Conversation with Will Messenger

will messengerWill Messenger

CIB: How did the idea for the Theology of Work Project begin?

The Theology of Work (TOW) Project began over dinner with a few people at a colleague’s house outside Boston. Randy Kilgore (from MadetoMatter) was the driving force. There were eight or 10 people in the Boston area who had been talking for years about the need for deeper research in developing a theology of work. Randy got us together and said, "The time is now."

We formed an ad hoc committee and elected Haddon Robinson (Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), and Tom Phillips (former CEO, Raytheon) as our co-chairs. Andy Mills (former CEO of Thompson Financial) was later added as vice president.

The Committee sent letters to 150 leaders in the faith-work field, asking three questions:

  • Is there a need for a theology of work project?
  • Who can you recommend to serve on the steering committee?
  • What are the top five or 10 questions you’d like the project to address?

They got 132 responses (a very impressive response rate) that overwhelmingly said, "Yes, we need a project like this." The recommendations for steering committee members converged on a small number of individuals, who comprise the present steering committee, and which took over from the ad hoc committee in January 2007.

The steering committee consists of 14 people — 11 Americans and three from other countries. The letters contained a total of more than 600 questions for the project to address. The committee boiled them down to 20 "key topics."

How would you compare and differentiate a theology of work from a theology of business, law, medicine, and the like? Is a theology of work the foundation on which these other profession-oriented theological frameworks build?

I think of the theology of work as a general category under which theologies of business, law, medicine, etc. would be sub-categories in the same way that business, law, medicine, etc. are all types of "work."

Yet there are clearly aspects of these fields that are outside of the topic of work. The ethics of genetic testing is a topic in the theology of medicine, but probably not in the theology of work. So maybe a better picture would be overlapping circles. Still, I hope the theology of work can offer meaningful resources to business, law, medicine, and the others.

Issues I’ve mentioned — such as motivation, calling, performance, conflict, work and rest, truth and deception — are common to all fields of work. Of course the circumstances are different. Conflict between a hospital and a surgeon has different aspects than between a car company and an autoworker, for instance.

We aim to provide some common methods and principles, but the only people who can apply them well in a given field are people with experience in that field.

As you think about the development of the project, what are a few of the key milestones that shaped the nature of your work?

The first meeting of the Theology of Work Project was in January 2007, when the new steering committee assembled to define the project’s goals, timeline, structure, and resource needs.

We met at a little hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and had the most exciting theological conversations I can ever remember. People in our field tend to work in isolation because we’re so far apart geographically, and it was an incredible delight to find other people thinking about the same things.

Our next meeting, in August 2007, was a milestone, but in a surprising way. At that meeting it dawned on us that we were not going to be able to write the theology of work ourselves. It became clear that the 14 of us had nowhere near enough expertise to write excellently on the whole field of faith and work. Instead we realized that we had to ask experts in the subject matter of each article to do the research and writing.

Our job had to be inviting and integrating a variety of perspectives on the research, asking questions back to the researchers, finding a consensus about points of disagreement, melding the various articles into a coherent whole.

I would say this was the most important milestone in our work — realizing that God was leading us to bring together the work of 50 or so others from around the world from scores of disciplines. We never wanted the TOW Project to be merely our opinions. But we didn’t realize until August 2007 how far and wide we needed to cast our net.

May 2009 marked another important milestone. That month we received a $1 million pledge from a donor to cover 50 percent of the total five-year cost of the project. From then on we felt confident that God would provide for us to complete the project, and we’ve been going at full speed ever since.

What are the goals of the TOW Project? What do you hope to accomplish, and who do you hope the work will benefit? What is the timeline for deliverables?

Our mission is to bring the resources of the Christian faith — especially the Bible — to bear on the major issues of work. We want to help people equip the workplace Christian who says, "OK, my work matters to God. Now what do I do?"

What does the Christian faith have to say about performance, motivation, conflict, globalization, business ethics, relationships with colleagues, rhythms of work and rest, and about truth and deception? Does God call people to non-church work, and if so, how? We want to provide theological resources for people who equip workplace Christians — pastors, group leaders, professors, and workplace chaplains. We also want to equip workplace Christians themselves.

To fulfill this mission, we’re producing three kinds of materials:

  • A commentary on the whole Bible from the perspective of work. What does each book of the Bible contribute to an understanding of work, workers, and the workplace?
  • A compendium of 20 key topics, as I mentioned earlier.
  • A brief statement addressing the foundational theological questions about work, such as does ordinary work have eternal value and are some kinds of work more important to God than others?
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