By Will Messenger
Fewer men are working now than used to. A long-term trend, which accelerated in the wake of the global economic meltdown of 2008 is that labor force participation by working-age men in the US has declined significantly since 1950 (see https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LNS11300001). Undoubtedly, there are many causes behind this, and no single intervention is likely to change a 65-year trend. But are we, in our roles in the faith-and-work sphere, unwittingly contributing to this downward trend in our own small way?
When I think about the things I often say about calling, vocation, and the meaning and value of work, I wonder if my message is too high falutin’. If I make it sound like the only kind of work that really matters is when God calls you to do something unique or amazing in the world, and if you don’t happen to feel called in this way, then why work?
Something along these lines actually happened to me yesterday after church. A friend who works in retail investments (ie a stock/mutual/retirement fund broker) asked for my input. He said the industry is no fun anymore, pay is stagnant, revenues are down, and he’s worried about getting laid off. Should he quit and look for something more meaningful? I asked him about his family’s income needs—he has two teenagers approaching college age—and what his alternatives would be.
Then I told him about my experience getting laid off from faith-and-work job that I had felt called to by God. After about 6 months of trying to look for another, nonexistent, job in F&W, I realized that the most important calling I had was to make an income to meet my family’s needs. So I applied for jobs like budget director and financial analyst, hoping my experience from 15 years ago would still be relevant. (It wasn’t, but that’s another story.)
What I learned was that the spiritual growth I needed was to come to terms with the godliness of working to make an income, and learning to serve others in whatever job I have, without necessarily feeling fulfilled by it. My friend said that was really helpful, like a burden being lifted. He said he’s going try to get prepared for the possibility of getting laid off, but meanwhile he won’t feel unholy for staying in the job just because he needs the income. I asked him also to remember that whether or not he enjoys the job, there’s always still the opportunity to serve others in it. It was one of the most practical faith-and-work conversations I’ve had in a long time.
I wonder whether our movement needs to talk more about the value of working to support yourself and the people who depend on you. The Bible certainly talks about it. “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). “Whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
In my talks, I’ve often breezed by these passages quickly as if saying, “Of course God wants you to earn a living—but let’s move on and talk about real calling.” But maybe that is God’s real calling for most of us. Work to support yourself, your family, your community, and do that work as a service for God to the people whom your work affects. Period.
Will Messenger is the executive editor of the Theology of Work Project.