An interview with Katherine Leary Alsdorf, part ii: “The church can’t just provide a catalog of answers”

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Read part I of this interview here.

David Gill: Let me come back to the challenge of being a woman in executive leadership. It seems that many of our faith at work organizations and ministries define themselves as “for men only” even in our time when women are massively present in business schools and the marketplace.

Katherine Leary Alsdorf: Prior to being a Christian I was certainly sensitive to the challenges of winning respect among my colleagues and customers in a technology company that was maybe 70% male. Fortunately I became a Christian in New York in a church that was drawing hundreds and hundreds of well-educated professional women through its doors. So I didn’t have the experience some women have had in churches where career-minded women are rare. I have felt at times that church culture focuses so much on family and personal life, to the neglect of work life, that a single career woman would feel very out of place. I asked my pastor in California if I could join the group of CEOs that he met with regularly and he replied, “Well actually it’s all men, so why don’t you go find a group of women CEOs and you can have your own group?” Well I didn’t know any other women CEOs inside the church; there were some outside the church but they didn’t feel welcomed in the church. So for most career women in the church, it’s been a challenging, pioneering time.

I would love to see the church take the lead in this area rather than be the laggard. Most work environments are mixed at this point in time. Most graduate school environments are mixed gender at this point in time. Redeemer’s been an amazing place to probe together, male and female, the common idolatries we have that affect how we work and how we either invite or exclude God in our work. It’s been very, very rich. That said, I do think that there’s so much more that we could do inside the church to value and take advantage of the gifting and experience of the women in our midst. So, like all things, there are some really good things going on and there are huge opportunities for improvement.

Gill: When you arrived at Redeemer in 2002 what’s the first thing you did? You couldn’t have had many models for church-based faith at work ministry.

Alsdorf: Well I started by asking “if we’re going to invest our time and money in this, what’s the end purpose and product?” We would be discipling people who were early in their careers so that, ten or twenty years hence as they moved into positions of influence in their industries and institutions, they would have a clear sense of God’s purpose for them in that field or job. If someone is on track to become an editor at the Wall Street Journal, what needs to happen now to prepare them for that role? Or a documentary writer… what does she need to be prepared for a different kind of kingdom approach? Or an actor that so far hasn’t made it to an equity role on Broadway, what do they need to prepare for when the role comes? Where are the role models to learn from? What is the discipleship that they need in order to be the first fruits of God’s kingdom in the often hostile environment they’ll be working in?

So I started with the 20 year picture of what I hoped our congregation would look like as a result of this ministry. And then I was able to experiment until I found things that had some effect. The more I experimented with conversations and discussion and themes and ways to approach Scripture, the more I saw the benefit of more intensive theology. Our congregation is highly educated; they’ve invested a huge amount in their professional education — and many of them were now willing to invest significantly to develop their faith competencies. Our challenge was how to put that together for them and give them what they’re really going to need.

Gill: I know you’ve had a lot of vocational affinity groups, like groups of artists or actors or lawyers, talking about how their faith applies in a particular work arena. But it sounds like you’ve also felt that most of them needed a basic theological foundation, not just the applied, specialized stuff.

Alsdorf: What happened inside the vocation groups was that the discussion would quickly become a sort of rules-oriented debate about things like, “I’m a lawyer, my boss wants me to work on Sunday — should I work on Sunday?” Or “everyone else seems to be taking the client out for drinks and I don’t really drink…. Should I go when the clients are going out to drink?” So often people wanted black and white answers when it was much more of a wisdom and discernment issue. The church can’t just provide a catalog of answers — it needs to provide the deep theological underpinnings and nurture a relationship with God that builds the wisdom and character to be able to answer those questions in the trenches.

Gill: We need to grapple with these challenges with the guidance of Scripture in the presence of a couple of other caring, praying brothers and sisters in the trenches with us. It’s a process thing and a team thing. 

Alsdorf: When we started almost every person said, “I don’t know a single other Christian in my workplace.” Some of them didn’t even know a single other Christian in their field. We are not working in Christendom here — we’re working in a world where people may even be hostile to the Christian faith. It’s not like you have a lot of “buds” sitting there to process this kind of thing with. So we work on building that community of relationships at the same time we’re providing some theological foundations.

Gill: So getting back to the lawyers, you want them first to understand the grand theological foundations. And then, second, you want them to be in an affinity group where they can work through the practical challenges in the day-to-day trenches. Isn’t there a third challenge also? Where are they going to study the rich biblical teaching about law and justice? Where are they going to study Jesus Christ as the “mediator” and “advocate” and our ministry of “reconciliation” or “conciliation”? These are powerful vocational/professional themes and a rich vocabulary inviting a faith and law integration. Where do they dig into that stuff at Redeemer?

Alsdorf: Theoretically they pursue this in their vocation groups. We have been developing and collecting materials and content as we go along but there is no magical textbook for every vocation that says these are the specific parts of the Bible that speak to advertising or law or whatever. We look for papers from Christian professors. We dig for any resources that will help any professional or vocational group to better wrestle with their subjects. Of course just studying the Scripture with your vocational peers generates some very interesting and helpful insights.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this interview!

Special thanks to David Gill and the Mockler Center. Originally published in the Mockler Memo, March 2014 (www.mockler.org) and reprinted from the Theology of Work Project website.

© 2014 Mockler Memo

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