Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
What Work Is ForWhat Work Is For

What Work Is For

Alan Bulley
2 minute read

I read Tim Keller's book, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work, shortly after it came out and appreciated many of the things that it had to say. So when I learned that the Center for Faith and Work—a ministry of Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church—was hosting a conference on "Humanizing Work," I decided late last year that it was time for a trip to NYC.

The Center (full disclosure: a longtime friend and partner alongside Cardus) knows how to run a conference for thinking lay people: a well-organized blend of art, music, thoughtful and thought-provoking speakers, engagement with the culture, and times of reflection and ecumenical worship. And the tables prepared by Hearts and Minds Books were a ministry in themselves—a broad but carefully-chosen selection of books supporting the conference theme.

Although he was not the first speaker on the program, Keller's plenary talk helped provide a theological underpinning for much of what was to follow. Starting from a teleological perspective, Keller posited that one can't assess the value of anything—including work—without knowing what it's for. He then took participants on a whirlwind history of thought on what humans and their work were created for, from Greco-Roman times up to 20th century management theory. For Christians, he concluded, work is an opportunity to promote human flourishing and to use our abilities for the common good.

Most of the presenters who followed spoke more specifically of individual leadership in the workplace: the need to "lead from the heart" (Mark C. Crowley), the potential of workplace chaplains (David Miller), and how leaders are "people who create ways to make something extraordinary happen"(Nancy Ortburg). I was pleased to hear Google's Laura Gimpel move on to broader themes that touched on the importance of designing workplaces for people and not for technology. Technologies change rapidly; the needs of humans seem to be evolving at a much slower pace.

But given that much of the conference's attention had focused squarely on individuals, I especially appreciated Prof. Anthony Bradley's in-your-face exhortation to seek "social shalom" and remember that the image of God is expressed corporately.

Work can never be just about what we can achieve individually. Bradley spoke of the "devastating impact" of unemployment and asserted that "we can't talk about 'humanizing work' if the goal isn't about having more of us working." And by "more of us," Bradley also had in mind people with disabilities—"where are they in business and churches?"

The corporate perspective was the piece of the puzzle I needed to hear. The state of one's heart is certainly important, as is attention to the role one plays as a manager (most of the conference attendees were young but likely in, or bound for, management). But an overemphasis on these can lead to a view of work that pays too little attention to a theological understanding of one's own field of practice and to the economic and social contexts within which we work. I am an individual and almost all of my life is lived as a human-in-relation. "Humanizing Work" surely requires both perspectives.

Perhaps next year's conference will broaden the conversation. If it does, I'll be making the drive to Manhattan again.

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