About 18 months ago, I stepped down from my position as Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network and handed the reins over to my faithful coworker Tom Grosh. I kept my toe in the world of campus ministry by continuing to write for InterVarsity and leading a seminar at Urbana, but at the end of this month, I’m going to be stepping down (again) from my role as a blog contributor to focus on my new full-time job as web manager for a Cincinnati-based manufacturing company. It’s an unusual career move, but most of my career moves have been unusual. Next week, I’m going to share my thoughts about where ESN has come over the past several years and where I see it going in the future, but today I wanted to offer some reflections about the nature of careers and ministry.
In truth, I never expected to work for a Christian organization. When I finished my BA, I thought I would eventually get a PhD and become an English professor; the grantwriting job at the local orchestra was just a temporary gig to pay the bills. I chose Regent College for graduate school because of its focus on theological education for lay people, and I expected to use my education there as a foundation for a career outside the world of professional ministry. Only after several (very fulfilling!) years with a nonprofit with a non religious mission did I feel God pulling me toward an explicitly Christian organization.
Who Does God’s Work?
Between my time at Regent and my work with IVCF, did I cease to minister? Not at all! In addition to starting a community of 20- and 30-something’s in our local church, my nonprofit work focused on establishing standards for an ethical marketplace, mirroring many of the ideas I learned from Paul Stevens at Regent. Interestingly enough, this company I just joined reflects many of the concepts of sustainable business and stewardship taught by Regent’s Loren Wilkinson.
Along with InterVarsity, my earliest spiritual mentors (through reading) were Eugene Peterson, J.I. Packer, the poets George Herbert, John Donne, Richard Wilbur, and W.H. Auden, and the novelists Graham Greene and Wendell Berry. Through their influence, I’ve never felt a strong divide between the “spiritual” and “secular” realms of life. Ephesians 4 is probably my favorite passage of Scripture, because Paul makes it clear that the purpose of “religious workers” or “full-time Christian ministers” is not to do ministry, but to empower all of God’s people for ministry:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service [“ministry,” in the King James], so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-13)
The work of the church isn’t the sole domain of “ministers.” All of God’s people are involved in God’s mission.
What Is God’s work?
Further, God’s mission isn’t limited to the work of the church. Since stepping down from my full-time role with InterVarsity, I’ve actually had several opportunities to use my Regent degree at my church, contributing a few hymns to our Advent and Lenten services and, just this week for Pentecost, being able to read a passage from one of my favorite psalms — Psalm 104 — in Hebrew before the congregation. Several verses of the psalm describe God’s role in blessing and feeding all of creation.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts. (Ps. 104:14-15)
A few years ago, the Faculty Ministry Leadership Team studied this psalm during one of our meetings, and someone pointed out something very odd about the “food from the earth” here. Wine, oil, and bread are all processed foods, requiring considerable time, effort, and expertise from human beings to produce. Even the cultivation of grapes, olives, and grains — the raw materials of wine, oil, and bread — is something that requires human involvement.
God cares for and blesses people through our work, not despite or instead of our work. The Fall cursed our work by making it more difficult and less effective, but work itself was a blessing given to us by God. If you pay attention, the Biblical authors repeatedly use wine, oil, and bread as symbols of God’s provision throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Think of how these three products of human work are held forth as signs of the Messianic age in the Gospels. This is not a accidental combination of imagery.
My resume, with its combination of secular and theological degrees, its alternation between “ministry” and “normal” jobs, may look strange to many people. It may be – and often is – difficult to explain to someone who thinks in straightforward secular vs. spiritual categories. I’m certain that I’ve been knocked out of contention for jobs because of my theological degree and my campus ministry position. Despite that, I’m glad that my resume raises questions, because it reflects the unity of God’s creation and mission that is so often lacking elsewhere in the world.
Next week, some parting thoughts about the future of ESN.