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  • Re-Imagining Business as ‘Full-Time Ministry’

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    By Scott Rae

    Tom and James are long-time friends who are in their late 20s. They went to college together and settled in the same city after graduation. They have both been working in the same part of the city for the past few years. Their wives are good friends and they get together as couples periodically.

    Tom works for one of the major international accounting firms, in their consulting division, helping companies set up and maintain internal financial control systems. He is on a partnership track and his work has been well received by the office’s partners. He enjoys his work generally, finds it challenging and stimulating, though the long hours do get to him sometimes. He often wonders how he will handle the hours now that he and his wife have a young family. He sometimes thinks about starting his own business, thinking that might give him more flexibility with his hours. He gets pretty excited about that prospect and likes the idea of being his own boss. He knows some former colleagues who have gone out on their own, and he senses that he has the right mix of people skills, drive, and creativity to launch a successful business.

    James has been working in business too, but he is in the midst of a major life change. He has been in the software industry since college and for some time he has worked as a sales representative for a large software company in the area. Recently, he began to attend seminary classes part time. He jokingly calls it being on the “eight year plan” to finish his seminary degree since he can only take a few classes at a time. He and his wife have been volunteering in his church’s college ministry for the past few years. He has been leading a small-group bible study for some guys, like his wife has been doing with a group of girls.

    The college pastor gave him several opportunities to speak to the whole college group during their main weekly meeting. He can’t remember when he was so nervous or had worked so hard to prepare. This was much more demanding than any sales presentation, but he found the speaking times very satisfying. He also received positive feedback from many in the group. The college pastor has been encouraging him to consider leaving his business to devote himself to local church ministry full time. The church where he is involved would like him on their staff eventually. He is planning on continuing working in sales to pay the bills until he can transition to full-time status with this church or another one in the area.

    Business as Mission Field

    As they talk about their careers, it becomes clear that they are wrestling with what God is calling them to do with their respective occupations. We could reduce their issues to this one fundamental one: Does God call people to business in the same way He calls people into the pastorate or to the mission field?

    Some time ago a well-known Christian speaker came to the Biola University campus where I teach and asked the undergraduate students this provocative question: “those of you who are business majors, why don’t you get out of the ‘ticky-tack’ world and do some missionary work?” The point he was making was that the real impact for God was to be made on the mission field, not in the “ticky-tack” world of business, namely accounting or finance. How would you respond to our speaker?

    I teach in a seminary, training people for pastoral types of work. Many of our students are older and have come out of a business background. It is not uncommon for them to tell me that they are “leaving their business in order to serve the Lord full time.” What they mean by that is not that they haven’t been serving God while in their business, but that they are going devote full time to their “ministry,” which they see as distinct from their business. Some will even say that they are leaving their business to serve the Lord, suggesting a big difference between business and ministry. What would you say to my students who have left their businesses to come to seminary about how they see business and ministry?

    In many of our churches today there seems to be a dichotomy between business and “ministry.” Even the way we talk about this illustrates this difference. We say that people are “entering the ministry,” when they decide to become pastors or missionaries. We refer to church work and missionary service as “ministry” and refer to those who do this as their occupation as in “full-time ministry,” as opposed to those who work in the church or mission field part time. When someone steps down from a pastoral position or comes home from the mission field (except for a furlough) and goes into business, we commonly say that they have “left the ministry.”

    This distinction between business and “ministry” is at the heart of what I believe is a widespread notion in our churches, that if you want to maximize your impact for God’s Kingdom, you need to be in “full-time ministry.” To put it another way, the people who are really making a mark for God are the ones who are “doing ministry” full time. The people who are really making it happen for God are the ones who are out on the front lines sharing the gospel, teaching the Bible, and heading for the mission field. The person in business is left with the nagging notion that he is in a support position for those who are “in the ministry” and though he plays an important role, he is not really where the action is for God’s Kingdom.

    Full-Time Ministry Here and There and Everywhere

    Imagine that Tom and James are discussing their career directions over lunch. As they talk, James feels that he wants to spend his life maximizing his impact for God and leaves Tom with the impression that staying in business is not the way to do that. He acknowledges that business has value to God in terms of being responsible and supporting a family. But he makes it pretty clear that the front lines for serving God are in his church not his business.

    Of course, Tom could have responded to James by arguing that the church needs business people because “ministry” takes money. Business has value in God’s economy in terms of what it could accomplish for “ministry.” Or he could have said to James that if he leaves his business, he loses his strategic platform to share his faith. He could remind James that most of the people he works with will rarely, if ever, come to church. Those people think that most pastors, though they may be good at what they do, they are not all that relevant to them since they don’t live in their world. Tom’s response to James would illustrate what we call “instrumental” reasons that God calls people to business

    That is, business has instrumental value, in that it is a means to accomplish another, deeper goal, which would be to support “ministry” or take advantage of business relationships to share one’s faith. Most people accept that God calls people to business for instrumental reasons. The more difficult, and more interesting question, concerns the intrinsic value of work, particularly business. That is, does God call people to business because business has intrinsic value? Does the work of business have value in and of itself, or only as a means to accomplish something deeper?

    The point of this article is to suggest that all legitimate work in the world has intrinsic value and God calls men and women to be faithful in working in various arenas as their service to Him.

    Of course, there are some limits to this, since it would difficult to see how God could call someone to produce pornography or engage in the illegal drug trade. But excluding those exceptions, God calls people to work in business not only because of what it accomplishes, but because it has value in and of itself to God. Business is the work of God in the world in the same way that being a pastor is the work of God in the church and in the same way that missionary service is the work of God on the mission field.

    All have value to God because of the value of the work done, and that work is an intrinsically good thing that has value as it’s done with excellence. The accountant, the manager, the blue collar worker, the gardener, the janitor and the McDonald’s cook all can be called by God to their work in the same way as the pastor is called to his and the missionary is called to hers.

    All of them are doing the work of God in their workplace, both by virtue of the work they do and the way in which they represent Christ in the way they do it. To take it a step further, God, in his providence, works through our occupations to accomplish his work in the world.

    published in Religion & Liberty

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