Let Workers be Workers

Dorothy Sayers makes me feel like a human. Something few pastors ever do. I have been reading Creed or Chaos, a collection of her essays and the thing I love most about these essays is her courage to step all over the toes of high-horsed men who think they own the people who work for them. In Why Work?, an address delivered at Eastbourne, England, on April 23, 1942, she ponders the state of the society after the war is over. Will it continue on in a wartime economy that produces things with strict precision to do what it is supposed to do or will it return to producing trash that can be thrown away to buy more trash. I underlined nearly the whole essay, but I thought one particular section was worth writing about here. She says,

“It is the business of the Church to recognize that the secular vocation, as such, is sacred. Christian people, particularly perhaps the Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work…she [The Church] must concern herself with seeing that work itself is such as a human being can perform without degradation-that no one is required by economic or any other considerations to devote himself to work that is contemptible, soul-destroying, or harmful.” 

The point that I would like to elaborate on is the dignity of workers. How many pastors do you know that really speak to their parishioners with the kind of respect she is hinting at here. Later she elaborates that there really is no separation between the worker and the church member. One office is not more holy than the other. It is not as if there are two people the pastor speaks to when he preaches on Sunday and runs into them at their job on Tuesday. The man who sits in the pew may also be the man who built the pew. That one man is called to serve God in his work, not serve God and his work.

Pastor, I realize you probably don’t see the big deal yet. “I preach this all the time to my church,” you might say. Do you? Or do you preach precisely the opposite of what I am saying? Because preaching the opposite of what I am saying is reminding your parishioner that he is wearing two hats when he shows up to work. It’s saying, “don’t show up to work drunk because that might ruin your witness as a church member.” Or “when your boss tells you to do something, you do it whether you like it or not as long as it isn’t going to break any Christian commandments.” Those exhortations are fine in so far as they are actually understood by the person in the pew, but what that person probably hears is their church boss saying the same things that their work boss is saying. He’s wondering if these two are colluding together. And so am I.

What your boss at work wants is for you to keep your head down, work hard, and don’t get in the way of profits. Few managers ever ask their employees if they feel their work is degrading or eats at their soul. Though it is their very vocation, few pastors ask this either. I write this not because I am after managers or pastors. I’m actually both of these at present. I write this because I suspect pastors may not even realize they have fallen prey to a commercial age that insults the worker by robbing him of all interest in the end-product and forces him to dedicate his life to making badly things that are not worth making. This, says Sayers, is the greatest insult we have offered to the worker.[1]  This, I say, is what many pastors do every week.

They aren’t exhorting the architect to design the most beautiful homes or the barista to brew the best cup of coffee in town. They are telling these people the same thing their boss does. “Show up on time. Don’t make unnecessary scuffles. Don’t do drugs, would you really want to put your family in jeopardy over something stupid like that?” Never asking if perhaps they numb their senses with opiates and depressants because they absolutely hate what they do every day.

It almost seems like the top concern of the pastor is that the worker maintains the highest paying job. “Congratulations on the new promotion,” he says, “don’t forget who blessed you with that! Adjust your tithe.” “Look here,” the pastor says to his treasurer, “our giving has dramatically increased this year. Don’t you think it’s time I get a raise?” If everyone in the church gets a promotion in a fiscal year, but no new members are added, does that warrant the ox getting some grain too? If so, then you just granted that the pastor’s work is essentially growing profit margins. You see, it is in the interest of the pastor that his employees, I mean beloved sheep, invest their talents to turn a profit. Ask a pastor if he would rather shepherd a church to grow to seventy-five white-collar sheep or one hundred blue-collar and self-employed sheep. He will have to think for a minute to do the math.

Accounting is not part of the qualifications for elders for a reason. In fact, Paul warns against overseers who are lovers of money. He disqualifies deacons who are dishonest for greedy gain. So pastoral visits should be much less concerned with whether the man of the house is making enough to support the lifestyle he lives, than if he is actually enjoying the life he lives. Pastors will confess all day long that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But does maximizing profits equal glorification? Do we really believe that a man can enjoy God if that means working at a job that degrades his soul and insults his creative mind?

My proposal is that pastors take up the honor of caring for the souls of men and not just their pocketbooks or moral appearances. A faithful pastor trusts God enough to counsel his parishioner to quit the well-paying job that insults his humanity for one that is life-giving and good. We have twisted scriptures like 1 Timothy 5:8[2] to mean a man must provide the newest cell phone, designer clothes, and fast-food service to his family to not be considered an infidel. What if pastors commended the happy man who downsized his home and lifestyle for a more fulfilling vocation? What if that was the real issue with the man who kept risking his well-paying job by showing up half-cocked! Selling your soul to the devil is not worth the mammon even if the pastor keeps telling you to do it.

Pastor, I think running this gut check on yourself may be a helpful exercise. Ask yourself honestly if you have thought this way. Yes, everyone knows it’s plainly shallow, but unfortunately, pastors are shallow sinners too. Have you cared more about maintaining a well-oiled machine at your church than the members who keep the lights on? Have you guarded yourself by suppressing promising talent? Have you seen pastoral gifting in your own congregation, but failed to fan the flame on it because it felt like a threat? How is it that many megachurch pastors never raise up another pastor from their pews, but the small church down the street has sent out three that planted more churches? Could it be that the megachurch pastor is trying to run a monopoly? Or have you given your church members a full-time job of church work that distracts them from the things they feel called to? Many pastors do not respect the time and energy of their members even worse than their employers do. This will be evidenced by the number of programs running outside of the Lord’s Day and the pressure to attend them. Has your boss ever said things like “unless you are providentially hindered I’d like to see you at the company picnic on Saturday?” Of course not, but your pastor may have!

These questions are for you, pastor. Where is your heart when it comes to the workers in your church? When Jesus saw the crowds he was moved with compassion “because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.”[3] It was the Pharisees who harassed these sheep, not just employers. How have you been a Pharisee harassing your members rather than cultivating their dignity as an image-bearer? What kind of worker will you be? A harasser or a shepherd? The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.


[1] Sayers, Dorothy L. Creed or Chaos? Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949, 56.

[2] But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (ESV)

[3] Matt 9:36

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