Churches often teach people about “financial stewardship” — seeing the resources they possess as belonging to God and thus accountable to him for their disposal. Churches need to do better at teaching their members about “vocational stewardship” — seeing their jobs also as God’s provision, and deploying their talents through their work in ways that express love of neighbor.
By “vocational stewardship,” I mean the intentional and strategic use of one’s vocational power (skills, knowledge, network, position, platform) to advance human flourishing.
Too often in Christian circles “faith/work integration” is adverbial. We focus on the kind of employees we ought to be: ethical, caring, hard-working, conscientious. This is a vital part of such integration, but it’s not the whole. For the work itself matters. What we do — not just how we do it — matters.
Vocational stewardship starts by asking: What are the hallmarks of human flourishing from a biblical perspective? Scripture teaches that these include justice, beauty, peace, wholeness, economic flourishing, joy, community, dignity and intimacy with God. Then we ask: How can I deploy my vocational power to advance these values in my workplace, community and nation?
Consider businesswoman Wendy Clark. At age 20 she started Carpe Diem Cleaners in Durham, North Carolina. Initially, her sense of what it meant to be a Christian businessperson was that her company could generate profits — and then she could give generously to her church for its compassion ministries.
But now Wendy understands that her business itself is a means of ministry. She’s advancing economic flourishing among her employees — mostly single Hispanic moms. She works hard to schedule cleaners’ hours in ways that enable them to balance work and family. And instead of holding the company’s annual professional development training in the Durham office, 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 study of social work and religion in an initiative that advances wholeness.
As an undergraduate, Elizabeth pursued her love of farming during summer breaks, gaining practical skills working in an Appalachian orchard and later a small farm in Virginia. After graduation she worked at the Gould Farm in Massachusetts, discovering how farm work can be used as a therapeutic avenue. Today, she and her husband operate The Amazing Heart Farm outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It’s an agriculturally based center for individuals who have suffered trauma or loss.
Matthew Price has deployed his legal training to advance 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, helping them taste justice through acquittal and release. Today, lawyers and criminal investigators with the International Justice Mission are deploying their skills similarly, strengthening public justice systems abroad by partnering with local law enforcement agencies to rescue human trafficking victims and prosecute the perpetrators.
For architect Jill Kurtz, faith/work integration has involved specializing in “green design” and offering affordable design services to nonprofits and small businesses that are typically unable to access expensive architectural firms. She’s also now teaching “public interest” architecture to students at Kansas State University.
Oceanographer Jorge Vazquez expresses his faith by advancing 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. Vazquez 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, many of us can creatively advance human flourishing — what the Judeo-Christian worldview describes as “shalom” — in myriad ways. 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 her 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 community development. That’s what young Christian marketing, IT, business, graphic design and human resource professionals in the Big Apple are doing through Hope for New York’s “Professionals in Action” program.
Through vocational stewardship we can experience more joy and meaning in our work. Simultaneously, we promote the common good and offer our neighbors tastes of shalom. It’s a winning combination.
• Amy L. Sherman, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, where she directs the Center on Faith in Communities. She is the author of “Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good” (InterVarsity Press 2011).