A Theology of Work (COMMENTARY)

Momany_HeaderIn 1989, I received a letter from the Board of Ordained Ministry telling me that I was to be ordained later that year during the Annual Conference session. It was, of course, a welcome piece of communication. The format of the letter did not escape me. First, the board listed the strengths they perceived in my ministry. Then they listed cautions—issues that invited further growth. There was one statement of caution listed for me: “danger of becoming a workaholic.” Even then I was aware that this did not exhaust all ways I needed to grow. Yet the fact that one issue would be raised (and this one in particular) made an impression. Today some might consider this caution a backhanded compliment, but I knew better. They were right. I had to develop a theologically authentic and appropriate approach to my work.

This went far beyond the need to establish and keep a day off. I suppose in more recent times I would be encouraged to attend a workshop, taught by some self-anointed ecclesiastical savant regarding the importance of Sabbath. I’ve heard of those, but there was something much deeper at stake. The Sabbath commandment should not be turned into a personal life-practice seminar. The commandment is a statement of God’s authority over all creation and a statement of grace. It’s the foundation upon which human endeavor rests and meaning is constructed.

Funny how personal and world history intersect. 1989 was also the year that the Berlin Wall fell. The clash between Soviet-styled communism and capitalism was many things, including a conflict between competing conceptions of work. Karl Marx diagnosed the alienation among an industrial age between people and their work. Humans were treated as cogs in a machine, and something had to change. Unfortunately, the machine of unfettered nineteenth-century industry became the Soviet machine of unfettered state control. People were still cogs. The machine had simply changed.

So when the wall fell, many were understandably delighted. They anticipated a freedom that might be worthy of human dignity – finally. And there I was, in 1989, confronting a need to understand the meaning of work while the world was balanced on the edge of a knife.

Someone else was thinking about work at this time, someone who was no friend of the Soviet system. Pope John Paul II is remembered as a fairly conservative leader. His experience with European Socialism made him a spokesperson of resistance. Yet he, too, knew that there had been alienation between God’s people and their work before the twentieth century, and he feared that the new freedom of the coming twenty-first century guaranteed nothing. He worried that the alienation of the nineteenth century – that became the alienation of communist systems – could morph once again into an alienation of so-called free markets.

Writing in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) he warned that the new capitalism might become another game of cogs and machines. He worried that the dignity of people would be replaced by “the criterion of efficiency, functionality, and usefulness.” This distortion of values creates a system where “others are considered not for what they ‘are,’ but for what they ‘have, do, and produce.’” That’s right. This was a statement from the Pope who helped end communism!

I came to understand that part of my problem with work was the incessant need to prove something – in other words: to have, to do, to produce. Some who take an uncritical liking to the language of effective ministry might endorse this work ethic. But I disagree. The new version of alienation comes in many forms, but it usually shares the character of treating people as things for the advancement of endless agendas and even greed.

That is why I speak of the intrinsic worth given by God to each and every person. People of intrinsic worth do not derive their value from proving something. They are of inestimable worth, regardless of that which they have (or don’t have), do (or don’t do), and produce (or don’t produce).

I like to work. I don’t apologize for that fact. Yet my work does not determine my value. It is an opportunity to affirm others regardless of “efficiency, functionality, and usefulness.” I may not be there yet, but I am closer than I was in 1989. I am not sure that I can say the same for our culture – or the church, for that matter.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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A very thoughtful piece. Your own experience and work ethic notwithstanding, the need of many people in our current culture, it seems to me, is to re-appreciate the importance of work. No, not as something to derive one’s primary value from, but as something to build character and–if I may be blunt–to pay the bills so others don’t have to. We are a nation in debt and a nation of debtors. It is also worth noting that the value of the individual–including the capacity of the individual to derive self-worth from things other than work–in socialistic systems is much more… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler

LOL. Peer-reviewed research confirms the happiest nations are those with democratic socialist systems. Sweden, The Netherlands, Iceland, France, etc. far exceed ther U.S. where advocacy of inequality as a measure of one’s worth was wrapped in religious garb and sold to trick people into acting against their own self-interest. Anytime someone tells you they got rich through hard work, ask them whose.

Richard Hicks

I never made it to ordination. On three occasions, in two different annual conferences, I was told that highly effective people were not welcome into the ranks of the ordained. My mere mention of my work schedule, ministry effectiveness with numbers to show how many contacts made, service rendered was considered to be bragging. Competence is the greatest fear of the mediocre.

George Nixon Shuler
Chris, this is both brilliant and timely. I have begun reading Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” which is about the factors which led to Naziism and Soviet-style Communism. Arendt is relentless is coering every angle. Many here in the U.S. do not understand that “The Bourgeiosie” so disdained by aristocrats, slackers, and hipsters, were originally those who sought to create great fortunes for their descendants at the expense of society. With the right-wing reaction to the New Deal, business groups (not including all corporations of course) sought to create a myth of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” and… Read more »
Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Thanks, George. You have given me much to consider.

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