Starting over

Most people I know have had to start their careers over at some point. Sometimes these moves are voluntary, like when someone wants to make a major career shift late in life, but often they aren’t. Living here in Michigan, where the job base is shifting away from manufacturing and unemployment is high, I know quite a few folks that are starting over. I was reminded of this last night when my father-in-law was discussing how he started over thirty years ago. He had decided to open a restaurant which unfortunately didn’t make it. Left with a lot of debt and a young family, he looked for a job that paid him a modest amount that could grow into over time. He found a job in sales that he enjoyed and could do well at (extremely well, actually), and it wasn’t long before he was out of debt and one of the owners of that company.

It reminds me of the woman described in 2 Kings 4. Widowed and deeply in debt, she found herself with virtually no options (women couldn’t just find jobs in ancient Judah) so she sought out the help of the prophet Elisha. He asked her “what do you have in the house?” and she replied that she had nothing except a small flask of olive oil. He told her to borrow as many empty jars as she could from her friends and family and once she had, he miraculously filled every one to the brim. She was able to sell these jars of oil, get herself out of debt, and have enough left over to support her children.

This is a story that can teach us all a little something. Left with few options, the widow sought help from God, and he allowed her to build on the little that she had. The combination of a flask of olive oil and a few friends whom were willing to lend a hand allowed her to climb out of the hole she was in, and to provide her a foundation for her future. The key, I think, is that it starts with asking God to help us build on the gifts he’s already given us.

You can quote me on this.

Ever notice how often quotes get used in business language? Business talks and PowerPoints are peppered with quotes from modern day business gurus like Peter Drucker, Seth Godin, Malcom Gladwell and Bill Gates. Most are used to justify a key point, but every once in a while they just seem to do a great job capturing a big thought. I’ve had a favorite quote near my cube for the last few years by Michael Hammer. In his book The World Is Flat, he wrote,

“One thing that tells me a company is in trouble is when they tell me how good they were in the past. Same with countries. You don’t want to forget your identity. I am glad you were great in the fourteenth century, but that was then and this is now. When memories exceed dreams, the end is near. The hallmark of a truly successful organization is the willingness to abandon what made it successful and start fresh.”

I’ve found this quote relevant in many contexts, including at work, in politics, in family matters, and in our churches. In business, it’s a cry for reinvention. With respect to our spiritual lives, it can be a reminder not to live in the past.

It’s critically important to understand our history, both as individual Christ-followers and as his collective body here on Earth. We should always remember him (as we do in communion) and what he did for us when he was on Earth, as well as what he’s done for us in our lives as we’ve walked with him. But we shouldn’t stop there. Do we spend enough time dreaming of what God will do, and whether or not we might get to help play a part in his plans? I know that I don’t. Many of us fall into the trap of thinking too fatalistically about the future, as if it’s going to hell in a handbasket and God has nothing wonderful in store until the Jesus returns. As the great William Carey once said, “Attempt great things for God, expect great things from God.”

In Godly matters, history builds our trust and cements our faith, but it’s the future that evokes hope and inspires action. When our memories exceed our dreams, the end is near.

Work – life balance

This is an outta-whack week for me. My work schedule is packed, I’ve got two meetings at a nonprofit organization that I work with, and I’ve got three different church meetings/events that I need to be at. A few weeks of this is okay, but if I was this busy for an extended period, I’d certainly have to cut back on the important things (like blogging).

Maintaining a work-life balance is exceptionally important. This is particularly true in new marriages or when you’ve got kids at home that (despite their seemingly complex needs) rely so heavily on quality time with their folks for their development. Back in ancient Israel, new husbands got quite a gift from the Lord in the form of this piece of Hebraic law.

“If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married.” (Deut 24:5)

While most employers don’t seem to be particularly interested in honoring this little bit of scripture, most do have a heightened awareness of the high burnout rates among workaholics and the costly toll that can create for an organization. If, like me, you occasionally struggle with striking the right balance, check out this good resource that I found from the Mayo Clinic. It’s quite good, although it dances around the one key thing that we sometimes must do – standing firm and telling an employer “no” when work demands begin to seriously compromise our family lives or our ability to take a Sabbath.

Fireproof bridges

Did you ever have that girlfriend or boyfriend that you just couldn’t seem to stay broken up with when you were younger? Well, I’m beginning to see a parallel in the workplace.

I got talking with a friend who leads some of our new-hire training today and he mentioned to me that when we lose new-hires to other jobs, its almost always to their old employer. As I pondered that, I bumped into another old friend who had just returned to the company after working elsewhere!

You know the drill. A company offers you a job, and you think you’ve won the lottery. You take your job on romantic carriage rides and take closeup pictures of the two of you with your digital camera. After a while, the romance wanes but you’re happy not being on the market, searching Monster for available hotties. Pretty soon, you can’t figure out how this slouch of a job ever earned your affection in the first place and you are just certain that there’s truckloads of hot prospects waiting for you to become free. Ah, romance.

But who am I to talk? I was an intern at our company in college and then left after the summer. I came back the next summer and left again. Then I came back as a contractor, finally got hired, only to leave the company five years later to go back to school. Then, you guessed it, I came back to the company less than a year after getting my MBA. The lessons in all of this?

I learned two. First, our capacity for taking our employers for granted is pretty darned high. The cliche is often true – it’s not always sunnier on the other side of the street.  Second, it’s best not to burn your bridge because you might find yourself doing an about-face as you take that last step off of it.

James tells us in James 3 that, “the tongue is a flame of fire” that can set those bridges ablaze. Being thankful and keeping our tongue in check is key.  Paul tells his friends in the Colossian church in Col 3:16-17,

“Let the words of Christ, in all their richness, live in your hearts and make you wise… And whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, all the while giving thanks through him to God the Father.”

Yep, that should pretty much keep us out of trouble.

Legacies

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Ever stop and wonder what is it that we’re really trying to accomplish as individuals in the workplace? Better jobs? More authority? Nicer titles? More money? Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and evaluate where we’re heading and why.

This week I’d like to use some great Christian songs from recent years as inspiration for my posts. Yesterday, I got listening to Nichole Nordeman’s song Legacy and as a result got thinking about what legacy I’d like to leave through my working years. Without having to think too long, I began to realize that it’s the people, not the position, that make a difference. 

When I think of someone who is creating a wonderful legacy at work, I think of my friend Shirley.  She’s not just my friend; she’s everyone’s friend. She works at our training center and is one of the people who helps new employees get settled into our culture and shepherds them through their training. I’m not really sure what her title is, who she reports to, or all that jazz because none of that stuff really matters once you meet her. She’s nurturing, funny, a fantastic listener, and insatiably optimistic. And best of all, she’s a Christian who cares very deeply about living a life of discipleship and isn’t afraid to say so.  I wish there were more Christians like her in the workplace.  

I can’t help but feel that I spend too much time trying to leave a legacy based on career accomplishments, while forgetting that we’re here to represent (literally, “re-present”) Jesus to a world that has seen too many lousy examples of those who claim to do so.

Nichole Nordeman asked the right question in her song when she asks, “Did I point to You enough to make a mark on things?” I aspire to someday leave my kids something to remember more interesting and important about their dad’s career than my old job titles.

If you’re not familiar with Nichole Nordeman, she’s one of my wife and my favorite artists, and Legacy is one of my favorite songs from her. If you haven’t heard it, take a listen…

The risk and rewards of Christian enterprise

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Most of my blog posts are about what it’s like to be a Christian in corporate America, but today I’d like to touch briefly on something even more specific – Christian companies. There are a small number of entrepreneurs that have started these organizations – companies that have explicitly Christian missions – who try to balance profits with purpose.

I’ve been aware of some of the most famous of these corporations, mostly large ones such as Servicemaster, Curves, and Chick-fil-A, for some time. I’ve learned, though,  that there are many more smaller Christian companies out there as well.  As an example, I’ve passed this sign many times here in Grand Rapids and only recently went on their website to learn more about this Christian company.

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I applaud those who start Christian companies, as doing so comes with a lot of risks and rewards. On the upside, it allows someone with a mature faith to express it in their organization’s culture, to nurture employees in a holistic manner, and to differentiate their organization in the marketplace as a company that can be trusted to behave with integrity. 

However, there are big risks as well. As an example, Christian entrepreneurs risk abandoning non-Christian clientele, although this is relatively minor given that a majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians. More importantly, though, they expose their behaviors and the behaviors of their employees to tremendous scrutiny and risk tarnishing the reputation of Christ in doing so. If taken seriously, this risk can become a source of tremendous accountability if a business owner is willing to do whatever is necessary, including sacrificing profits, to protect the organization’s reputation. There is one other less-understood risk, and that’s the risk of hurting, rather than encouraging, their employees’ faith. Whenever Christianity becomes highly institutionalized (as an example, say… Western Europe) the faith can be percieved over time as imposed and legalistic, usually resulting in an abandoning of the it.

To do it right, owners of Christian companies must maintain a vibrant Christian culture that doesn’t just permit, but actively encourages, employees to live out their faith at work. A clear, simple message about the role of faith in the company is best, and legalism should be avoided. One strong example would be the approach that Truett Cathy has taken with Chick-fil-A. To read his “recipe” for business success, click here.

Deuteronomy 6 encourages us to write God’s word on our doorposts and our gates. For some faithful business owners, that also includes putting it in their mission statement and exterior signage.

Daydream(ing) Believer

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I suspect that our daydreams can tell us a lot about the condition of our hearts. They can reveal our motivations, our dissatisfactions, our hidden desires, our idealistic aspirations, and sometimes our corrupt nature.

Today I caught myself daydreaming about what it would be like to manage the brand of a small, creative company. I suspect that I was doing so simply because I work for a large, established organization. I’m quite sure that somewhere there was someone who works for a small company dreaming about working at a large company where he or she didn’t have to wear ten hats and could go home at 5 o’clock! It’s rarely sunnier on the other side of the street. But I digress…

Dreaming about the future can be a fun thing, but I often remind myself that not all daydreams are God’s dreams for us.  The Bible has some pretty interesting examples of people who followed their dreams either to God’s glory or to their peril.

On the upside would be Nehemiah who during the reign of the Persians led an extraordinary effort to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem. He left his day job (a very good one with the Persian government) and took a major risk. His efforts were successful, the people were brought closer to God, and their place of worship was protected. I really like the book of Nehemiah. It’s a really interesting read, plus I like saying  cool names like Nehemiah and Artaxerxes.

On the downside would be King David daydreaming about the beautiful woman he saw atop a nearby building. His preoccupation with Bathsheba led him to do the unthinkable – murder her husband and claim her for himself. It’s a remarkable story (not the least of which being how David restores himself with God) found in 2 Samuel, but a sad example of how a seemingly innocent fantasy can become the downfall of a family. Insert your own Elliot Spitzer reference here.

These are extreme examples, I know. But the point is this – before letting our dreams take over our lives we need to do our best to discern if they are God’s dreams for us.  This hasn’t always been easy for me, but thankfully God gives us the ability to seek his will through prayer, scripture and other Christians. Bruce K. Waltke in Finding the Will of God writes,

God guides us first through his Word, then through our heartfelt desires, then the wise counsel of others, and then our circumstances. At that point we must rely on our own sound judgment… God gave each of us a brain, and he expects us to put it to good use.”

Well said.