As I look out on my congregation on a Sunday morning, I notice that Roxanne is worshipping today.
When I look at her now, I do not just see a friendly, middle-aged woman; I see her at the receptionist’s desk at the big corporate office where she works and think of her gift for hospitality and the high esteem with which her co-workers regard her.
Shaking my hand at the end of the service, Vail tells me that she is about to retire. Immediately, I remember the truly heroic work she and her colleagues do for immigrant children in her school district–the crowded space where she works and the diversity of the people who gather there. I am very aware of the loss that her retirement will bring.
And when I visit with John in the narthex, I continue to be humbled by the fact that though I may know more about theology and the Bible than he does, I know very little about the technology field in which he is an experienced professional.
I know these things because I have been to their workplaces. “Faith in daily life” is an ongoing emphasis in our congregation, but about five years ago, we pastors spent some time talking directly about living out one’s faith in the workplace. On the Sunday when we read about Jesus’ baptism, we invited parishioners to receive a blessing specifically for their work–however they defined it. As the parishioners came forward, they each gave their name and the work they wanted to be blessed for. We placed a cross using baptismal water on their forehead and proclaimed, “Sharon (Bob, Steve, Leanne…) , I bless you in your ministry as a teacher (engineer, grandfather, accountant…).” Then we invited our members to “take your pastor to work.” Several members took us up on it, and we were delighted to respond.
We came with no agenda. Since we were on the members’ home turf, we let them set the parameters and take the lead. Sometimes I got a tour of the workplace, sometimes I was introduced to co-workers and supervisors; sometimes I had lunch in the employee cafeteria. We had some general questions in mind if opportunity came for them to be asked: “How does your faith impact your work?” “How is your faith a resource for you at work?” “How is your faith challenged by your work?” Sometimes there was time for these conversations; most of the time there wasn’t.
Besides the visits to offices and business places, I also visited one of our third graders at school, since, as she told me, “My school is my work.” A stay-at-home mom invited my husband and me to her house for a family dinner. Her home is her workplace.
These visits were a blessing to the people we visited. Most people are proud of their work and are pleased to have anyone, but especially their pastor, express an interest in it. They like knowing that their pastor knows and cares about what they’re doing Monday through Friday. Even if no “faith talk” takes place, the simple presence of their pastor in their workplace helps them make the important connection between their faith and their work.
But the greatest benefits in these experiences were mine, as a pastor. First of all, I learned so much about the ways people make a living in this community. I have spent all thirty-five years of my work-life in schools and in churches. I know schools and churches very well. But I found that I knew very, very little about the business world and even less about the technology world. I was, without exception, impressed by what I saw and learned. I know my community better now — always a good thing for a pastor.
But more than that, the people I visited — and thereby all the individuals in our congregation–have become more multi-dimensional to me. Whether by firsthand experience or an experience-fueled imagination, workplace visits make me better able to see our people as fully-formed individuals, with complete lives outside the hour we spend together on Sunday morning. This makes a difference in my preaching, as I strive to build connections between the story in the text and the story of my listeners’ lives.
And finally, because I have learned it firsthand from the folks I visited, I now operate on the assumption that all the people in our pews have gifts and skills that I do not know about, or share.
This makes me a more humble pastor — also a good thing!
It has been a few years since the last time we did workplace visits. We are planning them again for this year. Maybe it will be a permanent, ongoing invitation: please, take your pastor to work!