But now I see (part II)
But now I see (part II)

But now I see (part II)

With a Christian worldview, our daily work can transcend the grind and connect to a great purpose.

June 1 st 2008
Appears in Summer 2008

In Part I of "But now I see" (Comment, March 2008), we whirled through an introduction to worldviews. In this brief essay, we want to slow down and employ our insights about worldviews to explore two aspects of our daily lives—work and leadership.

The Conference Board's surveys of job satisfaction suggest that about 40% of working people in the United States were unsatisfied with their jobs in 1995, and that the proportion of unsatisfied working people grew to about 50% by 2005. For the unsatisfied half of working Americans, work is an ugly necessity, something they need to do to get by. If work is despised, it is easy to imagine that motivation and morale on the job will be low and the need for vigilant oversight and incentives will be high. It is also understandable that many will seek to define themselves by their leisure activities more than by their careers. Such workers will naturally work for the weekend where they can "grab the gusto" (as the old Schlitz beer ads used to encourage) and live large, or they will pour their lives into family and community affairs as a way to find some meaningful centre of their existence. What forces have been at work to forge such a low view of work?

Other people seem to live by a super-inflated sense of the importance of work. Their motivation is extremely high, but they are driven by engines that may eventually propel them toward self-destruction. They may be on an intense quest for money, power, or status, or they may be seeking to assuage guilt, win favour, or affirm their own self-worth. It is no more pleasant to work in the company of these workaholics than it is with the job-haters.

What shapes our various views and attitudes about work?

I have a friend who is a successful investment banker. Stan makes about ten times more money each year than I do. His workouts each day at lunch are extremely grueling and accurately timed. No harm in that—in fact, he is in great shape. But there isn't much play or joy involved, and one gets the feeling that time away from work must be as efficient as time on the job. Time is, after all, money. Stan knows how much an hour of his time is worth, not to the dollar but to the penny. It is wasteful, he reasons, for him to mow his own grass, fix his own gutters, or iron his own shirts. Even this doesn't seem all that bad, and you might argue that it keeps the local economy alive. But what if Stan's company offered a service that not only took care of his car and his personal bills, but also picked up his kids before and after school? What if his secretary bought nice gifts for Stan to give to his wife? What if all of Stan's friends were executive coworkers, because those were the only people he had time for?

What I am trying to describe here is a kind of spillover from Stan's work to the rest of his life. I think that a healthy economy is a good thing, and that it is good for some people to know how to manage money, even huge amounts of it. Certain skills and ways of thinking are essential in order to do such a job well. But when those ways of reasoning, evaluating, and valuing spill over into other areas of life, the results are disastrous. When an economic orientation takes on too central a role in a person's worldview, other aspects of life are reduced in significance. Ethical questions become merely questions of cost-benefit analysis. Paintings are viewed solely as investments. Friends become clients. When such views take hold of the heart and imagination of a culture, we can call this perspective economism.

Working more, buying more, and feeling off-course

Two of the primary paradigms for organizing modern economic life, Marxism and capitalism, are both prone toward economism (the domination of life by economic rationality and concerns). While the success of capitalism has all but extinguished Marxism from the Western world, it is important to recognize their similarities and the way in which spillover from the marketplace is shaping our North American worldview. Both Marxism and capitalism define people too much by their role in economic life. If we begin to believe that we are first and foremost economic beings, then we will identify problems and solutions in economic terms. Marxism sees human beings fundamentally as producers who have been alienated from the fruit of their labour and who must rise up against the bourgeoisie to reclaim their freedom and identity. Capitalism sees human beings fundamentally as consumers who can solve problems and obtain happiness with money. The market-driven media reinforce this =consumerism daily, and we respond by working more, buying more, and yet still feeling somehow off-course. We worship in market-driven churches, and find it hard to imagine recreation without a ten-million-dollar movie or an eight-hundred-dollar mountain bike.

Michael Ende addressed the threat of economism in his fairy tale novel, Momo (1974). Strange businessmen began to move into town. They were all identically dressed: gray suits, gray shoes, gray Derby hats, gray briefcases, and prominent pocket watches. The adults in town were quickly drawn into the gray army of workers. A small group of children provided the only resistance. They met daily in the old ruins just outside of town to assess the strange invasion. A young girl became the leader of the resistance. Her only credential for leadership was that she cared in excessive and expressive ways for almost everyone. She was called Momo, perhaps because she didn't mark time by minutes and seconds. She took the time necessary, at any given moment, to respond with concern and compassion. This was her great gift, and with it she was eventually able to locate and restore the time and life that had been stolen by the gray parasites.

I don't think this story was about the fear of growing up, like Peter Pan. It wasn't the adult world that was gray, but something that was happening to adults. They were being drawn into something that was not bringing them life and happiness, but something that was turning them gray. Many of us feel ourselves growing gray at work. We have lost the exuberance we once had, and we have many reasons to feel cynical. For some of us, the only reason we don't quit is that we're not sure we could find something better. At least we are making enough to make ends meet. But it's tough to get up for work every morning when the job is merely instrumental, a means to an end, to a paycheck.

Work can, and I think should, be something much more. Our work can have meaning. To have meaning it has to be connected to something greater, to some purpose that transcends the daily grind. A Christian view of work can connect us to this greater purpose. A look at the institution of work in Genesis 2, before sin entered the world, indicates that work is something more than a necessary evil. Adam and Eve are commanded to work, not as punishment or as a means of survival, but because it was part of their God-given nature and mission as God's agents in the world. They were given the gifts and tasks of filling and cultivating the creation in a way that would honour God and demonstrate His gracious rule over all things. Their happiness was linked to the obedient execution of their office. They were responsible to care for creation, to care for one another, and to honour God with the fruit of their hands. We were created to be workers in God's creation. To begin to recapture meaning in the workplace, we need to go to work with the intention of honouring God in all our relationships, calculations, and transactions. This doesn't mean that Christians won't have gray days, be worn down by the daily grind, or be trapped in jobs that apparently contribute little to the common good. Christians, after all, live and work in the same hard world as everyone else.

In the Christian view work is situated in the broader perspective of a life of responsive service. Working is one expression of our loving obedience to God, as is resting, parenting, praying, celebrating, and helping those in need. God has called us into responsible action in a number of different areas of life. To view all of life through one aspect of the creation (like work or economics) leads to distortion. If we work to bolster our self-esteem, to gain power, or to hide from other responsibilities, we will ultimately be disappointed. We ought to "work heartily, as for the Lord" (Colossians 3:23) without being consumed by the grayness of economism.

Worldviews forge leadership models

Work doesn't exist in isolation. In fact, all of us engage in our work while connected to others in some way. And in these contexts we are at times frustrated by those who lead us, and we often find ourselves leading somewhat ineptly. Leadership, put rather simply, is the act of mobilizing people to bring about change. It is concerned with both the means (the mobilizing) and the ends (the desired change). Leaders mobilize followers in all sorts of ways. They lead by example, the strength of their character, sharing or clarifying a vision, selecting excellent managers, developing functional teams, executing sensible strategies, removing obstacles or creating incentives, encouraging and serving coworkers, and in dozens of other ways that you have practiced or witnessed. There is also a long list of the potential goals or changes that the leader may be pursuing: policies, laws, products, services, beliefs, attitudes, productivity, innovation, growth, and so forth. With this broad field of possible leadership behaviours and objectives, I think you can imagine how dynamic and challenging the field of leadership studies has become.

If worldviews are as pervasive and formative as I argued earlier in Comment, we ought to be able to anticipate what kind of leadership models will emerge in certain cultural settings. It probably won't surprise you to learn that Genghis Khan, one of the world's greatest military leaders, was raised in the fastest and fiercest army of the world, that Frederick Taylor's scientific management theory was hatched around the turn of the century in the incubator of a culture warmed to the possibilities of rational control and calculation, and that Total Quality Management rolled off the floors of Japanese assembly lines. Worldviews forge certain kinds of leaders. Of course, some leaders defy the status quo and seem to draw from different sources, even sources outside their own worldview community. Several of the biblical prophets strike me as good examples of this, and several important scientific breakthroughs have come about because scientists were able to imagine things according to entirely new paradigms.

We also ought to be able to study various leadership models and begin to "sniff out" the underlying beliefs and assumptions held by theorists and organizational leaders. Even if we can't detect exactly what answer a particular theorist or organizational consultant would give to the first worldview question about human identity, we can suspect that their answer is not very satisfying if their theory does not recognize the value and dignity of the follower. Strategies for manipulating followers and exploiting resources are disguised as leadership theories. Assumptions and theories are unwittingly affirmed by those utilizing a particular leadership model. And to make matters more confusing, leaders sometimes jump from one leadership model to another, cycling through several fashionable models in a year!

Christian leaders ought to be leery of the strategy du jour, and thoughtful Christian leaders ought to be able to sniff out the foul odor of manipulative leadership models. Many models are designed to help people with power to exploit those without it. The only goal is getting a job done as quickly and cheaply as possible. When work is defined simply in terms of efficiency, it is no wonder that workers begin to feel like they are simply cogs in the machine. Bureaucratic management techniques are no substitute for real leadership. In fact, such impersonal bureaucratic processes generally create a culture in which real leadership is impossible. In organizational cultures dominated by control and coercion, relationships are strained, trust is broken, and real leadership becomes a mere pipe-dream.

Thoughtful Christian leaders ought to draw upon a biblical worldview to discern the leadership challenges and opportunities of their place and time. What are the deep and good things that God has in view for this area of life? How is sin masking and twisting that good potential? And how can we rely upon God and work together to pursue mutual goals that will honour the Lord of all work and all places? Learning to see work and leadership and the particular issue at hand through the lens of creation-fall-redemption can lead to the revitalization of organizational culture. Healthy approaches to leadership are being explored by scholars and deployed in the workplace (such as transformational leadership and various empowerment models). Others are attempting to draw even more deeply upon Christian ideas such as the servant leadership approach pioneered by Robert Greenleaf. Christians still have a great deal of work to do, not only to develop servant leadership as a viable approach for the workplace, but to explore other models of leadership that are informed by the biblical narrative.

Every area of life and every area of the academy is shaped by worldviews. It is tough to recognize worldviews in everyday life because life is so thick, and we are enmeshed in it. Working together, however, we can become more adept at recognizing these foundational beliefs and frameworks for life. Together we can become sin-contending cultural critics and hope-bearing agents of cultural renewal.

Topics: Religion Vocation
Don Opitz
Don Opitz

Don Opitz is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the M.A. Higher Education program at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?