Wouldn’t It Be Great If We Could Help Churches Do a Good Job? An Interview With Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts is the executive director for the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of eight books and many other resources, including daily devotions emailed from the De Pree Center every morning. He serves on the board of The Green Room.

TGR: Tell us about your work at Fuller.

MDR: Well, here’s the most interesting thing I found out when I took this job in 2015. It’s a leadership center and I expected we’d be doing things focusing on leadership. In the first 3 months I met with over 50 business leaders to say “How can we serve you?” Nobody said “You can help me with my leadership.” Almost everyone said “What I need is help integrating faith with my work.” I had thought about and done a fair amount of work with that at Laity Lodge and The High Calling. I didn’t think that was what I was coming to Fuller to do. But so many people were saying this is what I need. It was quite good news from the point of view that I cared and knew about it.

Many boomers say they are tired of living a divided life (sacred/secular). They want a connection. With the folks who were millennials, they don’t even want to start with a divided life. They expect that their life will be integrated.

TGR: What are the particular strengths of Fuller’s approach to faith and work issues?

MDR: There is lots of good stuff going on already that we didn’t want to duplicate. If the Theology of Work Project had not existed, we might have done that. But now it’s being done. There are lots of parachurch organizations. What do we have to offer in the marketplace of faith and work efforts?

Two things were clear. First, since we are a leadership center and part of a seminary, we should offer things that are theologically thoughtful and solid, and oriented towards spiritual formation and reflection about matters having to do with faith and work. We’re not as pragmatic as some other faith and work organizations. I’m not critical of that; I think there’s a place for it, but it’s not our place.

Second, almost the bigger piece was recognizing that so many faith and work organizations are parachurch. Some are even antichurch. As you’ve heard, the church has not done a great job with this issue, so there’s a need for other organizations.

We said: wouldn’t it be great if we could help specific churches do a good job? Our main sense of calling is that we wanted to help people formed in faith and in the workplace in a way that’s consistent with our identity as being part of a seminary. We really want to find ways to partner with churches. If the faith and work effort is going to be long-term sustainable and scalable, a lot of it needs to live within the life of the church.

TGR: How does that work out specifically?

MDR: From the very beginning I’d been doing the Life for Leaders devotions as a way to step into the role of a thought leader. There are other faith and work devotions, but they tend to be more practical, while we wanted to be more theological, more biblical, more demanding of people’s engagement. That was something we did from the start—a flagship to say this is the kind of things we want to do at the De Pree Center. We want to bring together scripture, God, prayer, faith, work, and the rest of life.

We’re developing something we call “Church & Marketplace”. It’s similar to Made to Flourish, but that focuses primarily on pastors. C&M’s main focus is on congregational leaders, especially people from the marketplace who want to help churches become incubators of faith and work discipleship.

C&M involves events, conferences, and formation groups in partnership with the formation group ministry at Fuller. These groups are a year-long experience to explore calling and how faith relates to every part of life. We’ve produced the beginning of a variety of resources on different topics. They’re topical, but trying to address things that aren’t addressed in the regular faith and work conversation.

TGR: Say more. We try to do that too.

MDR: We want to address issues related to work and justice. We’ve worked hard to bring in writers who represent a diversity of life experience by race and gender. We’re focusing quite a bit on women and work and faith recently, developing some new resources like A Seat at the Table. It’s pretty widely recognized that women are an underserved population in this conversation. There’s a huge opportunity there. At the Dallas Summit David Gill said that this conversation is too pale and too male. As one who is a pale male, I’m still trying to work with others to broaden the conversation.

I’m also looking for places where there are other kinds of opportunities to broaden the faith-work conversation. We’re beginning to step into opportunities to serve entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs. We’re not trying to do what Praxis does, but we’re thinking about people already doing entrepreneurship, their unique challenges and opportunities. It seems an underserved market. In everything we do, we’re seeking to serve individuals and create resources for the church.

TGR: Finally, we want to hear about Fuller’s new D. Min.

MDR: Fuller is now offering a D. Min in Faith, Work, and Vocation. We began the cohort in October. It’s a typical D. Min; three years plus a project. We have a diverse group of 17: international students, a couple of pastors of small rural churches, and one person who is on staff at a church in TX that has 109 people on the staff. So, a range of churches. We had a great time. The first year was focusing on Scripture and Biblical understanding. The main requirement for the reading was to read the entire Theology of Work Project Commentary and all of the relevant Biblical passages. That was really fun. Then we take 10 days, pretty much all day, and just dig into the Biblical texts and wrestle.

The second year will be focusing on history and theology. Luther, Calvin, Kuyper, of course; but we’re trying to create a diverse reading list as well, with a broad spectrum of theological views. We want to represent Wesleyan and Catholic traditions too. In the third year we’ll focus on ecclesiology and practice. How does a deep commitment to this really affect our understanding of the church? We’ll look at a broad range of churches that are doing things, from fairly small churches with limited resources to the “Redeemer NYCs” of the world.” We’re going to try to look cross-culturally and see what’s going on, and look at diverse perspectives within the Christian tradition.

We had a great conversation about Proverbs 31 in class. I think it’s an extraordinarily empowering text to women and work.  Of the women in our class, some responded very favorably to that whole idea. But others thought: it’s one more thing to tell me that I should be superwoman, get up early and cook breakfast and then be good at my job. It’s a treat for me to be able to teach such challenging discussions. We’re off to a great start.

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