From “how we work” to “why we work”

What kind of pastor repents after commissioning three construction workers for a house-building mission trip in Tijuana? The type — like Dr. Tim Dearborn — whose definition of “ministry” has been expanded from church-funded initiatives to the broad spectrum of vocations under the sun.

Speaking to a Denver Institute crowd in November 2015, Dearborn frames his talk with two ideas familiar to the faith-work movement:

1. We spend more formation hours at work than church.

2. Clergy should resource lay people for ministry outside the church, rather than inside it.

Within this frame, he develops two new points. First, discussed the geopolitical urgency of money and music. He explains, ”Business has more access to what is necessary to human flourishing than any church, ministry, or NGO ever will." Then he tells a story of an Islamic leader who used Plato's Republic to argue, "If we can influence money and music with our religion, we can with their hearts." Dearborn suggests Christians do the same.

He also makes a distinction between ethics and telos. (“Telos” means the ultimate point or aim.) We often call work "Christian" because of the ethical way we do it, neglecting the more significant reason why we do it. Even slave-traders, he pointed out, prayed for travel mercies, success, healthy families, and the honoring of contracts. He wants to see conversations moved from how to why.

And if we can make this move toward framing work with greater visions of purpose, our workplace experiences of "fear, loneliness, and envy" will turn into "joy, anticipation, and gratitude."

Dearborn’s frame is familiar and very well delivered. His two new points are well argued, powerfully illustrated, and convincing. But he does leave one question unanswered. Dearborn argues that ministry happens "where the sacred things are," and so work among and for other humans is ministry. But he also says that the one thing more sacred than human life is the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament. If ministry is "where the sacred things are," then we must also clearly affirm the ministry of clergy inside the church walls, too.

So the solution isn't a simple pendulum swing in the opposite direction — from "ministry happens inside our churches" to "ministry happens outside our churches." Rather, the way forward is to live in this tension with a more robust appreciation for ministry that happens both inside and outside our churches.