May 9, 2013

Six Ideas on How to Lead Congregations to Integrate Work and Discipleship

“How can we create a congregation where work and discipleship are truly integrated?” This is a question I am hearing more often, even though much has been written about a theology of work in recent years.

Pastors and church leaders are looking for a programmatic strategy. I don’t think there is one.

Programs can be an effective response to insufficiencies in an otherwise stable system, but with this type of significant transformation, we need what Harvard University's Ronald Heifetz calls "Adaptive Change." As leaders, we need to realize that to make faith and discipleship integrated in our congregations, we cannot do it with our congregation's existing knowledge and skills, requiring those in our congregation (including ourselves) to make a shift in our values, expectations, attitudes, and behaviors. You see, while some of us sense a need for better integration of faith with vocation, there are significant obstacles. 

Most Christians do not have a theological framework that accommodates the integration of faith and vocation. Many are even hostile to the idea. They are more comfortable with a life that is not integrated, compartmentalizing work and discipleship. Any attempts at integration feel like intrusions into their private lives. Worship is viewed as an escape from “secular” concerns. And let’s face it, if we really pursue integration, we will discover uncomfortable things about our lives.

Add to this the insecurity many pastors have about this topic. They are experts on church matters, but they are not experts on how to integrate the Christian faith with each and every vocation. So, avoidance is the default strategy.

So if we are serious about integrating work and discipleship, how do we start? Here are six ideas that I think will help pastors begin to lead change within their congregations.

1. Confess – Get real before God about our own insecurities on this topic. Pray for courage and a spirit of openness to learn.

2. Get curious – Ask theological questions. Where is this conversation already occurring? Join the High Calling Community. Read books and articles. Find resources that help pastors lead their congregations in the integration of faith and vocation. There is an expanding universe of material on the topic from across a wide range of Christian traditions.

3. Go to work – Many are familiar with Charles Sheldon’s “What Would Jesus Do?” strategy for church transformation but few are aware of what inspired it. Sheldon took a three month sabbatical from his pastoral duties in 1891 and spent each day going to work with people from all walks of life, even doing jobs himself. The experience compelled him to develop a practical theology of daily life. My friend John Knapp, author of How the Church Fails Businesspeople (And what can be done about it),” says the single most transformative thing he did with seminary students was to send them into the workplace to interview people.

Why not start with five congregants? Explain to them the journey you are on. Ask to come to the workplace, learn what work they do, and ask some open-ended questions about how the church has helped or failed them. (Knapp has a five-question survey in his book that he used.) Become curious about how people live their lives.

4. Preach with awareness – Most businesspeople report never having heard a sermon that affirms their work.  Are there stories from the workplaces of your congregants in your sermon illustrations? Do you have a tendency to caricature the business world? Have you consciously attempted to integrate work and discipleship in your applications?

5. Foster a movement – Begin convening conversations with congregants who “get it.” Create space for “courageous conversations” (John Knapp’s term) about work and life, conversations where there is honesty and the question beginning “Have you considered …” is common. Encourage the expansion of these groups. Most conversations about work and discipleship are outside the context of worshiping communities. How can we make the congregation be a welcoming place for such conversations?

6. Institutionalize – Find ways to incorporate work and discipleship into the life of the congregation. We commission people to mission trips or to “full-time Christian ministry.” Why not periodically have commissioning services for people who have taken new jobs? How might an integrated view of work and discipleship change the prayer of thanksgiving for an offering or change intercessory prayers for the people? Churches are experimenting with a range of practices. Each context is different but the issue is to get an integrated understanding woven into the rituals and rhythms of community life.

The goal is to organically foster an awakening to the need for better integration of work and discipleship. As a small group within a congregation begins to embrace integration, others will be drawn to the idea as well. Eventually it will become the majority view, and institutionalizing changes will happen naturally. Imposing a program without the adaptive shift is likely to end in disappointment and disillusionment.

Transformation is hard. It takes years, not weeks. And while para-church groups play indispensable roles in integrating work and discipleship, if faith communities are not transformed, then the witness of the Church will continue to suffer greatly.

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