Next steps and resources in faith, work, & economics for church leaders

OIkonomia Network logoA first step for a pastor or lay leader who wants to lead their people in a healthy integration of faith and work is careful listening on their own part, as ministers. This may mean, for pastors, paying attention to the lay-led faith-and-work movement, which has done an end-run around the religious establishment. This movement is developing a contextual theology among people who are actually doing “secular” work, seeking religiously informed answers to the existential sense of disconnection between the two halves of their lives – “spiritual” and “secular.” People in ministry would do well to listen to these people, even though their folk theology may often lack subtlety or depth.

Another very practical way of gaining wisdom in this area I’ve already mentioned. In 2009, the Kern Family Foundation, which had been supporting seminary education through student scholarships for more than a decade, created a seminary initiative called the Oikonomia Network. Framed as a “learning community” for theological educators, its mission is to help its members help the church to integrate theological truth and Christian discipleship into work and economic thinking. Through the network, the foundation now funds significant initiatives at eighteen seminaries.

All these initiatives seek to train pastors to affirm the basic goodness of work, business, and economic activity; to prepare people to discern their callings and pursue excellence in their work; to help communities respond in virtuous ways to the changes wrought by economic forces; and to cast a future-oriented vision for virtuous membership and participation in the civic community. As a result of this funding, a stream of excellent scholarship, syllabi, and speakers is becoming available to schools and churches both inside and outside that network.

So far, the most challenging among the Oikonomia Network’s goals seems to be helping church leaders achieve economic literacy. Professors and pastors alike are typically more comfortable teaching and learning about work and vocation than about the moral world of the market and the nuts and bolts of business. In another context, Oikonomia Network convener Greg Forster has said this:

“Economics is not what most people think. The economy is just people exchanging their work with each other. It’s not only in workplaces and markets; it’s in homes and neighborhoods, and anywhere people do work that cultivates creation. Work takes up most of our lives, because God made us to cultivate blessings and make the world a better place. That means most of our lives take place in the economy. If most of our lives are played out on the economic stage, we need to know how the gospel applies to economics — and we need to know something about economics itself.”

Wonderful things start to happen once a pastor starts to teach this emphasis. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary discovered this once they launched a degree program concentration in “workplace leadership and business ethics” twenty years ago (in their Mockler Center for Faith & Ethics in the Marketplace). This program brought Master’s and D.Min. students together in the same classroom, and the dynamics, while initially uncomfortable, proved tremendously fruitful.

Mockler Center founder Will Messenger describes it:

“The D.Min students are mostly (though not all) pastors. The Masters of Arts in Religion students mostly work in business, but also some in academia, government, medicine, and the like. The first three days of class, they’re skeptically scoping each other out. Businesspeople think of pastors as nice but not knowledgeable about the business world, and pastors see business people as sons and daughters of God but greedy, not knowing their Bibles.

“And eventually they find they want to dance together. Pastors start saying “Wow, so that’s the kind of decision you have to make? I thought you were always deciding between doing good and making money. But now I see your decisions are about how to support people, how to do trade-offs.” And businesspeople: “You pastors actually do care. You really do know the Bible — you’re not just parroting it, you’re helping me understand how the Bible works.” Eighty percent of the time, you end up with wonderful conversations.”

The alternative to this difficult conversation isn’t appealing: continued marginalization of the church from daily life and continued confusion among Christians about the value and the spiritual, theological, and biblical dimensions of work and economics. Let’s work to make sure this situation does not continue.

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