June 30, 2019

Hey Ministers and Theologians: When It Comes to the Secular Workplace, You Just Don’t Get It

The Israel Folau storm has exposed many things, and this is one of them: many ministry workers have little idea of the pressures people face in the modern workplace.  They just don’t get it.  Not that it stops them making big statements about it.

If you’re a Christian ministry worker and you’ve had a lot to say about Izzy (either for or against) the last few weeks on social media, then it might be time to get off Facebook and have a listen to the people in your congregation who hold down a job Monday to Friday.  Because there’s a good chance you’re working in a sheltered workshop.

I’ve asked friends employed in government offices and large corporations about the pressures they face over these social and cultural upheavals, and it’s significant.

By far the most thoughtful response has come from a friend on the other side of the country working in a relatively progressive industry sector. Here’s what he had to say, and it’s a tough, but necessary read, if churches are ever going to minister effectively to people in the 21st century West:

Far and away the worst pressure is from Christian leaders who want us all to be open about our faith and push us all to do so but they personally have no financial or social skin in the game. A minister who is openly Christian might have some awkward conversations at the pub when he shares his occupation but he doesn’t have a livelihood and a circle of friends on the line. The reason this is the worst pressure is because when I experience it I can’t tell whether I am not enjoying my cowardice being exposed or whether I’m aggravated by people who don’t completely understand my situation.

Hear that?  He’s simultaneously guilty and angry about the lack of longterm understanding and support. He’s not confident that anyone who is a ministry worker actually gets what it’s like to work at the secular, cultural coalface.

He’s right, isn’t he?  Ministry workers have two problems when it comes to offering their advice on “hot” cultural matters.

First, ministry is fast becoming a sheltered workshop, the one safe place (so far) where you can have diametrically opposing viewpoints to the world on sexual matters, and not face scrutiny for it day in day out.  And that makes it easy to sound forth on Facebook (especially since you’re not being charged out at six minute increments in a law firm or accountancy practice with a boss looking over your shoulder).

Ministry used to be the hard gig.  You were sacrificing something – a good wage, a career with kudos – for the sake of the gospel.  That situation has turned 180 degrees.

A young allied health professional I know, who stands head and shoulders above many in terms of ministry gifting and who feels “called”, is hesitant to sign up.  Why? She feels “Ministry is the safe option, a place to hide.”  She feels she would be shirking the tough stuff if she went into ministry.

It’s this sheltered status that has given ministry workers a misguided sense of confidence that they know how people should navigate a space that they themselves actually don’t occupy.  So advice seems to range from the bolshie: “Here’s what to say in the office about Israel Folau to further the gospel” through to outright denial, “How can anyone say we’re being persecuted when we’ve all got the freedom to …”

All of this is a bit like the boxing crowd shouting advice to the guy on the ropes.  “Duck, you idiot!”, “Get off the ropes!”, “Show some spine!”, “That’s not boxing!”

My friend went on to say this:

The pressure of secular society, particularly my circle, which is probably 1/3 of my online friends after this many years in the one field) does make me want to clam up . Which I was almost getting used to until the liberals started introducing these new sorts of initiatives that seemed designed to ‘out’ Christians. We’ll all wear rainbow: quick, who’s not? Here’s our new code of conduct which you have to agree to. Let’s run an unconscious bias test on everyone to see who’s a closet homophobe. Argh!

He’s getting up every day to work with people who are not simply disinterested in his perspective, but hostile to it. And they’re still his friends.  Still the colleagues he has to create with, produce ideas with, and forge strong working partnerships with.

And if you’re a more liberal-minded Christian ministry worker reading this blog, and you scorn the idea that Christians are under any pressure then spare a thought for your brothers and sisters who don’t hold the same view as you do on sexuality. They navigate a far more difficult space than you could imagine.

I know a growing number of Christians who have either been censured or sidelined for even a mild pushback on the rainbow agenda in their workplace and they’re looking for concrete advice not lofty ideals from those in churches and theological institutions.  If you want to argue that we’re doing it all the wrong way, that’s fine (and in some way I agree with you), but once again, if you’ve got no skin in the game…

But second, and this is something that has caught us out, the evangelical church  in Australia at least, has an extremely thin theology of work.  It is ill-prepared to counsel its own people on the meaning of work, the ways to navigate the space of work, and how to do anything other than use their work as a means of evangelism, and earning money for ministry.

The cultural pressure today means we’re long past the stage of simply saying “work hard and don’t steal the pencils”, but few of us in ministry seem to offer anything bigger than that vision of work.

But before you scurry off to write a sermon series on work, how about just spending time listening to your workers about their work for a while!  Ministry staff might find that, just as my friend noted above, they have little understanding of the work world, and hence are ill-equipped to hand out any meaningful advice.

The danger of this disconnect is that it  leads to a sullen, quiet resentment from workers, who increasing see church as irrelevant not only to the lives of their non-Christian colleagues, but to their lives as well.

I hear plenty of ministry workers complain that the average congregant doesn’t get how tough ministry is.  It might be good to tell your congregants that you appreciate how tough it is for them in Babylon Monday to Friday before you ever voice that.

And this lack of understanding, coupled with a huge increase in the pressure being felt by many workers over job security, downsizing, economic downturns, and an often anti-Christian social agenda  in the workplace, comes at a time when churches are spending huge amounts of time and money equipping people to do the work of ministry – in church.

Little if any money and time is spent on equipping people to deal with the world of Monday-to-Friday life in the office. Plenty of money and time spent on equipping people to deal with church life.  And that betrays a rather narrow vision among those in ministry.

But don’t take my word for it, let’s hear from my friend again, because I want his thoughts to be bouncing around in your mind before you’re tempted to take to the keyboard one more time and have a crack at either the pro or anti Folau brigade, or even offer your “obvious” solution to it:

It’s almost the single biggest haunting question to being a Christian today: Am I being open enough? But then I don’t see many secular-occupation Christians being more open than me so it’s easy to feel smug.

And that’s ultimately what Israel Folau means to me. His cringy memes are a throwback in some ways to the worst of 80s evangelical tracts but his insane courage to put his reputation on the line like that is far bolder than 100 ministers at a conference discussing strategies for telling their people how they should evangelise.

And everything that the rest of us suspected would happen to us if we liked that post or shared that meme turned out to be 110% true in his case. And I’m with Martyn Iles on this one –  Izzy could have posted something much milder and this would still have happened.

So I’ve got little patience for people who want to use this as an exercise in straightening out his theology.

Anyway, sorry, long rant! But yes, I’ve been feeling this for most of my working life and if things go south in the Folau case it probably won’t get easier.

Well it won’t be easier for my friend.  But in reality for my many friends in  ministry  it will be probably just be “as you were”.





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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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