a pearl — or a child finding a shell on a lakeshore — the answer for the Christian is simple: joy.

This post first appeared at Denver Institute.

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Work

Designing Workplaces to Be More Human

Designing Workplaces to Be More Human

We spend about a third of our waking lives at work. And yet, for the majority of people, work is not much more than a paycheck. We feel lonely, especially men. We feel like there’s a gap between our job responsibilities and our own potential. We often feel exhausted and question whether our work is making any meaningful difference.

How might we reimagine what it means to be fully human in our working lives?

Here are five aspects of what I think it means to be human, and, as a result, what I believe we need to focus on if we’re going to build workplaces that really invest in human potential.

Humans are emotional and spiritual. It’s tough to avoid it. Fear, anger, joy, surprise, sadness, disgust, elation – every day we’re a mix of emotions. My guess is that today, before leaving for work, you experienced at least a few of these emotions. One philosopher has made the case that fundamentally, we are creatures of desire. Dostoyevsky said it well: we crave nothing so much as something to worship. Our emotional and spiritual lives are woven tightly together.

Yet how many workplaces really acknowledge – and embrace – the fact that that we feel, we believe, we worship? Even rarer: who really takes the time and effort to invest in the deep emotional and spiritual health of their employees?

We see the cost when our co-workers are unhealthy – disengagement, addiction, distraction. A full 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year. But do we deeply care about facing our own shadows honestly and creating workplaces where our hearts experience deep peace? 

Humans are relational. From our very first breath to our last, we are surrounded by people. Relationships are both the greatest sources of joy and pain in our lives.

The ability to relate well to others – what workforce development professionals call “soft skills” – is consistently the most important skill employers are looking for. Emotional intelligence also happens to be the skill needed for high level leadership.

Yet, how difficult it is to work alongside other human beings! The inability to deal with conflict, our own lack of self-awareness, and a growing loneliness epidemic in America all contribute to the deep challenges we face in our families and workplaces.

Yet each of us longs for community; we long to know others, and be known. We weren’t designed to be alone. 

Humans are makers. From the earliest recorded history, humans made things. Tents, musical instruments, tools, weapons, pots, homes. “We are made in the image of the Maker,” says dramatist and playwright Dorothy Sayers. Work is, and always has been, a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Culture is made by what we make, and the meaning we derive from what we’ve made.

In the modern world, we’re constantly surrounded by other people’s work. Coffee cups, drywall, iPhones, books, concrete, electrical outlets, mops, pacifiers. Though some may imagine a day when machines take all of our jobs, history just doesn’t bear it out. Every time technology displaces jobs, we find other things to create. We are creators by nature.

Yet again, there’s so much that hinders our ability to do good work. Distraction, lack of autonomy, insufficient time, low wages, unequal access to opportunity.  To make things worse, professionals especially have nearly divinized work as our sole source of worth and identity. 

Who are the employers who invest in people’s ability to do excellent work, while holding work in its proper place alongside family and community?

Humans are thinkers. As young children, each of us were naturally curious about the world. We wanted to know. We wanted to learn. And now, as adults, we are in a constant state of debating what is true and good. Ideas matter.

In the circles I run in, it’s now out of fashion to acknowledge that we’re intellectual beings. But any cursory reading of history shows us that ideas matter. Just a review of the wars of the twentieth century – what some have called the age of ideologies – shows this to be true. Those who claim they just want “practical action steps” and don’t care much for “heady matters” are often the most controlled by the ideas of those who’ve gone before them.

In a global economy that changes so quickly, none of us can afford to stop learning. Yet in our jobs, more often than not, we become technicians. We become good at one thing – like processing mortgages or writing marketing copy – yet often are in the dark about the majority of the world. It’s hard to find opportunities to become generalists, and recover the range that we delighted in as children.

Where are the workplaces that encourage curiosity? Where are the organizations that ask employees to read outside of their field, listen to lectures on a regular basis, and really encourage broad, diverse thinking?

Humans are city-builders. This, too, is ancient. Not only do we work, but we work together. And as soon as we work, we form companies. And when we form companies, we realize that we need governments to safeguard those companies, and the rights that underpin them. We also need systems of education to form the next generation of workers and citizens. We need doctors to heal, craftsmen to build, and salesmen to sell. Before you know it, we have built cities.

As much as I’d like to avoid politics, we really can’t. Humans naturally form a polis when we work together. We must find ways to understand each other, live alongside each other, and provide for the needs of each other. “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” said Martin Luther King Jr. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Aristotle once said, “Man is a being best suited to living in a polis [city].”

Humans are intrinsically civic creatures. So, we’re forced to ask questions about not just our own needs, but also the needs of others. What does it mean for us to build just systems? What is a good society? And a question I often ask myself: are our workplaces a part of that answer, or are they a part of the problem?

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At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, we built our five guiding principles around each of these five elements of what it means to be human. We also designed the educational program of the 5280 Fellowship around each of these principles as well.

Here’s a brief video overview of our Five Guiding Principles at Denver Institute.

My question for you is this: are you thinking theologically, embracing relationship, creating good work, seeking deep spiritual health, and serving others sacrificially?

Though in a secular workplace, you can’t always use theological language, you can take a look at your work environment or company and ask good, honest questions, such as:

  • Do we invest in deep emotional and spiritual health?
  • Do we encourage real friendship and relational wholeness?
  • Do we create conditions for people to do their best work?
  • Do we stimulate broad thinking about the key issues of our day?
  • Do we really care about our city, especially the vulnerable?

Sometimes integrating faith and work can seem overwhelming. But you do have a choice. You can shrink back, or you can act. You can accept the status quo, or you can choose to be motivated by doing your small part in the healing of God’s broken world. You can assume “work is work,” or you can imagine, in community, what might be.

You could even print these five questions and bring them up at your next team meeting. It may just convince them that work can be more than a paycheck.

This article first appeared on the Denver Institute blog.

Photo credit.

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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TheologyWork

Spiritual Disciplines for Your Work: A Reflection Guide

Recently my colleague Brian Gray, COO and 5280 Fellowship Director, wrote a short reflection guide for our donors on living out the Christian life in our daily work. Here’s my introduction to the booklet. If you’d like to receive monthly updates or receive a booklet, visit here.

Dear friends,

When I was a new Christian, one of the first things I learned from my involvement in campus ministry was that Christians are supposed to have a daily “quiet time.” This usually involved structured Bible reading, perhaps a devotional book, and — if I was particularly motivated or had the time — a list of prayer requests. 

Daily devotions worked for me for years, but eventually, I grew tired of them. I had read the stories, done the prayers, experimented with dozens of devotional books. Eventually, I fell away from morning devotionals. And for years, I felt a deep sense of shame. Was I failing? What was wrong with my spiritual life? Had God left me completely? 

Strangely enough, in the past several years, my spiritual journey has become harder. I’ve felt stress more acutely; I’ve noticed myself react with a short temper or an arrogant reply in interactions with my family or co-workers; I’ve felt spiritually exhausted. I’ve noticed deep areas of unkindness in my soul toward even those I love the most. The question I’ve once again asked myself is: Lord, can I really change? Is it even possible to be “conformed to the image of Christ” in this life (Romans 8:29)? 

In this time of asking questions, my colleague Brian Gray, COO and director of the 5280 Fellowship, has quietly, persistently re-introduced to me the rich Christian tradition that I had overlooked. For so many years I saw “spiritual disciplines” as restrictive — even un-Protestant? Wasn’t I simply saved by grace? 

I’m slowly beginning to realize that spiritual disciplines are like a trellis, as Peter Scazzerro says in his wonderful book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. A trellis is a structure that vines grow on. They don’t cause the growth; but they do support the plant’s growth. In the same way, spiritual disciplines are the trellis upon with the Holy Spirit grows His fruit in our lives. Prayer, Sabbath, confession, simplicity, solitude, celebration — these are the structures upon which the Spirit climbs into our hearts and penetrates our emotions in the process of sanctification. 

At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, our mission is to form men and women to serve God, neighbor, and society through their work. Did you catch that? We’re really all about formation. And this is why we’re giving you this gift today. 

This short publication — Spiritual Disciplines for Your Work: A Reflection Guide — is meant to be a gift. It contains short, reflective exercises for each month of the year. I want to encourage you to use this, put it next to your bed, read it with a spouse or family, or even bring it to your small group. 

The oddity of this brief publication, which has its foundation in the spiritual practices we originally designed for the 5280 Fellows, is that it’s not just meant for the quiet time in the morning, in isolation from the rest of your life. It’s meant as a tool for your daily life at work. As you see yourself respond emotionally to a boss, or feel the pang of disappointment at a lost opportunity, or wonder about your future career path, use these disciplines to quiet your heart and turn your focus to Christ. He alone can provide what we’re looking for.

I’m now re-exploring the spiritual disciplines in my own life. I hope you’ll join me on the journey. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men,” (John 1:4). What joy is ours if only we will die to ourselves and take up the easy yoke of Christ, the only place where we can finally find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28-30). 

Grace and peace, 

Jeff Haanen

CEO and Founder

Denver Institute for Faith & Work

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Craftsmanship & Manual LaborPoliticsVocationWork

‘Tis a Gift to Do ‘Undignified’ Work (Christianity Today)

Blue-collar labor often goes unappreciated and under-rewarded. How can that change?

When I was growing up, the best TV shows all featured blue-collar characters. Cheers, The Simpsons, Love and Marriage, The Wonder Years—each centered on the lives of loveable laborers. Cliff from Cheerswas a postman, Homer Simpson pulled levers in a nuclear power plant, and even the disgruntled Al Bundy sold women’s shoes. One episode of The Wonder Yearsfeatured Kevin learning about his dad’s career path from a loading dock worker to a distribution manager. “You have to make your choices,” Mr. Arnold told his son. “You have to try to be happy with them. I think we’ve done pretty well, don’t you?”

What a difference two decades makes. Since 1992, nearly every Emmy for Outstanding Comedy has gone to shows depicting white-collar adults working in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, New York, or Washington, usually without kids. The exception would be The Office, but its humor is based on the idea that selling paper is an utterly miserable and meaningless job. In the NBC drama This Is Us, the story of a construction worker is told in a flashback to the 1970s and 1980s, as if Hollywood believes manual-labor jobs only existed three decades ago.

Not only has the working class gone underappreciated in modern America, but over the past 50 years, lower-wage workers have seen their lives get progressively harder. Oren Cass’s The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America sheds light on the plight of the working class, arguing that the distress that millions of workers feel today owes largely to federal policies that were supposed to help them.

Productive Pursuits

In the past generation, the central focus of policymakers has been the growth of the economy, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (a monetary measure of all goods and services produced in a time period) and rising rates of consumption. And it’s worked. From 1975 to 2015, America’s GDP has tripled, and consumption has ballooned.

The problem is that this period of economic growth has coincided with rising rates of suicide, drug abuse, and social isolation. The nation’s suicide rate climbed 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, deaths from overdoses have risen every year since 2000, and loneliness has now become an “epidemic,” for everyone from older adults to Gen Z.

Though the economy has grown, the standard of living afforded to low-skilled work has declined—and so has our collective appreciation of the work done by millions of lower-wage workers.

The critical issue, says Cass, a policy expert affiliated with the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, is that we’ve prized consumption over production. We’ve built a larger “economic pie” and attempted to redistribute its benefits to those left out rather than build a labor market that allows the majority of workers to support strong families and communities.

Cass’s central idea is that “a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy.” Cass calls his big idea productive pluralism, the idea that “productive pursuits—whether in the market, the community, or the family—give people purpose, enable meaningful and fulfilling lives, and provide the basis for strong families and communities that foster economic success too.”

Against those who dream of a post-work future filled with robots and artificial intelligence—underwritten by a universal basic income to cushion the impact of surging unemployment—Cass affirms both that the “role of the worker in society is fundamental” and that “it is within our power to ensure its vitality.”

Concrete Proposals

In The Once and Future Worker, Cass turns high ideals into concrete proposals to actually heal the fractures splintering the American workforce.

The most compelling is the “wage subsidy.” Rather than luring large corporations to town with big tax breaks (like the Amazon HQ2 hysteria of 2017) or levying payroll taxes on low-income workers and then redistributing the money through entitlements, why not “pay for jobs” directly? What if a worker saw a “Federal Work Bonus” on her next paycheck, adding three extra dollars for every hour she had worked?

Cass also advocates building an educational system better suited to the four-fifths of students who do not complete the high-school-to-college-to-career path. Around two-thirds of Americans don’t have a four-year college degree. To better ensure that more of them can get good jobs and contribute to their communities, Cass proposes reinvesting in vocational training and shifting toward a more “tracked” form of schooling—similar to systems found in Europe—where students are grouped according to educational ability rather than lumped together in the same classroom.

Yet there’s one area that government policy can’t do much about: our cultural views about the value of lower-wage workers.

“Waiters, truck drivers, retail clerks, plumbers, secretaries, and others all spend their days helping the people around them and fulfilling roles crucial to the community,” writes Cass. “They do hard, unglamorous work for limited pay to support themselves and their families.” Why shouldn’t we admire those who do harder jobs for lower wages on a broad scale? We’re capable of doing this with police officers, teachers, and firefighters. Why shouldn’t the work done by trash collectors, housekeepers, and janitors deserve the same degree of respect?

For that, we need not just policy reform but a different story about work altogether.

To Bow and Bend

It’s not every day that I pick up a book on the finer points of public policy—or review one for a Christian publication—but pausing to consider the markets, systems, and other largely invisible entities that shape our working lives is well worth the effort. It’s like pulling back the curtain on our workplaces and industries—and the perceived worth we bring to our communities.

Cass is the unusual conservative voice willing to cut both ways. He pushes back on both the left’s commitment to government spending and the right’s unwavering faith in economic growth. And he moves even heady policy discussions down to a level I understand: The goal is to create the conditions for people to have good jobs, raise healthy families, and contribute to their communities. As a Christian, there’s clearly much that resonates here.

Yet I also wanted to hear more about the moral, emotional, and spiritual elements that make for both healthy laborers and healthy labor markets. Tim Carney’s Alienated America makes the case—from sociology, political science, and research, not theology—that local churches are the critical element in the renewal of America. If churches account for 50 percent of American civic life, as Robert Putnam famously pointed out in Bowling Alonedo they not also have a central role in reviving the fortunes of American workers, many of whom experience the pangs of meaninglessness and loneliness?

In a time when economic divides mask the growing dignity divide between professionals and the working class, between prestigious high-wage jobs and unspectacular low-wage jobs, the church can and must play a central role in reviving a vision for work.

The Shaker spiritual “Simple Gifts” reminds us of Protestant traditions that deeply value work, even “undignified” work. “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be. … When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.” Turning the other cheek, doing hard and dirty work, and being overlooked by the world—these are familiar notions to those of us who worship a carpenter and a washer of feet.

Christians should join in Cass’s call to restore the dignity of work in America, rounding out his policy argument with the rich resources of our own tradition. We should also recommit to studying which of our favorite policies—on both ends of the political spectrum—actually do more harm than good.

Most importantly, since policy is downstream from culture, we need to rediscover the habit of being public about our own story for work. And perhaps, like Mr. Arnold in The Wonder Years, we could start around the dinner table by telling our kids what we actually do all day.

The article first appeared in Christianity Today online.



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BusinessFaith and Work MovementTheologyVocationWork

Lessons Learned from the Global Workplace Forum

I recently returned from the Global Workplace Forum, a conference hosted in Manila by the Lausanne Movement. Started in 1974 by John Stott and Billy Graham, the Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization gathered people from around the world; last week, 850 leaders from 109 different countries met to discuss the next phase of the global missions movement: the activation of the workplace as the central arena of God’s mission in the world.

The highlight was meeting the people* sitting at my table, a small group that discussed the larger live sessions. My table was gloriously diverse: 

  • Jonathan is from India and works in a sports ministry. Because of increased persecution of Christians in India under a Hindu nationalist government, Jonathan shared about his worry for his family, but also said “We’re 100% committed to bringing the gospel to our country.” He plays cricket, hosts a youth group in his home, and humbly serves God in a 650 square-foot flat with his wife and three children, one of whom is an adopted 19-year-old.

  • Solomon works in sports broadcasting in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is pursuing his MBA at the Rome Business School during the evenings. He is also a correspondent for BBC World Service and started a project called 70 Christian Heroes, a book that highlights South Africans courageously serving Christ in their daily lives.
     
  • Dennis is an architect living outside Kampala, Uganda. He shared the story about a contractor offering a $30,000 bribe to recommend the contractor’s company for a large project. Dennis turned it down, saying “That would compromise my Christian witness. I already made the decision before I started in this field what I would and would not do.”
     
  • Alex is the owner of a digital marketing company based in Hong Kong. He shared the story of Protestants in Hong Kong leading the way in the peaceful protests against a controversial extradition bill, singing “Hallelujah to the Lord” along with millions of protesters. 
     
  • Dyan is a Pilates instructor from Manila whose husband works at a church. She longs for the church to acknowledge the importance of her work as a genuine ministry outside either her home or her church. 

At the Global Workplace Forum, I met a tech entrepreneur from Puerto Rico working on energy solutions for his country and a payment platform that can help fund missions work. I met the CTO of a technology firm based in Moscow who works in Norway and the U.S., adopted a child, and shared with me his perspective on the 2014 annexation of Crimea. I met a French national who told me “You won, but we played better” regarding the U.S. women’s soccer defeat of the French team, which took place during the conference. I met a Sri Lankan who was studying at Yale, the CEO of the world’s largest Bible translation organization, and a Peruvian economist and lawyer who’s considering whether to run for Congress in Peru or follow his wife to the U.S. as she pursues an advanced degree. I even heard a story of a Turkish national who became a Christian while studying to become a Muslim cleric. 

The idea of “work” is dizzyingly complex and exhilarating at the same time. Truly, God’s people touch every single aspect of culture!

I spoke as part of a panel that explored solutions for how the global church can activate the faith of the 99% of Christians who don’t work occupational ministry jobs, like pastors or missionaries. The panel facilitator had a PhD in electrical engineering from Canada. The other panelists included a clinical psychologist who works outside Nairobi and counsels victims of genocide; a Filipino-American woman who works in international expansion of Apple stores around the world and is helping to start faith-based employee resource groups; and a man who works with nomadic tribes in Kyrgyzstan.

The experience in Manila was enlightening on many fronts. Here are a few things I took away from the event: 

1) I share more in common with other believers from across the globe than I do with my own non-Christian next-door neighbors.  It was a fascinating experience to hear the story of Dmitry, a Christian entrepreneur in Moscow. When he shared about his faith, his family, and his work, I immediately felt at home. He has the same challenges with his kids, the same concerns about his government, and the same struggles with what it meant to be a Christ-follower in his industry. It was almost odd how Christians from across the globe share a common language, common ethos, and common mission.

A.W. Tozer said that Christians are like pianos tuned to the same tuning fork. Not only are we tuned to the same tuning fork, but we’re also tuned to each other. This describes my exact experience at the Forum, and I felt swept into something much bigger than my nationality, my culture, or even my own work. 

2) Globally, the workplace is becoming a commonly accepted paradigm for a new era of missions. In the past, missionaries would raise support for years, find a ministry job abroad, and work with locals to execute that plan. Today, more people are seeing this as a dying model; taking your job with you as a missionary makes far more sense. Instead of quitting your job to become a missionary, more people are keeping their job and become physicians, entrepreneurs, or teachers both at home and abroad while still being on mission

The acceptance of this paradigm of work as a missionary endeavor is not simply an American phenomenon; it’s taking root in the global missions movement across countries. 

3) The conversation is still too biased toward executives. The programming was utterly wonderful, yet several people approached me and said, “Why are we just speaking to business leaders here?” The question for the next season of this movement will be: how do we apply the gospel to the work of hourly wage earners – housekeepers, janitors, book printers, and millions of other working-class jobs?

4) Work is immensely broad. Before the Global Workplace Forum, I never considered work to include activities like the work of nomadic tribesmen in Kyrgyzstan! When we speak about shaping our workplaces as Christians, we are truly talking about global culture and every issue in the modern world, ranging from climate change to human trafficking to artificial intelligence. We covered each of these topics, and more, throughout the week. 

5) English is the language of global commerce. Imagine my surprise when I went to a conference with attendees from 110 difference countries, and they all spoke my language! I expected wide linguistic gaps. Though there were interpreters at the conference, it made me appreciate that technology has connected the world; in many ways, we share one global culture. We have more opportunities than ever before to learn from others who are serving God from Italy to Uzbekistan. It led me to a greater sense of responsibility as we produce short courses and podcasts that are now being consumed around the world. 

6) I need to build deeper relationships with friends from other cultures. I met one couple, Emanuel and Bianca, who are real estate developers in Romania. As they shared about creating community through new housing developments, I was struck that my wife and I could easily be friends with them if they lived in Colorado. After I came home, I committed to downloading WhatsApp, the global medium for texting and chatting across cultures, staying in touch with friends from abroad, and working to diversify our conversation about the gospel and our culture in Colorado. 

Being abroad and meeting new friends made me realized that we have much to gain and learn from our brothers and sisters around the world. It’s time to embrace Lausanne’s motto: “the whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.” 

*Editor’s note—Some names have been changed.

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Health CareVocationWork

Making All Things New – Jeanne Oh Kim, Pediatrician

In the last of several posts, here I’m highlighting the first-hand experiences of four professionals in Denver. Each of them shared at our annual fundraiser and celebration of vocation, entitle “Making All Things New: Finding Our Place in God’s Mission.” We asked them what they sense is broken in their industries, and how they sense God was using them in his plan to ultimately “make all things new.” Jeanne is a physician living in Denver

As a physician, I work in the confines of a broken medical system with sometimes few answers in relation to the infinitely complex human body.  There is always new evidence to challenge previous practices.  There is also pressure to see over 20 patients a day, which can pose a challenge to meet the true needs of my patients and families at times, especially, since we are in the middle of a mental health crisis, with patients experiencing anxiety, depression, and suicide at an all-time high.  Families are also broken.  Parents are extremely anxious and look to “the University of Google” and certain blood tests to provide answers, while often just feeding this anxiety. 

I believe we are created with a mind, body, and spirit.  Sometimes an illness just attacks the body like with an infection.  However, disease or illness may be from brokenness in our mind or spirit, and it is challenging when families do not know that Jesus is the only way to true healing.  

Each day, I pray for wisdom in how to bring the power and reality of the Kingdom into my exam rooms and that my patients and their families can experience Jesus through me.  I pray that I can see them as He does, beautiful and loved by Him.  By partnering with the Holy Spirit, I may pray in my head over a person, and when I feel led, I will ask patients if they would like me to pray with them and allow God to come and heal supernaturally, as only He can.

It is challenging work, but I feel honored to be able to serve God through my ministry to my patients and their families.  

Through my work as a pediatrician, Christ is making all things new.

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