Vocational Faithfulness as Public Discipleship: A Report from the Faith@Work Summit

In addition to featuring thoughtful commentary on the future of the faith and work movement, The Green Room periodically  wants to share reports from faith and work meetings you may have missed. (Don’t want to miss any more faith and work meetings? Check out our event calendar.)  We recently had a report on the Avodah Summit at Trinity International University: here’s one on Amy Sherman’s challenging talk at the Dallas Faith@Work Summit.

I had the opportunity to attend the 2016 Faith@Work Summit held October 27-29 Dallas, TX. Thanks to Bill Peel and his team from LeTourneau University for being incredible hosts. The event was a great success. I’m looking forward to the 2018 Faith@Work Summit, which will be hosted by Trinity International University.

The event boasted the presence of approximately 500 movement leaders including fellow Green Room author Amy Sherman.  Dr. Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, where she directs the Center on Faith in Communities. Amy is the author of six books including Kingdom Calling and some 75+ published articles in such diverse periodicals as Christianity Today, First Things, The Public Interest, Policy Review, Prism, The Christian Century, and Books & Culture.

Amy gave a plenary address at the Summit titled “Vocational Faithfulness as Public Discipleship.” She began her talk with a helpful discussion of a very common word in our circles: righteous. Amy often refers to this word as it is used in Proverbs 11:10, “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.”

Righteousness means that things are the way they are supposed to be; the way God means for them to be. Unrighteousness or sin is about everything becoming not as it was meant to be…and righteousness is about putting everything back together again the way it is meant to be. Righteousness is about set-right-ness. -Amy Sherman

Sherman connected righteousness to our discipleship and the way we can use our vocation for broader societal change and flourishing. Understanding righteousness as set-right-ness demonstrates it is not merely about individual discipleship, but also about “outward justice.” Jesus calls us to be set-right, but also to join him to make the institutions of society set-right as well. God is concerned with righteousness in all spheres of society: individual and institutional.

If we as people of faith are concerned with not simply our own set-right-ness, but that of the institutions we represent as well as the broader society, this has profound implications for our lives including our work. It seems to me that it is unfortunately not normative for many Christians to be thinking about set-right-ness for themselves as individuals as well as institutions. This was a good reminder and challenge.

Amy’s thesis is that the question “How can we help Christians develop a deeper understanding of their calling and how they can serve Christ in their particular work?”  is done with a more intentional focus on institutional set-right-ness.

“How can we help Christians develop a deeper understanding of their calling and how they can serve Christ in their particular work?”

At this point, we started to experience what is in my opinion that best part of a talk by Amy Sherman; the stories. Amy has met a lot of individuals as well as organizations that demonstrate the importance of vocational faithfulness through some aspect of their work. It is always instructive and encouraging to hear examples.  These case studies can be helpful illustrations in your preaching, teaching, and/or writing.

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Architect Jill Kurtz – Photo courtesy of Amy Sherman

Let me first introduce you to architect Jill Kurtz. Through her work, Jill works to cultivate the creational intent of her sector, architecture. Jill accomplishes this in three ways. First, she engages in environmental friendly design in order to promote harmony and balance between creation and human beings. Second, as a result of her focus on human flourishing, she considers herself a “public interest architect.” As a result of her work for a large firm in San Francisco she became aware that many people are in need of good design services, but cannot afford them. She did not think this was right and set out to launch a new design firm that, while embracing environmental design, would also provide services at a affordable rate. Finally, she is spreading the word about her “public interest architecture” by teaching as an adjunct professor at her alma mater. Jill wants to influence future generations so they can “think outside the box” while using their skills and talents for the benefit of others.

“Jill Kurtz understands that the creational purpose for the institutional sector called “architecture” was to bring into being buildings that would be both for the environment and good for people – for all people.” -Amy Sherman

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Pastor Luis Cortes is founder, president, and CEO of Nueva Esperanza. – Image courtesy of Nueva Esperanza. Used with permission.

Next, let me introduce you to Pastor Luis Cortes. Pastor Cortes serves as a good example of working to restore a sector to righteousness. Cortes is the founder as well as president and CEO of Nueva Esperanza, a non-profit based in Philadelphia focused on the flourishing of Hispanics. Cortes applies the biblical doctrine of restoration to his work bringing reform in the housing finance sector.

Cortes is acutely aware of the discrimination faced by Hispanics as they try to purchase a home and works to set things right. Esperanza has been given the opportunity to work for restoration at local and national levels. They have provided counseling to 4,000 families within Philadelphia providing access to fair and reasonable home financing. In addition, Esperanza has conducted research with scholars at Notre Dame University to produce reports on abuses against Hispanics. This led to Esperanza being certified as a national housing counseling intermediary in 2009 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Cortes understands that restoration of all things includes corrupt public systems like the housing finance industry.

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Perry Bigelow is board president and founder of Bigelow Homes. Photo courtesy of Amy Sherman

Finally, let me introduce you to Perry Bigelow. Perry is a real estate developer and owner of Bigelow Homes. Perry’s vision for his company provides a real-life example of what it might look like for an organization to imagine their sector in the future, fully consummated in the Kingdom. His vision for the company and the homes they build is guided by what he reads in Zechariah 8:4,5 (NIV) “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.’”

Bigelow homes and communities are characterized by big front porches, benches and fountains on the common areas, narrow streets with speed bumps, and plenty of green spaces. These features not only help the beauty and aesthetic of the community, but also facilitate conversations between neighbors because community does matter. Speed bumps are important because safety matters. Perry deliberately builds homes of varied sizes and prices to draw a diverse clientele. He wants neighborhoods that are racially, socially, and economically diverse because he sees diversity as a mark of the coming Kingdom. In all these ways, Perry is doing something fresh in the institutional sector called “suburban real estate development.” Bigelow is demonstrating what neighborhoods in the here and now could look like in the future.

These three individuals are working for righteousness in our society’s institutions as well as in their organizations and communities. This work is also necessary for cultural renewal. Cultural change presupposes institutional change. Individual heart change alone, while important, is not sufficient.

As leaders in the faith and work movement make the move towards greater intentionality in vocational faithfulness and working for the set-right-ness of institutions, I believe we will experience an invigorated and positive cultural influence in our society which needs many things, indeed, to be set right.

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