Why Are You Asking a Theologian What Lawyers Should Do? An Interview With Alistair Mackenzie

Alistair Mackenzie is a Teaching Fellow at Laidlaw College – Christchurch, New Zealand and has also worked part-time with the Theology of Work Project.  He is the author of Where’s God on Monday?, SoulPurpose: Making a Difference in Life and Work and Just Decisions: Christians Ethics Go to Work, and the founding director of Faith at Work (NZ). As part of a continuing series here profiling faith and work leaders, we talked to him about his current work.

TGR: How did you get involved with the TOW Project? What do you do?

AM: I wrote the Ethics and Work paper, which came out of my work with Wayne Kirkland on Just Decisions, and then I wrote the Equipping Church paper.

I’ve conducted a lot of interviews for TOW. Because I live in New Zealand and have also travelled widely, I have connections with what’s going on outside North America. Also, I’ve been in the ecumenical sphere and have connections across a variety of different denominations. When I get to North America, nobody knows me; it’s easier to build relationships and have people not get defensive. I’ve forged relationships with workplace ministries all the way from Pentecostal to Catholic. Beyond developing commentaries, I’m always interested in getting to the end user, seeing what they need, and how best to resource them.

I’ve really concentrated with Will Messenger and Leah Archibald at TOW on building partnerships with particular organizations and seeing what ways TOW can partner with them to build resources they can use, that have been tested, and that TOW is allowed to put on their website.

TGR: For us North Americans, what faith and work activities are you involved with in New Zealand?

I have worked as a consultant for Baptist churches (I was a Baptist pastor for 23 years), but also for Presbyterians and Anglicans. I don’t try to champion a particular set of resources, but to make people aware of a broad variety of possibilities. I tend to peddle ideas rather than products.

For Anglicans and Presbyterians I do post-ordination training. They tend to do this as part of intensives that they run 2-3 times a year. I lead one of these and talk about theologies of work and vocation and equipping-church resources.  I do a lot of clergy training. It’s a pretty new way of thinking about church, even for the younger generation. It hasn’t been embraced by the mainstream of seminary life in New Zealand.

One crucial group of people is younger pastors. They’re much more open; they really get it and are hungry for resources. When I started there were hardly any available; that’s why I ended up writing so many. Now I concentrate on trying to tell the stories of what people are doing, and introducing them to resources.

I’ve also attempted to resource seminary faculty. Not too many have really taken on board what I’m on about. Where these things have been taken on into courses I sit down and talk with faculty about how they can integrate them. I teach a lot of modules in other people’s courses. My preference is that they would do it themselves, but that doesn’t often happen.  I’m not optimistic that the shape of seminary training will reflect this as a priority overall, although I’d love to be proven wrong. At the moment Laidlaw College is very supportive.

I’ve worked with some of the historical faith and work ministries in New Zealand: I was on the board of Workplace Support, a workplace chaplaincy organization. I’ve provided training for chaplains and for other marketplace ministries.  Most younger people don’t connect with these marketplace ministries. They are mostly baby-boomer led ministries. 25-35-year-old people are talking about these things in their own networks which tend to be quite disconnected from the traditional ones.

TGR: Tell us about some of your ministries with younger workers.

AM: First, there’s the Thirsty Workers’ Guild, made up of about 100 24-35 year olds and led by a dynamic young Anglican leader. It’s strong relationally, creatively and intellectually, but structurally minimalist; it’s an informal Facebook-promoted group. I’m called the old guru, but the majority of organization and input comes from young people. I speak for 5-7 minutes at most meetings. 3 other young people (different each meeting) provide most of the input through 5 minute slots each followed by discussion. It’s focused around David Miller’s 4 Es. Each night is dedicated to one of the four Es.

The Venn Foundation is a national network that has been developing an annual conference, regular regional meetings and an internship approach like a fellows program. This is built around the theme of  developing Christian wisdom. What does it mean to be a wise worker, a wise professional? Wisdom has a strong Biblical history, but it’s also a word understood in the culture as related to integrating theory and practice. The young leaders of this movement have done some impressive academic research work in North America, Britain and Europe.

Finally, I was recently part of the first national conference for Christian lawyers in New Zealand.  There were 133 people, mostly younger, but also with a few leading judges and law professors present. I was asked to do two main talks.

I structured the talks around theologian John Mackay’s idea of the view from the balcony and the view from the road. The view from the balcony is the theologian’s view, but the view from the road has to be practitioners doing their theologizing contextually. This is the point where the church usually falls down. After laying some foundations for a theology of work and vocation I asked them, “Why are you asking a theologian what lawyers should do?  You have the Bible, you have the Holy Spirit, and you have each other.” I handed the leadership of the second session over to a young lawyer friend, Steven Moe,  with whom I have enjoyed a long-term mentoring relationship.

Steven wanted to address issues Christian lawyers face. Before the conference he consulted widely with colleagues and kept coming back to me with more issues: first five, then seven, then nine. He ended up writing nine case studies, and TOW chose some relevant passages from their online commentary. Steven put these together in a 46-page book of small group studies (available electronically here) and gave a book to everybody.

This was a good way to marry the discussion of broader theological questions with very specific vocational questions and resources and encouragement for lawyers to continue these conversations in small groups after the conference. This seemed like one way to maximize the longer term impact of this event. I like to participate in events where there are people on the ground working on the issues already, and who will continue to work on these with other colleagues after the event. If that isn’t happening, then in my experience speaking engagements and conferences in themselves don’t amount to much.


  One thought on “Why Are You Asking a Theologian What Lawyers Should Do? An Interview With Alistair Mackenzie

  1. byronborger
    July 23, 2017 at 6:17 pm

    This is a great piece — thanks. As a bookseller who carries books on law, science, art, nursing, business, urban planning, counseling, engineering, and more, I often find it odd that folks in these fields often don’t buy Christian books in their careers areas, and folks doing good work leading these conversations seem not to cite them. Good work has been done by thoughtful practitioners or theorists in these fields. I wonder if that NZ group knows of the most significant books in law, for instance, just as “Redeeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession” by Michael Schutt or “The Lawyer’s Calling: Christian Faith and Legal Practice” by Joseph Allegretti or “Law and the Bible: Justice, Mercy and Legal Institutions” edited by Robert Cochran (a joint project between lawyers and Bible scholars.)

    The study guide and its case studies shown above is fantastic (and very nicely formatted) but I do think that for wise application of Biblical texts, there needs to be an underlying Christian mind on the topic, some sort of coherent philosophy of jurisprudence that mediates and guides the Bible’s application to the field.

    (Similarly, business leaders need a Biblically-wise view of economics; artists need a faithful aesthetic theory; engineers must work out of a Christian philosophy of technology; health care providers need to think how best to consider notions of health and wellness and healing in God’s world.) Simply studying the Bible (as vital as that is) and “applying” it to one’s profession isn’t adequate, especially if one has been taught by secularists in grad school, say, and assumptions and presuppositions and formative vocabulary and entrenched practices are in place that one brings to the Biblical texts. As James K.A. Smith says, too, “the things we do do things to us” so we are most likely deformed in our work, and while I trust God’s Word has power to convict and renew us, thinking about foundational stuff by reading the most profound Christian books in a field can really help. Thanks for this great article, and kudos to the NZ folks doing this good work. But let’s not forget there are important resources to help us along in this journey, so we might “take every thought captive” and thereby serve God well in all we do.

    For what it’s worth, I created a few industry specific bibliographies that describe essential books in various career areas that are posted at the Redeemer Center for Faith and Work webpage. Here, for instance, are my quickie descriptions of a few books for lawyers: https://www.faithandwork.com/resources/37-industry-specific/14-law


    • July 30, 2017 at 6:39 pm

      Thanks for making time to reply byronborger. I agree with your observations. Every conference attendee received a short recommended reading list of significant books by Christian lawyers, including two to the three that you identified. We also introduced several specific examples of other approaches to doing theology for lawyers. Thanks also for the effort you have put into the other industry specific bibliographies you have produced. Very useful! Alistair Mackenzie


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