Robert “Bob” McLean is someone who knows what it’s like to be powerfully called to work in the secular world. An Alban Institute board member and retired real estate broker, author, and the driving force behind a number of initiatives that explore and support the interconnections of faith and work, McLean sees himself as “a humble and full partner with God in everything I do.”

“My feeling,” he says, “is that your life is formed by your family, your congregation, your community, and your own sense of God’s call for your life. They all impinge on who you are, how you’re formed, and how you go about conducting your life.” In particular, McLean’s mother, a person of strong faith, was a profound influence on her son’s life. The church, too, “had a very strong influence on who I am, who I was, and who I would continue to grow to be.” The importance of church in McLean’s life was so great that he considered parochial ministry as a young man—seriously enough to attend seminary for three years. But he ultimately felt a stronger calling to work in the secular world.

“So I then proceeded to pursue worldly callings, and I’ve done that ever since, because, in terms of my own personality and leadership style, I found the congregational church—although very supportive and informative—vocationally very confining. My feeling is that God calls us to many different places.”

One of McLean’s first calls was to military service. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1953, rising to the rank of staff sergeant and later serving as a drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina. “I felt that that was a high calling because we were in a position to shape the character, the minds, the hearts, and the souls of young men—to transform their lives.”

McLean is equally confident that he was called by God into corporate life, first with a multinational corporation, where he learned marketing, and subsequently as a real estate entrepreneur. “In the real estate business I had a chance to create corporate headquarters in three different cities: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. And when I worked with corporate leaders in helping them create their signature buildings, I felt a strong sense of ministry, because it was in the architecture of the buildings where they portrayed who they were and how they were committed to their community. When we prepared the interior space in their buildings we created environments in which individuals could hone their specialties, and conference and breakout spaces where they could have ‘ah ha!’ moments. I found that the Holy Spirit was very much a part of that. As a matter of fact, I feel as though God has been my total partner in everything I’ve ever done.”

By “everything,” McLean is referring to far more than his professional life. A committed churchgoer and often member of the vestry, he nevertheless found little congregational support for his work in the world, an experience he believes is fairly common. “I haven’t felt as though the congregational setting is very committed to the worldly callings of their lay people. They’re much more interested in their every-member canvas, in their Sunday school teaching, and in keeping their physical plant up, and there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But how about the 99 and a half percent of us who, between Monday and Friday, are doing something quite different that we feel is a calling? Where are the resources? My sense is that that the church needs to reinvent itself and to help people that are called to parochial ministry to be the coaches and the managers of the worldly ministries of their members.”

In response to this perceived lack, McLean did what it is his nature to do: he took action in the world. In the late 1980s he helped launch “The Project on Moral Character and Development at Work—the Pittsburgh Seminar,” a project that brought 18 executives together at regular intervals for a year to discuss ethics and spiritual values in business. Then, in 1995, he helped form the Metropolitan Dialogue, a group of Washington, D.C.-area professionals from a broad spectrum of fields who share a deep faith and a desire to create a better community. The group meets on a monthly basis to help each other grow spiritually and, more importantly, in McLean’s view, “to reach out, talk to, and listen to the leaders across the sectors of greater Washington.” Rather than operating in their own isolated silos, the Dialogue brings these leaders together to share their visions for the city and to work together to make them a reality. “Together, we have looked on the city as having a soul and have considered what we could do to nurture the soul of the nation’s capital.”

“That’s led to a lot of very concrete actions,” McLean says. “For instance, we got the business leadership of the greater Washington region to underwrite a Little League program in the District of Columbia. They supply the uniforms, the money to restore the baseball fields, and the coaches, and the kids are now being taught not only how to play baseball but also to develop their interpersonal and leadership skills.” Such tangible results of spiritual development are at the core of McLean’s belief system. “My concept is that spirituality has to have social impact. You just can’t be on your own. You can’t go at it in the wilderness and contemplate. I realize there are people who are called to do that, and who pray all the time, and I’m sure they help us all. But my formula is that spirituality is directly related to social transformation.”

In the late 1990s the Dialogue received a grant from the Fannie Mae Foundation to interview more than 90 regional leaders of various faiths in the Washington area. During this process, McLean said he discovered that common to all of them was “a strong moral compass, a strong sense of spiritual groundedness,” the foundation upon which McLean believes all effective action is based. What amazed McLean were the visions for the community these individuals expressed. “There are a lot of people out there who have a great hunger. Their spiritual life is at the forefront of their lives, and the reason they are so effective is that they have a sense of themselves and a sense of priorities that comes from the fact that they are at home with the ground of being. We found that over and over again. But these attitudes weren’t necessarily being nurtured by these people’s parishes and synagogues.”

This discovery led McLean to work with the Alban Institute in recent months to create a 10-year program designed to equip individuals to connect their faith to their work, help congregations become spiritual leadership academies for their communities, and train clergy to be resources for these leaders and congregations. Known as the “Leaders of Faith for the 21st Century” program, the initiative is at the fledgling stage, but McLean is committed to seeing it move forward, and as quickly as possible. “I’m very passionate about this. Obviously congregations are where people worship, but I think they have to become resource centers for those of us who are called into politics, or medicine, or law, and they have to address some of the quandaries and moral dilemmas we face, whether we’re school teachers, nurses, lawyers, politicians, accountants, real estate developers, or university presidents. Congregations currently are woefully ill-prepared to do that.”

As a demonstration of his commitment to changing that, McLean recently assisted the Alban Institute in securing $25,000 in seed funding to support Phase I of the Leaders of Faith Initiative, a research phase in which dozens of regional leaders will be interviewed about the connections they make between their work and their faith, and how their pastors and congregations have influenced their sense of call and their work in the world. They will also be asked to describe their struggles with the moral and spiritual dilemmas that confront them in their leadership roles, and to suggest ways that their congregations might better support them in addressing these dilemmas, as well as in their vocations in general.

In the meantime, McLean urges pastors and congregations to begin supporting their members’ callings to work in the secular world. “I think a lot of them are already doing a good job. They are making calls on their business leaders and forming their own luncheon groups of these leaders. There are some good things going on, but we need a lot more of it. We need pastors to be the enablers, the encouragers, and the nurturers of worldly ministries. The clergy are understandably somewhat threatened by that; it’s new territory for them. They are going to have to go outside of their comfort zones to do what I’m talking about.”

A large part of what McLean is talking about is helping people discover their callings in life. “We all have something to contribute. To find out what that is, the central need is to deepen one’s own spiritual life. So the question we must answer is how to help people deepen their spiritual lives. If churches do that, fine. If associations do that, fine. If the Metropolitan Dialogue does that, fine. We just need more of it.”

Along that line of thinking, McLean challenges the Alban Institute to expand its own mission. “There was a time when the focus was on the clergy and the training of the clergy, which is certainly needed, but I have the feeling that the mandate of the Alban Institute is broadening.” The Leaders of Faith program, he believes, is the beginning of that expansion. “I think we’re on the threshold of a really exciting new springtime of the Spirit.” As the first phase of the 10-year project gets underway, the 77-year-old McLean makes a wish: that he’ll be around to see the results of his latest calling a decade from now.

Questions for Reflection 

  1. What resources exist in your congregation to assist people in discerning their callings, being guided by their faith in their work, and coping with moral dilemmas that arise in the workplace? Is there a time and place when you could initiative a conversation with your congregation about instituting or expanding such a program? Who are the members with the greatest sense of calling in your congregation? Consider asking them to participate in this conversation.
  2. If you considered your city (or local community) as having a soul, what would its condition be? What could your congregation do to nurture the soul of your community?
  3. Who are the leaders in your community who are also people of faith? Who in your congregation might know of other such leaders?
  4. What vision do you have for the members of the congregation in terms of their work life? Does this vision seem to need expanding?
  5. What vision do you have for your community? What one community leader would you be willing to meet with as a first step toward sharing your vision and beginning to work collaboratively with others toward it?