When I asked my supervisor a question about funerals during my student ministry placement, he picked up the phone and arranged for me to spend a day with the local funeral director. As a new ordinand visiting a family a few years later, I was told that the father’s occupation was “bull man.” My queries about what this entailed led to a day trekking from farm to farm with this gentleman to witness how cattle are artificially inseminated. Beware the questions you ask!
These experiences gave credence to the sage advice given to me last year by publisher Gregory Pierce, one of many individuals I spoke with during a sabbatical exploring people’s relationship between work and faith. When I asked him how a pastor could gain the skills and understanding to better communicate faith to working people, he replied, “Go to work with a parishioner every month.” In that one sentence he had put his finger on the sense of disconnect I had been experiencing in my lively suburban congregation. I wanted a more intimate understanding of the working world experienced by my church members and didn’t know how to get it. When members of my church told me after hearing my sermon that they had enjoyed it but could not apply it at work, I realized that my effectiveness as a communicator of the faith was being compromised.
This concerned me enough to try to do something about it. I invited a dozen church members to a focus group and was surprised to learn that they had no expectation that worship would relate to their work lives, a sentiment affirmed in the literature. Ian Mitroff and Elizabeth Denton write in A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America, “There are very few good books on the spirituality of work. It is not a spirituality that is preached from the pulpit very often.”1
Because the members of my focus group had become resigned to the church’s inability to help them connect their faith to their work, it was only after a significant discussion that they were able to disclose issues in their workplaces that concerned them. As we explored them as a group, the sharing moved from practical advice to a more spiritual exchange. Slowly the group was able to acknowledge that there might be a connection between faith and work.
What followed from this tentative start has been a five-year pilgrimage into the land of work outside the church. As a result of this journey, I have come to the conclusion that worship, education, and pastoral care in our congregations can and must address the real issues of the workplace. Steve Jacobsen set out this thesis in his book Hearts to God, Hands to Work.2 At a time when studies show increases in the percentage of people identifying themselves as “spiritual” and 94 percent of Americans are saying they believe in God,3 the church has an increasing responsibility to identify the issues of the workplace and enable people to carry their faith with them 24/7. Too often, faith has been relegated to selective use at certain times of the week.
Now, one doesn’t wake up one morning and decide, “Today my ministry is going to be relevant to the working people of my congregation.” For a start, I suspect most ministers would say that it already is relevant. My reality, however, is that my last non-church job was driving a truck for a computer company and before that for a major steel manufacturer. I have been out of the regular workforce for more than 20 years. To bridge this obvious gap, I embarked on a strategy to learn about the contemporary working world. I held several focus groups and read everything I could find on the faith at work movement. This led to the creation of spirituality@work, an interfaith group that met five times a year to provide people of faith with a forum in which to discuss workplace issues.
This exploration was greatly expanded when I received a study grant from the Louisville Institute in 2002. The grant allowed me to devote eight weeks to visiting with people working in a variety of fields and locations. I was able to connect with academics, business people, chaplains, clergy, and students across North America. What I encountered everywhere I went was a yearning for a faith that matters in the work world and a sense of sad resignation that our churches don’t seem to be providing support for this experience. I returned to congregational life with a pledge to do what I could to listen to the concerns of my parishioners and to respond to them as faithfully as possible.
Three initiatives emerged from this time: a breakfast Bible study group; the “Take Your Minister to Work” program, in which I took Gregory Pierce’s advice to go to work with my parishioners; and a Lenten series on work issues. Most churches offer Bible study, and this tradition of study still works for some people. However, it often fails to recognize changes in the workplace that have a huge impact on family life. The transition from one-income to two-income households and the move away from clearly defined working hours have drastically changed how families function. Cell phones and other technologies keep some people on call at all hours. Evenings and weekends have become premium family time and household chore time. I need only think of my local grocery store, which is now open seven days a week, and until 11:00 p.m. on six of those days, to see how much things have changed. In acknowledgement of these changes, we included a small survey in our Sunday bulletin asking when it would be most convenient to offer Bible study. The answer was 7:00 a.m. on a weekday. We now have people attending who would never have considered an evening or weekend group and are unavailable for a daytime program.
Greg Pierce, whose wise advice I mentioned at the beginning of this article, deserves all the credit for our Take Your Minister to Work program. His insistence that going out into the workplace with parishioners was the only way for church leaders to comprehend what was on the minds and in the hearts of working people was the inspiration for my resolution to spend one day each month with one of my church members in his or her workplace. And so it was that the Take Your Minister to Work program was born.
What followed has been a revelation for all of us. First, we had to learn the logistics of getting me into the parishioners’ workplaces. I have signed more waivers and confidentiality forms than you can imagine! But I have been more than compensated for all of this preparatory activity by the insight I’ve gained from these experiences. I have spent time with a security guard, an elementary school vice principal, the director of a residential facility for troubled teens, a programmer for a religious broadcasting network, a special education teacher, a speech language pathologist, a federal civil servant, and a medical laboratory technician. I have been moved by the skills of these people and their dedication to the work they do. I have listened as they have described the stresses and strains they face in their workplaces and at home as these two spheres of life connect and collide. Greg Pierce held before me the challenge to minister to the guy in the tollbooth on Interstate 94. Nothing could have been more powerful or energizing.
My Lenten series on work issues had its basis in my sabbatical interviews, during which I asked respondents to suggest five sermon topics they would like to hear in their places of worship. The list I compiled from their responses is long, but the similarities in their answers tell the story of what people want and need to hear from our pulpits and in our church education programs. Among the topics most often men-tioned were:
- Who am I?
- What am I here for?
- I am more than my job!
- What does it mean to have a vocation?
- What are the promises of faith
- Struggle and decision-making.
- I’m vulnerable.
- How do I choose between right and wrong?
- What values do I need to live a good life?
- What will it cost me to live by my values?
Even before the Enron and Martha Stewart scandals, many, many people were asking themselves about the meaning of their lives and their work, and they have been searching for God in the midst of this confusion. This is where the church needs to be, not on the sidelines, not isolated or insulated from this world but engaged in it, in dialogue with it, proclaiming the Gospel and promising grace.
In my own church, my teammate in ministry, Rev. Dr. Eleanor Epp-Stobbe, and I decided to explore how the Lenten lections spoke to the topics on my sabbatical list of requested sermon themes. Once we had found suitable matches, we reflected on the format of the sermon. Instead of the usual all-at-once style, we decided to break the sermon into two segments. In the first, we named the problem, the confession, or the woe. This was followed by extinguishing a candle. We then spoke about how the hope of our faith addressed the problem or woe we had named. The response of the congregation was remarkable. A real buzz erupted after worship. People talked to their partners and neighbors about the sermon, and stories about work were shared in the coffee hour and by e-mail. If there was ever any doubt about the value of this strategy, our questions were answered unequivocally. (Outlines of these sermons can be found on Alban’s Web site at www.alban.org/ShowArticle.asp?ID=248.
A Call to Action
I have suggested that Sunday worship can and should address the real issues of the workplace. I am convinced that church leaders need to intentionally connect with people on workplace issues. Given that people are not inclined to volunteer this information, the onus is on church leaders to ask. Church leaders must show that they care, and seek to understand what really matters to people.
It is imperative that preaching dares to explore the real issues of peoples’ lives. There is a hunger for meaning and a deep desire to name clearly the values that arise from Scripture and the traditions of our faith that can inform daily life. There is a need for directness and specificity in this kind of preaching.
One need look no further than the nearest bookstore to conclude that spirituality is a hot topic in contemporary society, and there is no doubt that spirituality at work is a popular subset of the genre. In my sabbatical I came to the conclusion that the church needs to wade into this discussion immediately, particularly since secular, feel-good spirituality is a far louder voice in our culture. Business schools and medical schools are eager to talk about ethics, balance, and spirituality, but the church and seminary community seems to be less interested in doing so. My work in a variety of groups suggests that people want to know in clear terms what the values of the faith are so that they can have some measure to use in the world.
As Corinne McLaughlin, executive director of the Center for Visionary Leadership, said in her address to the American Management Association in 1998, “Growing numbers of business people want their spirituality to be more than just faith and belief—they want it to be practical and applied. They want to bring their whole selves to work—body, mind and spirit.”
Globalization and technology are reshaping our world, introducing great benefits and—at the same time—imposing new challenges. The church needs to proclaim the Gospel in this environment with confidence and with a deep understanding of the context. The work of the church must be informed by the community it serves, and that includes where we work. What you get when you take your minister to work is someone who can be more sensitive and authentic in sharing the faith and equipping believers for service to the world.
1. Ian Mitroff and Elizabeth A. Denton, A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America: A Hard Look at Spirituality, Religion, and Values in the Workplace (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999), 48.
2. Steven Jacobsen, Hearts to God, Hands to Work: Connecting Spirituality and Work (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute), x.
3. Robert A. Emmons and Cheryl A. Crumpler, “Religion and spirituality? The roles of sanctification and the concept of God,” in International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Mahway, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1999), 17–24.