Vocation Should Not Be a Middle-Class Luxury: An Interview With Gordon Preece

Gordon Preece is an Anglican minister, the director of Ethos: Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity & Society, and the founding director of RASP, the research Centre for Religion and Social Policy of the University of Divinity, all in Victoria, Australia. We talked to him as part of an ongoing series of interviews with leaders of faith and work ministries.

TGR: How did you first become involved in faith and work ministry?

GP: I could, and I think theologically should, say through working in my father’s concrete products & home improvements business as a teenager. It’s there that I realised there was a difference between the largely working class people who worked for Dad and the middle class Presbyterians where I attended church. They were a bit rough in some ways: swearing, girlie posters on the walls.

Once I found out about the factory Christmas party from one of the men, so I rolled up with my sweet girlfriend from the church fellowship group–to be greeted by and offered canapés by a topless waitress. It was a bit of a shock to us, and to Dad, who’d been previously able to cover the more seedy side of his life.

Another time I was in the yard loading concrete products for people when I noticed a few men gathered near some concrete slabs. I wondered why and wandered over to get another shock. Dad’s men would spread out newspaper over concrete slabs as they were cured. In this case they’d put the center-spread of the Kings Cross Whisper, a notorious pornographic magazine. Again, this didn’t happen at church, at least not publicly!

But some of these people were my unofficial aunts and uncles. They were rough, but rough diamonds. Looking back, I began to sense a call there to help bridge the gap between church and the workplace And my father, both before and after becoming a Christian, really did run the business like a family company, with shared Christmas bonuses and other things. And he’d do the demanding physical work of loading concrete blocks, to the detriment of what we joked about as his degenerate back. He’d give me some of the hardest jobs so as not to be seen as favoring the boss’s son. He taught and modelld servant leadership. His favorite saying was ‘if a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing properly’. I quoted it on the frontispiece of my published doctorate The Viability of the Vocation Tradition, dedicating it to him.

Once I was ordained I found myself ministering in various job-creation projects for unemployed people, adapting principles of Christian community and enabling people’s gifts through baby business incubators. I wrote this up in a master’s thesis that was published as Changing Work Values. I worked with some fantastic people in these projects.  I then took time out to work on my doctorate on a Trinitarian theology of work with Miroslav Volf and Robert Banks at Fuller Seminary. I came back to Australia and have been putting that theory into practice running several ethics centres since, as well as at the Theology of Work Project and Lausanne internationally. It’s been a great privilege.

TGR: What ministries and FAW activities are you involved in at present?

GP: I have three two-day-a-week jobs all of which I see as ministry and each of which sees itself as full-time! It’s very stimulating but exhausting.

Firstly, I’m senior pastor of a small but growing Anglican church which just finished a major redevelopment, with a child-care center and a minister’s house designed for a Christian live-in missional community. It’s in the non-Bible-belt, working-class western suburbs of Melbourne. My time in the factory was a good apprenticeship for this. They’re rough diamonds too.

Secondly, I founded and run Ethos: Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity & Society. It focuses on equipping Christians to display Christ-like character as individuals and in institutions, and on their public and professional lives as the public people of God. We publish two magazines, sponsor peer-reviewed academic research, and have received Publication of the Year awards from the Australasian Religious Press Association.

Our major annual event is the Faith and Work Award in association with Ridley College where I taught for 12 years. It’s for Christians who over a lifetime have displayed integrity of character and integration between their faith and work. Awardees have included businesswomen, the director of our Australian broadcasting Commission, a leading journalist, and a female director of Employment Plus job-finding agency.

Thirdly, I am also founding Director of RASP, the research Centre for Religion and Social Policy of the University of Divinity, an esteemed ecumenical theological college. A rasp is like a file, a bit like the biblical “iron sharpening iron.” We are currently focusing on the areas of Ecology, Economy, and Wellness and Health. We are looking at ecologically and economically sustainable alternatives to our current economic system in partnership with a Catholic welfare agency and a secular university sustainability institute.

Another project concerns precarious work or the Precariat, the name for what used to be called the proletariat or working class. We’re concerned about the bad health, ethical and relational effects on people in insecure labor, especially with robotization looming and threatening millions of jobs. My concern for the working class hasn’t left me.

TGR: What vision do you have for the future of those ministries and for the movement in general?

GP: My vision is related to my doctoral work: the viability of vocation in a changing, hyper-mobile work world, a world which often offers people work which does not display the full dignity and kingly creational vocation of ruling the world responsibly and sustainably (Gen 1:26-28). People made in God’s image have royal blood running in their veins and we should never let them forget it.

A doctrine of calling or vocation, seeing work as ministry, should not be a middle-class western luxury. We in the faith and work movement should never forget the majority world, the world of slavery, child labor, and back-breaking domestic, agricultural and mobile migratory labour. We are not here to merely baptize work as it is with a sprinkling of water, but to immerse the world of work in the renewing power of Christ and the Spirit, both personally and structurally.

TGR: What problems do you think the movement still needs to address?

GP: Certainly the above, but also the still relative invisibility of the work of women. Faith and work is still a very male-dominated movement. We need more females in leadership voicing their unique take on biblical perspectives on work. My friends and colleagues Katherine Leary Alsdorf, Alice Matthews, Wendy Simpson and Kara Martin are great pioneers in this, but we need many more. I once put my ministry on the line in being the first male in the Anglican movement agitating for the ordination of women in Sydney, Australia. Hence I now live in Melbourne! I’d love to see more and more women ordained or commissioned to the work and ministry of everyday work.

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