Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good
- Friday, February 25, 2011
Let's insert a new phrase into the vocabulary of Christian thinking on careers: "vocational stewardship." By it, I mean the intentional and strategic use of one's vocational power (skills, knowledge, network, platform) to advance the values of the Kingdom of God.
Sometimes our vision for doing our work "as unto the Lord" is "adverbial." In integrating our faith and work, we focus on the kind of the employees we ought to be: ethical workers, kind workers, Gospel-sharing workers. This is certainly an important part of faith/work integration, but it's not the whole. For our work itself matters. What we do—not just how we do it—matters.
This is where vocational stewardship kicks in. It starts by asking: What are the hallmarks of God's Kingdom? We know that redemptive history is moving toward the consummated Kingdom. Revelation 21 tells us that in the New Heavens and New Earth, there will be no more suffering, pain, war, or death. Additionally, "preview" passages throughout the Old Testament offer glimpses into the characteristics of the Kingdom. Just as previews on Netflix give us a taste of forthcoming films, so passages like Isaiah 65:17-25, Ezekiel 34:11-31, Psalms 72, and Micah 4:3-4 inform us that God's Kingdom is marked by values like peace, community, justice, compassion, economic sufficiency, wholeness, and beauty.
Knowing what the Kingdom values are then allows us to consider: How can I deploy my vocational power to advance these values in my workplace, my community, and the world?
Take businesswoman Wendy Clark. At age 20, she started Carpe Diem Cleaners in Durham, NC. Initially her sense of what it meant to be a Christian businessperson was that her firm could generate profits--and then she could give generously to missions. Several years into her career she heard a presentation about faith/work integration and her eyes were opened to see that her business itself was a means of ministry.
Today Wendy advances the Kingdom value of compassion at Carpe Diem through her attentive care for her employees, mostly Latino moms. She's changed Carpe Diem's hours to accommodate their schedules "so that they aren't stressed out trying to get their kids to school, running late to work, and getting home on time," Wendy reports. Additionally, instead of holding training sessions in Durham, she takes the women—and their kids--to a family camp out in the country. That way, the families get a special vacation they probably wouldn't have had otherwise.
Elizabeth Weller has joined her passion for agriculture and her formal education in social work and religion in an initiative that advances the value of wholeness. As an undergraduate, Elizabeth pursued her love of farming during summer breaks. She learned practical skills working at a West Virginia orchard and then a small farm outside of Lexington, VA. After graduation, she continued honing her agricultural talents as an employee at Gould Farm in Massachusetts. There she learned how farm work could be used as a therapeutic avenue.
Today, Elizabeth and her husband have launched The Amazing Heart Farm. It's an agriculturally based center for individuals who've suffered trauma or loss. "By harnessing the therapeutic benefits of creative and physical work," Elizabeth explains, "we aim to provide a safe space for members of the local community to engage in emotional work and healing, to gain access to community resources, and to learn to use personal and community supports while providing themselves, their families, and the local community with locally grown, fresh food."
Matthew Price has deployed his legal training to advance the Kingdom value of justice for the poor in Uganda. There he mentored paralegals and law school students from the Ugandan Christian Law Fellowship (UCLF), training them to provide representation to victims of illegal detention. Matthew and his team visited police stations and jail cells to advise prisoners of their rights under Ugandan law. By the end of his first year in Kampala, Matthew and the UCLF lawyers had offered representation to over 200 prisoners. Through their intervention, Matthew explains, "these prisoners have finally tasted justice in their case, whether by way of an acquittal and release or conviction and [a] defined term of sentence."
Architect Jill Sornson admits that as a graduate student, she struggled to understand "how my faith and my design passion merged." Initially she thought being a "Christian architect" meant lovingly witnessing to her non-believing peers. She continues to see such relational ministry as vital, but over time she recognized that she could also promote the value of creation care through her work. She turned away from working on high-end condo projects that didn't seem to add much value to people's lives. "I wanted to design buildings to create healing spaces [and] promote sustainability."
Oceanographer Jorge Vazquez also advances environmental stewardship through his vocation. A love of creation was instilled in him as a child, through long walks with his father along the beach. Today as a scientist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Dr. Vasquez works to improve the quality of sea surface temperature data records, an important element in the quest to understand and monitor global warming.
With intentionality, we can often find ways to advance the common good right in our current jobs. An engineer might advocate product reforms in order to promote better worker or consumer safety. A middle manager could design a new internship program at the firm that provides fresh economic opportunities for minority teens.
If we can't "bloom where we're planted" in these ways because of our lack of seniority or other barriers, then we can donate our professional skills to a nonprofit that's engaged in a Kingdom cause. That's what young Christian marketing, IT, and human resource professionals in the Big Apple are doing through Hope for New York's "Professionals in Action" program.
Or we can consider launching our own "social enterprise" that draws on our vocational talents and networks. That's the path graphic designer and illustrator Jessie Nilo has taken. In 2004, she started Vineyard Arts, gathering about 20 artists from her church, Boise Vineyard. Together they're promoting the values of beauty and healing. Members have been visiting a nursing home and a local Crisis Pregnancy Center, facilitating art projects by the elderly and by scared teen moms-to-be. The art helps draw people out from their anxieties and sadness, Jessie reports.
Through vocational stewardship, we can experience more joy and meaning in our work. Simultaneously, our efforts offer others foretastes of the Kingdom.
Sounds like a winning combination.
Dr. Amy L. Sherman directs the Center on Faith in Communities at the Sagamore Institute. Her new book on vocational stewardship will be published later this year by InterVarsity Press.
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