What is Your Experience with Poverty?

Not so ninja._digitalpimp._2

Photo Credit: Not so ninja., by digitalpimp., Flickr

Poverty is not a theme I take up frequently in this blog, but it is one that is important to our societies in general and to many individuals at a personal level.

In a previous post, I engaged the topic of Breaking the Cycle of Generational Poverty in the following manner:

While many people experience individual poverty in their lives due to the loss of a job or another tragedy, generational poverty emphasizes patterns where two or more generations continue in poverty within the family structure. Generational poverty is often characterized and reinforced by such causes as limited educational opportunities, poor health or ongoing battle with disease, and an inability to access resources such as land, finances, and information in the pursuit of a sustainable living.

Such a description helps to better understand the experience of poverty, which includes among other things a significant lack of choice. In his book Thriving in the City, T. Aaron Smith highlights this link between poverty and lack of choice.

Poverty and Lack of Choice

Smith notes, “The poor cannot simply will themselves into resources.” While this lack of resources does not guarantee that an individual will stay in poverty, it does guarantee that the poor most often face real and significant (not impossible) barriers along the way.

As I think about engaging such barriers, my personal focus is not primarily on the current political discourse or the role of government. Rather, the focus of my thinking here is on what individuals of faith, and leaders within faith communities, may do to engage such barriers inherent in the experience of poverty.

So what can persons of faith and leaders in faith communities do to help address such barriers?

A helpful place to start is following Jesus in both His heart for the poor and His desire to incarnate among the poor and disenfranchised of our world.

A Heart for the Poor

Consider Luke 4:18-19, a passage that arguably is the very mission statement of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor arguably includes all of us as those who are poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3)—all of us who need Jesus to set us free from the bondage of sin. But I believe it also includes the literal poor. As I look at the way Jesus approached His earthly life, His words and approach to life demonstrated a heart for both the poor in spirit (all of us!) and the materially and physically poor. Jesus models a heart for the poor.

A Willingness to Live Among the Poor

Not only did Jesus model a heart for the poor, He also modeled a willingness to live among the poor. The very incarnation—Jesus breaking into our world to live among us—is the ultimate picture of this reality. But He also modeled this in specific ways in His seeking out the company of the disenfranchised and marginalized of society.

It is this later theme that takes up the focus of Smith’s book. Here’s the full title of this resource, Thriving in the City: A Guide for Sustainable Incarnational Ministry among the Urban Poor.

Grounding his reflections in the broader example of Jesus’ incarnation, Smith puts most of his energies into writing about practical examples of how living among the poor can help play a role in reducing some of the key barriers discussed above.

Regardless of where you choice to live, the book provides a helpful challenge to see and respond to God’s incarnational heart for the poor. Moving beyond important macro conversations of how multiple sectors can work together to provide economic answers to the challenges of poverty, resources like Smith’s book remind us that we each can choose small steps in helping to engage the needs of the poor through practical and sustainable steps.

Are Markets Moral? … Reflecting on Economics and Virtue

Economy is Doing Well_Colleen Lane

Photo Credit: Economy is Doing Well, by Colleen Lane, Flickr

I’m not an economist, but am fascinated by conversations about economics. The reality is that we all live within economies, and yet rarely reflect on the morality of these systems within which we live.

Here are some of my reflections on the relationship between economics and virtue as I address this question: Are markets moral?

Healthy Cultures Included Healthy Economies

I would argue that healthy cultures are characterized in part by healthy economies. While most individuals quickly associate economies with transacted goods and services, the heart of economic systems is relational in nature—“the incredible social networks that capital both creates and depends upon.” Economies are the relational context within which we serve one another and contribute to human flourishing.

Healthy Economies Depend on a Healthy Environment or Culture

But one of the key challenges to healthy economies and markets is the environment or ecology that surrounds the economies or markets. If the surrounding ecology is healthy, this typically translates into a healthy economy. Conversely, if the surrounding ecology is unhealthy, this typically translates into a challenged and unhealthy economy.

Daniel Finn puts it this way: “An awareness of the interplay of markets and their contexts is critical for understanding under what conditions the outcomes of voluntary interactions of individuals and businesses in the market will be considered just.” Finn sees four dimensions the “context” or ecology surrounding economies:

  1. The Construction of Markets by Government (markets being properly defined by law)
  2. The Provision of Essential Goods and Services
  3. The Presence of Morality among Individuals and Groups
  4. The Existence of a Vibrant Civil Society

Depending on That which Markets Cannot Create

To answer the question of whether markets are moral therefore requires us to look outside economic markets. Markets depend on forces—such as individual and group morality—that markets themselves are not able to produce.

On this point William McGurn notes that the economy “depends on virtues—self-restraint, honesty, courage, diligence, the willingness to defer gratification—that it cannot itself create.” Restating it—healthy economy is dependent on something that the economy itself cannot produce.

Moral Markets Surrounded by Multiple Sectors

In light of such arguments by Finn and McGurn, health and morality of economic markets are dependent on the health and morality of the surrounding culture and ecology. As someone working to train leaders especially in the non-profit and church realms, I feel the need for leaders in these sectors to better understand their contribution to healthy economies and healthy cultures.

Such leaders play an important role in nurturing this dimension of virtue—virtue that serves as the social or spiritual capital upon which healthy economies are dependent. Just as the business and government sectors play vital roles, the non-profit and religious sectors also play a key role in nurturing healthy economies and the virtue upon which healthy markets may function.

Because of the power of healthy economies to contribute to human flourishing, it is vital for the people of God in religious sectors to engage in theological reflection and practical conversation that will help contribute to the social and spiritual capital upon which the incredible social network of the economy may flourish.

Virtues and Leadership

Though not specifically dealing with economics, for those wanting to engage the importance of virtue in leadership a bit more, I recommend you take a look at an article Jim Lanctot and I wrote for the International Journal of Leadership Studies entitled Character and Leadership: Situating Servant Leadership in a Proposed Virtues Framework.

The Moral Market and You

It is easy to look around and feel powerless to affect the economy in a positive and healthy manner. Drawing on the insights of William McGurn and others, perhaps a great first and best place to start is with your closest sphere of influence.

  • Are you working to nurture virtue and morality within your own life and the life of those closest to you (children, family friends)?
  • Are you using your place in the market as a voice and presence to help create what the market itself cannot create?
  • Are you engaging in your work and market activity with responsible action, a spirit of value creation (giving more than you take), and commitment to steward your gifts and talents in a way that productively contributes to the flourishing of the world around you?

Such action at the personal and local level leaves a powerful ripple in the markets and economies of which you are part.

So, are markets moral? It depends on the surrounding environment, which means it also depends on you. Let’s be a force for positive and healthy economic flourishing within our sphere of influence.

Reflections from Labor Day

Fremont Bridge workers, 1951, Seattle Municipal Archives, Flickr

Fremont Bridge workers, 1951, Seattle Municipal Archives, Flickr

Today is Labor Day in the United States. Originally celebrated as “the workingman’s holiday,” Labor Day is a celebration on the first Monday in September which finds its roots in the late 1800s. Oregon, the state where I grew up, was the first state to legally recognize Labor Day after passing the holiday into law on February 21, 1887. It was recognized as a national holiday seven years later in 1894.

With severe working conditions in the late 1800s in America, many labors faced 12-hour days that were seven-day work weeks. Among other factors, Labor Day was one of the forces at work as labors gathered to press for safer working conditions, fair pay, and to recognize the important contribution of every-day work.

While the day has come to also be associated with the end of summer and as a time for families, friends, and communities to gather together before summer’s end, it also serves as a helpful reminder that our society and economy flourishes as men and women do their every-day jobs with excellence.

In a previous post I reflect on the Web of Work that we all benefit from on a daily basis. Whether reading through that post, or considering the value of the work you and others do in another manner, I hope you are able to BOTH enjoy a holiday and reflect on the significance of work this day.

Related reading… The Web of Work: Serving and Being Served through Work

Considering a Career Change? READ THIS FIRST!

Now Hiring, by Nathan Stephens, Flickr

Now Hiring, by Nathan Stephens, Flickr

Changing careers can be a risky and challenging move. This is especially the case for folks who have been at a career for 10, 20, or more years.

For most individuals with 20 + years of work experience in one field, the easiest (and often most advisable) answer is to stay put through the primary working years. While this is the easiest answer, this is not always the feasible or desirable answer.

A Question of Feasibility

The larger economy, as well as the nature of companies in general, continues to change in our day. With these changes, few organizations can assure their people that they will have lifetime employment.  For many in our day, career shifts are based on necessity rather than personal wishes.

This necessity may be due to downsizing at their current company or organization. This necessity may also be due to a larger trend in their industry in general—trends that mean fewer jobs are available in their field.

A Question of Desirability

Other times, a change in career is driven by personal desire rather than the practical questions of feasibility. As a professor teaching in the seminary context, these are the students I often meet. These students are considering a career shift to pastoral or other church-based leadership roles that typically is not driven by necessity.

Whether it is a shift toward church-based ministry along with many of my students, or another career path altogether, the question of desirability is driven by finding a vocational role in the years ahead that will be personally meaningful and fulfilling.

Practical Advice for Changing Careers

Whether driven by the feasible or desirable, what is the most effective way to pursue a career transition? I came across a fascinating article on this topic by Herminia Ibarra this past summer. Ibarra observes that there is one key differentiator between those who make a successful career change and those who do not.

This key differentiator is moving from a “Plan and Implement” approach to a “Test and Learn” approach. Here are some of my reflections on Ibarra’s broad categories that I will engage around the shift from planning to playing.

Traditional Advice—Plan then Act

Typically, people consider a career change by thinking through options, deciding on one, and then taking the plunge by acting on that knowledge. In other words, the process moves from planning to acting. This seems like a logical and helpful approach.

The only problem with this is that it is disconnected from the way life typically works!

Consider the way infants, toddlers, and children learn. Toddlers do not typically spend weeks thinking through their future walking strategy and then all of the sudden start their walking journey with perfection. Most toddlers spend a lot of time trying things out—“playing”—and typically take lots of spills along the way. Over time, though, they learn a new skill and it becomes an integrated part of who they are.  In this example, planning is not the key, but rather playing.

Often this is the way various sports and hobbies are selected as well. Children and teens try on a lot of options and slowly figure out both what they are good at and what they enjoy. The initial career process often follows this path as well.

Better Advice—Play then Act

However, the further along we go in our career, the less likely we seem to follow this path of play. We become more risk adverse in career selection, and this often leads to making very thoughtful, methodical, calculated, and slow decisions. In Ibarra’s words, the plan and implement approach “sounds reasonable—but it actual fosters stagnation,” and keeps us “mired in introspection.”

While there is wisdom in thoughtful and slower decisions, it is important to go back to our earlier days to drawn insights we once knew about playing that leads to proficiency.

Because developmental learning is often tied to trying things out first—playing—experimenting with career transitions by trying things out is key to the success of many pursuing career transitions.

Ibarra calls this the test and learn method to career transitions: “You put several working identities into practice, refining them until they’re sufficiently grounded in experience to inspire more decisive steps.” Putting these identities into practice is vital because careers are closely connected with people’s identities. On this point, Ibarra writes:

The test-and-learn approach recognizes that the only way to counter uncertainty and resist the pull of the familiar is to make alternative futures more vivid, more tangible, and more doable. We acquired our old identities in practice. Likewise, we redefine them, in practice, by crafting experiments, shifting connections, and making sense of the changes we are going through.”

Finding Ways to Play before Acting

In light of such advice, the key to considering a career transition is finding ways to try things out first before taking a plunge. What is the possible career transition you have been considering? How can you find a way to experiment with this career before releasing your former career?

Ibarra recommends trying out “new activities and professional roles” on a small scale before making a commitment to a different path. This likely means making some form of sacrifice in the short-term:

  • Trying out freelance work in a new area
  • Considering an educational option that will give you on-the-job experience
  • Doing some pro bono work to get experience
  • Engaging in a new area of work as a volunteer
  • Using some evenings or weekends to try out a role through a second job
  • Taking some vacation time to explore the new role over a concentrated period of time

In all of these examples, the key is to find a way to “play” rather than just “plan.” Try things on. See if the role is a fit. Use the “play” time to see if you are (1) good at the role, and (2) enjoy the role.

As you play in this new role (or roles), be open to the fact that this role may actually affirm that you are already in a good fit already. Whether the play affirms a new career direction or reaffirms your current career, this vocational play will be well worth the investment.

Enjoy the Planning and Playing

Bottom line, a career change is a big decision. It is worth taking the time necessary to make sure it is the right decision. Taking time is not just about planning, though. It is also about playing. Take time to play in these new roles, try them out, and see if they are the right fit for you at this season of your life.

The Web of Work: Serving and Being Served through Work

Web, david reid, Flickr

Web, david reid, Flickr

Have you paused recently to reflect on how interdependent we are in our work and within an economy? For those with independent streaks, this question might be received as insulting. But I mean this in the best sense of interdependence. No-one truly is independent. We rely upon countless others throughout our day, and others rely upon us.

Work, at its core, is the means by which we serve one another in a society and an economy. Through my work I contribute to society and make myself useful to others. And through the work of others, I am served countless times throughout my day. And lest we miss this, work has both paid and unpaid expressions. From a parent working at home to care for children, to those serving in paid positions, our work—paid and unpaid—is most often the primary way we serve others.

Work becomes a beautiful web or network of service.

My Work of Serving Others Today

My work today happens to involve traveling to a conference. Because of this, my work for the day is fairly straightforward. First, I’m using time on the plane to (hopefully) serve you the reader of this blog through my work of reflecting on the meaning of work. Second, I’m going to a conference that will allow me to gain insights for my role as an academic administrator so that I may better understand how I to serve the students enrolled in the doctoral program I lead.

So this particular day, I hope that the recipients of my work are you and my doctoral students. Through my work (some of it paid and some of it unpaid), I am serving others today.

The Work of Others Serving Me Today

But the web of work does not end there by a long shot. It is barely lunchtime as I write this, and I have been served by innumerable individuals who have served me through their work.  Though I will certainly miss countless categories, consider with me the multitude of individuals who have already served me today through their work before I have even reached the lunch hour.

Waking Up

  • The furniture makers who made the bed I slept in
  • The home builders who made the home in which I live and woke up
  • The inventors and manufacturers who developed the alarm clock used to wake me

Preparing for the Day

  • The workers who made the modern conveniences of a shower, toilet, and sink
  • The product developers and distributors who make simple toiletries available so I may shave and brush my teeth
  • The clothing designers, manufactures, and laborers involved in the creation and distribution of the clothing I am wearing today

Traveling to, from, within, and in between Airports

  • The countless individuals from Henry Ford on involved in providing a reliable Ford vehicle for me to drive to the airport this morning
  • The massive number of individuals who participated in the planning, construction, and maintenance of the roadway and traffic network facilitating a smooth drive to the airport
  • The countless number of engineers, builders, and beyond involved with constructing and maintaining the parking ramp, elevator, trams, escalator, restaurants, concourses, restrooms, jet ways, tarmacs, runways, and airplanes I have encountered and relied upon today
  • The technology experts involved in bringing smartphones, computers, monitors, and avionics involved in my work and transportation today
  • The many airport and airline employees who helped with scheduling, checking in, loading bags, fueling planes, boarding, serving passengers on the plane, flying, navigating, and those attending to safety through air traffic control

Brightening the Day — Back to the Individual

And while I’m missing an endless number of categories and individuals who have served me today through products and services provided and used—even though I have never met most of them—sometimes we have the chance to get to see the person serving us and greet them by name.

One of those individuals was Gwen. Gwen served me through her work today by brewing and handing me my coffee this morning at the airport. Though a small act, Gwen brightened the early morning at the start of my travel with kindness and caffeine. While she is just one individual, Gwen reminds me that the countless number of others who served me today through their work also have names and faces.

Work and Economy is about People

At the end of the day, economy and work are not just about money, labor, and exchange. Economy and work are ultimately about people and how these people contribute to the well-being and flourishing of others. In a modest way, I’m serving people through my particular work today. In exchange for this modest commitment to serve others, in return I have been served by thousands, if not millions, through the products and services that have facilitated my work and travel today.

In light of this, I am grateful. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve others through my work. I’m grateful for other people who likewise serve me through their work. Work provides a network of service. Work, in a very real way, becomes the glue that holds us together as a society.

An Invitation to Recognize and Value People in Their Work

So, I invite you to pause in the midst of your day.

Pause and recognize how you are serving others in your work today, both the paid or unpaid dimensions of your work. Pause and recognize how others are serving you through their work (again, paid or unpaid). Be grateful for these observations. Be grateful for these people. And, allow this thankfulness to spill over into expressions of grace and gratitude as you interact with others in your day. We live in a delightful Web of Work.