Thinking Well On The Job

tomnelsonFor quite some time I have appreciated the remarkable insight of author and New York Times columnist David Brooks. In one of his op-ed pieces entitled, The Mental Virtues, Brooks raises this important question. “We all know what makes for good character in soldiers. We’ve seen the movies about heroes who display courage, loyalty and coolness under fire. But what about somebody who sits in front of a keyboard all day? Is it possible to display and cultivate character if you are just an information age jockey, alone with a memo or your computer?

Brooks is pointing to something I believe we think too little about, namely the way we think as we do our work. Brooks answers his question by making the point that thinking well in the midst of the bombardment of the information age is as courageously needed for our character formation as fighting under a hail of bullets. Brooks highlights the importance of intentional cultivation of virtues in our workplace such as love of learning, courage to hold unpopular views, humility and generosity.

I hear in Brook’s insightful words a similar echoing from the Apostle Peter whose vocation as a fisherman not only produced well-worn hands, but also virtuous character. Peter who experienced the transforming power of the Gospel, who knew what it was to be a partaker of the divine nature in Christ also exhorts us to grow in virtue. Peter writes, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue knowledge and knowledge with self-control, and steadfastness with godliness.”

When we embrace a Gospel faith that speaks to all of life our ensuing spiritual formation occurs in all of life—including our work. We were designed with work in mind and we spend a great deal of time doing our work. Are you thinking well at work? Do you see your work as a primary way you are being spiritually formed? A primary way your virtue and character is being forged? Are you seeing the inevitable difficulties and trials of your workplace as opportunities not only to serve others, but also to grow in your own virtue? Brooks ends his article, “Character tests are pervasive even in modern everyday life. It’s possible to be heroic if you’re just sitting alone in your office. It just doesn’t make for a good movie.”

A Work Of Art

Grohmann Video Shoot # 2

             The Grohmann Museum

Ever since I first visited the Grohmann Museum in Milwaukee a couple of years ago, I have wanted to tell the story of work utilizing the magnificent works of art that line its walls. From Dutch painter Walter Verschuur’s “The Quarry,” to German painter Ludwig Knaus’ “Potato Harvest,” to British painter Walter Dexter’s “The Carpenter’s Shop,” both the exhilaration and exhaustion of human work is displayed in breathtaking ways with each skillful brush stroke. 

Grohmann Video Shoot # 3

              The Man At Work Collection

So you can imagine my enthusiasm when I was contacted earlier this year by Rightnow Media in Dallas to do a series of short teaching videos at the Grohmann Museum for a nationwide church curriculum on faith and work. It was a delight to work with the Grohmann Museum staff as well as Phil Warner and the Right Now Media team.

Grohmann Video Shoot #1

Video Shoot At The Grohmann

Their attention to artistic detail and wholehearted commitment to telling the biblical story of work accented with masterpiece art brought to mind Dorothy Sayers words that “Christian work is good work well done.”  When edited and completed I am hopeful this project will make a contribution to the broader faith and work movement.

Presently Rightnow Media serves some 8000 churches in the United States providing them a wide variety of trustworthy biblical content for discipleship in all dimensions of congregational life. I am most grateful for the Kern Family Foundation and their generous and enthusiastic support of this project. Please join me in prayer that God will multiply these few “loaves and fishes,” so that a growing multitude in the church will better connect Sunday worship with Monday work.




Equipping Marketplace Leaders


Rick & Kathy Boxx

One of the things that encourage me most in the area of faith, work and economics are the number of organizations that have emerged in the broader faith at work movement. Recently I chatted with Rick Boxx who along with his bride Kathy, live in Kansas City, are members of our Christ Community family and have for several years helped others better connect Sunday to Monday.

In 2001 Rick Boxx founded Integrity Resource Center  with the mission “To glorify God by helping others learn, model and teach God’s principles in their workplace.” I am grateful for Rick’s encouraging friendship and the good work he and Kathy are doing. Here are some of Rick’s thoughts from our conversation.

Tom:  What were some of the factors that led you to get involved in the faith and work movement?

Rick: I began working for a bank president in 1989 who frequently directed me to scripture to guide the business decisions we were making. Seeing the Bible used practically in business began me on a journey that led to my salvation then ultimately to developing a passion for understanding what else the Bible said about business. God began stirring my heart that someone needed to teach His principles to business leaders. So in 1995 I left banking to form a consulting practice. This consulting practice eventually led me to founding Integrity Resource Center, a nonprofit dedicated to training and equipping leaders to do business God’s way.

Tom:  What are the greatest challenges you see in helping marketplace leaders better connect Sunday to Monday?

Rick:  Many Christians have experienced teaching and equipping for their marriage and family issues and many personal areas of life, but few have had any training for their work, which is where they typically spend at least 45% of their waking hours. That coupled with many of them having flawed views that only pastors and missionaries have callings can be a big hurdle for those in the workplace to fully engage their God-given talents in the vocational calling God has for them.

Tom: How can local church leaders better equip congregants for their vocational callings?

Rick: Churches could be very helpful to their congregants by teaching and emphasizing the importance of our work and the calling to it that God has for those designed to flourish in the marketplace. We have used our daily “Integrity Moments” vignettes as a way to share practical workplace stories and biblical principles on a regular basis. It has now grown to being aired on over 250 radio stations and over 2 million people receive an email version. These sort of tools could be used or developed in the local church as a way to remind congregants that the Bible is practical for the workplace.

Rick, keep up the good work at Integrity Resource Center!



Instead Of Service, How About Service Work?

tomnelsonIn an article recently published in the New Republic entitled, “Don’t  Send Your Kid to the Ivy League, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz has offered a stinging critique of an elite college education.  He writes, “Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid and lost, with little intellectual credibility and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they are doing, but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

Dr. Deresiewicz makes a compelling argument by pointing to extreme admission standards, abandonment of a liberal arts education, lack of moral reflection and income inequality being perpetuated by many of our elite colleges and universities. While I resonate with much of what Deresiewicz is saying, one thing in particular stands out as a word of timely wisdom for parents, students and educators in this back to school season.

Dr. Deresiewicz urges an emerging generation of bright and talented college and perspective college students to learn about the world not through building impressive college resume community service hours in order to impress an admissions committee, but rather to make it a priority to personally experience a service sector job. To an emerging generation of students, Dr. Deresiewicz writes, “Instead of service, how about service work? That’ll really give you insight into other people. How about waiting tables so that you can see how hard it is, physically and mentally? You really aren’t as smart as everyone has been telling you; you’re only smarter in a certain way.”

I don’t know what if any faith commitments William Deresiewicz embraces, yet he is a welcome and needed voice in our time. His new book, entitled, Excellent Sheep: The Misdirection of the American Elite and The Way to a  Meaningful Way of Life is due to be released, August 19 and will be fodder for thought for those who care deeply about higher education in our nation. I believe the church as well as the culture at large must recover the value of work such as sweeping floors, making beds, cleaning bathrooms, flipping burgers, waiting tables, painting houses, mowing lawns  or a host of other less “desirable” jobs. Service sector jobs are often relatively low paying and that can be problematic in some ways, but these work opportunities bring with them much more value than a paycheck. Learning to work hard and serve an often thankless public encourages personal character formation and gives the high school or college student an invaluable life education in a diverse world.

Looking back at my high school and college years, I am very grateful for the summers I spent working at a Dairy Queen in a one stoplight Minnesota town.  During those very formative years, I learned a great deal about life, people, hard work and leadership at a Dairy Queen. This important life education, a college classroom simply cannot deliver. While I am a big fan of a college education and the goodness of classroom learning, an on-the-job education is also worth its weight in gold. Perhaps an antidote to the toxic entitlement mentality so pervasive in our culture is a renewed understanding of the high value of service sector jobs that teach us how to work hard and to serve others.

Do What You Love?

tomnelsonSipping on a bold blend of my favorite Starbucks coffee, I noticed on my cup words by Oprah Winfrey which read, “Pursue your passion, find your purpose.”   Pursuing our passion seems to be the work mantra of our time, but is it one we are wise to embrace?  Should we pursue doing what we love?  Or would it be wiser to pursue loving what we do?

In a recent Fast Company article, entitled, The Secrets To Career Contentment: Don’t Follow Your Passion, Sebastian Klein takes aim at the popular notion that following our passion is the most important ingredient in job satisfaction and success. Sebastian Klein puts it this way, “Follow your passion, might be the most common career advice, but it is actually bad advice…in a culture that tells people to transform their passions into lucrative careers via will-driven alchemy, it’s no wonder so much of today’s workforce suffers from endless job swapping and professional discontentment.”

Sebastian Klein points to Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Newport offers several tips to avoid the work passion trap. First, don’t do what you love. Learn to love what you do.  Second, adopt a craftsman’s mindset. Third, practice hard and get out of your comfort zone. Fourth, acquire rare and valuable skills. What insightful and practical advice for faithful vocational stewardship!

In the midst of so much cultural confusion regarding work, Klein and Newport’s advice is a welcome breath of fresh air. The prescription they offer for workers of all ages, backgrounds and educational levels is to adopt a craftsman’s mindset. A craftsman’s mindset focuses not on the innate desirability of one’s work, but on the quality of one’s work. A craftsman’s mindset embraces a disciplined work style that continually hones one’s skills and increasingly does a better and better job with greater efficiency and creativity. Instead of focusing on passion, the craftsman’s mindset focuses on practice. The most helpful career advice you may ever possibly receive is that the better your skills, the better your work and the better job opportunities that come your way.

I have a hunch that Jesus the carpenter would strongly affirm the wisdom of Klein and Newport.  Rather than pursuing what he loved to do, I believe Jesus learned to love what he did. Each day in the Nazareth carpentry shop with holy sweat on his brow and sawdust on his hands, Jesus became a more and more skilled craftsman. No wonder the Gospel writer Luke described a youthful Jesus growing in wisdom, stature, favor with God and men. Few things give us greater favor with others than the excellence of our work. The loving hands that would one day be nailed to a Roman Cross were the strong hands of a highly skilled craftsman who did his work well. Jesus did not fall for the work passion trap. Let’s follow his wise example.

The Apostle Paul encourages us not to do what we love, but to do our work well. Writing to the church at Colossae, Paul pens these words: “Whatever you do, work heartily as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”  Perhaps it’s time we expend more energy learning to love what we do rather than pursuing what we love. Let’s also keep in mind the One we are ultimately doing our work for each and every day.

Creative Community For The Common Good


Sara and Troy Groves


I have always admired singer Sara Groves for her thoughtful lyrics and musical talents, but Sara and her husband Troy have much more up their vocational sleeves these days than writing and performing great music. Recently I had the joy of participating in a conversation on faith and vocation held at Troy and Sara’s Art House North located in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Art House North

The Art House North


Art House North is a welcoming and hospitable place for meaningful conversation on creative community for the common good. Sara and Troy grasp the integral nature of the Christian faith and how our faith speaks into every nook and cranny of human existence. I was delighted to join Andy Crouch and Skye Jethani and a very thoughtful group of clergy, artists and marketplace leaders for a day of exploration around redeeming work and narrowing the Sunday to Monday gap that is disturbingly prevalent in so much of Evangelical thinking and practice. Dr. Chris Armstrong captured much of the day and rich conversation on his Patheos blog.

Tom at Art House North

Andy Crouch & Skye Jethani

Against the arid landscape of many self-described Christian communities, the Art House North is a welcoming and nourishing oasis of what Vaclav Havel has often described as “living in truth.” I am grateful for Sara and Troy’s warm hospitality and their entrepreneurial embodiment of a faith that narrows the Sunday to Monday gap. If you find yourself in the St. Paul area, stop by the Art House North. Troy and Sara have an inviting welcome mat waiting for you and perhaps a good cup of coffee and a home-made chocolate chip cookie too.


Moody’s Grand Men And Women

Back Camera

Dr. Sajan Mathews

“When I am gone, I shall leave some grand men and women behind.” These prescient words of founder D.L. Moody prominently displayed at Moody Bible Institute were tucked into my heart and mind as I recently walked on the beautiful and spacious Moody campus in downtown Chicago. At the Moody Pastors’ Conference, I met some grand men and women who are making a real difference in our world.

I was invited by Moody Professor, Dr. Sajan Mathews who was a most warm and gracious host. Dr. Mathews is leading Moody Theological Seminary’s faith and work initiative, seeking to bring a more robust theology of vocation in the training of pastors for the evangelical church.

Back Camera

Moody Pastors’ Luncheon

A highlight of my time at Moody was speaking at a pastor’s luncheon. I found the pastor’s eager and open to consider how they might better equip their congregations to connect Sunday worship with Monday work. After the official program was over, I was encouraged that several pastors stuck around and continued the dialogue.

One of the pastors who had read Work Matters and found it very helpful, strongly encouraged me to have it translated into Spanish. I am not sure I had ever entertained that thought before, but perhaps it is worth pursuing. It was a true delight to be at Moody and to get a small glimpse of how God is at work in this fine and far-reaching evangelical institution.