My Three Seasons of Faith and Work

How farmers, scientists, teachers, doctors, and a furnace repair man taught me to see all callings as holy.
My Three Seasons of Faith and Work

Willis Finifrock, a turkey farmer-turned-furnace man from northern Minnesota, was explaining to me how the gears work in his giant fuel oil truck. Patiently and methodically, he showed me how he shifts from 1st gear to 2nd gear, then 2nd to 3rd, then 3rd to 4th … and, finally, from 12th to 13th gear. (He would have showed me all 97 gears if he had them.)

This was my first real pastoral visit at my first church—Barnum Community Church in Barnum, Minnesota, population 460. I was still finishing my last year of seminary in St. Paul, driving two hours straight north every Saturday to preach on Sunday, visit with folks on Monday, and then drive back home on Tuesday morning. Willis had invited me to join him on a Monday fuel oil pickup at 4:00 a.m. We went to the refinery, filled the tank, and then drove around on Highway 6, east of Barnum.

For most of the ride, the rig jostled me like a mechanical bull, but I enjoyed spending time with Willis, immersing myself in his world of gauges and gears, valves and hoses, tanks and pumps. I guess this wasn't just my first pastoral visit; it was my first pastoral "faith and work" conversation.

My 4:00 a.m. ride with Willis would also kickoff what I've come to call "Season 1" of how I've dealt with faith and work issues. In all, I'm able to track three distinct ministry seasons at three churches that represent three different pastoral approaches to faith and work. The three seasons break down like this:

• Season 1 - Naïve Engagement

• Season 2 - Intentional Disengagement

• Season 3 - Creative Engagement

Season 1 - Naïve Engagement

Barnum, Minnesota, was the place of naïve engagement. Throughout my pastorate in this rural town, I engaged in faith and work pastoral visits without ever reflecting on why or how. I had never heard the phrase "faith and work." I didn't preach a single sermon on the topic, and I never strategized how to equip people to integrate their Sunday worship with their weekly jobs. And yet, for some reason, I couldn't avoid immersing myself in Barnum's local economy, the grease and glory of fuel trucks, dairy cows, hay bales, group foster homes, and a dozen other ways that people earned their living.

When you're frantically running a wannabe mega church, something has to give.

For eight years I made inadvertent "faith and work" visits. I rode with Willis on his many-geared fuel truck at 4:00 a.m. and joined him for the early August season of gathering and stacking hay bales. I spent time with Irma and Kenny Deusler at their small dairy farm, listening with city-boy wonder as they described their grueling seven-day morning and evening rhythm of milking 65 cows and working full-time jobs. I sat with Dave Ferguson in his steaming homemade Finnish sauna and listened to his stories about teaching gym class at Barnum High School. Howard Ballou, an 82-year-old retired farmer and widower, lectured me on the glories of cream from the Guernsey cattle he once owned. In near ecstasy, he exclaimed, "Ah, dat cream! It was da best, da richest, da heaviest cream in da world!"

Every Sunday afternoon I'd join Leon and Nancy Finifrock for a farm breakfast with their crew of foster boys before playing a brutal game of tackle football. Over the years, Leon and Nancy took in over 100 "at-risk" teenagers, and I had the chance to pastor—and smack-down—dozens of those kids while supporting Leon and Nancy in their calling.

For eight years in that little town, I engaged the world of faith and work. But it was probably more about that rural culture than any pastoral strategy. Many workers in Barnum never thought deeply about faith and work because work was woven deeply into the fabric of being a Christian.

Take Willis, for instance. Over his 50-year work career, Willis raised beef cattle, taught industrial arts to high school students, drove a fuel oil truck, installed and repaired furnaces, and worked for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Recently when I called Willis and asked what he liked best about his multi-faceted career, he said, "When I closed up my toolbox and headed up the stairs, I'd take one more look at that new furnace and know that I did the best job I could. As a Christian, I felt that I owed the customer the best job I could I offer."

Those three words—"As a Christian … "—summarized how many of the folks at Barnum Community Church viewed their faith and work. So in Season 1 my pastoral role was fairly simple—just show up. Visit. Be with people and let them talk about their lives, much of which focused on their work.

In his book Working, Chicago journalist Studs Terkel asked nearly a 100 people people from all kinds of jobs—including cabdrivers, actors, plant managers, miners, professors, editors, lawyers, gravediggers, teachers, and pro athletes—"Tell me about your job." And then he let them talk. Hence the subtitle of the book—"People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do."

That's the lesson I started to learn in Barnum. Work matters a lot to people. They want to talk about it. So I sat in their homes or on their worksites and listened. I started to let people tell me about "what they do all day and how they feel about what they do." I actually enjoyed hearing about truck gears and Guernsey cream and case histories for foster boys. I didn't help the people of Barnum develop a robust biblical vision of faith and work, but having a pastor show up and ask about their work, infused their daily toil with dignity.

Season 2 - Intentional Disengagement

In the summer of 1996, I left Barnum and started my second pastoral assignment in Cambridge, Minnesota, a burgeoning bedroom community to the Twin Cities. It became my five-year season of intentional disengagement from faith and work issues. Early on in this second pastorate, I made a conscious and clear decision: I don't have time for those inefficient, small town visits. After all, I told myself, my church people need me to grow a church. I can't be spending my week idly chattering about what they do all week. I have a church to run.

This particular church had only 250 people, and unless God intervened and downloaded a radically different pastoral gift set into my soul, it would have never broken 400. But for some reason my brain got infected with Megachurch Fever. I started acting like my church had 1,800 people. When you're frantically running a wannabe megachurch, something has to give—like riding in fuel trucks at 4:00 a.m. or sitting at kitchen tables discussing case histories for at-risk adolescents.

As a result of my intentional and even strategic disengagement, I can count on one hand the number of conversations I had about faith and work. I know that my friend Bill, a creative young entrepreneur, built a business that designed new ways to wrap and package fresh meat. Bill and I had numerous conversations about church life, but I can't remember an extended conversation about how packaging meat connected with his faith. David, a gifted doctor, had to resign as the chairman of our church board due to the pressures of a new leadership role at the hospital. I thanked him for his service, but I never asked him to share his job-related stress and how I could help.

Looking back on my intentional disengagement from faith and work conversation, I now see that my decision was about more than the need to run a church. My soul was disordered by pride and insecurity. I started to view Barnum as my pastoral preseason. Cambridge was the playoffs, and I had to win. I had to win by building a larger, successful church. I had to win by proving that I was worthwhile. Like Rocky Balboa, I had to win at church growth so I could prove I wasn't a bum. My work success had become my idol, an idol that devoured my time and energy. No wonder I didn't have any room to focus on anyone else's work success: my work mattered too much.

Season 3 - Creative Engagement

In May of 2001, I moved to Long Island, New York, to pastor Three Village Church, a much more diverse community two miles from a major university (Stony Brook) and research hospital. During my first few years on Long Island, I followed the disengagement playbook, but then about midway through my nine-year pastorate, my approach to faith and work—and to pastoral ministry as a whole—slowly shifted. Strangely enough, the shift started by listening to my own sermon from 1 Chronicles 26 based on the life of King Uzziah. I noticed that the entire chapter lauded King Uzziah's "secular" rather than "spiritual" accomplishments. So in my sermon titled "Your Whole Life Matters," I argued that the Bible demolishes any kind of sacred/secular split and instead proclaims the lordship of Christ over our whole life, including our work.

I have to admit, it was a darn good sermon, but there was one huge problem: I wasn't following my own advice. And even worse, my vision of pastoral ministry backed me into the sacred/secular split I was telling people to avoid. But now a sermon from an obscure Old Testament text was working on my soul, subverting my disengagement and healing my carefully crafted split.

Shortly after that sermon, I reinstated the visitation practice from my small town Barnum days. I started by sitting in on a biochemistry lecture from Bob, the co-chair of our elder board, a professor at Stony Brook University, and an internationally-regarded researcher on complex carbohydrates. At one point in the lecture, as Bob passionately discussed the beautiful and intricate design of a human cell, I wanted to shout, "This is amazing! Someone has to tell people about how the human cell points to a Creator." Of course I quickly realized that in his subtle but powerful way, that's what Bob does in a university classroom. But Bob's vocation wasn't about "smuggling" Christianity into the classroom. He felt called to the scientific quest, specifically the quest to research complex carbohydrates.

I also talked to Dale about his work as a physician's assistant in the hematology oncology (blood cancer) department at a state hospital. Like Bob, Dale had a surprisingly clear sense of vocational calling (surprising to me because for years I rarely let people talk about their work). "It's pretty straightforward," he told me. "The work I do brings Christ's caring presence to sick and often dying people." Dale and I also talked about how to share his faith in a difficult setting. Recently Dale said, "Matt, you were the first person to teach me that I didn't need to be a theologian or debater to share my faith at work. I just had to tell my story of encountering Christ. Your interest in my work helped me offer my patients Christ's hope without negating my calling to heal the sick."

Three Questions From Three Seasons

The longer I stayed at Three Village Church, the more I delighted in talking about other people's jobs. I was starting to shift from "you help me do my job as a pastor" to "how can I support you in your job as a ________." Honest, unrushed conversations about "what people do all day and how they feel about it" were launching me into a whole new approach to ministry.

As I reflect on my experiences over these three pastoral seasons, and as I enter my fourth season of pastoral ministry, I find myself more and more intrigued by these three questions:

How do we honor the callings among us? Like Dale and Bob, many people feel a deep sense of calling. I'll never forget how my friend Kenny, an incredible personal injury attorney, explained his calling. "People call me when an injustice has occurred," Kenny said. "Some tragic event—a traumatic accident, the wrongful death of a child—has ruptured my client's life. Ultimately only God can set things right, but I have the opportunity to help balance the scales of justice on this earth. I can't take away their loss, but I can help them in a time of deep personal brokenness. That's why I consider my legal practice a ministry, and that's why I almost always ask my clients if I can pray for them through the process. I've never had anyone say 'no.'"

Notice that people like Kenny are not called merely to do their job with integrity. For Kenny (and for Bob and for Dale), practicing law reflected a specific angle of God's character and work in the world. That's a high and holy calling. How do we honor people like Kenny in their calling?

How do we offer a robust theology of faith and work? Dale's calling to heal the sick has a pretty clear biblical angle. So did Kenny's job as a lawyer. But how do you develop software for the glory of God? That's the question my friend John was asking at the Three Village Church. John, a 25-year church volunteer who held nearly every job in the entire church, worked full-time in Manhattan as a vice president at JP Morgan Chase. He built teams that created new processes so Chase could develop and test new software. John knew that he was supposed to do his job with excellence and integrity. But he also felt frustrated that he never understood how his job connected to God's story of redemption. Recently he confessed, "The thing I never got a handle on was this: How does a Christian relate his or her faith to software development? What does that look like? Is there even a relationship?" How do we enrich people's work lives by helping them make that connection?

How do we heal our wounded workers? After his series of nearly 100 interviews, Studs Terkel observed that daily work often assaults our body and soul, relegating us to the company of what he called the "walking wounded." Work blesses and enriches, but it also curses and depletes.

After climbing in and out of fuel trucks on cold winter nights, Willis still walks with a limp. Dale had to watch many of his beloved patients die during cancer treatments. My friend Kenny recently told me, "Sometimes when you're a leader in the church, you're the guy who solves problems for the pastors. That's a real privilege, but it can also be lonely. In the midst of my job pressures, at times I wanted someone to ask me, 'Kenny, how's your work going? How can I pray for you about your case load?'" As pastors, how do we attend to people like Kenny, people whose work has placed them among the walking wounded?

Matt Woodley is editor of PreachingToday.com and missions pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.

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