David Brooks on Vocation and Making Commitments

The Graduates, by Luftphilia, Flickr

The Graduates, by Luftphilia, Flickr

I spent some time today reading a commencement address by David Brooks to the Dartmouth Class of 2015 entitled “The Ultimate Spoiler Alert.”

In it, Brooks sought to provide a picture of what the decades of life beyond college will look like for these graduates and presented an argument that their “primary mission in life is to be really good at making commitments.”

The Importance of Commitments

On this point, Brooks notes:

“Making commitments sounds intimidating, but it’s not.
Making a commitment simply means falling in love with something,
and then building a structure of behavior around it
that will carry you through when your love falters.”

What a powerful observation about the nature of commitments.

Brooks goes on to argue that these students will end up needing to make four major commitments in their life. A commitment to:

  1. Their spouse and family,
  2. A career and a vocation,
  3. Their faith or philosophy, and
  4. A community and a village.

Though it would be great to engage any of these commitments, I’d like to focus on Brooks’ observations around the commitment to a career and a vocation.

Vocation is Something that Summons You

Brooks’ provides a thoughtful comment regarding the difference between a vocation and a career. He notes: “A vocation is not a career. A career is something you choose. A vocation is something that summons you.”

That’s not always the way people think of vocational discernment; personal choice is often the point emphasized.

But Brooks sees vocation as more of something that calls from outside of us rather than arises from within by simple personal choice. Explaining further, Brooks continues:

“People with vocations don’t ask: What do I want from life? They ask: What is life demanding me to do? What gap is there in my specific circumstances around me that demands my skill set?

It’s not found by looking inside you for your passion. People have studied this. Eighty percent of you don’t have a passion. It’s found by looking outward, by being sensitive to a void and need, and then answering the chance to be of use.”

Looking Outside to Find an Opportunity to Provide Value

If Brooks’ observations are accurate and vocation is found by looking outside, this calls for answering a few key questions:

  • Are you paying attention to your surroundings?
  • Are you being sensitive to the voids and needs around you?
  • Are you responding to the opportunities to be of use?

In business, people understand the priority of providing value. Rather than asking “what do I want to do in life?” the more fulfilling line of inquiry is “what is the vocational path on which I may contribute the most or best value to those around me?”

In other words, vocational fulfillment is not just an individual pursuit. Vocational fulfillment is found within the context of community. At each stage of life ask: “Am I looking outward to see how I may be used to provide meaning and value to those around me through my vocation and service?

God’s wisdom to each of you as you engage such significant questions and pursue the vocational path that lies before you at each life stage.

Observations from an Overwhelming Week

Stress, by Environmental Illness Net..., Flickr

Stress, by Environmental Illness Net…, Flickr

Life can feel quite overwhelming at times. This past week felt like this for me. Perhaps you can identify.

In light of my week, I’m going to take a bit more of an autobiographical approach to this post.

My week was not overwhelming due to a massive crisis hitting my life, though there are plenty of crises hitting our world these days. In fact, most of the various items hitting the schedule were extremely enjoyable taken individually. The overwhelming feeling simply came as the normal flow of life built up and a few added curveballs were thrown into the mix.

I’m sure you have your own list of ordinary and normal flow of life items, but here are a few of mine from both the professional and personal levels:

Professional

  • Preparing class lectures
  • Meetings with students
  • Teaching classes
  • Grading papers
  • Recording lectures for online students
  • Participating in administrative meetings and attending to administrative needs for our school

Personal

  • Spending time as a family
  • Enjoying a date with my wife
  • Attending a friend’s wedding
  • Engaging with our community group at church
  • Teaching a Sunday school class
  • Spending time in the minivan with my daughter who is learning to drive
  • Watching my daughter’s high school soccer game
  • Helping coach my son’s football team with multiple games and practices
  • Helping with the normal flow of house work

Navigating the Curveballs

I’m a bit tired just typing out this list of normal flow of life activities! I know you have your own list as well.

For me, this list shifted from normal flow to overwhelming when spending time working on two vehicles needing maintenance — one vehicle that was outsourced to a professional and one vehicle with work I did myself. Oh, and I lost my wallet as well!

You get the idea. We all have our normal flow of life activities, and then the occasional week comes along that throws us a curveball. My curveballs this week were vehicle repairs and a lost wallet. Your curveball likely was something else.

Working Hard from Passion rather than Stress

In the midst of this slightly crazy, and wonderful, week, I landed on a delightful quote from Simon Sinek:

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress;
working hard for something we love is called passion.”
– Simon Sinek

With the exception of the vehicle maintenance and calling credit card companies to report lost cards, as I look back on this past week, a vast majority of everything with which I engaged thankfully fell into the passion category. Although I hope to avoid such a busy week as I move into another, I’m grateful that even when the work feels hard, it still feels meaningful.

May you find work in the week ahead that draws out passion rather than stress for you!

I’ll be aiming for this sweet spot as well.

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.

11 Lessons for Those Feeling “Stuck” or “Trapped” in their Careers

Limitless, by David Melchor Diaz, Flickr

Limitless, by David Melchor Diaz, Flickr

Have you ever had the feeling of being “stuck” or “trapped” in a career or job? Most people have at one time or another.

The question of what to do with this “stuck” feeling is vital for anyone facing a challenging season, and is at the heart of what I’d like to engage in this brief reflection.

Changing Your Work Context

Sometimes this experience or feeling leads toward a shift away from one’s current role, whether this shift is dramatic or more subtle.

One expression of this might be the bold step of quitting a job even though a next step is not in place. Another expression of this might be putting your résumé out and getting a feel for other options. Still another expression of this might be going back to school in order to eventual make the jump out of a current role.

Changing Your Perspective on Your Work Context

Other times, the answer is not a shift away from a role or organization, but rather a shift in perspective within that role or organization. This path is about taking a proactive posture toward the stuck feeling. Rather than seeing this as something brought upon you by the organization or others, this is about shifting to take ownership and responsibility for what you have control of as you face this feeling.

Advice for Getting Unstuck

On this point, Robert Steven Kaplan provides thoughtful reflections in his HBR article entitled Reaching Your Potential. Here are some recommendations and reflections drawn from Kaplan’s work for those desiring to move out of this feeling of being “stuck” and “trapped.”

  1. Understand Your Strengths and Weaknesses
  2. Use this Understanding to Guide Your Career Choices and Goals
  3. Identify Three or Four Tasks that Are Central to Your Work Responsibilities; Make Sure You Excel at These
  4. Show Character and Leadership within Your Role and Organization
  5. Put the Interests of the Company and Your Colleagues ahead of Your Own Interests
  6. Be Willing to Speak Up, Even Voicing Unpopular Views
  7. Don’t Play It Too Safe
  8. Identify Your Dreams
  9. Develop Skills to Realize these Dreams
  10. Demonstrate Courage to Pursue these Dreams
  11. Remember their Will be Bumps Along the Way

What Are Your Next Steps for Getting Unstuck?

Although we could identify other recommendations to add to these, Kaplan provides great insight here for those wanting to move forward from this place of feeling stuck. The key is to move away from a passive posture and on toward an active posture of taking ownership in moving toward your career potential.

What steps have been most helpful for you in getting “unstuck” in the context of your job?

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.

Let Your Life Speak — How to Understand Your Vocational Call

Artist at work, Jean-Francois Phillips, Flickr

Artist at work, Jean-Francois Phillips, Flickr

How do you discern your vocational path? How do you decide what your contribution to the world will be? What is your vocational calling?

These are big questions. How we understand our work and the contribution we make to the world is vital from our earliest days of vocational discernment on through adulthood.

  • It is vital for teens as they consider potential pathways for further education and future work.
  • It is vital for adults as they work to make ends meet for their family, and particularly as they seek to do so in a manner that is fulfilling to them personally and meaningful to others societally.
  • It is vital to all engaged in any form of vocation because our work lives occupy the majority of our waking hours.

Understanding the importance of vocational discernment is one thing. Understanding how to approach this process of vocational discernment is quite another.

How to Engage in Vocational Discernment

As I have spent time teaching in the area of leadership and the inner-life, one of the core principles I come back to with students time after time is a rather simple one—the importance of listening. At the core of vocational discernment is the art of listening.

1. Listening to Heroes and History

In the book of Hebrews we are instructed to “Remember [our] leaders, those who spoke to [us] the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). This charge to look to our leaders is not simply referring to the contemporary and living, but rather also to those who have gone before us.

In Hebrews chapter 11 the author highlights over a dozen persons of great faith such as Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and David. Reflecting on their lives, we are instructed: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).

As we look to such stories of courage and faith, this becomes one pathway of listening for our own vocational discernment. What is “the race that is set before us”? As we run our own race, we have “so great a cloud of witnesses” surrounding us and cheering us on. Some of these are individuals we read about in Scripture. Some of these are courageous individuals we read about in other historical literature. We can learn about our own vocational race as we look to others. We can reflect on our life and calling as we consider the lives and callings of those throughout history. Historical examples, for better or worse, provide thoughtful insights for our own vocational discernment process.

2. Listening to Your Community

Not only can we engage in vocational discernment through listening to heroes and history, we also must learn to listen well to those in our immediate communities. Are we listening to our family, our friends, and maybe even our foes as we consider our vocational path? There is great value in a contemplative approach to vocational discernment (something I will highlight below), but calling is often best discerned not in isolation but rather in the context of community.

Are we listening to the voices around us? Are we listening to the perspectives of supervisors? Are we listening to feedback from coworkers and those who work for us? Are we listening to what our friends and family share? Are we listening even to our critics when they bring constructive rather destructive reflection?

In the context of community we find a place to listen to others in our own vocational discernment processes.

3. Listening to Your Life

In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer points us to an old Quaker saying that became the title of his book—let your life speak.

Speaking to Your Life

Parker begins his reflections by contrasting two approaches to life. I’ll call the first approach speaking to your life. On this approach, Parker writes, “Vocation, the way I was seeking it, becomes an act of will, a grim determination that one’s life will go this way or that whether it wants to or not.” This is the path many pursue for understanding and seeking their vocational goals.

This path is characterized by setting our course, clarifying our values, and identifying and implementing things such as our S.M.A.R.T. goals. Certainly there is a place for these principles.  But Parker is pointing us to something more. He refers to this something more as letting your life speak.

Let Your Life Speak

Rather than planning out and dictating to our life, Palmer reminds us of the importance of listening to our life and letting our life speak to us. Parker writes, “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”

Such insights remind us of the value of contemplative reflection. They remind us of the importance of stopping, listening, and paying attention to what is happening in and through our lives. Though contemplation is not the only solution, it is a particularly important message for this season in time and history. There are so many potential distractions around us. Although contemplatively listening to our lives has always taken intentionality, in the days of smartphones, email, Facebook, and countless other barriers to contemplation, we are reminded that listening to our lives takes focus and intentionality.

4. Listening to God

For persons of faith, listening to God is the most important consideration. Understanding and living out God’s will for us is a primary concern, and a conversation for which the biblical authors provide key insights (e.g., Romans 12:1-2). While the discussion of understanding God’s will and listening to God’s heart for us warrants a substantial treatment, at this point I’d simply like to make the connection between listening to God’s voice and what has been noted above.

Listening to voices from history, voices from our community, and the voice of our own life are some of the primary ways we hear the voice of God in our lives. The biblical phrase “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) reminds us that through seasons of discernment and prayer, often the will of God is discerned in the context of the communities within which we are placed.

Certainly God can speak in very direct and dramatic ways. Moses experienced this in the burning bush of Exodus 3. But more often, we hear the voice of God in quiet ways through the people, events, and circumstances that shape our life. We tend to hear God more like the “gentle whisper” Elijah experienced (1 Kings 19:11-13) than the burning bush Moses experienced (Exodus 3).

What’s Next — Moving from Listening to Action

While listening is often the headwaters of discerning vocational calling, action is also important. Engaging the question “How do you get where you want to go,” Michael Hyatt reminds his readers of the importance action: “Just start. Once we had our direction all that was left was to move toward it. … Clarity is composed of knowing and doing.”

As most can affirm through their life experience, sometimes the best way to figure out what is vocationally fulfilling is to experience a number of options. As you “try on” these vocational options, what is a good fit for your skill set and gift mix? What is consistent with your personal passions and purpose? What options are also aligning with opportunities?

While vocational discernment begins in contemplation, it doesn’t end there. Find a rhythm of moving between contemplation and action. There is a cyclical or helical relationship between reflection and action where contemplation gives birth to behavior, and those actions once again lead us back to further reflection.

What Has Worked for You?

As you’ve engaged in your own vocational discernment journey, what has been the key for you? What acts of listening have been of help to you? What other steps do you recommend for those engaged in their own vocational discernment process?

Leadership, Work, and the Priority of Purpose

Purpose Logo, leesean, Flicker

Purpose Logo, leesean, Flicker

Purpose matters. As evidenced by the popularity of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life—a book that has sold over 30 million copies—people have an innate desire to know that their lives matter and that their lives are shaped by a sense of purpose. One CEO, Dave Dillon, expressed it this way: “All human beings want to find meaning in their lives.”

Purpose and Leaders

While purpose is a priority for all human beings engaged in all types of work, purpose holds unique importance for leaders. Why is this? Leaders have an important role to play in shaping the culture and direction of the organizations they lead. Will this culture and direction be shaped by an anemic vision of life and organizational purpose, or will it be shaped by a vital sense of purpose and mission that connects to something larger than themselves and contributes to the flourishing others?

Engaging the importance of purpose for leadership, Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, asks the following questions: “What is your True North? Do you know what your life and leadership are all about, and when you are being true to yourself?

Personal and Organizational Purpose

Although this begins with a personal sense of purpose for leaders, this “True North” purpose is vital at both the personal and organizational levels. Does the leader personally have a sense of purpose guiding their life? Does the leader also see a greater sense of purpose in the work organizationally? Understanding purpose at both the personal and organizational levels is vital for leaders and followers alike.

Theologically-Based Purpose

Amy Sherman provides thoughtful reflection on purpose and vocation in her book Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good. In discussing the core of Christianity Sherman writes: “The gospel of the kingdom tells us not only what we’re saved from, but also what we’re saved for. We have purpose, we have a sacred calling, we have a God-giving vocation….”

In other words, God has made, shaped, and redeemed our lives for a purpose. The Bible reminds us that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Because of the gospel, our lives are not only moving away from something but our lives are to be oriented toward and for something as well.

Practically-Effective Purpose

Not only is purpose in work and leadership a theologically grounded idea, it is also practically effective and backed by a growing research base. In another post I highlighted the work I’ve been doing with the Purpose in Leadership Inventory (PLI). Along with additional leadership variables such as goal-orientation and follower-focus, the variable of purpose in leadership is showing strong statistical relationships with other important variables. Purpose in leadership—a leader’s sense of personal and organizational purpose—is significantly related to leadership effectiveness, follower job satisfaction, follower organizational commitment, and follower sense of person-organization fit.

Identifying Your Purpose

Amy Sherman argues that our vocational sweet spot is found at the center of three domains: (1) God’s priorities, (2) personal passions and gifts, and (3) the world’s needs. Understanding this vocational sweet spot goes a long way in understanding one’s purpose. Bill George makes a similar affirmation arguing that “following your passions will enable you to discover the purpose of your leadership.”

Understanding your purpose as a leader is not simply about personal fulfillment. Understanding your purpose and how this relates to the organization you serve shapes the lives of others. Leader purpose helps followers to be more satisfied in their work, have a better sense of their fit in the organization, and have increased commitment to their work and to their organization.

Taking the Next Step with Purpose

So what is your purpose? What is the “True North” that guides you in your life, work, and leadership? Whether taking to time to read a book such as Bill George’s True North, or engaging with a peer or coach who may help you better clarify your vocational sweet spot and sense of purpose, purpose needs to be a priority. Take time to prioritize reflection on purpose in your life, leadership, and work in the coming days.

Oikonomia — Work as Stewardship

Work [Explored], by Riccardo Cuppini, Flickr

Work [Explored], by Riccardo Cuppini, Flickr

In January I attended a conference put on by the Oikonomia Network. Oikonomia is a Greek term used in the New Testament to describe the concept of stewardship and the appropriate management or administration of the resources of a household. Oikonomia is also a root word behind the English word economy, and points us to the connection between healthy economy and healthy stewardship of work in relationship with others.

The Intrinsic Value of Work

This conference for professors and theological educators is a place for those teaching or administrating in seminaries to come together and engage the priority of affirming the significance and goodness of work within our world and within our economies. Rather than work only having utilitarian benefits (i.e., just a way to bring home a pay check), there are significant theological reasons to affirm the intrinsic value of work in addition to the utilitarian value of work.

Most individuals engaged in everyday work feel the toil and struggle involved with work. Among the consequences of sin in our world is the reality of pain and toil in labor and work. But from a biblical perspective, it is important to remember that work was a part of the fabric of our world before the fall of humanity into sin.

God as Worker

In Genesis, the first description we read of God is his role as Worker and Creator:

  • In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), and
  • on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Genesis 2:2).

God not only worked in the beginning, he also continues to work:

  • all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17), and
  • he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).

Workers in God’s Image

While God is described in the Bible as one who worked and continues to work, the Bible also describes humans as made in his image. Part of this image of God is our identity as those who work. A core dimension of being human is that we also create and work. And, it is important to remember that this core was a reality for humanity before the image of God in us was ever distorted by sin. Note the description of Adam’s work in the garden before the fall into sin was a reality: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).

Working with Excellence

Though work was a part of the human story before humanity’s fall into sin, sin’s presence now affects our work. What once was joyful stewardship of God’s creation now is accompanied by toil and pain. But God is in the business of redeeming what is broken. This includes the process of redeeming work.

In light of such gospel transformation, God’s people are part of the redemptive story in the area of their work as well. Through our work, we serve others within God’s household—the broader context of the world in which we live. Through our work, we both serve others and honor God. Note the New Testament call to work with excellence, as one serving the Lord directly: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23-24).

Stewarding Our Work Well

Stewardship—oikonomia—is a helpful frame through which to consider the broader meaning of our everyday work. Certainly leadership is one context for stewardship. Leaders serving with a stewardship mindset recognize that their role is not simply about making decisions regarding their own resources, but rather making decisions that consider the needs of others and effectively stewarding the resources of the organization in a manner that considers the interests in which others are vested.

But in addition to leaders leaders, viewing our work under the leadership of God means that all workers have a stewardship responsibility. If we believe what the Bible says about God—“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1)—then all workers have a stewardship responsibility in their work to faithful care for and steward the resources of God’s household well.

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What are the resources that have been entrusted to you? What are the skills, talents, and abilities you’ve been given? How are you using your work as a pathway for stewarding both who you are and what you have in service of others and contributing within the wider economy within which you live and work? Work is a primary context for living as stewards. May this vision of oikonomia give you renewed energy to lead, serve, and work as stewards in God’s household—the world within which we live.