Don’t screen God out of the workplace



“Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.”(Heb13:13) 

This text preached by Rev Dr Davis McCaughey at my ministry exit valedictory service in 1972 still resonates with me.

In my first placement at outer suburban Knox, there were times I indeed felt “outside the city gate” as the writer of Hebrews called Christ’s followers to be.

But it was only when I left congregational ministry in 1984 to work as a researcher for dockyard trade unions on workplace health and safety that I more fully understood what it meant to minister outside the camp.

There I discovered that the arena of paid work was a world away from the priorities and concerns of the church in which I grew up and was formed for ministry.

These days the divide between the church and the world of work seems even greater.

I find it most painful that the synod’s Major Strategic Review, rather than grasping the strategic and theological importance of work for discerning God’s presence in our world, has exacerbated this divide. 

The MSR advised recreating the synod’s structure around one new entity to focus on capacity-building of leaders for mission, and a second (perhaps secondary?) entity that focuses on the “hard” measurable realities of money, property and insurance risk.

This separation of the synod’s business and mission spheres pre-dates church union, but has sadly remained unnoticed until recently.

Now the synod has physically and visibly separated its mission and business entities through the relocation of mission units to the Centre for Theology and Ministry.

The synod appears to have happily accepted the MSR’s trust in the prevailing post-Enlightenment worldview that creates a divide between public, scientifically verifiable “facts” that are “true”, while relegating beliefs, values and emotions to private and personal choice.

This separation of the “material” from the “spiritual” is neither major nor strategic.

In the world of modern work, faith in God is largely excluded from workplaces, whereas in the UCA, the reverse should be true.

However, calling the church’s work ‘God’s mission’ does not make it so, especially when the fruit of our reorganisation further fragments the wholeness of the church’s life and mission.

It is the contribution of business acumen to mission planning that is too often relegated to outsider status, leaving little opportunity for mutual discernment until it is too late.

The absurdity of this paradox struck me at a recent seminar sponsored by UCA Funds Management to report on their struggles with the ethical issues arising from the banking royal commission’s exposure of unethical and potentially criminal behaviour in the financial sector.

A bare handful of UCA members were present to hear a substantial presentation on a complex ethical dilemma.

Financial services staff were raising significant ethical questions facing our church and nation, while equipping Leadership for Mission staff were nowhere to be seen or heard. We are a sadly divided house.

Our church’s captivity to religion being relegated to the private sphere allows the public demise of ethical work practices in national corporate life to flourish.

Neither church nor nation trust in God’s governance of our whole lives, private and public. And our rejection of God’s word for our world of work is now near terminal.

The synod has been captive to this idolatry of a Godless world of work for decades.

By the time we faced the chaos of Acacia College and “Uniting our Future”, the synod’s default response was firmly established. 

Call in consultants. The pattern rarely varied.  We act on consultants’ advice from organisational development and management, then later add we have “discerned” our “new” mission and baptise it with after-the-fact theological jargon.

Consultants’ solutions typically strengthen the centralisation of synod power and control, which appears to weaken members’ faith.  So does our faith have nothing to offer in times of personal and corporate crisis?

Hebrews calls Christ’s followers to eschew the answers offered by the city’s powers and go to Christ in his suffering outside the city gate.

Sadly the MSR did not heed that call.  Rather its worldly advice has embedded the synod in the very idolatry that robs the public world of work of God’s life-giving Spirit. 

It is no wonder the UCA witnesses so little to the crises of people’s working lives or corporate malfeasance.

John Bottomley is a Uniting Church minister, consults through his own business, Transforming Work, and shares in caring for his elderly mother. John is a member of the Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy Committee and author of Hard Work Never Killed Anybody: how the idolisation of work sustains this deadly lie.

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