Six Specific Steps To Connect Pastors To Their Workplace Disciples

It is a rare pastor who has any trouble seeing the biblical mandate — and the practical importance —- of connecting with the day-to-day, in-the-trenches lives of one’s congregants.  It is right there in front of us in Scripture and in the life challenges of our people. But it is also rare to find workplace church-goers who can say much about how their church helps and supports them in the workplace.  It just doesn’t happen much.  No surprise though: the seminaries haven’t been teaching it.  The pastoral guild hasn’t had much to pass on.

We can change that almost overnight.  Six small but concrete steps can bring the revolution we need. These are not time-consuming additions to your workload. Any pastor can do it.  Believe it: your workplace folk will be transformed in their attitudes toward church and toward you — and toward their work itself.  You will likely see tired church drop-outs come back when the buzz spreads about what is going on.  Your studies and sermons will take on a fresh, new vitality as they connect to your peoples’ real lives. 

So here are six specific steps to revitalize your ministry, your church, and your workplace disciples’ witness and presence.

1: study, preach, and teach the workplace lessons and implications of the Scriptures as I encounter and understand them in the texts before me;

Why?  Two reasons:  The Bible itself demands that we pay attention to its teaching about work.  For example, Jesus had more to say about money, property, and wealth than about heaven and hell or many other topics that occupy our attention.  We must be faithful and pay attention.  Second, our workplace disciples, and our workplace and marketplaces themselves, are in desperate need of creative insight on ethics, management, decision-making, work/life balance, respectful work relations, dispute mediation, and a host of other topics.  Are we prepared to share the insights that come from our biblical faith?

How?  As a pastor you must spend time reading and studying the Scriptures every week if not every day.  Your sermons and lessons each week must draw on the insight of God’s Word. The most basic way to carry out this step is simply to ask, as you study Scripture, no matter what the text, no matter how you have thought of it in the past, “what insight might God be giving us here about our workplace activities?”  Make notes and integrate these insights into your sermons and lessons. Explicitly challenge your audiences to think about how to apply God’s word to their workplace lives.  Ask God to help you. It doesn’t need to be very complicated. Let the biblical text speak to our workplace reality.

Resources: the “Theology of Work” project (www.theologyofwork.org) is becoming the “go to” resource for serious study of the workplace lessons of the Bible. 

2: read at least one article per month and one book per year specifically focused on workplace, marketplace, or economics topics;

Why?  We are doing this so that we can better understand the context in which our people live and work every day.  We ask them to read the Bible and good Christian literature. Let’s also read some of the literature from our peoples’ work worlds so we can better understand their challenges and opportunities.  Share insights and questions from this reading with your people.  They will be delighted to help you understand it.

How?  You can go online if you wish, but think about going to the nearest magazine vendor and buying a copy of the Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Economist, Wired or any number of other newspapers or magazines dealing with business and economics.  Buy an issue that looks interesting, get some coffee, and read an article or two.  Once a month!  If you are really serious about it, subscribe to one of these publications and read it or browse it regularly.

And at least once a year actually read a whole book on business and work.  Read the history of a company . . . or an analysis of the recent financial disaster in the banking industry . . . or a CEO’s memoir or management theories.  Go to a big bookstore, look through the business and management section, and find something interesting.  All the business newspapers and magazines mentioned earlier have book reviews and sometimes lists of business best-sellers that can help you decide. 

3: visit at least one of your congregation’s workplace disciples per month in his or her workplace environment, asking about their work experiences, challenges, and opportunities — and offering them encouragement and prayer;

Why?  This simple step can have truly revolutionary consequences for your church and for you as pastor.  All too often our parishioners must come to us, on our turf, to our office.  If we show up at their workplace it sends a powerful message that we care and it also informs and educates us in an important way.  The people we visit in their workplaces will come to church with a different attitude.  They will listen differently – and more closely.  You will speak to them more knowingly.  You may illustrate your sermons with vignettes from your visits.  This experience will change you and it will change your congregation.  Those who are visited will tell others and the buzz will be positive.

How?   “Hey Joe/Jane:  I would love to visit you where you work some time.  Any chance I could do that?  I don’t want to get in the way but I’d just love to see where you spend your work week and have you show and tell me how you spend your time.  I’d love to take you to coffee or lunch also if that works out.”  [Note: if the person works in a no-visitor, high-security environment, suggest at least meeting nearby.  Don’t give up!  The symbolism of getting close to his or her turf is powerful].

When you get there:  (1) “Tell me how you spend your time here.”  (2) “How did you get into this kind of work and this company?” (3) “What do you like best about your job and your career?”  (4) “Are there any ways I could pray for you especially or support you in your work here?”  (5)  “Could I just say a short prayer here before I go?” [don’t embarrass him/her; only do this if you have a quiet, private moment; thank God for him/her and ask God to bless and strengthen them}.   NO SERMONS;  you are there to learn and to ask them questions.

4: pray for the workplace disciples under our care, and for their workplace opportunities and challenges, at least once each week in our personal prayers and at least once per month in our congregational worship;

Why?  Emergency and crisis prayers are good when called for.  We all do them:  “We ask for your special help for Joe who just lost his job” . . . etc..   But we really must get beyond the emergencies and become more holistic and positive. 

How? At least once a week (maybe on Mondays — first day of typical work week?) spend some time in our personal prayers praising and thanking God for the work our people are doing, paid or volunteer, asking God to bless them, guide them, protect them, and use them as his instruments in our needy world.

And at least once per month, let’s remember our workplace folk, their needs and opportunities, in our public, congregational prayers.  Let’s not just pray about our “religious” concerns, not just about political and diplomatic crises or natural disasters or even missionary efforts — that’s all great —- but let’s also mention our workers and their needs and opportunities to the Lord.

5: recognize and commission at least once each year (with a charge and a prayer in the context of congregational worship) our workplace disciples (in general or in a particular specialization such as health care, management, technology, arts, finance, education) for faithful service representing Christ in their work.      

Why?  The fifth step is to recognize and actually commission some of our workplace disciples to serve the Lord in their work.  Once in the year is a bare minimum;  once every three months is ideal.  This process has an amazing impact on a congregation.  Already we call forward our short-term missions teams for commissioning and prayer . . . we call forward and commission our deacons and elders . . . and of course our pastoral installations are often powerful occasions of commissioning and joint prayer.  But our workplace disciples deserve no less.  The message this sends to them and to the rest of the congregation is powerful and clear.

How?  Pastor:  [Call the people to the front] “This morning we would like to recognize, commission, and pray for the health care givers in our congregation.  Would all of you who work in this field in any capacity and all of you students preparing for such vocations, would you all come up and stand in front of the congregation this morning so we can pray for you?  If you are a doctor or nurse, a chiropractor or massage therapist, hospital administrator or orderly, pharmaceutical researcher or manager — if you work in any capacity in health care, would you come up here now?  [Pass around portable mike] Could you just quickly say your name and what you do in health care.

This morning my friends we want first of all to thank you:  thank you for hearing God’s call and being willing to serve our Lord in health care. Thank you for studying and preparing for your work in health care.   We are so grateful for your service in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.  We all want to remember very clearly that our God is a healer.  The mission of our Lord was to heal as well as to proclaim the gospel.  The Apostles were sent out to heal as well as preach.  Throughout the history of the church our greatest missionaries brought medicine and health care as well as the gospel to the ends of the earth.  Health care is at the very heart of the way of Jesus Christ.  So thank you for being our health care team out there in a needy world.

Second we want to challenge and encourage you to carry on, to be the hands of Jesus Christ reaching out with a healing touch to those who suffer.  We want to challenge you to anchor your health care thinking and practice in the values and insights of Jesus and Scripture.  What can we bring to our work from our Lord and our biblical faith.  If you will pledge to anchor and deepen your health care in the perspective of Jesus and Scripture to the best of your ability, would you say “I will”?  [Health care folk: “I will”]  And those of you in the congregation, would you pledge to pray for our health care team as God brings them to mind, that God would bless, strengthen, protect, and use them?  Could you say “We will”?  [Congregation”: “We will”]

And third, we want to join together in prayer for you this morning.  I’d like to invite others to step up to the front here and lay a hand on one of our health care workers as a sign of solidarity as we pray.  “Our Father, we thank you for each of these your servants.  We pray that you will work your healing and caring purposes through their hands, their minds, their skills, and their efforts, wherever they are working on the health care team.  Lord, would you give them strength.  Would you protect them from danger and harm.  Would you provide for them and supply them with the resources they need for their work.  Would you keep them from temptation and discouragement?  Work through them O God, just as you worked in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Help their colleagues and their patients to see Jesus Christ in them each day.  Bless these dear servants of yours, our brothers and sisters, for we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen”

In addition to health care workers, we could easily call up our people in (1) education (teachers, home schoolers, principals, school boards, teachers’ aides, yard duty superintendents, janitors, coaches, etc.), (2) finance people (banking and insurance folk, etc.), (3) technologists, engineers, and contractors, (4) artists and musicians, (5) food service folk (grocery store employees, farmers, chefs, waiters, etc.), and (6) the unemployed or those looking for jobs.  The possibilities are endless.  In a small congregation one could commission students one time, employees another time, and volunteers on a third occasion.

6: educate: work with others in the church to offer at least six hours each year of Christian education with practical biblical perspectives on workplace topics such as calling, stewardship, money, leadership, character, honesty, and ethics;

Why?  We have Sunday School classes and retreats on all manner of topics, especially on straight ahead Bible study.  Most churches have classes on parenting, marriage, prayer, evangelism, and the defense of the faith.  This is all great but if we want to get serious about a 24/7 approach to discipleship we need to make sure we have some Christian education about work – for all age groups.

How?   This could be six one-hour sessions during Sunday School — or six sessions of a small group’s schedule — or six hours on a Saturday (or over a weekend retreat).  It could be structured around a series of topics or biblical passages.  It could be organized around a common textbook — such as Ben Witherington, Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor (Eerdmans, 2011) or Your Work Matters to God by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks (NavPress, 1990), or Mastering Monday A Guide to Integrating Faith and Work by John D. Beckett (InterVarsity Press, 2006). 

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There actually are no panaceas, no iron-clad formulas for revival or renewal in the Christian church.   But hopefully you can begin to see that committing yourself to these six specific steps has real and understandable potential to impact positively peoples’ lives and your ministry.  And this is not about more money in a stretched-to-the-limit budget.  It is not about your taking a course or earning another degree.  It is about re-ordering your schedule and priorities though not in an extreme or disruptive way.   It is common sense.  These are simple steps.  Take them!

David W. Gill is a writer and speaker based in Oakland, California. He recently retired as Mockler-Phillips Professor of Workplace Theology and Business Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.