“This is not what I thought I’d be doing at twenty-seven.”
So says Stephen Williams, who, while enjoying and appreciating much of his daily work at his local Chick-fil-A, continues to feel the various pressures of status, mobility, and vocational aspiration.
“I love the company, and I am grateful for the environment here and for the paycheck,” he writes in a series of stirring reflections. “But it’s humbling to tell many of my accomplished, high-flying friends that I am not currently doing something more ‘impressive’ with my life.”
As Williams goes on to demonstrate, there is meaning and beauty to be found in our daily work, no matter what our service or station.
Throughout his day, he not only feeds hungry mouths and maintains the bricks and mortar, he engages in a range of relationships. He welcomes an elderly homeless man, offering him a drink of water and a place to get warm. He shakes hands with day-to-day “regulars,” exchanging the typical banter. He assists an exhausted mother, praying for her and her kids under his breath. He plays “Knight Stephen” with young “Sir Wyatt,” a regular patron of kids’ meals. (more…)
Originally written in 1982, Lester DeKoster’s small book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, has had a tremendous impact on the hearts and minds of many, reorienting our attitudes and amplifying our visions about all that, at first, might seem mundane. More recently, the book’s core thesis was put on display in Acton’s film series, For the Life of the World, particularly in the episode on creative service.
Christian’s Library Press has now re-issued the book, complete with new cover art and a hearty new afterword by Greg Forster.
In the afterword, Forster revisits the book in light of the broader faith and work movement, noting DeKoster’s keen awareness of the struggles and hardships we often experience at work, and the hope of Christ in the midst of such struggles.
Although the book applies to every occupation and vocation — from the Wall Street executive to the independent artist to the stay-at-home mother — one of DeKoster’s primary audiences in his own life was blue-collar workers, who he routinely taught in night classes at Calvin College. “His message of hope to them is an outstanding model for our movement today,” Forster writes.
Indeed, DeKoster realized that without a proper understanding of God’s ultimate purposes, we will find ourselves trapped in a “wilderness of work,” lost and without meaning. But when we understand God’s grand design for all things, everything changes. (more…)
With the rise of the information economy, many millennials have steered clear from blue-collar jobs and manual labor, often prodded by their parents to pursue a “real education” and “a better life.
As folks like Mike Rowe have only begun to highlight, such attitudes have led to a serious skills gap in the trades, one that appears to hold steady even in the face of record unemployment. Yet despite these cultural shifts, such work does indeed provide significant value to the economy while affirming the dignity and creative potential of the worker.
Thus, while some prefer to hold their noses at the trades, others are seizing it as an opportunity to create and share value. Such is the case at Walker State Prison in Georgia, where a unique welding program offers to train prisoners in the high-demand trade of welding.
According to the American Welding Society, we will be short by nearly 300,000 welding-related positions by 2020 (HT), giving participating prisoners a good shot at meaningful careers upon their release.
And the prisoners aren’t complaining. They are eager to offer their skills, learn a craft, and contribute to society. Watch some highlights here:
One can’t help but be inspired by Christopher Peeples, for example, who at 26 years old is about to finish a 10-year prison sentence. Thanks to the program, he looks forward to wonderful job prospects, and his Dad (a craftsman himself) has been quick to share in the excitement. According to NPR, one recent alumnus of the program had three job offers upon his release, one of which offered $50,000 per year with a company truck.
Ultimately, though, this isn’t about money or even stability. It’s about authentic, whole-life rehabilitation.
By pursuing work in a needed skill — by orienting hearts and hands toward service to others and thus to God — these men are entering into a transformative, collaborative exchange that will shape their very souls and spirits. Material provision is just the byproduct.
Of course, it would require no small amount of these programs to fill the skills gap we’re facing, and so the question remains: what are others waiting for?
As we continue to expand our economic imaginations and pursue vocational clarity, these prisoners offer a powerful example on how we ought to view and approach such work.
In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Feintzeig sets her sights on the latest trends in corporate “mission statements,” focusing on a variety of employer campaigns to “inject meaning into the daily grind, connecting profit-driven endeavors to grand consequences for mankind.”
Companies have long cited lofty mission statements as proof they have concerns beyond the bottom line, and in the past decade tech firms like Google Inc. attracted some of the economy’s brightest workers by inviting recruits to come and change the world by writing lines of code or managing projects.
Now, nearly every product or service from motorcycles to Big Macs seems capable of transforming humanity, at least according to some corporations. The words “mission,” “higher purpose,” “change the world” or “changing the world” were mentioned on earnings calls, in investor meetings and industry conferences 3,243 times in 2014, up from 2,318 five years ago, according to a Factiva search.
“Do economic incentives help or hinder ‘business as mission’ (BAM) practitioners?” In a forthcoming study, Dr. Steven Rundle of Biola University explores the question through empirical research.
Unsatisfied with the evidence thus far, consisting mostly of case studies and anecdotes, Rundle conducted an anonymous survey of 119 “business as mission” practitioners, focusing on a variety of factors, including (1) “the source of their salary (does it come from the revenues of the business or from donors?),” and (2) “the outcomes of the business in terms of the four ‘bottom lines’ of economic, social, environmental and spiritual impact.”
The reason for focusing on such areas? “Many people in the ministry/missions world believe that donor support helps ensure that practitioners stay focused on the ministry goals.”
Rundle summarizes his findings as follows:
This study essentially found the exact opposite. It found that practitioners who are fully supported by the business tend to out-perform – sometimes significantly – donor-supported BAM practitioners, and are no less fruitful in terms of spiritual impact. This finding holds up even after controlling for things like geography, firm size, and firm type.
…. The moral of the story is that economic incentives matter. Contrary to the mission community’s concern that self-support will take one’s attention away from the ministry goals, the truth is that only by creating a successful business can a practitioner hope to have a meaningful and holistic impact on a community. (more…)
The practice of stewardship is “the supreme challenge of the Christian life,” they argue, and thus, we must strive to properly orient our thinking and behavior accordingly. The forms of stewardship are submitted to all of us. “None is beyond our reach — if the heart is aware, and the will bent to do God’s service wherever and whenever.”
Such awareness begins with a basic understanding of the fundamentals of stewardship, and DeKoster and Berghoef set forth five distinct principles to help lay the groundwork for their discussion. These principles, as revealed in Scripture, are summarized as follows:
God creates, sustains, and thus owns all things — man included. Not only in the beginning, but always. Every child born into the world receives life from God.
God brings us to life within this vast, beautiful, and challenging world and permits us to use and enjoy all that he sustains.
He intends, however, that his will shall govern our wills and his desires shall control our desires. He reveals his will in inspired Scripture. As we walk in his world, his word is a lamp to our feet and a light for our paths (Ps. 119:105).
Our use of God’s property, whether as faithful or rebellious stewards, is, therefore, what life is all about.
Our obedience, or disobedience, to God’s will revealed in his Word becomes the basis for the last judgment, which is the prelude to heaven or hell. (more…)
Over at Rough Trade, the always intriguing James Poulos celebrates the increased attention now being given to the “relationship between economic and religious life,” pointing to the Acton Institute’s very own Samuel Gregg to kick things off.
Yet he remains unsatisfied, fearful of a return to what he views to be unhelpful “conceptual frameworks and cultural antagonisms” of the past, and urging us to push toward “a new mode of analysis that breaks away from the old, exhausting debates.” For Poulos, this means embracing an “economics of grace,” an interrelated component of something he has called “radicaltarianism” in the past (see more on this here and here).
Poulos observes the typical divides among Christians as follows:
Christians who accept these teachings [about the fall of man and grace] tend to split into two economic camps: those who lean toward an uncritical embrace of free-market capitalism, and those who tilt toward a far more skeptical, suspicious attitude. For the first group, the social upshot of Christianity is an institutional framework that supports flourishing with minimal reliance on the state. Christianity supplies a good foundation for market activity. For the second, the most durable and authentic institutional frameworks supplied by Christianity raise damning questions about the sustainability of neoliberalism — the secular “democratic faith” that gives market capitalism its modern philosophical foundations. For both groups, the key is that, ultimately, religion drives sustainable economic life. The difference is that the first group typically understands religion in a Protestant way, as a driver of explosive, and morally legitimate, economic growth, while the second takes a more Catholic view, doubtful of the moral purity of explosive growth, and focused much less on growing capital than other sorts of things, like families.
Describing the state of the debate more broadly, Poulos argues that our political factions have also proven unhelpful, using terms like “economic growth” based on limited materialistic assumptions. (more…)