I knew Michael when his work had meaning. He was the 30-something-year-old manager of a chain drugstore that happened to be next to a large retirement community. When asked about his work, he did not talk about selling things; he talked about people. He described the 19-year-olds who came to work for him, swelling with healthy pride as he talked about teaching them to show up on time, work hard, and care for customers. He talked about the elderly folks whose trip to the store was the high point of their day. Michael cared about his people.
There was a time when Michael could say he was doing what God had called him to do; that his work was more than a job, that it was a vocation. Then things started to change. The big chain that owned the store was taking steps that did not treat his people well—cutting hours, cutting benefits, cutting promised positions. Michael wanted to maintain the integrity of his faith in his work, so he asked for his pastor’s advice. His pastor’s only answer, however, was for Michael to quit his job to do ministry.
The pastor’s answer leads to our questions. Was quitting Michael’s only option? How do we understand vocation, especially vocation in the marketplace, when we recognize that companies that are designed to make money—whether run by Christians or not—will not always make Christ-honoring decisions? What does it mean to be called by God in the workplace?
The Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that our work begins with God’s work in the world.1 God was in the world reconciling the world to himself in Christ Jesus and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation. Then Paul says, “We2 are therefore Christ’s ambassadors.” An ambassador3 is a citizen of one country who goes to live in another country with the expressed purpose of building relations between the two4 —in this case, between what Martin Luther called “the kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of this earth.” Luther tied together the idea of living in two kingdoms with the idea of vocation. “Vocations are located within the kingdom of earth. More precisely, a vocation is the specific call to love one’s neighbor which comes to us through the duties which attach to our social place or ‘station’5 within the earthly kingdom.”6 For Luther, one’s “station” was attached to one’s workplace. Like an ambassador stationed7 in a particular land, we Christians are appointed to duty in a particular workplace.
Inspired by Luther, I propose recalibrating the Christian idea of vocation by focusing it on the people entrusted to our care. This is a way of rooting it in the biblical call to love God and to love neighbor.8 In recent times, some Christians have deformed the doctrine of vocation to be about my gifts, my work, and my place in the world.9 But we do not exist for ourselves and neither can we work for ourselves. Instead, every Christian’s calling begins with listening to the longings and losses of the people entrusted to our care.
God calls us neither to a task nor to a job, and not even to exercise a gift. God calls us to a people. The entire point of doing the task or exercising the gift is to benefit others. For example, we create because God creates. Artists and entrepreneurs alike celebrate this point. But why did God create? God creates for the sake of his people.10 Artists who create just for the sake of creating miss the point. Art should be shared. Likewise, entrepreneurs who build for the sake of building (or for the sake of selling) miss the point.Every Christian who is a boss, or who serves customers, or who labors alongside coworkers, has people entrusted to her care.
The idolatrous danger for Christians is to see people as tools, as nothing more than a means to accomplish selfish ends. Business leaders have a responsibility to do more than extract value from their people. I recognize that the nature of the workplace is an exchange. Clients or customers pay for what businesses provide, and employees earn a salary for doing their work. Each party attempts to extract maximum return from minimal cost. This is not wrong; it is just not enough.
It is better, instead, to think of what Max De Pree calls a “covenantal relationship” in the workplace. For example, the company where Max was president promised that factory workers would have a say in the hiring and firing of their supervisors. It was a way for authority to travel up as well as down. When a shift worker named Valerie came to the president’s office one day with a petition because a new vice president had fired a supervisor without consulting the line workers, most managers would think it was important to back the authority of the fledgling vice president. Max said it was more important for the company to keep its promises about the rights and dignity of the workers, so he restored the supervisor. Max believed that God had entrusted his workers to his care. Therefore, he made public promises about how they would be treated and enabled his people to hold the company to those promises.11 We Christians are stewards of our clients, our customers, our employees, and, indeed, even our bosses.
I believe that every Christian, no matter her station, has people entrusted to her care. Wherever God plants you—in whatever position and with whatever authority—the question that should orient you is this: Who are the people God has entrusted to my care?
Last December I presented a preliminary version of this essay to a group of business leaders in Silicon Valley. As we talked about the people entrusted to our care, a young lawyer at a tech firm blurted out, “You mean you expect me to care about my employees’ personal lives?” I responded, “Yes, I do.” Then we had a fruitful discussion about whether or not Christians bear such a responsibility. In the end, he was not convinced.
A few months later, a book came out that included a much better answer than I gave to the young lawyer’s question, though it is a secular book written for a secular audience. The author, Kim Scott, created management training courses at Google and then at Apple, and now she mentors the CEOs of companies like Twitter and Dropbox. The central idea of the book is that a boss has two responsibilities: to care personally and to challenge directly. The young lawyer would have accepted the second duty but not the first.
Kim Scott tells a story to show what it means to care personally for the people entrusted to her care. She describes a particularly busy day when she was the CEO of a tech startup. Late one night, she discovered a pricing problem that was so pressing she cancelled all her morning meetings so that she could focus on her spreadsheets. But as she walked into the office that morning, a colleague ran up to her needing to talk. He was distraught because he had just discovered that he might need a kidney transplant. She sat with him for an hour, calming him over tea. As she walked out his door, she saw an engineer whose son was in ICU. She took the time to convince him that he belonged at the hospital and not at the office. More tea, more tears. Finally, she saw a man who wanted to tell her some good news; his daughter had just achieved the highest score on a statewide math test. She found time to celebrate with him. The longings and losses of Kim’s people had eaten into the time she wanted to spend on the pricing problem.
She later discussed the morning with her mentor, complaining that “emotional babysitting” was getting in the way of “real work.” “This is not babysitting,” her mentor replied. “It’s called management, and it is your job!” Kim Scott then draws the point of the story. “We undervalue the ‘emotional labor’ of being a boss,” she writes, but “this emotional labor is not just part of the job; it’s the key to being a good boss.”12 The people are just as much a part of your job as the spreadsheets. Indeed, Kim spends the rest of the book explaining that a manager can only challenge directly if she is willing to care personally. “Do you mean you expect me to care about my employees’ private lives?” Yes, because they are not just employees. They are the people entrusted to your care.
That brings us back to Michael the store manager. How could Michael represent, as an ambassador, the God of integrity and compassion while at the same time representing, as a manager, a company that stands for neither? He could do it by continuing to do what he had already done. Michael helps the elderly folk from the retirement community next door. He teaches teens how to be responsible workers and to care for customers. He manages people with integrity and compassion. But what about the new and unfair policies? They become an opportunity for him to model for his employees the appropriate way to live in the world. In this way, he is like the Apostle Paul, who ministered to churches that were persecuted, abused, and defiled. Michael keeps his integrity by staying with the people entrusted to his care and ministering to them in the midst of their longings and their losses.
Michael’s situation happened years ago, but I went back to see him recently. We met at a Starbucks. Before we could order our coffee, a woman came bounding from behind the register to hug Michael. She was the manager of the store, had not seen Michael in years, and wanted to thank him because she owed her career to him. She had been one of those 19-year-olds who learned from him. She gushed about how he taught her the best way to treat people, both customers and employees. She said she learned from him values that saw her through dark times. Michael never preached to her. But he gave her a different vocabulary and a new way to see the world. That’s what most sermons strive to do. In sermons, beliefs lead to actions. At work, actions embody beliefs. Michael had such an impact on his former employee because he listened to the longings and losses of the people entrusted to his care.