By John Terrill
I lead a Christian study center located in the heart of the University of Wisconsin. In my role—and for the past 20 years working at the seam of academy, marketplace, and church—one of the most visible gaps I see in local churches and Christian ministries is vocational stewardship.
Amy Sherman in Kingdom Calling describes vocational stewardship as “the intentional and strategic deployment of our vocational power—knowledge, platform, networks, position, influence, skills, and reputation—to advance foretastes of God’s kingdom.”
For all the time Christians spend working, the Church devotes little time to helping individuals see their work as laden with sacred potential. As a friend and pastor recently mused, “If our church members spent 40-60 hours per week fly fishing, we would learn how to tie a fly.”
Why, then, do we neglect offering more spirited attention to our work?
Human beings long to live integrated lives. Saint Irenaeus declared, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Yet so many of us lack a sense of meaning and purpose at work, as if we are resigned to be half-alive.
As a case in point, Gallup tracks employee engagement, which they define as persons “involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.” Only 15% of employees worldwide and 33% of U.S. employees are engaged.
Rather than a spirit of disconnection, imagine a world in which women and men—at all stages of their careers and across a wide variety of jobs—engage their work as an expression of their kingdom commitments. How many more lives would be vitalized and organizations transformed?
If we hearken to the words of Scripture and Christian thinkers through the generations, a world of engaged workers has otherworldly enemies, too—most notably Satan himself, who abhors righteousness, robs joy, and blinds us to God’s broader purposes for our work.
Thus, one of the primary tasks of Christian leaders is to prompt healing and wholeness by igniting the imagination of God’s people for good work in all fields.
As author and Regent College professor, Steven Garber, observes, church and ministry leaders should raise vocation as central, not supplemental to Missio Dei. This reorientation is counter-cultural and will be met with resistance because it moves against the ways we often measure success and reward pastoral leadership.
Rather than quantifying success by seats filled and activity within the four walls of the church, vocational stewardship charts success by impact in the world.
Throughout ecclesiastical history, there has been an uneasy relationship between church life and work life.
Fortunately, in more recent years, a commitment to vocational stewardship has gained momentum across marketplace and ecclesiastical communities, alike. We’ve seen this in greater denominational faith-work specialization, an increasing array of theological publications exploring the topic, expanding marketplace ministries and pastor/seminary networks formed to equip working Christians.
That said, here are five reasons vocational stewardship is central to God’s mission.
1. Vocational stewardship has upward, outward, and inward implications.
In the summer of 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the United Church of Christ’s first national conference on Christian education. His lectures, published as The Measure of a Man, emphasized three dimensions—height, breadth, and length—of a flourishing life.
According to King, “the height of life is the upward reach for God,” and “the breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others.” By contrast, “the length of life” is love focused inward, where pursuit of vocation strengthens personal identity and fosters deeper meaning and purpose.
King’s dimensions mirror Jesus’s response to the scribes in Mark 12:30-31; there is no greater commandment than to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength … [and to] love your neighbor as yourself.”
The gospel invites upward, outward, and inward love by harnessing our cognitions, actions, and passions for the wellbeing of the world. Theologian R. Paul Stevens describes vocational stewardship as a “seamless robe”—an interweaving of orthodoxy (right thinking about work as an act of devotion), orthopraxy (right practices at work that align to divine purposes for the world), and orthopathy (right affections for work that are rooted in God).
At a more applied level, Tim Keller observes in Every Good Endeavor that vocational stewardships strives to serve others, aid society, contribute to professional guilds, practice competence and virtue, and give witness to Christ. Thus, faith-work integration is rooted in the routine patterns of everyday work.
2. Vocational stewardship is rooted in the Imago Dei.
Vocational stewardship finds ultimate meaning in God, who creates human beings in his image and remains at work in us and through us.
God’s first command to humanity is to co-steward creation (Genesis 1:26-28, 2:15). As Andy Crouch notes in Culture Making, God’s call to co-stewardship is an invitation to join him in acts of cultural production, culminating one day in a New Heaven and Earth—a garden city full of cultural creativity (Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 21:1-2).
But rebellion brings a broken relationship between God and humanity, human beings with one another and with themselves, human beings with the natural world, and human beings in relationship to work itself.
As a result, humanity must now push against the countervailing forces of pain, toil, and sweat by joining Christ as emissaries of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
Good work reveals God by mirroring his life-giving capacity to bless and serve others (Psalms 8:5-8). As creative agents, cultural stewards, and ambassadors of shalom, faithful work has limitless possibilities.
Well-built chairs, chalices, and computer chips can lead to greater human flourishing, as can carefully conceived budgets, financial plans, and insurance policies. One of the most potent ways Christians can image their Creator is to produce excellent work.
As British author and scholar, Dorothy Sayers, wrote in Why Work, “The only Christian work is good work well done.” Our motives are an integral part of our quality control and further bind us to our image-bearing capacity.
3. Vocational stewardship is more than a platform for evangelism.
Vocational stewardship values work for its direct and positive impact on the world, not merely as a platform for gospel proclamation.
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20)—often misunderstood as an evangelistic mandate only—illustrates this point. Jesus doesn’t call His followers to merely pronounce the gospel, but to produce disciples who obey his teachings in all dimensions of life.
At the dawn of his public ministry, Jesus established his mission by reading from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
The Church is not only to go to all corners of the world, but into all realms of institutional life. When people serve institutions with a vision of broad-scale reconciliation, they fulfill their role as representatives of the King of Kings.
4. Vocational stewardship is a force against exclusion and marginalization.
A robust theology of work also confronts all disrespectful, dehumanizing, and violent behavior, which Parker Palmer describes in A Hidden Wholeness as any way we profane the integrity and identity of another human being.
Forms of violence in institutional are rampant, as he observes:
“From colleges that treat win-lose competition as the best way to make students learn, to medical schools that turn suffering patients into abstract ‘objects’ of study… to economic institutions that put the rights of capital ahead of the rights of people, to political institutions premised on the idea that might makes right, to cultural institutions that give superiority to people of one race or gender.”
Vocational stewardship calls out injustice by offering a benevolent alternative.
If we work in business, our purpose is to create great products and services that meet real needs, not merely to maximize shareholder returns.
If we work in government, it is to govern for the wellbeing of all, not for the few.
If we work in law, it is to rule justly, no matter race, creed, education, or socio-economic status.
If we work in education, it is to teach what is good, true, and beautiful, not just what is expedient.
5. Vocational stewardship is the task of the church.
This leads me to my final recommendation, which calls the Church to more practically equip members for faithful service within and through institutional life.
Culture-making takes place within institutions, and it is in these settings that God invites people to embody Shalom. In our current cultural moment, a vital role of the Church is to help individuals inject themselves into diseased organizations as agents of healing.
To encourage faithful service, churches can create opportunities for worshippers to probe organizational renewal, even coming together in industry-specific groups to explore more specific ways to affect institutional change.
As sociologist James Davison Hunter notes, “faithful presence requires proximity.” Rooted in Jesus’s model of incarnation, churches can help parishioners serve well as they are embedded within their institutional contexts.
God’s command to the Israelites in Babylonian captivity is instructive when we do not want to pursue this level of vulnerability:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce…Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you… Pray to the LORD for it because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5,7).
Even in exile, God’s people are to be a blessing by rooting themselves in institutional life.
Last year on campus, we hosted Will Messenger, executive editor of the Theology of Work Project. In addition to creating an excellent online Bible commentary exploring work, the Project has curated best practices of faith-work integration.
One strategy that has been successful in congregations is vocational interviews that celebrate the good work individuals engage.
Rather than merely highlighting the work of missionaries, some churches are profiling the work of real estate developers, nurses, actuaries, astronauts, and researchers.
John Van Sloten, an author and pastor friend from Canada, has been conducting such interviews for years. He showcases some of these “icons of grace” in his recent book, Every Job a Parable, which models reframing work through the eyes of workers.
At a conference, I heard a priest introduce himself as “trying to build a church that loves lawyers.” What a beautiful way to describe mission and overcome the false divide between the sacred and the secular.
If you lead a church, create an environment that celebrates the good work of lawyers, politicians, and accountants. Rather than ridiculing them, honor them.
Churches that take seriously vocational stewardship will elevate matters of work into Sunday experiences. Pastors can incorporate work and organizational themes into expository teaching and sermon application, as well as vocation-oriented prayers and hymns into worship services.
The best way forward is to equip women and men to serve faithfully in all realms of life, seeing vocation as integral to God’s all-encompassing restoration project.
Leaders and workers who see and teach through this lens more fully reveal their Creator and offer a truer foretaste of the world to come.