Wisdom for Work
Wisdom for Work
From the editor:
One of the more popular shows on TV right now is NBC's The Office. Though its comedy is often over-the-top, the audience still feels like the writers and producers know exactly what the workplace is like in corporate America. A lot of people don't like their bosses—and their bosses give them good reason to feel that way. Lunch hours are spent perusing CareerBuilder.com, looking for greener grass, vocationally speaking. And what about the conflict that comes about because of criticism or lack of cohesiveness? So how are we to deal with all of these difficult circumstances? Where is the wisdom we need to survive—and thrive—in the workplace? In this sermon, Kevin Miller offers a few thoughts. We have chosen to feature this sermon because it really is an effective way of using God's wisdom (found in the Book of Proverbs) to contend with the conventional wisdom of the world. A preacher could do something similar with several other themes found in wisdom literature (parenting, marriage, relationships, and so forth).
A little while ago I asked a friend how work was going. Rolling his eyes, he said, "Oh—my boss. He came out of his office and asked me how I was doing—started making small talk. The whole time I was wondering where he was going in our conversation. Then he said, 'Hey, why don't we go for a walk?' And he walked me all the way to the other side of the warehouse where I work. When we finally got to the other side—the warehouse is a million square feet, so it took ten minutes to get there—he pointed to a box cutter that was lying on the floor and said, 'Look, I'm not giving you guys any more equipment if that's the way they're going to treat it.' All I could think was, We've got eleven lines going, two hundred guys working them, one guy drops a box cutter, and you've got twenty five minutes to rub my nose in it?" Needless to say, when my friend finished telling me his story, he did not call his boss a very nice name. Let's say I was to ask you how work is going. Is your boss driving you nuts? Are you wondering whether you should stay in your job or move on to something else? Or maybe you've recently had somebody at work criticize your work, and you're wondering how you should respond.
Before I go any further, I know that some of you may be thinking this message isn't for you. Maybe you're not in the work force. Maybe you're a student or a stay-at-home mom or dad. Maybe you're between jobs or retired. But most of the principles I'm going to offer apply to you anyway. If you're a student, you've got a professor. If you're the president of a company, you've got a board of directors. If you're an entrepreneur with a solo business, you've got investors and clients. If you're retired, you've got grandkids. Somebody has a say on your time.
There are plenty of questions for all of us to wrestle with. If our boss is driving us nuts, what are we going to do? When is it best to stay or move on from our job? What do we do when someone criticizes us in our work? I want us to seek the wisdom of God concerning these situations.
What to do when your boss is driving you nuts
Let's tackle this question first: What do you do if your boss is driving you nuts? You can, of course, follow conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is the wisdom that you have inherently, or it's the kind of wisdom you'll get from your friends. And conventional wisdom says that if your boss is driving you nuts, you should vent. The first thing you do is type an email or a text message that says, "He's at it again!" Or you go out to lunch with a co-worker, and you say, "You are not going to believe what she did this morning. It's unbelievable!"
Of course, there's another option. If you're in a secure position—if you've been there a long time—you might choose to confront your boss. But with the job market as thin as it is right now, most people won't tell off their boss.
Another very popular strategy is the end run. This is where the boss says no, but you figure out some other way to get done what you feels need to be done. You dart your way around what your boss's preference would be, thinking it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. You are convinced you know what's best, because you're closer to the action. You are sure that your way is going to be more productive, more profitable for everybody, so you just do it.
There is another popular strategy to consider. It comes from a friend of mine whose workplace underwent a huge software installation. The software company sent a rep to the company, and that rep was on-site for weeks, installing and configuring the software. He then trained the staff on how to use it. Over the course of the training, the rep got so exasperated with my friend's boss, that she finally went into my friend's office, closed the door behind her, and said, "I have two words for you: CareerBuilder.com." In other words, your boss is such a moron, look for another job, because there's no hope.
The venting approach, the end game, and CareerBuilder.com are all a part of conventional wisdom. But there is another source of wisdom to help you when your boss is driving you nuts. That source of wisdom is, of course, the Bible—especially the Book of Proverbs.
When the Bible speaks of the workplace, it goes after your attitude. The Bible makes sure that your heart is right, that your character is right. It will give you a lot of practical wisdom concerning skills. But what it really goes after is you, making sure you are right.
A man named Fred Smith recently died. He was an executive with, and a consultant for, major corporations like Genesco, Mobile Oil, and Caterpillar. I worked with Fred on a few writing projects, and he once said to me, "You know, Kevin, every single leadership failure I have observed over the years has been in part because of a failure or a weakness in character in that leader. And yet I have never had someone come to me and say, 'Fred, I have a weakness in this part of my character. Would you help me work on this?'" That's exactly why God takes the approach he takes in the wisdom of the Bible. He goes after your heart, your attitude. If your heart and your attitude are in check, good will come. If they are out of line, nothing will go well, no matter how much you develop your skills.
So, what is the Bible's wisdom on a boss who is driving you nuts? Consider Proverbs 17:27: "Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips he is deemed intelligent." What the Bible is saying is, yes, you could vent, but that's not going to improve your situation. Not only that, but it's not even going to improve your social standing. People are only going to think of you as a whiner. But if you have a cool spirit about you—if you're able to keep your mouth in check—then people will respect you.
What about the option of telling off your boss? Proverbs 25:15: "With patience, a ruler may be persuaded and a soft tongue will break a bone." In the TV shows and movies we watch, characters tell off their boss all the time. They say cutting things and then walk out of the room, slamming the door as they go. That makes for great TV and great film. Because we watch these shows and these movies, we might dramatically overestimate the force and the effectiveness of such an approach—which means we might dramatically underestimate the value and the power of the gentle and persuasive word.
Some of you have vented to your boss, and yet you have not even tried to go them gently, to patiently persuade them to see things from another angle. You have not realized that there is power in a soft tongue that can break a bone.
Or what about the end run approach? From Proverbs 27: "Whoever tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and he who guards his master will be honored. My son, fear the Lord and the king, and don't join with those who do otherwise, for disaster will arise suddenly from them and who knows the ruin that will come from them both." In other words, even if that person is wrong, that person has been vested with a certain office or authority that you would be wise to honor and respect. Besides, someday you might be in that chair, and you'll surely want to be shown respect.
Finally, should you walk? Is it time to consult CareerBuilder.com? Perhaps. Not every job is going to go well, and there may be times where leaving is a good thing. But before you do that, I would encourage you to listen to Proverbs 21:1: "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wills." Conventional wisdom says there are only two people in the room: you and your boss. If your boss is being a moron, and you can't stand it anymore, you should leave. But the Bible says there a third party is present: God. And God has more power than your boss. Your boss's heart is in the hands of the Lord, and he can change that heart. And consider that you have access to the One who has that power. You can pray and something might very well change.
For many years my wife, Karen, was a marriage and family therapist. She eventually was made the supervisor of the department in which she worked. It was an honor—very nice. But the move presented a dilemma. While the role was a great one from September to May, the summer months were a problem. Karen wanted to be home with our kids, and the practice was not going to let the supervisor of the program cut back to part-time. Such an approach had never been done before and it seemed illogical. But realizing that "the king's heart is in the hands of the Lord, and he turns it whichever way he will," she began to pray: "Lord, I would love to go part-time in the summer so I can be home with the kids."
She began to do some research on just how much money the agency would save by not having to pay her full-time during that period of time, and then she figured out a plan for how the work could get done. When she proposed the change, they were very reluctant. There was no precedent for it, and they finally said—a bit begrudgingly—"Okay, we'll try it for one summer as an experiment. But don't get used to it!" Six summers later, she finally left the agency.
If the boss is driving you nuts, you can act according to conventional wisdom. You can vent. You can tell the person off. You can do an end run. You can check out CareerBuilder.com. Or you can try the Bible's approach. You can guard your mouth, respect the office, and pray. It's your call.
What to do when you're considering leaving your job
Let's move to a second dilemma that you may be facing at work: Should you stay at your job or look for a new one? Conventional wisdom goes something like this: "Well, what would most advance your career? What would make you the most money? Above all, what would be most fulfilling to you?" That's not all bad. Actually, there's a lot of wisdom in that. But the Bible's wisdom on this matter takes such wisdom and shapes it in a way that makes sure you're less likely to make a misstep.
Conventional wisdom says you should do whatever will advance your career the most. The Bible's wisdom agrees—up to a point. You should do whatever will advance your career, but not to the point that you violate your integrity or damage your family life. Consider Proverbs 3:3: "Keep love and faithfulness with you." If you're not able to advance your career and keep faithfulness to the commands of God in the way of integrity—if you're not able to do that and keep faithfulness with the family that you've pledged your life to—then that's not going to work.
Conventional wisdom also says that you should do whatever will make you the most money. The Bible is not opposed to your making money. In fact, it actually loves the idea of you working so that you can support your needs, the needs of your family, and the needs of others. However, the Bible takes this conventional wisdom and shapes it a bit: "A man's gift makes room for him and brings him before the great. Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings. He will not stand before obscure men." What the Bible is trying to say is: Rather than seek what will make you the most money, you should first determine what it is that you can offer to the world that is the greatest contribution. Now, is there any possible way that you could pay the bills doing that? It's like that book that came out nearly twenty years ago: Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.
But sometimes your greatest gift cannot be done vocationally. It might not pay the bills. But the Bible still encourages you to develop that gift even while you work in another field. How could you refine that gift so that the money might follow it and you would be able to pay your bills?
Finally, what about the idea of leaving your job for something that is more fulfilling? Conventional wisdom says you should chase after that which is most fulfilling. The Bible agrees, but you have to keep in mind that consider that you and I are notorious for not always choosing well when we determine what would be most fulfilling to us. The workplace is littered with people who have made bad calls when trying to choose what would be most fulfilling to them. The Bible offers a great word of wisdom for us when we are involved in this process: Get a group of people who will dole out wisdom and guidance for you in this decision.
In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer tells about a time when he was asked to be the president of a small college. He wanted the job and was planning to take it. But he's a Quaker, and in the Quaker tradition they have this thing called the Clearness Committee, which says when you're about to make a big decision, you gather twelve friends around you, your Clearness Committee, and they don't simply give you advice; for several hours they ask you questions and help you get to a point of clearness about what is God calling you to do.
When considering his move to the college, Parker sat down with his Clearness Committee, waiting for them to kind of rubber stamp this, and somebody on the committee said to him, "Hey, what would you most like about being president?" Parker said, "Well, I'll tell you what I would not like. I would not like having to give up my teaching and my writing, and I would not like the politics of the presidency. I mean, you never know who your friends really are. And I can tell you, I would not like having to glad hand people who I don't even respect, just because they have money that they might give to the institution." And the person said, "Parker, can I remind you, I asked you what you would like about being president?" And he said, "Yeah, I'm getting to that"—and then went on to list a few more things that he wouldn't like about the job. Somebody said, "Parker, what would you like about being president?" There was a long pause, and finally he said, "I would like seeing my picture in the paper with the word 'President' under it." There was another really long silence before someone finally said, "Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?"
Parker walked out of that Clearness Committee, withdrew his name from consideration, and he said, "Had I taken that job, it would have been very bad for me, and disastrous for that school."
We often think we know what's most fulfilling to us, but the Bible says, "Where there's no guidance, a people falls; but in an abundance of counselors, there's safety." You need an abundance of counselors if you are going to make a wise decision about your next job.
What to do when someone at work has criticized you
Finally, let's say a person at your workplace has criticized you, and it really stung. When criticism happens, our first reaction is usually to become angry and defensive, thinking, Who does he think he is? Who does she think she is? They have no right to say something like that to me! And the more conventional mode is to begin to cut the person down. Or, you do them in. Time magazine did a survey of American workers and found that 28 percent would backstab somebody to keep their job. We do other things, too. Maybe we cut our coworkers off from any future projects. We decide we're not going to help them out in any way, shape, or form. The Gallup organization did research on the American worker and found out that almost 20 percent are what they call actively disengaged. These folks go to work with the goal of undermining the productive work of others. I suspect a lot of this is due to being overly criticized.
But what is the Bible's wisdom concerning what we should do when we are criticized? I can assure you it's going to be hard for you and me to hear. The Bible says we have to do the hard work of listening to that criticism and learning from it, if we can: "Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored. The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence." That's hard.
Years ago, after I had been the executive editor of Christian Reader magazine for nine months, my boss came into my office and said, "Kevin, we've been looking at the way our ministry is structured, and we think we're going to move some projects around. We want you on a different project now, so Christian Reader will be picked up by somebody else." The move was sudden and vague to me, so I tried my best to figure out what was really going on. It wasn't long before I found out. My boss had not liked the last several magazine covers that had gone out, so he was pulling me from it.
I was livid. I thought, Man, you come in my office, you shuck and jive about this and that, but you don't have the courage to just tell me straight up what's going on? I'm the executive editor! I'm trying to empower the editor of this magazine and let him the make the call! And now you're busting my chops!" But once my ego began to deflate a little in size, I actually learned a few important lessons from the experience. First, I learned that in the magazine business, you live and die by your covers. The second lesson was harder for me to learn because it was personal: while I was trying my best to empower the editor under me, freeing him up to "do his thing," I was not challenging him to the highest standards. Why? I didn't want conflict. I wanted the editor to like me. I learned that you can be a boss or you can be a wuss, but you can't be a boss and a wuss.
It's possible that the criticism you sometimes receive at work, no matter how ham-handed it is given, might offer a life lesson for you that would actually improve your work life, making you stronger in what you do and setting you on the path toward greater contribution.
Friends, it's your life. It's your career. So, it's your call. When difficult circumstances arise at work, are you going to draw from the well of conventional wisdom, or are you going to draw from the ancient well of wisdom in the Book of Proverbs? As you make your choice in the days ahead, remember this: God loves you. He created you. He has set before you these opportunities and places to contribute in life. And he wants to spare you from missteps and mess-ups and the pain of wasting year after year in your career. In his Word he offers you something that is "more precious than gold." One last proverb, Proverbs 3:5-6: "Commit your way to the Lord, and he will direct your paths." Amen!
To see an outline of Miller's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.
Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,