August 13, 2020 • De Pree Journal
There was a time when Michael could say he was doing what God had called him to do – that his work was more than a job; it was a vocation – but then things started to change. And his pastor did not have a lot of resources to help him. I recall talking to Michael when his work had meaning. He was the thirty-something-year-old manager of a chain drugstore that happened to be next to a large retirement community. When asked about his work, he did not talk about selling things; he talked about people. He described the nineteen-year-olds who came to work for him and he swelled with healthy pride as he talked about teaching them to show up on time, to work hard, and to care for customers. And he talked about the elderly folks whose trip to the store was the high-point of their day. But his face clouded up as he asked a hard question. The big chain that owned the store was making changes that did not treat his people well – cutting hours, cutting benefits, cutting promised positions. And Michael wanted to know how to maintain the integrity of his faith. His pastor’s only answer was to quit his job to do bi-vocational ministry. And, so the pastor’s answer leads us to our question. Was quitting the only option? How do we understand vocation – especially vocation in the marketplace – when we recognize that companies that are designed to make money (companies that are not necessarily run by Christians) will not always make Christ-honoring decisions? What does it mean to be called by God in the marketplace?
When Peter Drucker wanted to re-cast the work of business, he created five questions that every enterprise needed to answer. Drucker thought that if an organization could answer these questions, then the organization could sufficiently explain its mission so that it could focus its work.[i] Perhaps we can innovate an analogous set of questions that would guide Christian leaders as we recast our view of work in the marketplace.
The Drucker Questions follow a progression. They ask the organization to pick a purpose and then they focus the organization on the people outside the organization (i.e. the customers) who will determine how the organization goes about pursuing that purpose. The progression is a remedy to the inward focus that tempts an organization – or its leaders. The questions push the organization to think outside itself. It is a remarkably Christian perspective. Your organization does not exist for itself, Drucker says; it exists to serve others. And you will be measured as an organization not by your own opinions and experiences, but by the degree to which others see you as serving them.
The Apostle Paul set the Corinthians such a mission. And he grounded it in the missio dei. He reminds the Corinthians that God was in the world reconciling the world to himself in Christ Jesus and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation. And then he says, “You are therefore Christ’s ambassadors.” An ambassador is a citizen of one country who goes to live in another country with the expressed purpose of building relations between the two – in this case, between what Martin Luther called “the kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of this earth.” All Christians experience a dual call to love God and to love neighbor. Because we are ambassadors, “Vocations are located within the kingdom of earth. More precisely, a vocation is the specific call to love one’s neighbor which comes to us through the duties which attach to our social place or ‘station’ within the earthly kingdom.” For Luther, one’s “station” was attached to one’s workplace. Like an ambassador stationed in a particular land, we Christians are appointed to duty in a particular workplace. To that end, I propose to offer four questions that will allow a Christian or a Christian organization to recalibrate their calling in the world. It is a way to recast the Christian idea of vocation. Before Drucker said organizations do not exist for themselves, Jesus said that the call of God is to love God and to love neighbor.[ii] In recent times, some Christians have deformed the doctrine of vocation to be about my gifts, my work, and my place in the world.[iii]
I believe that if you see yourself as a Christian leader, then you are called to create a shared story of future hope that makes spiritual sense of the longings and losses of the people entrusted to your care. This is my definition of vocation. The four questions allow us to build that definition from the ground up.
Question 1: Who are the people entrusted to your care?
God calls us neither to a task nor to a job – and not even to exercise a gift. God calls us to a people. The entire point of doing the task or exercising the gift is to benefit others. For example, we create because God creates.[iv] Artists and entrepreneurs alike celebrate this point. But, why did God create? God creates for the sake of we his people.[v] Artists who create just for the sake of creating miss the point. Art should be shared. Likewise, entrepreneurs who build for the sake of building (or for the sake of selling) miss the point. We are called to love God and love others. Every act should be an expression of that dual mandate.
The idolatrous danger for leaders is to see people as tools, as nothing more than means to accomplishing ends. Business leaders have a responsibility to do more than extract value from their people. The nature of the workplace is an exchange. Clients or customers pay for what businesses provide. Employees earn a salary for the work they provide. Each party attempts to extract maximum return from minimal cost. This is not wrong; it is just not enough merely to pay people a fair wage. We Christians are stewards of our clients, our customers, our employees, and, indeed, even our bosses.
Drucker argued for this when he said we should treat employees as volunteers and Max De Pree modeled it when he promised to build a humanizing workplace. For example, De Pree’s company promised that factory workers would have a say in the hiring and firing of their supervisors. A shift worker named Valerie came to the president’s office one day with a petition because a new VP had fired a supervisor without consulting the line workers. Most managers would think it is important to back the authority of the fledgling vice-president. Max said it was more important for the company to keep its promises about the rights and dignity of the workers and he restored the supervisor. De Pree believed that God had entrusted his workers to his care. So he made public promises about how they would be treated and he enabled his people to hold the company to those promises.[vi]
I believe that every Christian, no matter what their station, has people entrusted to her care. And wherever God plants you – in whatever position, and with whatever authority – the question that should orient you is: who are the people God has entrusted to my care?
Question 2: How do these people experience the longings and losses that make up the human condition?
If my people are more than tools that I can wield to fulfill my purposes, this means that they each experience the longings and losses that come with being human. And I bear a duty to understand those longings and losses that get activated in my role with them. De Pree, for example, emphasized the dignity that was due all humans. He also recognized that all people long to belong to something bigger than themselves. And he noticed that they experience deep loss when that dignity is stripped from them. So he promised dignity and belonging by allowing them to nominate their supervisors. But the need to understand longing and loss goes deeper than this.
If my clients, my customers, and my employees (and, yeah, even my bosses) are people entrusted to my care, then I bear a responsibility for a level of listening that goes beyond the role my work assigns. I think of longings and losses as the “things that keep people awake at night.” When one of your people lays her head on the pillow, what are all the hopes and fears of the day come rushing into her mind? I recognize that many of those longings and losses are beyond the scope of your role and thus you may not be able to address them all. But I bear a responsibility to understand the longings and losses of the people God entrusted to my care.
Question 3: How will make spiritual sense of these longings and losses?
This is the trickiest question for a business leader. Our society slices our lives into sections and demands that one section not intrude on another. But there is a way to understand the work that we do as Christians who lead. For example, whenever I listen to a story from one of the people entrusted to my care, I ask myself to understand it at three levels: the presenting issue, the deeper issue, and the theological issue. I recognize that my people rarely see themselves as asking a theological question, but it is my duty to see it for what it is – an expression of the basic longing we all have for relationship with God. Let me give an example.
I taught for many years a Nonprofit Management course at the Drucker School in Claremont. These were secular students with no necessary faith commitments. But I taught it as a Christian. So, for example, I asked each student to look at the nonprofit where they worked and to describe it as the expression of some value or end-unto-itself. So…a hospital was about health (and not just making people feel better), a college was about learning (and not just getting a degree), and a museum was about beauty (and not just entertainment). And then I asked them to manage in a way that embodied that value. I helped them find biblical categories, even if I did not use biblical words. Likewise, when I taught them about leadership, I found a reading by Jim Collins (a Buddhist) that empirically discovered that the way to lead looked a lot like Jesus, even though neither he nor I selected Jesus as the example. I set up a Jesus-like model for the students without crossing the line society created for how much I could say about my faith.
And, of course, De Pree created categories about human dignity and belonging that came directly from his reflection on Scripture. And he provided them to his people, even if he could not announce that he was doing it in Jesus’ name.
Question 4: How do you express that as a shared story of future hope?
My definition of vision is a “shared story of future hope.” I take my story and your story (i.e. your longings and losses) and weave it together with the biblical story to create a shared story of future hope. I may not tell people that I am using the biblical story, but I am obligated as a Christian to make the biblical story my plumb line (to use an image from the Book of Amos).
I promised you four questions that built one on the other. And so you have it. But there is a fifth question that will occur to anyone who takes this work seriously – a dangerous question, a question that reveals why it is so difficult to live in today’s world.
Question 5: How do my many roles in life create competing commitments as I seek to serve the many different peoples entrusted to my care?
This fifth question challenges the notion that I have only one vocation. Perhaps I am a father, a husband, a professor, and an elder. Each of those roles entrusts people to my care. And each of those roles is both a gift from God and a duty to God. And, to make matters worse, each of the people entrusted to my care experience this same role conflict. How then do we exercise vocation in the midst of competing commitments?
 The quotation is from Lee Hardy’s summary of Luther in The Fabric of This World (Eerdmans, 1990) 46.
[i] The Drucker questions are:
- What is your organization’s mission?
- Who is your customer?
- What does your customer consider value?
- What results will your customer use to measure your performance?
- What is your plan for providing your customer with value?
They are often abbreviated simply by asking, “Who is your customer and what does he consider value?”
[ii] Hardy, The Fabric of this World
[iii] The most famous of these self-referential notions of vocation is Fredrick Beuchner’s line that “The place God calls you is to the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In recent years, authors like Tim Keller have attacked that idea. Keller says, “A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. [For] thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person.” Every Good Endeavor (NY: Dutton-Penguin Books, 2012) 19
[iv] cf. Andy Crouch, Culture
[v] Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge
[vi] What keeps this from being some paternalistic sense of authority over others is De Pree’s notion of “roving leadership.” He believes that the authority in the moment does not depend necessarily on roles. So, for example, he did not just allow but he enabled Valerie to exercise authority over him by publicly promising to keep his commitments.
Scott Cormode, PhD, is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and is the Hugh De Pree Associate Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Seminary. The Hugh De Pree faculty chair was established by the family of the late Hugh De Pree, an accomplished leader and former CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., and brother of Max De Pree.
Click here to view Scott’s profile.