Let’s read Keller (1): Success at work, your relational net worth and speculating on the kindness market

Let's read Keller

Over the coming weeks I will be blogging my way through Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, with a particular eye out for insights that can be of help to Christian academics.

To get the ball rolling, here is a reflection on the book’s Foreword, by Katherine Leary Alsdorf,  the Founder & Executive Director of Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work, who describes the book in this clip:

In the foreword Alsdorf relates her experience of founding an internet company that was swallowed up in the great dot come bust of the late 1990s. She describes the reaction of her co-workers to hearing that the company would have to fold in this way:

The staff, entirely on their own, made a plan to come in the following day—for no pay—to celebrate one another and the work they had done. Though the celebration was bittersweet, they brought in musical instruments to play for one another or demonstrated the tai chi they taught in the evenings, and they laughed about fun times together. I was amazed. They were honoring a culture, an organization, in which they’d found some joy in their work and in their relationships with one another—despite the end result. Eventually I came to see that day as a glimpse of God at work, doing what God does: healing and renewing and redeeming.

The experience causes Alsdorf to reflect on the definition of failure, and it reminded me that there are always at least two dimensions to any job: what is being achieved and the relational context within which it is achieved. The “what” of Aldsorf’s company ultimately failed, but it’s relational context was a success. Sometimes, the tables are turned: the “what” can be achieved at the cost of the relational context: I get done what is necessary to succeed, but I leave an ugly trail of relational exploitation, broken promises and resentment in my wake.

If Blaise Pascal were writing the preface to Every Good Endeavor, he might have framed the distinction in terms of  the chase and the catch, suggesting that what often matters most to us is the journey rather than the destination, the relational context rather than the ultimate ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of the enterprise. The weight of biblical material related to work would point us in the same direction: God is more concerned with how we work than with what we do, and with how we treat people than whether we are ‘successful’ in stock market terms.

For Christian academics, we must ask ourselves how we measure success in our own careers: by where we end up on the pecking order, or by how we treat people along the way?

The language we use is powerful in shaping the way we think, so let’s try some new concepts on for size, framing biblical values in the sort of language that is common in many workplaces:

  • When was the last time you thought in terms of your ‘relational wealth’, or ‘relational net worth’?
  • Have you ever been excited by the thought of innovating in obedience or making a strategic investment in holiness?
  • Have you ever speculated  on the kindness market or diversified into Christ-like service?

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