What’s is God’s design for our work? Is it more than simply a paycheck? What does it mean to work unto the Lord? What are the lies about work that we’ve believed and how can we exchange them for the truth of Scripture about work? We’ll answer these questions and more with our guest Helen Mitchell, author of The Work Exchange.

Helen Mitchell is Assistant Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Crowell School of Business at Biola University. She also directs the Talbot Center for Faith, Work and Economics.

Episode Transcript

Scott: What is God's design for our work? Is it more than just a paycheck? What does it mean to work unto the Lord? What are some of the lies about work that we've believed and how can we exchange them for the truth of scripture about work? We'll answer these questions in many more with our guest, Helen Mitchell, a team leader for a brand new curriculum called “The Work Exchange.”

Sean: Okay, Helen, before we started, you told me you've been working at the idea of connecting faith and work for two decades.

Helen: Yeah.

Sean: Why are you so passionate about this? What's your story that has made you commit to this, not only this curriculum, but your life?

Helen: I'm passionate about it because it is God's heart. It is God's purpose for Christians in the earth, and we have missed it in some ways, in some ways big, some ways small. And I like to borrow from what Scott says, "Where did you learn such bad theology? I hope it wasn't here." And why I'm passionate about it is, I started my career early in business, did well. And after the Lord took me out of the marketplace, November 20th, 2003, he started to seed my heart and my mind about faith at work. And at that time, there was no books, blogs, conferences, podcasts, things like this, curriculum. There was very, very little on the market. There were still a few frontrunners. But in that time, God began to give me his heart for what is and what could be, and how Christians have a calling here in the earth to bring redemption. There is somebody on the other side of somebody's calling in the marketplace. And the last 10 years of what I have personally gone through and the suffering and the loss and the pain that I have had that has afflicted me deep into my heart has just really hit just a nerve of compassion. And this is not just a program. This is just not an idea. This is God's heart. This is reformation for the world. God is not coming back for a weak, frail, weak church that's sitting waiting to be raptured. Habakkuk 2:14 says, "The knowledge of the glory of the Lord shall fill the earth." And in the last days, God says, I will pour up my spirit on all flesh. Jesus is coming back for a bride that's pure and spotless without wrinkle and undivided. And we're none of those things. And this is part of God's plan. How are we going to see God's glory in the earth if we don't live it out? There is, this is part of what people are called to do. This is part of what Jesus is waiting for us to walk into to reveal who he is. And one day, every person, there's going to be the greatest review of all time. And we're going to stand every person, every pastor, every person in the marketplace. We know we'll stand before Jesus for what we did in the church, what we did in the home. But everything that's done in the marketplace will come before Jesus. And Jesus will say, “you steward that business well. You taught those kids well. You prayed into that classroom. You stood for righteousness. You represented me well done, good and faithful servant. And as a result of that, let me show you what rippled through eternity.” This is so important and so exciting.

Sean: Helen, I don't get a lot of goosebumps.

Scott: I feel like we could just close in prayer and be bad.

Sean: Let's drop the mic and wrap this thing up.

Scott: So let me follow up on that just a little bit, Helen. You've got a unique background that you bring to this subject that not many other people have. So tell us a little bit about sort of your journey to get you to this place. And how's your, how's your background contributed to all of this?

Helen: Yeah. You know, like, um, thank you for the question. And you know, like many folks would be, I'm not really sure I saw myself at this place in this stage of my life. I'm actually on my third career. I started right out of college, went to the undergraduate on, um, at Arizona State University on a full four-year academic scholarship, and graduated from there and got hired by AT&T into the management fast track program. And I spent 15 years in high tech, went with AT&T, Lucent Technologies, Avaya Communication, each of these successive spin-offs, became a vice president at the age of 30. By the age of 35, I was running half a billion dollar business. I was known as a turnaround expert, so I moved from one part of the business to another. I went to something called “Leaders Council,” which is the top 1% of the entire firm, like all of Lucent Technologies. I did that not once, but twice, and was able to turn around results. And I loved business. In my business, undergraduate business school, I realized I love business. I love everything about business. And so I did that, then left to go work with a privately held firm, got all the extra business experience that I didn't have running sales and having a P&L running sales and customer service. But then in November 20th, the Lord took me out of the marketplace and began to seed my heart about this idea of faith at work. I've got this journal, my Where's My Waldo journal. Where's my life going? What is going on? What am I doing here? My girls were young, very young at the time. The Lord brought me to Saddleback Church and my husband and myself and our children and then further brought me into a church where I was the visionary and co-founder of the Saddleback at Work ministry, became a licensed pastor on staff, leading the Saddleback at Work ministry. When I had stepped off the pastoral staff, had been there for 10 years, we had 350 small groups meeting in workplaces across Southern California.

Sean: That's cool.

Helen: And had multiple events, monthly writing, curriculum, content, and the Lord began to give me the strategies at that time about how to support churches. And then I find myself here in academia bringing that business and that theological experience, teaching in the Kroll School of Business. So having been in business, academia, and the local church, and having a Master's in Biblical Theological Studies from the Talbot School of Theology and a Master's in Organizational Leadership from Biola, it gives me a little bit of insight, I think.

Scott: I'd say she's moderately qualified to do this.

Sean: For sure. I love that you describe Saddleback Church set you free in a sense, using the business mind that God has given you to collaborate and strategize. Sometimes we don't. We take business people and say, hey, will you help us with being a greeter, which is fine. And that's wonderful. But let's use the skills that people have. And you were set free to do that, which must have felt good to you and kind of a win win for everybody. But but let me frame it this way. I'll never forget, probably 15 years ago, I was at a church and I met two men in their 30s who were both engineers, been in the church their entire life. I said, I'm curious, how do you connect your faith to what it means to be an engineer? And how long? I'll never forget it. They looked at each other, they looked at me and said, “I don't know, we've never really thought about it.” Yeah. Yeah. And this moment of like you, I don't know how many sermons and Bible studies and retreats they've been to and never made a connection to what they do 40 hours a week, there's something missing there, isn't there? So why does the Bible talk about, what does the Bible say about connecting someone's faith to their work?

Helen: Yeah, Sean, you know, that's a great question, and that's one of the million dollar questions. First, let me just briefly say that I think we get this phraseology, faith at work, it's misleading for many.

Sean: Okay, interesting.

Helen: So we might know what we're talking about. We know that work in and of itself has intrinsic value. We know that that means we're going to take our faith to inform our work. But for most people, church pastors, how it's been used or how it's been thought of, it is even a person who's not a Christ follower asked me about how do you do faith at work? And the person's insight was about evangelizing in the workplace. And it has been reduced and predominantly thought about, Because when we think about faith and we read the scriptures and faith and in the Greek, it's “pistis,” right? So it's, but it's a belief, it's a salvation, it's a saving grace without faith. It's impossible to police God. So we know all of that. So we think that we, we take that and we translate it to, to faith, the salvation, to the gospel, to how do I, how do I preach the gospel at work is really what we're saying in that regard. But there's also expanded definition of that Greek word of faith, which is how to take a belief system to inform our life.

Sean: That's great.

Helen: We don't say, what is your faith in marriage?

Sean: Hmm.

Helen: Right? Well, when we talk about that, what we're really saying is how do we take faith, scripture, not just faith, but scripture biblical principles to inform our role as a parent, as a spouse. And so really when I think what we're saying in faith at work, what we really should be saying is how does scripture inform, how you show up as a business leader, as a teacher, as a mechanic, as a janitor, as a plumber, as a barista, how does that inform who you are and what you do? Most pastors, I did some research a number of years ago with some pastors and I test this out, but most folks specifically in the church pastors, because of the lens from which they come from and God bless them, we need them to be fully coming through in their pastoral realm, because that's why we have everybody in the church, is that when I ask the question, “what do you think are the issues that people in the marketplace are facing,” and most of the responses, and if we can even stop for a moment, we say, "Pastor, what do you think about that?" And the answer is probably moral, emotional, or spiritual. Well, I'm sorry, but lusting over your secretary probably is not the majority issue for the majority of the business leaders out there. It is about how do I recruit? How do we retain? How do I engage employees? How do I stay profitable? How do I come up with the next innovation? How do I work in an industry that's corrupt? Those are the things we talk about. And if we don't say that my faith informs how I show up to address those things, then we have just, we've just left, we've left the table of influence.

Scott: So let's be a little more specific about this. Helen, give our listeners some biblical passages, you know, one or two sort of central biblical texts that they can go to to help them on this journey to connect their faith with their work. Absolutely. Thank you, Scott. So the Genesis 1 passage is very, a place to start where we root in that, where God created man and woman to rule and reign in the earth and to have dominion and to exercise, you know, administration, that's where we have management and leadership comes from that. We know that. But there are other things that are hidden in the text in the New Testament that I think are very enlightening. For example, Ephesians 2:10, “for we are God's masterpiece created to do good works, which God determined before the foundation of the world through Christ Jesus.” Now those good works is not just helping out in the church. Absolutely it is. It's not just helping out in the community and absolutely it is. But that word works is ergon, business, employment, anything done by hand. So before the foundation of the world, God determined who we would gift with the skills, talents, and abilities to do the vocation in which they're called to in the earth. That's just one. Another one, very briefly, is Jesus said in Matthew 5:16, “let your light so shine before men that they see your good works and praise your father in heaven.” That word works again is ergon. So I dream of the day. What if we have people who know that they are so connected to the vine and that they know that they are called by Jesus to go do their job, whatever it is, even if it's not perfect, but they do it in such a way that they get wisdom and insight and opportunities and bring solutions to the table, and students, do not let anyone look down on you because you are young. But what if we do that and we bring solutions like Solomon, problems to society, to government, to business, to industry, to education that hasn't been solved, and people go, "Oh, my gosh, where did you get that? You really want to know where I got that wisdom? Let your light so shine. That is not just only our character. It is part of it. Give you two last scripture, then I'll close. The last, the last, uh, actually three things. Jesus said in Luke, "Occupy until I return." He said, "Occupy." That word "occupy" in the Greek is to continue to do business. That means to hold your point. Stand there. Do not let the flank go. there and continue to do business righteously, continue to trade, continue to stand in the gap. Because if we walk away from having influence and making the decisions that affect society, then we are the tail and not the head. God is not coming back to just clean up after the devil's work. It says in 1 John 3:8 that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, the ergon, the business, the destruction, the things that are done in society. And in all of that, as we walk that out, and those are just a couple of examples, at the last, I'll close with this, with closing with the last scripture verse in the book of Acts, Acts 28, last verse, Paul went about preaching the kingdom of God and talking about the Lord Jesus Christ. So he taught about and preached about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of salvation is part of the kingdom of God. Jesus came to talk about the kingdom of God is here. The kingdom of heaven is here. Jesus said, "I'm coming to rule and reign." And he brought a new, when he said, "I'm going up to the Father," he put his management team back in place here in the earth, but we've not all quite got that memo. It is an absolute exciting time to be alive.

Scott: You ought to wait and see what she really gets excited about.

Sean: I know, right? I love the enthusiasm. I'm going to ask you in a second what you would have said to those engineers, how they connect their faith to their work. But I ask this question because one of the things when I speak to educators is I'll talk about how there's a Christian view of everything, of like you said, marriage, of work. I was asked recently, I said there's a Christian view of every subject in the classroom to Christian educators and somebody goes, well, “what about yearbook?” I started thinking, well, that's a new one. And I thought, well, what is a yearbook? It's a record of stories from the past that shape who we are. And we remember them because where we came from shapes where we're going. That's why we celebrate Passover. That's why the Bible talks about remembering the Lord. So even yearbook kind of fits in a Christian way of thinking. But nobody talks about that. Nobody makes those connections. So what would you say to those engineers? I realize that's different than business. What are some practical ways that they could begin to shift their thinking to think biblically, so to speak, while they're at work as engineers?

Helen: Yeah, great question. And so let me just preface that to say in the work exchange, we define work as anything that has provided value for yourself and others. So whether you are a stay at home parent,

Sean: That's great.

Helen: Caring for your family and your child and Scott and I have done some conferences and we asked it's a tickling question is, you know, you're going to provide food and mow the lawn for somebody who just, you know, their family who came out of the hospital. Why is that ministry for them when you, but not to your own family. So, you know, work is you provide value for yourself and others whether it's paid or unpaid or regardless of the sphere, whether it's in the church, in the marketplace, in education, wherever it is. So we'll just, we just put that idea of work. And it's beyond business. That's another one of these, these, uh, kind of traps we think of, well, oh, it's a businessman's thing or business group and it's not it's all aspects of work so what would I say to those engineers I would start by asking them some questions to open perspective instead of telling them I would allow them to to discover the answers so for example I would say, “so tell me about your work what do you do oh,” and I would understand the work a little bit more and ask more questions to help them connect not only their character and their behavior but also what it is that they're doing and struggling to make the right decisions And well, who's impacted by those decisions? Well, what would have been the consequence if you weren't there to make that decision? Can you think of a time when you were in a meeting that something was going in a direction that was not good for human flourishing in the employees and the customers? What did you do? What would have happened if you hadn't been there to try to illustrate the very aspect we need to have a seat at the table of influence.

Sean: That's great.

Scott: This is one of the things I think we need to do a better job of in our churches, because we, as we've talked about that, you know, all believers are in full-time ministry, regardless of their arena of service. And I think if we use the notion of service as opposed to the term ministry, it may be a little easier to wrap our arms around that, but I think we need to do a better job of helping the folks who are in the workplace understand what is the ministry, what is the service of the particular profession or work that they are in? So what is the ministry of accounting? What's the ministry of marketing? What's the ministry of engineering? What's the ministry of plumbing? You know, things like that. So take maybe, what would you say to the engineers about what the ministry of engineering actually is?

Helen: So the actual, the implementation or the execution of how they would walk that out would be different than say how a teacher would walk it out or a business person. But you're right, there is a framework or there's some context that would be similar for all aspects of work. First and foremost, it's who am I? How do I show up? How do I represent myself? Am I connected to the vine? So it is part of the character. It is part of how I show up, how I reconcile conflict, how I invest in others, being emotionally aware, all of that stuff. So who I am as a person. The second thing that I would say would be, when they're looking at that, is the work itself. How are you gifted? How have you been gifted to use your talents and abilities? And where is God calling you to have that influence? And because of this idea that we almost think, "Well, it's bad that I want to aspire to be more in my field, engineering or business or whatever it is. That ambition is bad. I shouldn't do that.” Well, but if God is calling you to a higher level of influence, what might that look like? How do you first, when I was at Saddleback Church, we would say first and foremost, doing your work with excellence is your first place of evangelism.

Sean: Amen. I love it.

Scott: So here's just a quick follow up on that. What would, one of the questions I want to raise is what would happen to the flourishing of our communities if engineers didn't do their jobs well?

Helen: Absolutely.

Scott: I wouldn't, I wouldn't drive over a bridge myself. I probably wouldn't get on an airplane. There are a lot of things that we just take for granted that contribute to the flourishing of our communities that are totally dependent on certain segments, making sure they did their jobs well. And that's, I think, that I think is the biggest challenge in this, is getting people in the workplace to see the very work itself as part of their service to Christ.

Sean: It sounds like a lot of what you're saying wouldn't change the way somebody builds a bridge, but changes the way they think about it, changes the way they approach it personally, which a lot of Christians don't even make that kind of connection. What do you see happening in terms of spiritual formation when people are able to make that connection between work and really the rest of their lives and their spiritual growth.

Helen: Absolutely, because it is all one life, it's all integrated. You know, the first verse that comes to mind with that is in the Lord's Prayer when Jesus, the disciples said to Jesus, "Teach us how to pray." And he said, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." So that's right where He starts. Not be a nice moral person, not go to church, not tithe. That is the mission, to bring kingdom, the kingdom of God on earth from heaven into the earth. So how do we do that? How do we walk that out as Christians? What I say to my students in the Crowell School of Business is that you do that through prayer and through practice. So as you go into a place, you start to begin to pray into and for the environment. Pray for the boss. Pray for others. with others in your workplace to learn to become more like Christ at work. We prove that out with the workplace small groups. And then secondly, walk it out in practice. How are you living and doing and being and informing your decisions and your behavior and your ideas based on what you do? And you know what? Sometimes I find Christians that are really good at what they do almost feel bad at liking what they do because there's this cloud saying, "That's not God's work."

Sean: Oh, that's painful to hear.

Helen: It is.

Sean: It's so painful.

Scott: But it's also rampant.

Sean: Wow.

Helen: Very much so. More than you would imagine. And I was a guest at a Christmas service with a family member this last Christmas, and they were showing a video, great stuff about how the church was raising money to dig wells in Africa or someplace or put up solar panels. Really good work. Really good work. Yes, we're called to do that. But people were interviewed and it was like, yes, you could just read between the lines. I'm really glad that the church came up with a program overseas that I could donate some money to, to do something for Jesus. Now I'm going to go back to work tomorrow is basically what they said. There was a total disconnect. And I'm like, Oh my gosh. And the other, the last thing I would say, Sean, is when we have this limiting view, and this is what we unearth out of the work exchange with more than 60 voices. It's about unity and ecumenical and multiple voices and organizations. As we unearth these lies and help us to understand what this is about, you become more intent and purposeful on what it is that we're called to do in the earth. I've talked with some pastors lately. I was asked to speak to a group of pastors and I thought, oh, let me ask a provocative question. What's bothering you about what you see in the world? What's bothering you? You know, the problem that you can't solve. And I was trying to get to a place of work and I was so disappointed that they were so ill-informed about things that were going on in the earth. The wickedness that's running rampant. You see, Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil. “Now his father has sent me, I've sent you,” Psalm 24:1, “the earth is the Lord's and everything in it.” I don't see anywhere in there where we're not supposed to care. God rules from a foundation of righteousness and justice. And if we are an extension as ethics, we are an extension of the decisions in our character of God's ethics. Our work is also an extension of God's work. He cares. I'll say this last thing. He cares about, about the work. Last September I was one of the four keynote speakers for the Colorado Christian Business Association. And I got up, just stood there for a moment, paused, looked at the folks, I said, "Imagine with me, if you will, the news headlines in heaven read 'greed, corruption, bribery, bribe judges, sex trafficking, slavery.'" I went on with a few other things and I could see people in the front row smirking. I said, "Oh no, no, no! I'm not talking about today. I'm talking about Obadiah, Nehemiah. I'm talking about the minor prophets." And it was what they did, and the expression of that corruption and idolatry flowed into how they did society. And the shedding of the innocent blood, which was the topper, which got God all upset, which got them evicted out of the promised land. So yes, our work matters. Knowing what's going on in the world matters. I don't, I can't affect what's going on the other side of the world, but I sure as heck can come into agreement with God in prayer about His will on earth through the people that I know he's already called.

Scott: You know, one thing, I think if we just do the math on this, you know, the average person in the workplace spends between 40 and 60 hours a week in the workplace and maybe, you know, on a good week, they may spend five to six hours a week in their local church. That's not to say that what happens in local church is not important, but given just the amount of time spent in the workplace, wouldn't it stand to reason that we might expect that the primary crucible in which God shapes people spiritually might be the workplace? Just by virtue of the amount of time spent there. One thing I've tried to encourage our seminary students with is please help your people to have their antenna up to see how God is shaping you by the various workplace interactions that you have. And I think that's one of the things that we miss in a lot of our churches. We don't connect how God shapes us spiritually with the very work that we do in those workplace interactions. Now, here's Helen, my question, we've both been around a lot of people who, the light goes on and they get this. That God cares about their work as intrinsic value. And it's a part, it's not all of their service to Christ, but it's a big part of it. But what have you seen? What's the impact in a person's life when the light finally comes on and they connect the dots on this?

Helen: Yeah, right. I think I could illustrate that with, could I answer that question with a movie? Refer to a movie illustration?

Sean: Is it an '80s movie? No, I'm just kidding. Of course you can. Do it.

Helen: So, I'm not promoting the movie, I'm just referring to it. So it's Matt Damon in "The Bourne Identity." Yeah. Right? So he starts off right, he's got this amnesia, he's popping around, he's just kinda like a ping pong ball going down the street, doesn't really know who he is, doesn't know what it's about, his identity. But something connects and shifts in him. And he gets what he was made for, what he was trained for, why he's here on earth. And he just comes right into action. Now that's a loose translation to, that's exactly what I've seen. People are like, “I get it!” You think differently, you show up differently. The Holy Spirit's been speaking to people. We just don't know what we're listening for. And it is a joy increase. It is, this is what, it's become fully alive in all aspects of life, going, "I got it! This is why I'm here!" Not "Am I here to take this job or that job?" Yes, it's part of the conversation, but “I'm here to represent the kingdom of God.”

Scott: Ellen, I recall numerous conversations with my dad. He was the consummate businessperson. And he and my mom both came to faith a little bit later in life, and they were part of a great Bible teaching church. And I remember having conversations repeatedly with my dad about how he connected his faith to the business he was running. And the only thing he could answer was that, you know, the local church doesn't generate revenue. It collects it, which means somebody else has got to be out there generating revenue. And he, that's the only thing he saw as the relevance of his business and his work life was to make money so that he could give to the people who were really on the front lines of service to God. And I tried to tell him that's a backward view of the church for one, because the front lines of what God's doing in the world happens when people leave the local church, not when they come into it. And again, that's what goes on. The local church is super important, but it's an equipping station. And we send people out when the church has left the building. That's when the work of God in the world actually begins. And I think that's a big part of the impact of this. And I'm so encouraged by the progress that our Talbot Center has made and the prospect of the Work Exchange curriculum is, I think, is going to be so helpful to churches who want to get this into the fabric of their life in the local church. So Helen, this has been a rich, rich conversation. Just one, if people want to get access to the work exchange, how would they do that?

Helen: Very simple. You go to theworkexchange.org. This curriculum is totally free. We have it in two formats. We have it in a video-driven format where I and Greg Leith, the CEO of Convene Corporation, act as your narrators or facilitators. Each of the six sessions are one hour in length. They can be done as as an individual, as a home group, as a workplace small group. The second option is as a facilitated version. So if you want, we've got a lot of our Convene leaders are doing this within their churches to facilitate this live in a local church. We also have resources in there. “How do you bring this into your workplace as a workplace small group?” And we have resources in there for pastors. “How do I do this in my church?” There is a promo materials for you as a pastor to be able to use this and make it your own. We want to lift you up. You are key. You have influence. The people in the marketplace have the authority. God has called the pastor and the people in the marketplace to work together. So if you go to theworkexchange.org, you will find everything you need, all of the videos, all of the materials. The participant guide is for free, or you could buy the participant and the facilitator guide at cost from Amazon. Nobody's making any money on this. This is an ecumenical project that has just already had amazing impact.

Scott: Helen, thanks. This has been so helpful. I look forward to seeing how the work exchange is going to impact the local church and the business community.

Helen: Thank you. w

Scott: As people, I think, more fully connect those dots. So I think it's been a rich conversation. So grateful for all the work that you've put into this and for our, I mean, we've had a long time partnership in this and it's going to be really nice to see some progress being made in the future. So thanks for being with us.

Helen: My pleasure, thank you.

Scott: It's been a great conversation. This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including courses at the Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our friend Helen Mitchell, give us a rating on your podcast app and please do share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.