Let’s get practical: faith-and-work pointers for pastors and lay leaders

Jesus_Small_Group_LeaderPractical suggestions for pastors and lay leaders

Will Messenger, executive editor of the Theology of Work Project, admits that many pastors will never be attuned enough to the concerns of business people to offer really deep advice on difficult workplace issues. For these, the best form of support may be to facilitate small groups of like-minded people — for example, workers in similar jobs — to read Scripture, pray, and discuss matters touching their work. David Miller, founding director of the Princeton Faith & Work Initiative, agrees and says that pastors who are most distant from work-related concerns can take steps to bridge the divide between themselves and the working people in their pews. Some ways they might do so:

  • Be present in the work sphere and listen carefully.
  • Become workplace literate (for example, by reading the Wall Street Journal).
  • Preach to work concerns.
  • Address workers’ sense of work-faith disjunction in adult education, small groups, and retreats.
  • Train laity in devotional disciplines linked to their work and daily lives.

This kind of engagement may not be possible if a pastor embodies anti-business biases. And researchers like Miller and Laura Nash of Harvard say that such biases are common — sometimes inherited from seminary professors. Messenger says that businesspeople tell him things like this:

“My pastor always talks about profit as if it were greed. Well, that shows they know nothing at all about how the business world works. So when the pastor preaches sermons on this, he always tells me to do things that are useless in terms of the value I provide to society. If I started doing the things my pastor suggests, it would ruin my business, and then I couldn’t provide jobs, good service for customers, and useful products, so the function I’m filling in society would cease to exist.”

Of course, it’s easy enough to point to prominent failures by business leaders over the past few decades. Human weakness is on display in the marketplace as in every other sphere, and that should make us wary of “sprinkling holy water over all of business,” to borrow Jeff Van Duzer’s words. So while he often pushes back on anti-business attitude among clergy, he also finds himself trying to rein in businesspeople who are inappropriately sanguine, even smug, about what they do. “I sometimes want to say: ‘You have bought into a world system which is in some ways antithetical to God, and I want you to rethink this.’”

There is potential for greed and corruption in any field, and thus clergy are rightly concerned not, for example, to become uncritical apologists for big business. But if they want to speak to marketplace workers with credibility, they also need to engage in the hard work of understanding the morally complex, socially engaged world of the marketplace. To minister to the work lives of their people, pastors need not themselves be executives or economists, any more than they need to be doctors to visit the sick in hospitals. But some learning must happen: the church, by failing to learn even the basics of the marketplace, marginalizes itself from the lives of most of its people.

Articulating a full and resilient theology of work

Looking around at how the conversation about work has tended to be addressed in the last few decades in church circles, it is no wonder clergy are flummoxed by discussions of business and economics. Most 20th- and 21st- century theological reflection on work has tended to focus on the problems of the marketplace, ignoring its constructive and creative dimensions, according to Miller. As we’ve seen, this represents a clear break from earlier periods of Christian theology — most notably during the Lutheran Reformation — when questions of work and vocation were actively studied in light of Scripture and tradition.

We can’t build an entire theological basis for understanding work right here and now. I sketched out some biblical bases and historical teachings earlier in this series of posts. In the next post, I’ll suggest a few things that could help us gain a healthier theological understanding of work in the marketplace.

To be continued . . .

2 responses to “Let’s get practical: faith-and-work pointers for pastors and lay leaders

  1. C.R. interestingly, both art and business are (or can be) two expressions of the same thing—human creativity.

  2. The two areas of almost unforgivable ignorance for pastors are aesthetics (zero, or near to zero help in seminary) and business–as this post points out. I’m afraid that you really can’t substitute a seminary class for doing art in some form or other or trying to turn a buck. These things are almost untranslatable.

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