Learning the Difference Between Work and Service

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit...John 12:24

I used to work for Jesus. Okay, to be perfectly honest, the treasurer at Covenant Baptist Church signed my paycheck. But in seminary we were taught that ministers really work for Jesus. So I always felt like Jesus was my real boss. I certainly had a title that emphasized my connection to Jesus. I was the pastor of a church, a local gathering of the body of Christ. In my mind, Covenant Baptist Church was middle management. Jesus was the CEO. So yeah, I worked for Jesus - sort of. And I worked for Covenant Baptist Church - also sort of. It was kind of a messy arrangement. But still, I always got a warm glow at the thought that I was working for the man upstairs. Now I work for this guy and this guy. They are businessmen. They make products and sell them to people. They’re good guys, honest and hard-working. And the products they design serve a useful purpose in the world. I also have a new title. I am the Director of Internet Development and Social Media Integration for Philanthromax.

With a title like that, I think it’s pretty clear that I don’t work for Jesus anymore. I want to confess something to you that I’m a little ashamed of. When I was a pastor, I used to think that ordained, professional ministers were somehow holy and above the secular world of work and profit. I would never have said that out loud, mind you, but yeah, I kind of thought that. Of course I said all the right things back then. "All work is holy in its own way and ultimately the work of God." But down inside I still thought we minister-types were kind of special. God’s special little servants. And now here I am, the director of yada yada whatchamacallit and social media whatever. You might think I would feel a little let-down, spiritually speaking. So why is it that I feel so clean inside? Clean and good and purposeful and righteous? I go to bed at night feeling satisfied about the way I spent my day, and I sleep well. The last year that I was a pastor I was conflicted, depressed, filled with anxiety, and struggling with insomnia. What is up with that? Wouldn't you think the opposite would be true? Work for Jesus, sleep like a baby. Work for the man, toss and turn all night?

I can’t speak for all ministers, of course. Many, maybe even most, find ways to function just fine in their roles as church ministers. They seem happy and filled with purpose. So I'm claiming this as my own problem. I could never find a way to keep the boundaries straight when I was a pastor. The messiness of working for Jesus and the church eventually became too much for me. When I was paid to do the work of Christ, it was hard for me to keep things straight in my mind. Why am I doing ministry - because of a calling or for the paycheck? Why am I going to church on Sunday - to worship or because it’s my job? Why do I love and care for people - because I feel an emotional connection to them or because I'm paid to love them? I got to the place where I couldn’t tell the difference between love and labor. My “secular" job, on the other hand, seems very clean and clear to me. I work hard to earn money and make a living. There is something righteous and good about that. And if I go to church on Sunday or find a way to serve Christ, I am more certain about my motives if I'm not being paid.

I've decided that the terms "secular" and "sacred" aren't very helpful. Dividing the world of work into those two categories is very messy. I'd prefer to talk about work and service. There is work we do in order to make money and feed children and all of that. Good, honest work is just...good. It is a goodness in the world. Then there is serving Christ, something we Christians are both commanded to do and find joy in doing. Service is also good. It is also a goodness in the world. In my case, I had to let go of being a pastor to learn some new things about serving Christ. As I said, most pastors I know seem to be fine with what they do. But I wasn't. Sometimes that's the way it is. You have to let go of something - maybe even let it die and fall to the earth - before your life can bear righteous fruit. Gordon Atkinson

Photo by Phil Mollenkof.