Work with Purpose

Bethel Seminary logoYesterday I made a big deal out of a small grant that I received for a workshop at Bethel University. Today let me make a much bigger deal out of a much bigger grant that my colleague Chris Armstrong received for an initiative at Bethel Seminary called “Work with Purpose.”

You can read more details about it in the Fall 2012 issue of Bethel Magazine, but here are some highlights:

  • Funded by a $190,000 grant from the Kern Family Foundation, “Work with Purpose” is “designed to address the disconnect that many Christians feel between their faith and their work.” (more on that below)
  • Chris’ team will include professors from the Seminary as well as Bethel’s MBA program, plus pastors and business leaders.
  • It “seeks to bring discussions of work and economics into every discipline within the seminary” and to generate a couple of courses: one a master’s level course on the theology of vocation at the Seminary; the other a church-based course that would be piloted in late 2013 at Twin Cities area churches and become part of a new series of downloadable courses from Christianity Today.
  • There’s a goal of building conversations between Seminary students and those studying business at the University of Minnesota.
  • The initiative will culminate with a national conference at Bethel on October 11, 2013 — followed closely by Chris collapsing into his bed for about a week’s worth of sleep.

Chris ArmstrongChris, by the way, teaches church history. Just yesterday I was having a conversation with one of our administrators, in part about finding intersections (rather than points of conflict) between humanities and what we tend to call the “professional fields.” I should have just pulled out this article and talked about Chris…

Whose blog earlier this week gave some insight into the goals of the initiative, in a post he entitled “What if secular workplaces ARE an area of God’s purpose?” Chris starts by noting that, as he’s thought about work in relation to this new initiative, he’s recognized that it has several meanings, but one we hesitate to accept outside of certain professions:

Work often creates economic value. It usually serves other people. It can be an arena of fullest self-expression and self-realization as we exercise our particular gifts and personalities. It can be a place of sanctification, of discipleship, as we struggle through the mundane challenges and difficult relationships that mark most workplaces.

But does it have divine meaning, our work? Is such ultimate meaning of our work reserved for pastors, priests, or monastics? Does God ordain and care for our particular work, even if we don’t wear a collar, alb, or habit?

…Most of us want to find meaning in our work. But the church has at times behaved as if full-time ordained ministry is the only arena in which people are really working for God.

After summarizing a vocational narratives he commonly hears from seminarians — that they were frustrated by what they perceived as the “meaninglessness” of work and so went to seminary, implicitly distinguishing between “work” and “ministry” — Chris asks:

But where does that leave the vast majority of Christians, who by the end of our lives will each have spent an average of 100,000 hours serving other people in non-church work? What does it say about the ordinary human service of giving cups of water to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked (Matt. 25)—which (for example) parents do every month, whether through a paycheck or in the work they do in the home? Nonetheless, we pew-sitters still sometimes feel that those precious words “Well done, good and faithful servant” only, or at least most truly, apply to those who hold down obvious “jobs for God.” Like our pastors.

I’d encourage you to read the rest of the post, and to keep an eye on Chris’ blog as he posts more on a theology of vocation.

I’m excited about this on several levels. First, in my capacity as a local church leader, where I’m eager to see us develop our ministries of Christian formation for adults. And second, as a college professor at Bethel, where we’ve started to talk more about vocation with students (e.g., our Office of Career Services is now the Office of Career Development and Calling), but probably could do much better at helping students rethink categories like “work” and “ministry.”

1559 edition of Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
Title page to the 1559 edition of the Institutes – Wikimedia

To some extent, this is an area where that Pietist heritage that I trumpeted yesterday does not seem quite so rich. I’m sure this points to a gap in my own studies of Pietism, but at least in the contexts (church and college) where I’ve experienced Pietism, I’ve most often encountered that notion that “divine meaning” is reserved for the work of pastors, missionaries, evangelists, worship leaders, Bible translators, et al.

Where I talk with students about vocation, I have to admit that I’m drawing chiefly on the Reformed tradition: from the section of John Calvin’s Institutes (on being faithful to one’s divine calling) that is my favorite thing to teach to the first-year students in our Christianity and Western Culture course to the Frederick Buechner sermon on calling that I discuss with our department’s seniors at the end of their capstone seminar. It’s no surprise that, when I started talking about vocation in my initial tenure interview, our then-provost (now-president) chuckled, “For a Pietist, you sure sound like a Calvinist.”

(By coincidence, Reformed pastor Tim Keller posted his own reflection on “How Faith Affects Our Work” on his church’s blog the same day Chris posted his on the “Work with Purpose” initiative.)

Other Christian traditions have robust theologies of vocation and work from which I’m happy to draw inspiration and wisdom (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican — Dorothy Sayers! — come to mind most easily). And if, as I’ve suggested earlier, Pietists are lower case-c catholics who rejoice in being part of a universal church, maybe that’s good enough.

But I suspect that there are resources in my own tradition that can be retrieved: Could Spener’s revival of Luther’s “common priesthood” enlarge our understanding of ministry? Do more radical Pietists like the Blumhardts suggest an eschatological purpose to all of our endeavors in the here and now? Going a bit further afield, I’d guess that the Wesleyan tradition (with which Chris is much more familiar than I) has something to say about the connections between work and sanctification. Perhaps Chris will help us better understand this dimension of our heritage — not that he has anything else to do over the next year…


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