Starting from the Roots
A Conversation with Paul Williams and Ceri Rees
Paul Williams was appointed the Executive Director of the Marketplace Institute (MI) and the David J. Brown Family Chair of Marketplace Theology and Leadership at Regent College in August 2005. His research interests include capitalism and globalization, the theology of public discipleship, marketplace mission, and workplace spirituality. As the MI continues to expand, Paul recruited Ceri Rees earlier this year as Director to replace Mark Mayhew who is leaving later this summer once ReFrame production is complete. Ceri is a Regent alumna with experience in design, brand strategy, and communications. Paul and Ceri brought their backgrounds to the table as we sat down to discuss workplace trends affecting Christians and Millennials.
JC: Paul, you were chief economist for a multinational in London, and Ceri, you were Strategy Manager at Dossier Creative in Vancouver. What made you both leave your successful jobs to come to Regent?
PW: I didn’t want to come to Regent initially. I remember saying to Rod Wilson, “Why would I retreat from the front line of mission into a Christian cultural ghetto?” He had some good comebacks. In the end, I came because of a sense that Regent is engaged in seeking to proclaim and embody the gospel in contemporary life.
CR: I’ve only been here for three months, but the MI relates to my sense of passion and joy in the world. I’ve always felt this tension between the teacher/discipler in me and the strategist who likes to get involved in projects in the business world. I felt joining the MI would be an opportunity to integrate both of these things.
JC: I envy you. Regent feels like a shelter from the pressures of the secular workforce—the ladder climbing, the ambition, the quest for money.
PW: To some extent, Regent could be a haven from the rat race. But the flip side of working in a Christian organization is that the amount of emotional investment you have as a believer really skyrockets. Not so much in your work — that’s probably the same—but in terms of what you expect of the institution and relationships around you. Christians aren’t immune to politics, status, or desire for money. And because the stakes are higher with God’s work, we can get invested, upset, excited, or dismayed much more rapidly than in a secular environment.
JC: How does the Marketplace Institute equip people to connect their faith with all of life—especially those Christians working in secular environments?
PW: We’re trying to help people reorient their whole working lives within the framework of their Christian lives so that discipleship to Jesus includes the work we do. If I understand that (as in Colossians 3:23), whatever I do, I am working for the Lord, not for men, and if I am expecting my reward from the Lord, believing that God is for me, not against me, then I will be able to be at peace. So I constantly need to be rooted more deeply in my identity in Christ. What follows is that our service, our work in the world, becomes worship to Christ. That protects us from the pressure.
JC: Can you give an example?
PW: In my first job, I remember the incredible pressure and deadlines. Most of the people in my office came in earlier than they needed to come in, worked later, and didn’t take breaks. We used to have a culture of going out for lunch. Then the company directors realized it was a good idea to pay another firm to come in and bring us sandwiches. So people would get these sandwiches and nobody would leave their desks.
During that time, I made a commitment to base my working life on a meditation on the life of Daniel. Daniel was praying three times a day, so during that first decade of my working life, I made a commitment to pray during lunch break. I noticed that while I was having lunch and praying, everyone else, including people competing with me, sat at their desk working. I had to turn my anxiety about my career into prayer about the project that I was working on. That was a kind of crucible of learning to trust. God was saying, “Do you think I can help you with your work or not?” So that kind of spirit, of praying through the details, for instance, is the lifestyle of dependence we want to envision for people.
JC: Praying through the details also touches on the idea of excellence—of excelling in the details of our work. I’ve encountered the advice to simply excel at what I do, and then to witness verbally for Christ after.
CR: When I hear it worded that way, I hear a truncated version of the gospel because all of our work needs to come from a different worldview. What if excellence is initially out of reach? When I first started in my role at Dossier, I had everything to learn. I had spent a decade in the theological world and I had been reasonably good at it. Then suddenly I was in a new industry, design, where everything was new—even switching from a PC to an Apple for the first time. It was a steep learning curve. In a profound sense, I couldn’t excel. I felt uncertain and inexperienced. And I remember Paul said to me, “When you bring a prophetic word in a church, you step out in faith. Bring that same posture of faith into your work environment.” So through that lens, I was able to trust God. That was a much deeper engagement than “just do my job well and witness for Jesus.”
PW: I tend to agree. Often, people justify the things they do in economic life in terms of attaining excellence by making lots of money, and then saying, “We’ll give it all away.” Well, that doesn’t really wash. Jesus isn’t just interested in whether you give the money away, but how you made the money and whether it was a response to him. There are actually some bad ways of making money. Giving it away in the end doesn’t stop it from being bad. So excellence needs to be in the context of work that is always oriented to serving God and people before things and profit. That’s when people around us will begin to ask us about ourselves. That’s how Daniel got his reputation of having "the spirit of the holy gods in him” (Dn 5:11). That’s certainly something that God will do for us if we really yield our work, and work excellently as unto the Lord.
JC: Many Christian Millennials want to serve God and people before profit, but sometimes we don’t know what that looks like amidst the myriad of career paths. What do you think of turning to personality assessments to help us figure out our vocation?
PW: I am cautious. I think they have a place, but they can be quite dangerous, especially if used to answer the question, “Who am I?” This generation is trying to answer that question in the midst of a collapse of the answer to that question from all previous generations. You now have to figure it out yourself, which creates a massive degree of anxiety. But there’s a false sense of pseudoscience in answering that question via personality tests. The true place to find our identity is in our relationships, and especially in our relationship with Christ. It’s something fundamentally given to us, not constructed or figured out for ourselves. That said, from the place of being rooted in that given identity, can a personality assessment help me understand myself in my particularity a little more? Yes.
CR: Paul has given the profound answer. I actually love personality assessments, but I agree—if they become defining of the self, too prescriptive, they will be problematic. As a tool for self-awareness, however, they can be helpful.
JC: Another cultural trend is that Millennials are getting pickier about their jobs. We’re a generation that really cares about making meaning with our profession, and so we don’t want to take any old job just because it pays the bills. We want to pursue our passions, also known as “Do What You Love” (DWYL). What do you think about this? Do you love your jobs?
PW: Is a job a legitimate object of love? Aren’t persons the legitimate objects of love? My emotional response to my job changes over time, even within a term or a week. There are parts of my work that are incredibly rewarding in the short term and parts that are frustrating in the short term. Most jobs are like that. I would rather talk about whether or not I enjoy my job. Do I find joy in the work I do? Yes. Is it an object of my desire? Probably not. When it becomes the focus of an emotional outcome, it’s probably not a healthy thing.
I don’t instinctively have warm fuzzy feelings towards the idea of “Do What You Love” on a number of levels. I do think that God has made us so that we can enjoy working. When what he gives us to do resonates with who we are, with something that comes alive in us, then that life is good. But we live in a fallen world. Those good things only occur in God’s economy when our gaze is outwards, towards God and other people. That is when “who I am” and “what I do” starts to sing. It’s not when I’m focusing on satisfying myself.
If my focus is “What do I enjoy doing? Let’s find someone who will pay me to do it,” then I will be a bad worker. If I, as an employer, detected that attitude in someone, I wouldn’t want to employ that person. I wouldn’t want them on my team because their focus is entirely on their experience. And it may not be selfishness about money, but it’s a different kind of selfishness, orientated around their experience instead of their bank account. I’m not a fan of that. But I do have a lot more sympathy for the generational shift that I’ve seen in the quest for meaning. That’s an important thing to affirm.
CR: Yes, where “Do What You Love” is a positive thing is when it’s a critique of some economic systems that are broken, like the continual drive for more. I’ve profiled Millennials and there is this sense that “My parents want me to get ahead and be stable and buy a home. But I’m sure there must be more to life than this.” And they’re right—there is indeed a greater purpose to our work in the world.
But when it’s just doing what I love, even creatives know this, many days you don’t love the creative work you are doing. If you expect to always enjoy your work, you’d be in trouble. Frederick Buechner talks about calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That’s the missing piece in the “Do What You Love” trend. Instead of simply saying, “I love travel, so I’m going to travel and write a travel blog,” how about asking, “How can I take the passions God has given me to participate in his work in the world?”
JC: Do you think there is a sweet spot where we can do what we love, do something meaningful in society, be financially stable, and make the most of our education?
PW: The answer is the same as it has always been—maybe there is a sweet spot, but we won’t find the sweet spot by looking for it or by trying to strategize how to get the right balance. As Christians, it’s really important that we learn to hear what God is saying and trust Him and be obedient. He knows how to get us through the confusion and he wants to give us abundant life. In that sense, it’s no harder for this generation than for any other generation.
CR: Paul’s right—that sounds like a lot of stuff to try and line up through our own efforts. Rather than looking for a sweet spot, I wonder whether we’d find rest in the idea of vocation—a sense of the whole of life being lived in response to the voice of God. We’re really passionate about this at the Marketplace Institute, and we’re just launching a new small group discipleship resource called ReFrame for people who want to connect the dots between what God’s doing in the world and how their work can join in with that.
You can read more about ReFrame in our Thought to Action article, "ReFraming Your Story".