This week, Comment published my essay “Where Are All the Workers? How to Revive a Wilting Workforce.”
In the essay, I address something we’re all feeling, whether at the airport or the local restaurant: the labor shortage. We are facing a historic pinch: the global workforce is aging, birthrates are declining, labor participation rates are decreasing, and many people are not willing to take middle skill jobs – or really any job. In my paper I argue, however, the pandemic has changed our mood around work. From China to the US, we’re now living in an age of anti-ambition, characterized by what the medieval church called acedia, or sloth – which is not just laziness, but a sorrow at having to do good, challenging work.
I make three key points in the paper. First,work as an expression of one’s gifts, interests, and talents, rather than simply extracting maximal wages for minimal effort, is the critical element of a dynamic, growing economy.Second, historic ideas of Christian vocation can be translated into a secular economy to revive a weary workforce.And third, work, and the plight of the world’s workers, is the great social issue of our age.
Here’s how I begin the essay:
It was a Sunday afternoon and I was setting up for a game of musical chairs on my back deck. As the sun shone, I carefully counted black lawn chairs and placed them facing out, in a circle, with one chair less than the number of RSVPs for my daughter’s seventh birthday party. It felt a little cruel to set up a rigged game like this, but I reasoned it was a classic of childhood competition. What could be more American?
Before the pandemic, the labour market felt like a game of musical chairs. Employers created jobs, expected more applications than positions, and when the music stopped, they chose the best employees for the role. Of course, some were left out, but they could be trained to run faster next time and grab a chair, right?
But in the last two years, for both employees and employers, it feels like somebody tipped over the chairs, threw some into the yard, and shut off the music. And half of the kids left early from the birthday party, deciding they didn’t really want to play musical chairs anyway.
Not only has the pandemic has created a labour shortage, it has changed the world of work for all us. We now desperately need to find new ways to infuse life into a weary workforce.
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.
“How do you measure your results?” It’s usually not the first question I receive from a donor interested in our work, but it is the second or third. And it’s not always easy to answer.
Measuring impact in the nonprofit sector can be tricky business. In the business world, it’s much more straightforward: profitability is still the standard-bearer for an “effective business.” But in the nonprofit sector, especially educational organizations like Denver Institute, our goal is to shape human lives. How would we know if we were effective at a program like, say, the 5280 Fellowship?
In early 2020, we recruited two outside researchers — Stephen Assink (MAR) and Andrew Lynn (PhD), both from the University of Virginia — to help us with that question. As trained social scientists with experience doing research for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the Thriving Cities Group, Stephen and Andrew brought both objectivity and expertise to our question. So, how did we tackle this question of impact?
First, we clarified our outcomes, which are all built around our five guiding principles. What do we mean by “effectiveness”? We mean people who think theologically about their work, embrace redemptive relationships, create good work, seek deep spiritual health, and serve others sacrificially in their communities and city.
Second, we gave them an overview of the 5280 Fellowship program, and the elements we’ve built into the program to bring about real formation. City leader meetings, cohort discussions, mentoring triads, retreats, Saturday sessions, personal formation projects, professional impact projects — each element is carefully chosen to fuel change around our five guiding principles.
From there, Stephen and Andrew conducted both qualitative (interview) surveys and quantitative (online, multiple choice) surveys of pre-program participants (Year 5), and alumni — both recent graduates (Year 4) and our initial cohort (Year 1).
Between 65 participants and 4,000 unique data points, what did they find?
Today we’re publishing 5280 Fellowship Assessment results, which is the first step in a multi-year study measuring the impact of the 5280 Fellowship.
Here’s a sample of what we learned:
I view my work as a mission from God.
I know how my work makes my city or culture better.
I do weekly spiritual disciplines beyond Bible study or prayer.
My spiritual disciplines improve my work habits.
I’m active in a nonprofit or civic organization.
In the study, we measured the Fellows’ change in five areas: theology, relationships, views about their work, professional leadership, and civic engagement.
We found strong growth particularly in three areas: theological thinking about their work and our culture, new and lasting relationships between Fellows and leaders in our city, and adopting spiritual practices that lead to internal wholeness and health.
One CEO said about the program, “I can’t stress enough how I’ve seen people’s mentality change as a result of the program.” A seminary lecturer commented about the program, “I think the biggest change for [the Fellows] is a shift from … an instrumental versus intrinsic value of work.” They now ask, “Does my work actually contribute toward the mission of God to reconcile all things to himself?”
Assink and Lynn also measured the 5280 Fellows in comparison with a control group of their evangelical peers across the US and found a marked difference in values and practices, especially with respect to weekly church attendance (49% national average compared to 76% for Fellows), participating in monthly in Bible study or prayer group (28% nationally, 80% Fellows), and pursuing excellence in their work because of their faith (78% nationally, 89% Fellows).
What It Means
Here’s what the report means for us and those we serve:
Leading a Commitment to Measurable Change. Our goal is to lead the way in for similar programs across the nation to both measure their impact and to commit to the rigor of testing their hypotheses. Looking to larger studies like D. Michael Lindsay’s study on the White House Fellowship, we believe that early-career fellowship programs can and should be measured — and are critical in an emerging leader’s life. DIFW is a standard-bearer here for other faith-motivated and secular programs.
We Can Still Improve. The value of outside researchers is that they’re not there just to tell you how great you are. They found areas where we see less growth in our Fellows to date: growth in professional leadership and commitment to civic engagement and community involvement. As we plan and prepare to train leaders in other cities to launch their programs through CityGate, we are seeking to invest in improved processes, curriculum, and training that helps our Fellows truly live “from the inside out” and make a measurable impact on their workplaces, industries, and cities. We also need to do more study over time to see stronger correlations between the program and Fellows’ lives, careers, and civic impact.
It Works. The 5280 Fellowship — and the forthcoming CityGate Fellowships — really are effective. The educational model is a unique blend of spiritual formation, professional development, theological learning, network-building, leadership growth, and community engagement. Research has found that one’s twenties are an even more important time for career and leadership formation than college or even childhood. The 5280 Fellowship is blazing new ground in shaping men and women to love God, serve their neighbors, and demonstrate the gospel to an unbelieving world.
For more information about becoming a Fellow, visit 5280Fellows.com. For information about how to financially support either the 5280 Fellowship or the CityGate initiative, please email [email protected].
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble,” writes the author of Psalm 46. “Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging…. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts…. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
The changes to the world of work since the pandemic began feel like this psalm: waters roar, mountains quake, nations are in uproar, and my daily work rhythms just got blown up.
Yet in this cultural context of change, Christians bring a unique perspective: the unchanging reality of God. If you’re a secular person, focused just on the individual and your ability to control your own destiny, the storyline is actually chaos. Each day is a grasping attempt to bring security and stability in a world being tossed by the fierce winds of an economic, social, and cultural storm.
In contrast, the Christian can breathe. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
She believes Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). God is a rock and a fortress, an anchor that allows for stability, resolve, and peace even amidst turmoil (Psalm 18:2, Hebrews 6:19). It’s this foundation that both brings down the decibel level around current debates and allows people of faith to be reformers as citizens of another kingdom.
Following up on my first article, here I will suggest three macro changes to our world as a result of the pandemic, as well as how Christians might understand those changes and what practices we might consider in light of those truths.
Systemic Change #1: The tech sector will continue its pervasive growth into the economy.
Eventually we will go back to in-person gatherings and offices, but digital connectivity is speeding up. The world’s most powerful companies (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google) are all in the tech sector and during the pandemic, each saw record stock prices. Zoom (and dozens of other video chat services) are here to stay.
Former Fed Chair Jerome Powell said that the pandemic accelerated technology trends that were already there, and many workers (especially women) lost competitive ground on their peers in 2020.
Theological Frame: Vocation. How should we think about the pervasiveness of digital technology in our lives? Vocation isn’t first about job choice or “meaningful” work. Vocation calls us first to love God, and then our neighbor. It is a summons to offer ourselves completely to God in all areas of life, including our hearts, our family lives, and our work.
I believe vocation also puts a certain priority onproximity and place. When God speaks, He wakes us up from being connected to everyone and everywhere, and reconnects us to our real, daily lives. “I have a spouse and children. I have neighbors. I have family. I have co-workers.” Vocation pushes back on the “everything, anywhere, right now” culture of tech.
There are positives and negatives to the tech sector and its growing influence on our work. But vocation reminds us first to be present to God and to our actual, embodied lives.
Practice: “Identity, Context, Practice.” Here’s a simple practice you might consider to interrupt the domination of screens over your working life. Close your laptop, find a notebook, and write down answers to three questions:
Who am I? (Identity)
Where am I? (Context)
Based on my answers to these two questions, how should I respond? (Practices)
Putting limits on tech resituates us back into our real, embodied lives, and can reattune the heart to hear the voice of God.
Systemic Change #2: Everything is politicized and workplace culture is anxious.
We’ve been on this train for a while, but the pandemic accelerated this trend. We also feel it at work. CEOs make statements on nearly every new social issue. We find it difficult to have a conversation with coworkers about issues we disagree on. People come to work on pins and needles, caught in an anxious cycle of news, performance, loneliness, and more news.
Theological Frame: Reconciliation. In such a tense environment, God calls his people to a message of reconciliation, as if “God were making his appeal through us,” (2 Corinthians 5:20). The New Testament idea of reconciliation conjures images of making peace between two warring parties — an image we’re not unfamiliar with in a culture of deep divisions that find their way into homes, churches, hospitals, schools, and workplaces.
Practice: Spheres of Influence. How do we really become people of reconciliation in a hyper-politicized environment? How can we model gentleness, conviction, and real love for others as we seek to live out our faith amongst our coworkers and our areas of influence?
Part of the answer is to think through what we can control, what we can influence, and what we cannot control.
The temptation is to think that the news and the thick anxiety of our culture is something that we can and must change right now. But the constant influx of media fools us and fuels the workplace and personal anxiety that acts like an acid, burning through our most precious relationships and most important tasks.
With what we can control (attitudes, motivations, behaviors, use of our time), let’s offer them in worship, surrendering to God and living life “with God” at work. With what we can influence (other people), let’s witness, demonstrating the reconciling love of God to others through our work and with our words. And finally — this is important — what we can’t control, we release. Don’t hang on to the news and global events, believing you can control more than you can. Pray and release those things to God and ask him to do the cosmic work of reconciliation that only he can do (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Systemic Change #3: Social and economic disparities are vast — and growing.
You’ve probably heard the term a K-shaped recovery. It comes from looking at a graph: as we recover from the pandemic, those connected to education, technology, and financial capital will come out ahead. Those with less education, less connection to tech, and in a lower income bracket are bearing the brunt of the negative impact of the pandemic.
The pandemic didn’t cause these macro trends, but again, it is accelerating trends that sociologists like Robert Putnam at Harvard University have seen growing since the mid-1960s. Inequality is now as vast as the Gilded Age (the late 1800s).
Theological Frame: Shalom. Shalom is a word that encompasses ideas of both peace and justice. It is about right relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others in our community. Shalom is about wholeness spreading from peace with God to restoration in our cities. The prophet Jeremiah insists that there can be no shalom until there is an end to oppression, greed, and violence in our social relationships (Jeremiah 6:1-9; 8:11). In an age of vast disparities, which the pandemic has made worse, the call of God is to “establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15).
Practice: Creation and Compassion.If you’re one of the lower- to middle-income workers, let me say this to you: God is with you. Feel his hope and his power. He has called you to himself and sent you to serve him with the talents he’s entrusted to you (1 Peter 4:10). You may be serving him in a job you don’t like, or you may be struggling to find a job. Either way, God is with you. Your secular counterpoints may cheer you on, too — but it’s just cheerleading. As a Christian, you actually have the Triune God at your side. He is with you and calling you to create (Genesis 2:15).
If you’re a higher-income worker who hasn’t been very affected by the pandemic, now’s the time to get in the game. You’re called to love and serve those with less power than you. There are so many opportunities to get involved: through your church, by offering opportunity to an entry-level employee, by getting involved with charities serving low-income communities. God is calling you to compassion (1 John 3:17).
The world of work has changed. Yet Christians have a unique foundation and calling to rest in God’s character, listen to his voice, seek reconciliation, and work for justice through our work.
“The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our Fortress.”
It was the second week of the pandemic. Late March 2020. I was driving back home from the office, trying to figure out what this would mean for Denver Institute, and for my own work. As I headed south on Santa Fe, just across from Aspen Grove mall, I stopped at a stoplight. I could feel my scalp tingling, at the base of my neck. At that moment, I realized I was holding my breath. I put my hand over my chest. My heart was racing.
I could feel in my body the tension and anxiety of a changing world.
The news cycle often drives this constant stream of anxiety, but rarely do we have a chance to really step back and take a look at the big picture and calmly evaluate our role in that big picture.
First, in this article, I’d like to give a wide-angle lens to how the pandemic has shifted our work on a macro scale in three main ways. Second, in a subsequent article, I’d like to narrow in on three systemic trends that I believe are here to stay, and ask both how we might understand them in light of our faith and what practices we might consider in response.
A Wide-Angle Lens to the Changing World of Work
The first major change is dislocation. That is, nearly all of us have experienced some kind of uprootedness in our work. The most obvious is physical dislocation. Millions of offices emptied. Hotels, restaurants, children’s activities — literally, billions were ordered to go home. The places we worked shifted drastically. We lost a sense of place as those who could work in front of screens went home, and others had to find rides to work and mask up.
Also, millions actually moved homes. Pew reports about one in five Americans either moved due to the pandemic, or know somebody who did. We experienced new neighborhoods, but not necessarily new relationships. Our work and weekly rhythms were immediately interrupted.
We also were socially dislocated. By this I mean the obvious things: how do you now greet a co-worker? Fist bump? Elbow? Handshake? Or no touching at all? If you’re wearing a mask, should you still smile and say hello to somebody you walk past on the street? Does it matter if you smile? Is it possible to socially distance and remain relationally close?
How we interact with people at work and in our communities changed drastically in the course of just weeks, causing stress and uncertainty in a bobbing sea of unknowns.
The screens of the tech sector kept many industries going. And for that we can be thankful.
Yet the CDC reported that two in five Americans have faced real mental health challenges since the pandemic. Now millions are uprooted and placeless, grasping for norms even as we feel far from home.
The second change is major job loss and job change. Since February, the US has lost 9.8 million jobs. Before the pandemic, average unemployment claims were around 350,000 per week. At the outset of the pandemic, jobless claims spiked to 3.3M and 6.8M in less than 30 days. Even as late as mid-January 2021, 847,000 people still claimed unemployment in a single week, high above normal levels.
Some estimate over 30 million people lost their jobs (I’ve seen articles claiming anywhere from 22-40 million). Many of those people had to quickly find new work, change industries, or simply wait it out until businesses could re-open. Others never did find new work and dropped out of the workforce altogether. Low-income and minority workers in industries like retail and restaurants have been hit hard in particular.
About 100,000 businesses had to shut down due the pandemic, and 60% of them are estimated to stay closed. Just the other day, I headed to one of my favorite pubs here in Denver with my friends for a reading group, which I hadn’t visited since the pandemic. There was simply a sign that read: closed until further notice, March 2020. It was a stark reminder of an estimated 60,000 businesses that have gone under, and with them, the jobs they provide.
Losing a job can crush the spirit and cause deep pain and questioning. (Actually, Denver Institute just did an honest, emotional podcast on losing your job.) But if you either lost a job or had to change jobs, you’re in good company with millions around the US.
Third, entire industries were transformed. On a macro scale, just think of what we saw this last year.
K-12 Education rapidly had to shift to an online format. Parents had to scramble to work and get their kids online as the world sent 1.5 billion kids home in April 2020. Teachers struggled to connect online with distracted kids and adjust to new rules and teaching norms on an almost daily basis.
The Film & Entertainment Industry had to stop releasing movies to theatres and instead went straight to streaming with its blockbuster releases, impacting movie theaters in almost every city in the US.
As the Mental Health Industry saw a spike in cases across the US, hospitals had to make rapid changes to prepare for COVID patients, often delaying important medical attention to those who still needed it.
In Government and Public Life, we saw a deeper erosion of social trust. NY Times columnist David Brooks made the convincing case in an essay for The Atlantic that eroding social trust is devastating America, accelerating the politics of resentment. COVID regulations caused even further anger in many communities, especially rural communities, bewildered by big city regulations on sparsely populated cities and communities.
The Hospitality Industry was deeply changed. Hotels still remain largely empty and restaurants either had to adapt (will we ever forget the sudden rise of ice-fishing tents outside of restaurants?) or die.
Retail changes accelerated as people stopped shopping in malls and further expanded the reach of online retail giants.
Early in the pandemic we saw huge shock waves in the Oil and Gas Industry, with the price of oil dropping briefly to zero dollars a barrel.
The Stock Market has been on a tear, showing a deeper decoupling of the stock market and the jobs economy, causing even further resentment.
Airlines, Travel, and Tourism Industries were also shocked as the world stopped traveling.
The Global Nonprofit Sector saw significant losses in the global fight against poverty.
And even the Used Car Industry got weird. Prices soared as supply lines were interrupted and demand grew with the shuttering of mass transit.
The world of work has changed. And many feel deep anxiety and loss. Many feel overwhelmed and helpless.
What can we really do in such a tidal wave of change?
Editor’s note: Part two of this series answers this question by looking at three systemic changes to our economy and how people of faith can respond to the changing world of work. This post first appeared at Denver Institute.
The following is a brief introduction to my work at Denver Institute for Faith & Work that I gave at a recent fundraiser.It first appeared on the DIFW website.
It doesn’t take much to make the case that the world is deeply broken.
Even as you read this, my guess is that today – in your own experience – you can feel the fallenness of our culture all around. From anger and fear in the news to our day-to-day experience of broken relationships, we know that something is amiss.
As the executive director and founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work, I, too, feel that something is deeply wrong with the world. I’m often asked by donors, “What problem are you at Denver Institute trying to solve?” Let me try to answer by briefly sharing about the why, the how, and the what of our mission at Denver Institute.
First, why? Take a moment to think about the ways you long for healing in our world today. We know that our society is deeply broken; loneliness, division, and economic disparity are growing. The Church in the U.S. is shrinking rapidly: today, there are 30 million more people who claim no religious affiliation than just 10 years ago, according to Pew Research. We live in a time of pain and uncertainty, not just for Christians, but for our entire culture.
Yet, as Christians, ultimately we live in a story of hope. We believe Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was not just for the salvation of our souls, but for the salvation of the world. This salvation includes my heart, but it also includes cities and cultures. Isaac Watts once wrote, “He comes to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found.” At Denver Institute, we talk about the depth and the breadth of the gospel; we believe that if sin has infected both souls and systems, so can grace.
But I think there’s a question we must ask about each of these: the pain of our culture and the breadth of salvation Christians embrace. What do these have to do with me?
This is where our daily work comes in.
Our mission at Denver Institute for Faith & Work is to form men and women to serve God, neighbor, and society through their daily work. Why work? We spend one-third of our waking lives at work. Work is where we make culture, from legal systems to art to carburetors. It’s also where we come into contact with our pluralistic world through co-workers, clients, patients, and students. Work is central to God’s mission in the world to redeem both souls as well as systems and structures.
So, how does Denver Institute think about its own role in equipping the saints for works of service through their work (Ephesians 4:12)? Let me briefly share about our “how.”We believe in “transformation from the inside out.” That is, rather than first looking at the world’s problems, we must first look at our own souls.
We believe there are three major movements of transformation. First is the interior life. We believe change first happens as people seek deep spiritual and emotional health and as they learn to think theologically about their work. This is why we talk about spiritual disciplines, Christian theology, and a deep interior renewal as the basis for a whole life and Christian mission.
Second, we believe faith also changes our exterior life. Namely, we at DIFW come alongside people to create good work and embrace redemptive relationships. The community needs your work. From investing to teaching in public schools, we believe work is an act of loving our neighbors. Rather than work only being about personal success or earning a paycheck, we believe the work we do and the relationships we form are central to God’s calling in our lives.
Finally, we at DIFW talk about civic life. The onset of the pandemic in March 2020 has made it clear that we are economically, politically, socially, and culturally connected. We believe that as Christians set their faces toward culture, the posture of a sacrificial servant – the way of the cross – is the way to show people the gospel through our deeds. We at DIFW deeply care about the pressing social issues of our day because we believe they’re a category of neighbor love. Indeed, “for God so loved the world… .” If God loves the world and sent his Son to save it, we too must commit to healing this fallen world as those sent by God the Healer.
So, what on earth does Denver Institute do? I’m glad you asked! We’re an educational nonprofit and we do work in three primary categories: public engagement, thought leadership, and intensive formation. In the category of public engagement, throughout the year we host a podcast and we host events. Each year we do two larger events called Women, Work and Calling and Business for the Common Good, and we do smaller events on topics such as the sciences, arts and culture, work and calling, and poverty and opportunity. We want to engage the public with the meaning of the good news for our work and world.
Second, thought leadership. We create short courses, books, articles, and other educational resources that connect Christian thinking with the wide world of work. Resources such as Spiritual Disciples for Your Work and the Faith & Work Classroom help you and those at your church or in your place of work dive deeper into the radically transformative nature of Christian faith for our world today.
And finally, intensive formation. We are now in our fifth class of the 5280 Fellowship, a nine-month program for emerging leaders in spiritual formation, professional development, and civic engagement. Years ago, we built a program around the idea of transformation from the inside out that has deeply shaped the hearts and careers of our fellows. For years, leaders in other cities have asked us to help them develop similar programs in their cities, and as we look to the future, we are prayerfully considering helping additional leaders launch fellows programs in their cities throughout the U.S.
But for now, what is Denver Institute for Faith & Work? An educational organization? Yes, but not only that. We are a network of people.We are a community of people who care deeply about our faith in Christ and our work, and our commitment to engaging the needs of the world while staying rooted in God’s love.
There it is: an answer to the question, “What is Denver Institute for Faith & Work.”
But don’t click away quite yet. I want you to find a co-worker or family member today and simply share your own dreams for what gospel impact might look like in your work and community. Where is God calling you into his great story of redemption?
Today at Denver Institute we are launching Business for the Common Good On-Demand, a resource we are giving away to you for free. The videos and discussion guides address questions like:
How do you determine if a business is successful? Is it reflected in a positive balance sheet, gleaming customer reviews, or a charismatic CEO? What if God measured success by a broader standard—by the way businesses help every employee, supplier, consumer, or community they touch to thrive?
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.
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?
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.
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.
“Planning is an unnatural process; it’s much more fun to do something,” wrote twentieth century businessman Sir John Harvey-Jones. “And the nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.”
Unfortunately, far too
many people are completely surprised – and underwhelmed – by retirement because
they didn’t accept 91-year-old Ellen Snyder’s advice: “Be sure before you
decide to retire you know what you might do in the future so you’re not just
sitting there thinking, ‘What do I want to do?’”
Here are six questions to
ask – and choices to make – as you make a plan to work after retirement:
1.What is God calling me to?
In Keith and Kristin
Getty’s modern hymn In Christ Alone, they
write, “What heights of love, what depths of peace / When fears are stilled,
when strivings cease!” As you enter the elder phase of your life, and your
youthful strivings for achievement, position, and power are quieted by the
knowledge that Christ has already finished the ultimate work of redemption,
where do you sense God’s leading?
As you plan work in
retirement, you’ll need to make hard choices.
You cannot do everything. Nor is God calling you to do nothing. Dying to
the possibilities of what will never be also gives you the freedom to pursue
what God is giving uniquely to you. Embracing your constraints is core to
embracing your calling.
Considering your real
life, where do you sense God leading you to serve?
2. What will be different from my career? What will be similar?
Gary VanderArk, the
not-so-retired neurosurgeon I mentioned in the first chapter, continued to do
his work as a doctor throughout his life. Because he always felt a sense of
continuity between his calling and his work, he decided to continue his full-time
job as a doctor well into his 70s. In a
similar way, Jim Hagen, a business consultant from Cleveland, Ohio, decided to
continue his work into retirement, yet move to part-time while picking up
several pro-bono clients in the nonprofit sector.
Others, however, decide
that retirement is a time to pick up the pearl of vocation that they’ve sensed
during their career, but have never fully explored. Keith Gordon, age 61, a
retired engineer, decided to use his skills to become a high school math teacher
through a program called Transition to Teaching, which helps longtime workers
nearing retirement move into second careers teaching math or science.
Working in retirement can be the perfect opportunity to bring greater alignment to your calling and your employment.
3. How many hours per week will I work?
“I liked your speech, but
you missed something,” a kind gentleman in his late 60s said to me after a talk
I gave in Virginia. “I just don’t have the same energy level I used to. I still
have several accounting clients, but now I take naps every afternoon. I can
still work, but it looks different now.”
This little piece of
advice is freeing. Working after retirement should take into consideration the
realities of aging, even while embracing what you can do. But don’t let this frustrate you. Cicero, the famous Roman
statesman and orator, once wrote in his essay On Old Age that nature will always win and trying to cling to
youthful activities in old age will lead to frustration and resentment.
Instead, Cicero says, embrace this season of life. Now is your time to be an
elder, whether that be an elder statesman, an elder in your church, or simply
an elder to a teenager living down the street.
Retirement can be an
opportunity to bring greater sanity to rhythms of work and rest, even while
continuing to contribute fruitfully to your community for decades to come. And
so you’ll need to decide, how many hours do I want to work in retirement?
4. What kinds of work do I need to experiment with?
If you’re planning on making a career change, consider three things: (1) Ask a veteran in that field or company before making a final choice. Richard Baxter, the17th century Puritan pastor, wrote to those contemplating job choices, “Choose no calling (especially if it be of public consequence) without the advice of some judicious, faithful persons of that calling.”
Also, consider your opportunities, abilities, and affinities before choosing a new job. What opportunities are right in front of you? What are your abilities? And what do you want to do?
5. What will I commit to?
“We’ve constructed this idea of the 90-year-old surfer-volunteer as the ideal retiree,” says Marty Martinson, professor of health education at San Francisco State University. Martinson believes we told boomers the contradictory messages of “have fun in retirement” yet serve a social cause in your free-time. But in both of these scenarios, it’s the unhinged individual who decides what will best satisfy themselves. It’s still about what works best for me.
Biblical faith implies
responsibility, and responsibility implies commitment. It means making a choice
to regularly show up and serve the needs of others, even when it’s hard or
inconvenient. Yet commitment also offers contour, meaning, and connectedness.
Like in marriage – it’s the “forsaking of all others” that brings deep, lasting
To what, or to whom, will
you commit to? What might it mean for Christian people to buck the national
average of seven to eight hours of leisure time per day in retirement and commit to working on behalf of their
neighbors over a lifetime?
6. How will I balance and embrace my different callings in retirement?
I don’t believe work is
the only calling we have. We’re called to be children, parents, and spouses;
we’re called to be citizens of our communities; we’re called to be members of the
As you consider how to
spend your time in retirement, and what role paid work will play in your next
season of life, how is God calling you to love each of your various “neighbors”
as yourself? Caring for an ailing parent full-time – and not working – may be
exactly what God is calling you to do right now. Your work is not the fullness of your
vocation. As Mother Teresa once said, “Many people mistake our work for our
vocation. Our [primary] vocation is the love of Jesus.”
Readiness to respond to God’s voice is the heartbeat of making wise choices about work over a lifetime.
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.
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).