By Jeff Haanen
What will allow more pastors to see the importance of work for their church and its mission? How might the faith and work movement help pastors and seminaries to embrace ministry models that equip men and women to serve Christ in the wide array of professions in our culture today? And why is this so difficult?
Last year, I interviewed Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, about his new book View from the Top. One of the lasting highlights from our conversation was about his research on the White House Fellows, a leadership development experience that had shaped a significant majority of the 500+ “platinum” leaders in his study. The vast majority of these leaders had experienced a “broadening education” during their time as White House Fellows. Fellows had candid, off-the-record conversations with everybody from zoologists to members of the President’s cabinet. Through this experience, they developed a taste for seeing issues in society broadly, not only from the perspective of their own field, but from the perspective of others as well.
The reason, says Lindsay, this is so important for leadership development is that most of our career tracks drive us to becoming technicians, not generalists. We go through school and our early career, perhaps get a professional degree, and then get technically proficient at a single thing – whether that be creating pitch books or operating on a L5 vertebrae. And usually, these jobs are handsomely remunerated. The problem is that we have less and less of an incentive to see the broad world outside of our field, and what those kinds of work mean for building a good society. We may start off with a liberal arts education, but we very rarely cultivate a liberal arts lifestyle.
For example, Lindsay interviewed John Mendelsohn, who just stepped down as the head of MD Anderson Cancer Center. Mendelsohn was a top-flight scientist at a prestigious research institution. When Lindsay interviewed him for View from the Top, he asked Mendelsohn what book was on his nightstand. Surely a book on cancer research, or science more broadly. Right? No. The history of opera. Mendelsohn was reading about the history of opera before falling asleep! Why? Because he wanted to know more about the world he lived in.
This practice of broad learning, not deep, is core, says Lindsay, to a kind of leadership that is good for society in general. I’d also argue that it is core to helping more ministry professionals see the world of work outside the walls of a church.
So often, when we teach about professional growth, we go further and further into our own disciplines. More management theory for executives, or more biblical commentaries for pastors. But more often than not, the deepest growth happens at the intersection between fields and the relationships of people leading in vastly different sectors.
Within the faith and work movement, we often ask the question: how will more leaders of God’s church start seeing the centrality of work to God’s restoration of his creation? We typically do what most professional development programs do: get more people to see it our way. Ask them to read Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor or Tom Nelson’s Work Matters. Or come to a conference where Steve Garber or Amy Sherman are speaking. These are all good things to do. Tim, Tom, Steve and Amy are incredible human beings, and we should read more of their work.
But I don’t actually think that an initial step further into theology is the right move. What’s lacking for most is not good theology but good anthropology. Many pastors are wonderful theologians, correctly exegeting Bible passages, expounding gospel-centered ministry, and speaking of God’s kingdom and His redemption coming to all aspects of the world. What we can’t actually see, often, is the world and what human beings are actually doing in that world. We see elders, youth ministry workers, deacons, and volunteers, but it’s hard to see executive coaches, cashiers, community college administrators, nurses, and homeschooling moms filling the pews.
Most men and women need to learn only one other field to grow in the integration of faith and work: theology. Pastors, however, need to not only know theology, but all the fields their people work in: something of finance, K-12 education, health care, retail, manufacturing, agriculture and the social sciences. For starters.
What practices can help church leaders to see the world in which we live, and what Christian faith means for that world? To begin with, I’d say to temporarily put down the Bible commentary, and start to look broader, not deeper.
Here are three places to start:
- Broad Reading. Drawn to reading Tim Keller or James K.A. Smith? Read American history or the Wall Street Journal. Drawn to Fox News? Flip on MSNBC. Love reading systematic theology? Me too. But just to toss in a curve ball, consider 18th-century literature, or classic psychology. If you’re stuck, ask a friend about their work, and try to read one foundational work in that field before the year’s out. This broad reading will allow us to see a bigger view of “the city” we so often like to talk about renewing – and all the thorny, complex, and beautiful issues and industries in that city.
- Broad Listening. I’m so guilty here. Generally speaking, when I feel out of my league after the inevitable “What do you do?” question, I steer the question back to a topic I’m a pro in. It’s easier that way, and I don’t feel stupid when my friend is speaking about pharmaceutical sales or loan underwriting. But what if we simply dove further in, and became more curious about the work of others? I’ve experimented with this, and it’s just like learning a foreign language as an adult: you have to concede that you’ll sound like a kindergartner. But when you do, your imagination for what redemption might look like in physics research or ceramics production grows exponentially. This is really a practice in pastoral ministry – the shepherding of God’s flock for their formation in the pastures that God has placed them.
- Broad Relationships. We tend to hang out with people just like us. Again, guilty as charged. Most of my friends are white Christians that work in an occupational ministry-related field, many of whom live in suburban Colorado – like me. But what if we all made a commitment to having lunch, coffee, or dinner with people vastly different than us – ethnically, socio-economically, or vocationally? We would be able to see a far wider perspective on the world. Also, many of our biases against “those” people might be put to rest if we simply listened to their stories: where they grew up, the pains they suffer, the longings they harbor. Here we might be able to find common ground even with our enemies, thus making Jesus’ command to “love our enemies” a bit easier to do.
Perhaps these, not another faith and work conference, are the best next step for a broader cultural engagement, and a church that embraces its missionary role in the world.