Skip to main content

Does the way Christians talk about work apply only to the privileged? For the majority of the world’s people, fulfilling work is far from attainable. Even in the United States during unprecedented high employment, college graduates have become more likely to work in jobs that are low-paying, part-time, or not requiring a college degree. Meanwhile much scholarly and popular discourse on vocation assumes that each individual can craft a rewarding career journey. Christine Jeske recommends three shifts in theological discourse of work and vocation to better address disappointments in work. Christine Jeske is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College and author of three books including the forthcoming The Laziness Myth (Cornell).

For many years of my life, when I thought about how to find and choose good work, the advice that came to mind was a phrase I’ve heard quoted often in Christian circles: Frederick Buechner’s poetic definition of the word “vocation.”1 Vocation, he writes, is the place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”2 When I was in college, I could relate to a certain interpretation of that quote. Like many other white, middle-class people raised in Christian homes, I saw vocation as a journey of understanding the skilled individual I was made to be, what uniquely made me glad, and how I could meet needs in the world around me. I assumed “vocation” was pretty much equivalent to “work,” and the main way I would live out my calling as a Christian was by choosing a career that matched who I was and what the world needed. I expected to have many options at every turn of my life journey, and I saw serving others as the primary purpose of my work.

Much Christian writing about work and vocation makes similar assumptions: work, if chosen well, will bring gladness, and the direction of influence will be outward from the individual “you” with resources to the “world” that “hungers.” Christian work, we often assume, happens when fulfilled individuals exercise agency to find jobs in which they give something to needy others. In practice we often conflate the ideas of work and vocation, treating work as the presumed means by which people fulfil God’s purpose in their lives. This leaves people without meaningful work in a vacuum of time and space where they presumably fail to live vocationally.

The picture of work as a perfect fit for an individual’s gifts and a clear contribution to a needy world simply does not match many people’s lived experiences. For the majority of people in the world, fulfilling, satisfying, dignifying, consistent work, chosen from a range of options, marked by hope of future promotion, and making a clear contribution to a better world, is far from attainable. Instead work means dealing with disappointments—hoping for a job and finding none, or working in a job with fewer hours, longer hours, less certainty, less skill use, or less status than hoped for. While working too many hours or having no work at all may seem like very different situations, in this paper I refer to such experiences collectively with the term “underemployment” because they share the theme of disappointment, being “under”—or less than—expected.

In this paper I expand the theological discourse on work by asking specifically what Christian teaching says about underemployment. In addition to biblical analysis and the writings of other scholars, I draw upon my own qualitative research interviewing and living among unemployed and low-wage laborers in South Africa.3

South Africa offers an extreme picture of what happens when the societal conditions for work go wrong. In 2015, only 43 percent of the working-age population was employed; among those under 34, only 31 percent.4 The extreme shortage of jobs combines with a long history of work experiences that do not bring dignity. Under the apartheid political system that ended in 1994, people’s work opportunities, as well as their educational opportunities and living locations, were determined according to racial category. Since 1994, many policies have changed, but attitudes, living locations, educational stratification, and discrimination in hiring remain largely unchanged in many settings. For over 20 years, South Africa’s unemployment rate (the percentage of adults actively seeking work) has hovered above 20%—on par with the highest level ever recorded in the United States during the Great Depression.5 Unemployment rates among youth are consistently 20-25 percentage points higher. Furthermore, the number of those counted as not actively seeking work has swelled. Black South Africans face a double challenge of both job scarcity and demeaning work experiences. Those who find any formal employment at all are likely to experience discrimination, intercultural miscommunication, limited promotion opportunities, and scarce training for higher skilled positions. While a fortunate few have jobs that are economically and emotionally satisfying, the majority of black South African adults have never had such an experience. South Africa offers a case study where Christians have grappled with extreme unemployment, discrimination, and unequal opportunities.

It might seem obvious that underemployment matters in a country like South Africa. In the United States, though, with unemployment reaching 10-year lows,6 why prepare people for disappointments at work? Low unemployment disguises the ways that people in higher-income countries also experience disappointments at work. The number of United States college graduates who work in jobs that are low-paying, part-time, or not requiring a college degree increased from 34 percent to 44 percent of college graduates in 10 years.7 Discrimination in hiring continues to affect certain groups disproportionately. Studies continually find that white job candidates even with criminal records or lower credentials are more likely to get hired or called for an interview than African American candidates.8 Good jobs, it seems, are often hard to find, even for many Americans and college graduates.

And yet much academic discourse on work and vocation treats work as if it will be good, available, fulfilling, and productive. In recent years, psychologists have noted that research on career counseling tends to focus on topics like career choice that mainly concern people in the middle class.9 Psychologists have called attention to the need to make career counseling and psychology more relevant for “the majority of people around the globe who do not have access to jobs that readily accommodate their interests, hopes, and values.”10 In the words of psychologist David Blustein, research on work has too often assumed that everyone has “grand career narratives” involving opportunities to “obtain work that manifests their personal interests and serves as a natural outlet for their self-concepts.”11

A similar assumption that anyone can find fulfilling work has crept into Christian discourse on work and vocation. In a book about discerning the will of God, pastor Jerry Sittser writes, “We might have ten important decisions to make and a hundred possible pathways we could follow… We can, in good conscience, choose from any number of reasonable alternatives and continue to do the will of God.”12 This privileged situation simply does not describe the work opportunities most people face. Or consider a pamphlet designed to equip pastors to share Christian economic wisdom, stating, “Biblical perspective on calling and stewardship leads us to see ‘ordinary’ work and adult responsibility as the primary place where most of our young people will find the identity, meaning, and purpose they’re looking for.”13 Certainly in optimal working conditions, people’s work (whether paid or unpaid) will contribute to finding identity, meaning, and purpose. Many resources on vocation, though, remain effectively silent on what to do when our work does not match that ideal.14 If in that silence we leave people to presume that purposeful work is the only way to live out a vocational calling, we effectively exclude many seasons of people’s lives from the possibility of a vocational calling.

Recently a woman with a master’s degree from a Christian college told me that her year of unemployment after graduating was “the hardest year of my life.” She said her theological training left her utterly unprepared for unemployment. Another recent bachelor’s degree graduate who had spent six of nine months unemployed told me she had learned to believe that her “purpose” and “real life” were on hold until she found a good job. A student who read a draft of this paper commented further, “Yes, and not even just a good job, but the one right job.” As if living with a demeaning job or no paid work at all weren’t financially, emotionally, and socially challenging enough, Christian discourse often communicates that the underemployed are a rarity, or are personally to blame, or are valueless human beings. If Christian conversations about work are built on assumptions that opportunities abound, work brings dignity, and hard work is all it takes to achieve a dream job, what happens when life feels nothing like that? Whether among black South Africans and others who rarely find good jobs, or among United States college graduates with expectations of perfect jobs, theology of work falls short if it fails to acknowledge and address the real challenges surrounding work.

In this paper I examine three assumptions that underlie a common Christian narrative of work and vocation. For each of these three narrative elements, I suggest an alternative. Rather than the “voyage of self-discovery” message, I point to the social and cultural production of subjectivities that shape work possibilities, summed up in poet John Donne’s famous phrase, “no one is an island.”

Instead of the promise that individuals can overcome any challenge, I point to the importance of acknowledging oppression where it occurs. And shifting from the narrow emphasis on “fixing the world” as vocational purpose, I advocate a vision of vocation based on communities of mutual transformation.

From “Voyage of Self-Discovery” to “No One Is an Island”

I once overheard two college seniors laughing about their commitment to immediately delete any emails that came from the college’s Center for Vocation and Career. When I asked why, they said thinking about vocation made them feel guilty and anxious. To many college students, “vocational discernment” means making complicated, stress-inducing career decisions that seem to determine every aspect of their lives. Even when vocational programming emphasizes the frequency with which graduates change careers, students feel pressure to find their perfect path. In an analysis of the outcomes of vocational training at Christian institutions, Tim Clydesdale writes that

because cultural scripts place career choice at the center of life satisfaction, and college as the locus of career preparation…[a]ll too often, students approach college as a maze with multiple exits, with their life satisfaction determined by finding the right exit and doing so quickly.15

This picture of vocation as a journey of finding a perfect job-match for individual passions and strengths is not necessarily the message that colleges intend to communicate, but the narrative is so deeply infiltrated into cultural messages that colleges find it hard to counter.

Part of the stress students at Christian colleges feel in thinking about careers grows from a subtle and pervasive message that employment is where Christians live out their God-given purpose. Vocation should be understood as the total calling by God to himself, such that “everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.” 16 In the process of planning and searching for jobs, though, Christians often inadvertently reduce “vocation” to finding a good job. Even well-intended teaching on the diversity of gifts given by the Spirit is sometimes reduced to the message that by taking ten-minute inventory test to recognize your spiritual gifts, you can choose the ideal career God has planned for you. There is no harm—and often there is much good—in understanding your spiritual gifts, but spiritual gifts inventories are not a measuring rod for whether a person is living their calling. I learned this firsthand when I took a spiritual gifts inventory during a season staying home caring for my children. I scored dead last on gifts that the inventory associated with care-giving, and yet in that season, care-giving was the job I needed to have.

The danger in over-emphasizing a voyage of self-discovery is exemplified in the Christian pamphlet quoted above that took for granted that “people will find the identity, meaning, and purpose they’re looking for” at work. Work decisions become laden with moral significance: one can choose employment virtuously or poorly, with results that seem to determine an entire lifetime of purposeful service—or disobedience—to God. In a chapter titled “Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want (And It’s a Good Thing, Too),” William Cavanaugh argues that young people have been so “marinated” in false cultural messages insisting they can and must choose their own “best life” that they become overwhelmed by what Barry Schwartz calls the “tyranny of choice.”17

In South Africa as well, most career counseling and job-readiness training programs focused on motivating individual job-seekers. One article offering researched advice on counseling unemployed black South Africans, for example, recommends that “career counseling can promote clients’ ability to heal themselves, design and construct successful lives, and make social contributions through their work”18 While this played out positively in the case study in the article, in my interviews I met person after person for whom no amount of personal motivation or even well-reasoned attempts to construct their own successful life had led them to secure employment. Jobs and the means to acquire higher skills were just too scarce.

The message that “good” individuals scrutinize and actualize their best selves to find career success is not only a product of dubious Christian theology. The narrative gained strength in the United States and globally through the rise of neoliberal ideology, which rose in political and cultural influence especially from the 1980s to early 2000s.19 Neoliberalism, a set of economic policies as well as a discourse of how to define and achieve the good life, places individual freedom at the center of life achievement. According to neoliberal thinking, people’s success in pursuing the good life—from education to employment to macroeconomic growth—depends upon individuals exercising freedoms to make choices that market themselves in a free market (Harvey, 2005). Many scholars have documented the experiences of low-wage and unemployed workers surrounded by neoliberal polices and beliefs. In studies of settings as diverse as Silicon Valley, New York City fast food restaurants, and Turkish and East German factories, underemployed people have tended to experience shame or anxiety when they follow neoliberal advice to redefine themselves rather than address systemic causes of unemployment.20

One central problem with the voyage of self-discovery paradigm is this: fulfilling work is never accomplished by an individual alone. Responsibility for creating vocational success involves communities and societies. No individual is a purely free agent in a wide open space of possibilities, and the cause and effect reactions that shape a person’s life are never as simple as merely one individual’s choices, no matter how prayerfully discerned those choices may be. Discourse that places responsibility for finding a fulfilling career solely on an individual has at least two dangerous outcomes: it causes stress and mistaken understanding of self among job-seekers, and it distracts from crucial measures that could more effectively address systemic causes of underemployment. As anthropologists and sociologists often argue, social structures matter.

Social science theorists have for over a century attempted to understand the processes whereby individuals’ own agency merges with the external environment to shape their life path. One helpful set of language for describing the interplay between seemingly “free” decisions of individuals and the social setting of those individuals comes from scholarship often referred to as practice theory. Practice theorists have argued that individual agency and societal and cultural settings simultaneously produce human behavior, in a kind of “regulated improvisation.”21 Humans do exercise agency, having capacities to act on intentions and pursue aims. At the same time, though, individuals “can never act outside of the multiplicity of social relations in which they are enmeshed.”22 Social structures offer certain individuals and groups generous freedom and pleasing possibilities; for others, the options are limited and destructive. As sociologist Anthony Giddens writes, it is a mistake to “conceive of the structures of domination built into social institutions as in some way grinding out ‘docile bodies’ who behave like…automata,” but it is also a mistake to leave unacknowledged the many processes by which individuals both make and are made by society.23

This picture of the constant circularity between individuals and society is useful for thinking about a theology of underemployment because it lifts the blame of underemployment from the shoulders of an individual alone, while also calling to account every individual to be involved in producing societal structures conducive to better work experiences for all. As David Cunningham writes in an edited volume on vocation,

We need to remain aware that, both for ourselves and for others in our lives, the lifelong process of accumulating privileges and disadvantages will mean that our relationships will continue to evolve and reconfigure themselves over time. In sum, the lives of others play a key role in giving our vocations a particular shape and texture.”24

To make sense theologically, practice theory needs to also incorporate another component: the role of God. Here Miroslav Volf offers a vision of how God, society, and individuals relate in determining work experiences. Volf writes that the Spirit’s equipping and calling “do not occur in a social and natural vacuum …to the isolated human soul,” but are “mediated through each person’s social interrelations and psychosomatic constitution,” which “themselves result from the interaction of human beings with the Spirit of God.”25 Work at its best is that which the Spirit inspires, working through both individual and social structure.

If we see agency as a socially constructed circularity of individual choices and societal structures, finding fulfilling work becomes not just the responsibility of a choice-laden individual, but also a reflection of societal setting, and a setting for potential societal change. David Cunningham describes the positive side of this news: “When other human beings enter the picture, the process of discernment becomes…easier, because one need not bear the weight of every decision alone.”26 But the news that vocations are socially constructed also implies responsibilities. By recognizing that humans produce our own social structures, we broaden our conception of the ethics surrounding work. African theologian Xavier Massingue, after reviewing a wide theological literature of work, likewise argues that Christians will not be effective in transforming individuals unless they reject individualistic misreadings of scripture and “deal with the systems and structures of evil.”27 Recognizing that no one is an island means that for Christians, work ethics are not just about doing one’s job well; our ethics demand that everyone in society create settings conducive to human flourishing and virtuous character. I consider this implication further in the next two sections.

From “Adjust Your Attitude” to “Acknowledge Oppression”

In a poem titled “The Elixir,” George Herbert writes that when one has a “sense that one is called to the work by God,” one has “the elixir that turns the base metal of drudgery into the gold of something divine.”28 In this common picture of Christians at work, an individual attitude alone is enough to turn drudgery to gold. While having a sense of God’s presence in one’s work does change the experience, when work situations are marked by oppression, the Bible asks far more of society than just a change of heart amidst workers.

The advice that underemployed people should merely “adjust their attitude” ties to prevalent associations between “work ethics” and Protestantism. For many people, the terms “Protestant” and “work” bring to mind Max Weber’s classic book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.29 In popular usage, the phrase “Protestant ethic” (sometimes called the “Protestant work ethic”) is often used as if it accurately describes a set of beliefs and behaviors with strong biblical backing in Protestant theology. Weber actually never argues that the Bible itself teaches that working harder makes someone more moral or rational. Instead, Weber traces the historical development of ideas about work from Luther to his present era, arguing that these beliefs arose in a particular historical and cultural setting, more as a response to lay believers’ uncertainty about their salvation than as a carefully supported reading of scripture.30 He argues that Protestants, especially in America, in their efforts to prove to themselves and others that they were saved while not appearing ostentatiously wealthy, stumbled upon the paired behaviors of long work hours and reinvesting savings. According to Weber, these behaviors appeased the uncertain consciences of certain Calvinist believers while also becoming the driver of an uncomplaining work force and the investments that capitalism required for take-off. Weber further argues that beliefs about the moral imperative of hard work spread beyond Protestantism to become the dominant culturally reproduced “spirit of capitalism” that undergirds the socio-economic system of capitalism in Western nations.

The historical accuracy of Weber’s account has been questioned,31 and yet the title phrase of his book has taken on a force of its own in popular culture. Many Christians operate under the assumption that dedication to work will improve the character of a person, and thus any difficult work is justifiable. Notably, this idea was used by Christians and non-Christians to justify slavery and forced labor across Africa and the Americas. A narrative that equates the willingness to work hard with morality can lead people to assume that underemployment is always caused by an individual’s unwillingness to work hard. A white South African founder of a Christian development organization exemplified this assumption when he told me in an interview, “The whole Bible is about hard work.” In place of the many words that might accurately end that sentence (the whole Bible is about grace or Christ, for example), Christians are choosing “hard work.”

In the United States today, Protestants who are white are especially likely to place a moral emphasis on dedication to hard work, believing that motivation is the main determinant of economic success. Sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson compared survey responses of white and black Protestant Christians in the United States. They asked respondents why, “on the average, African Americans have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people”?32 Given four choices, 55.1% of white Protestant Americans answered, “because most African Americans just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty.” Only 26.5% choose the option, “mainly due to discrimination.” African Americans chose these two answers in nearly the opposite percentages. Shelton found that white Protestants are even more likely than the overall white population to blame poverty on motivation. In a separate study conducted at the University of Chicago, 35% of baby boomers and 31% of millennials believed that blacks were lazier or less hard-working than whites.33 In other words, the hegemonic narrative that blames underemployment on lack of individual motivation is strong in America, especially among white Protestants. As I argue elsewhere, an insidiously racist narrative that associates blackness with laziness and ignores societal causes of unemployment is even more pervasive in South Africa.34

The blame-laziness narrative does damage in many ways. First, it often asks the impossible of workers. In research on workplace satisfaction, psychologist Barry Schwartz emphasizes that managers must intervene to change work responsibilities because “there are limits to what an individual can do psychologically to interpret a soulless job as a meaningful one.”35 Secondly, the narrative of “change your attitude” directs attention away from significant social causes of unemployment, and may even exacerbate those by discouraging employers from training people groups they stereotype as “untrainable” or “lazy.” The narrative disguises the impossible alternatives many low-skilled workers face between physically, emotionally, or relationally destructive work versus no work at all. As social scientists have argued, even if a person manages to develop a positive attitude amidst discouraging work prospects, their attitude alone will not solve racial prejudice or unjust situations.36

Christians must insist that even any slim possibility that some workers might grow closer to God during harsh labor is never an excuse for unjust treatment of workers. Theologian Gilbert Meilaender warns Christians that

by undergirding the dignity of irksome work in powerful religious language, we may too easily be invited to overlook just how hard and unsatisfying much toil is….[W]e should be careful lest this religious language lead us to ignore the empirical realities of the work many people must do.37

Likewise, Volf points out that Christians must discern “which forms of work are incompatible with the dignity of human beings as God’s free and responsible creatures, and which forms of work develop their personality and which stifle it.”38

One justification Christians have used to justify the “adjust your attitude” narrative comes from Paul’s advice to slaves in his cultural context: “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. Don’t let it trouble you.”39 This admonition needs to be interpreted in the cultural and historical context of slavery in the Roman empire, as well as in a broader theological context of a trinitarian God whose very essence is compassion and love. Paul also advises that slaves gain their freedom if possible, that slavery be avoided, and that masters model their treatment of slaves after Christ.40 The book of James includes even more direct warnings to masters and consumers.41 Jesus’ teachings point toward profound concern for the wellness of workers rather than status-quo acceptance of hierarchically oppressive working relationships. He commends a centurion who cared about the suffering of a servant, tells stories approving generous masters, and exemplifies servant leadership.42 In the words of theologian Albert Schweitzer, a fierce critic of colonial injustices to workers, Christians must take every opportunity to right mistreatment of others, even in acts as small as assisting “an insect that has fallen into a puddle.”43 How much more are Christians called to act when humans are mistreated at work.

Ultimately when Christians focus only on improving workers’ attitudes, they overlook a call to intervene in injustice. In South Africa I heard stories of workers receiving no compensation for limbs broken at work, receiving no protective gear for sawing machinery, being forced to work overtime without prior notice, working seven days a week, washing cars for nothing more than tips, and digging hard soil for more than eight hours a day. In order to find work, many parents saw their children once a month or less frequently. At a higher level, international tariffs, powerful giant companies, and the race to the bottom of low wages to lower-income countries all squeezed small company profits, pushing local managers to hire fewer workers with shorter-term contracts and less dignifying relational arrangements. These examples were not unusual in South Africa, and many more systemically unjust working conditions exist globally—refugees and migrants denied work permits, human trafficking, child slavery, and the list goes on. Such causes of underemployment are often so diffuse that people write off situations as inevitable. When problems are incomprehensibly complex, it is easier to ignore them in favor of a simpler story that individuals just need to work harder to improve their lives.

One of the clearest illustrations of why theology of work needs to acknowledge oppression rather than just advise people to adjust their attitudes appears in the Exodus narrative. When Moses requests that Pharaoh allow the Israelites to leave their slavery in Egypt, Pharaoh responds, “They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”44 A few verses later Pharoah repeats, “‘Lazy, that’s what you are—lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Now get to work.”45 His words echo in the justifications that have been made for slavery and oppressive work through the millennia: laziness.

In contrast to Pharaoh, the biblical author calls the situation what it is: oppression. And God does not ignore oppression: “God heard their groaning…and was concerned about them.”46 Imagine how differently the verse would read as, “God saw that Moses had ingenuity, determination, and good work ethics to rise above his tough upbringing, so he called Moses to a career path of deep gladness using all his gifts.” God shows a direct concern for oppressive working conditions and insists that his followers join him in rectifying those conditions. As God saves Israel from oppressive underemployment, he demonstrates that ending oppression takes more than the effort of the oppressed; it requires God’s intervention and his complete redesign of society—spelled out from Levitical law to the formation of the New Testament church.

Notably, freedom from present oppression often involves waiting, even for generations. The phrase, “How long?”—spoken by Moses in Egypt and again and again in the Psalms of lament—voices a longing for the “already but not yet” reality of God’s redemption on earth.47 The hundreds of years Israelites spent in Egypt are easy to brush past in excitement for the story of redemption to come. But for those who spend decades, lifetimes, or generations in oppressive work situations, promises of ever-upward careers ring hollow.

This is not to say that employment itself is necessarily oppressive, as some Marxist theorists have suggested. Acknowledging oppression means learning to recognize where it does or does not exist in work settings. The author of Ecclesiastes reflects at length on the sometimes-oppressive, sometimes-good nature of work. He sees laborers for whom “all their days their work is grief and pain.”48 He is well aware of oppression so terrible that “the dead…are happier than the living.49 And yet, he resolves that at least in some situations, people receive from God the opportunity to “find satisfaction in their toilsome labor” and “to accept their lot and be happy in their toil.”50 Whether done by believer or unbeliever, work has the potential to cooperate with God in the transformative process of the new creation, or to ruin God’s good creation.51

The task of the church is not only to train individuals to have good attitudes about work. The church’s wider task is to create the settings in which work can be good for all. In a treatise on work, Dorothy Sayers notes that if Christians truly believed that humans are made in God’s image, then they would care not only about their own work, but about processes of economic production more broadly. “There would be processes and strikes—not only about pay and conditions, but about the quality of the work demanded and the honesty, beauty, and usefulness of the goods produced.” She writes that “the Church must concern herself not only with such questions as the just price and proper working conditions: she must concern herself with seeing that the work itself is such as a human being can perform without degradation—that no one is required by economic or any other considerations to devote himself to work that is contemptible, soul-destroying, or harmful.”52

When theology of work acknowledges that oppression can and does happen in work settings, the narrative shifts in an important way: God and society—not just an individual job-seeker—become responsible for creating settings where work can bring human flourishing. As I explore in the next section, this means that vocation no longer involves just a “hungry world” and an individual serving that world, but also “hungry” individual job-seekers who need transformation of themselves and their social settings. For those in positions of privilege, their role in the vocational narrative shifts from a self-congratulatory place of having personally achieved a good and influential working situation, to a position of gratitude, lament, and responsibility for others. As George Orwell reflects after a detailed description of the harsh working conditions of coal miners:

Most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence… [W]e are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “intellectual” and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.53

In contrast to the narrative that urges individual workers in such oppressive settings to merely “focus on the positive” or “minister to the people around you,” this narrative urges entire communities to identify and rectify injustices that are woven through employment settings and systems.

From “Fix the World” to Forming Communities of Mutual Transformation

Theology of work and vocation often emphasizes the need to choose work based on the needs of “those whom the work serves.”54 While Jesus calls disciples to a posture of service, his narrative can become warped to communicate that the flow of influence is always unidirectional, from the serving individual to society. As discussed above, vocation in this picture treats skills and abilities as something inherent in individuals, not shaped and produced by social interactions over a lifetime. This narrative also treats the individual as having responsibility to all others, never as the recipient of any responsibility from others. There is no element of receiving in this picture of vocation, only giving. When people need the financial support of others or cannot find work that uses the skills they hope to share, then, is outward service an integral element of vocation? Or can one be called to be a net receiver of others’ serving? Taken a step further, is it wrong not to work? Often the implied answer to these questions is that vocation happens only when one has a job to do to serve others. Many people experiencing underemployment describe feelings of guilt and worthlessness for having to receive others’ assistance rather than serve others. Waiting, receiving, and trudging on without evidence of results, it would seem, occur in a realm outside of vocation. Times of sickness, job-searching, disability, retirement, or even education do not neatly fit in that definition of vocation. If output and solving needs equals vocation, we are left with a picture of God’s calling that misses worship, receiving, and being in need. Ultimately we miss grace.

An overemphasis on vocation as outward service contributes to two disordered views of vocation that I would call “frustrated service” and “over service.” Together these disorders reveal that misguided theology harms not only those experiencing underemployment, but also those who have been privileged with what seems like good work. On the “frustrated service” end are those without paid work who come to believe that their lives are purposeless, valueless, or even sinful because they can not “fix the world” through work. Indeed, one employment training instructor in South Africa stated that by getting people jobs she was “giving them value.” In the logic of capitalism, one’s value equals their profit-generating ability. One deserves to receive only in exchange for something, whether labor or goods. That capitalist notion, when combined with the Christian “better to give than to receive” mantra, leaves many underemployed people with a combination of guilt and frustration at their seeming lack of value. It is all too easy for Christians to complicitly reinforce narratives saying human value depends upon accomplishments.

On the other end of the spectrum from the frustrated service disorder are work beliefs characterized by “over service.” Both frustrated service and over service result from the same assumption: that Christian vocation means giving, not receiving. For those who see themselves as living out the always-serving, always-giving vocation of the savior complex, workaholic tendencies and self-idolatry are sin tendencies. The assumption that Christians can always give and never receive presents a mathematical impossibility—if everyone always gave more than they received, who would receive the extra? The unspoken solution to the math problem is that anyone who is a net receiver must be someone who is not living in a Christian vocation. This creates a perceived divide between those other people out there who receive the kindness of the Christians, and the Christians themselves. In this mindset, Christians can come to see themselves as saviors, taking on a “god-complex”55 that ultimately denies both the need for Christ and the human dignity of those receiving.

Both the frustrated service and over-service disorders contradict the foundational doctrine that Christians are defined by their very position as net receivers—of God’s grace. An alternative to the “fix the world” narrative of work, then, comes by restoring emphasis on the biblical picture of a mutually transformative community. In both the Old and New Testament, we find examples of such communities where service to others is rooted in receiving from God and others.

Jesus’ interactions with believers offer a picture of vocation in which any chance to serve others is rooted first of all in the human need to receive. He sends out his followers saying, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”56 Likewise in the Old Testament, God’s admonitions that Israel create a community marked by care for others were rooted in their identity as people who received everything from God. “Remember,” God reminds them again and again, “that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”57 Resituating our Christian identity as receivers by grace offers good news to those plagued by guilt during times of underemployment.

Scripture also grounds the call to create just working conditions, as described in the previous section, in our identity as both givers and receivers. After God led Israel out of oppression through a massive systemic change that no individual could have orchestrated alone, he gave them guidelines to create a new kind of community, one that repels the kinds of oppression from which he rescued them. Mosaic law included many admonitions to treat workers fairly: “do not defraud;” “do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight;” “do not do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest;” do not “rule over” slaves “ruthlessly;” and “do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy.”58 Even in the command to “observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” in includes an admonition for managers: their servants and children should not work either. As in many of the laws pertaining to worker justice, the commandment concludes with a reminder that God himself will defend mistreated laborers from oppressive Israelites, just as he did when the Israelites were oppressed in Egypt.59 To the extent that the Israelites created a community of shalom, workers thrived, and importantly, so did those who could not work. In a community of shalom, widows, orphans, children, those without land, and those with diseases all have a place in society. Their protection and value is affirmed, regardless of whether they serve others or receive from others.

At a conference on vocational teaching for colleges, presenter Shirley Hershey Showalter60 used the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese” to convey what it means to live out vocation in a transformative community rather than an individual-fixes-the-world mindset. The poem begins, “You do not have to be good,” and continues, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” The final lines draw together the theme of needing and being needed by a community, saying that the world is “over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.”61 That phrase, “in the family of things,” a place where we have our own despair and respond to others, describes well a mutually transformative church body. In that kind of community there is space for people with any employment status.

A theology of work must treat righteousness not just as serving others, but as giving and receiving in communities of wounded healers, together being transformed to honor God. The many New Testament admonitions that end in “one another” testify that Christians were never intended to only give. In order to love one another, honor one another, live in harmony with one another, encourage one another, serve one another, be kind and compassionate to one another, sing songs to one another, and teach one another, people must be receivers as well as givers.62 Living with vocation does not mean finding work that allows us to give more; living with vocation means being the church together.

Concluding Thoughts

By both omission and commission, the Christian discourse on work and vocation has often done harm, especially to those who are or will be underemployed. This paper offers three ways to check the narratives of work that we believe and promote. Are we treating vocation as a journey in which a lone individual must choose an ideal path, or are we acknowledging the interplay between both individuals and social settings that shape vocational possibilities? Are we presuming that a positive attitude can make any drudgery divine, or are we recognizing and changing oppressive working conditions? And are we treating Christian vocation as only a task of helping others, or as a call to mutually give and receive in communities transformed by God?

Our answers to these questions can call us to respond in various ways, depending on our context. Those whose professions include directly counseling people about vocation, such as faculty members, career counselors, pastors, mentors, and scholars of work and vocation, are at the forefront of transforming our narratives of vocation. Among the recommendations that David Blustein and other psychologists make for counselors of the underemployed are two that match the dialectic of individual agency and structural constraints described in practice theory: “fostering empowerment” and “fostering critical consciousness.”63 Counselors need to foster empowerment by pointing people to resources to gain skills and set goals. Blustein recommends that counselors find ways to “scaffold” the wide variety of services that many underemployed people need, and to keep in mind that many underemployed people never show up in counselors’ offices at all due to their inability to afford such services. He also recommends, though, that counselors develop together with clients a “critical consciousness.” Drawing upon the writing of Paolo Freire and other social theorists, Blustein argues that clients and counselors alike need to “reflect upon the broad structured aspects of the world and to take action on these observations.”64

Above all, this discussion of theology of work points us to the reality that people cannot find opportunities to thrive in work alone. Advocacy in government, professional associations, and within workplaces is necessary to craft policies that steer toward better treatment of workers in ways that the market alone will not. Using influence at workplaces, we can create policies that promote adequate rest, purposeful tasks, good relationships, and equal opportunities for training and promotion. We can listen well to others’ stories about underemployment, seeking to identify causes of oppression and becoming involved in seeking change. Especially when interacting with those whose skills, age, physical abilities, family responsibilities, or lack of opportunities have put them in seasons of unpaid work, we can combat the shame and self-depreciation that often accompany underemployment by emphasizing the inherent value of all humans and the need for everyone to receive. As consumers, we can frequent businesses that treat employees justly. And as church members, we can model just working relationships in our own church communities. By examining our theology of work, ultimately we seek to speak and live out a narrative that is good news for everyone, including the underemployed.

Cite this article
Christine Jeske, “Are We Underthinking Underemployment?: Toward a More Inclusive Theology of Vocation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:3 , 231-248


  1. For all the books written on vocation, it is odd that this little quote from a book not specifically about vocation has become so famous and so often used out of context as advice to find a job that makes you happy. Buechner himself does not equate work with vocation or imply that gladness requires meeting only other people’s needs. He further insists that the definitions in his book “make no claim of being even close to definitive. At their best they may serve to raise an unsettling question or two,” which, appropriately, happened in this paper (p. xi).
  2. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 95.
  3. I lived for a total of about five years in South Africa, one year of which was devoted to formal research on unemployment. Like most ethnographic researchers, I learned by sharing experiences and relationships. I conducted over 130 interviews with underemployed people, low-wage employees, employers, pastors, and trainers in employment-readiness programs. I spent hundreds of hours observing and participating in ten businesses as well as in homes, churches, music gatherings, street conversations, employment trainings, and other community activities. For more detailed findings, see Christine Jeske, “Why Work? Do We Understand What Motivates Work-Related Decisions in South Africa?,” Journal of Southern African Studies 44.1 (2018): 27–42.
  4. Statistics South Africa, “National and Provincial Labour Market: Youth,” June 29, 2015.
  5. Daniela Casale, Colette Muller, and Dorrit Posel, “‘Two Million Net New Jobs’’: A Reconsideration of the Rise in Employment in South Africa, 1995–2003,’” South African Journal of Economics 72.5 (2004): 978–1002.
  6. United States Department of Labor, “Unemployment Rate 2.5 Percent for College Grads, 7.7 Percent for High School Dropouts, January 2017,” : The Economics Daily: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 7, 2017,
  7. Jaison R. Abel, Richard Deitz, and Yaqin Su, “Are Recent College Graduates Finding Good Jobs?,” Current Issues in Economics and Finance 20.1 (2014): 1–8.
  8. Devah Pager, Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2007).
  9. D. Brown, Career Choice and Development, 4th ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2002).
  10. David L. Blustein et al., “The Psychology of Working: A New Framework for Counseling Practice and Public Policy,” Career Development Quarterly 56.4 (June 2008): 295. See also D. Brown, Career Choice and Development, 4th ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2002); J. G. Maree, “Career Construction Counseling With a Mid-Career Black Man,” The Career Development Quarterly 64 (March 2016): 20–34; and M. S. Richardson, “Work in People’s Lives: A Location for Counseling Psychologists,” Journal of Counseling Psychology 40 (1993): 425–433.
  11. “The Psychology of Working: A New Framework for Counseling Practice and Public Policy. (Cover Story),” Career Development Quarterly 56.4 (June 2008): 297.
  12. Jerry Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life (Zondervan, 2009), 31.
  13. Jay Slocum, “A Christian Vision for Flourishing Communities,” in A Christian Vision for Flourishing Communities: An Initiative of the Oikonomia Network (Economic Wisdom Project, n.d.), 25.
  14. Jeff Haanen’s article, “God of the Second Shift,” in the October 2018 issue of Christianity Today, was a recent welcome break to this silence.
  15. Tim Clydesdale, The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2015), 109.
  16. Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (New York: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 4.
  17. William T. Cavanaugh, “Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want (And It’s a Good Thing, Too),” in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 26, 34; Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice (New York: Ecco, 2004), 15.
  18. J. G. Maree, “Career Construction Counseling With a Mid-Career Black Man,” The Career Development Quarterly 64 (March 2016): 32.
  19. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005).
  20. Ergul Ergun, “Bargaining with the Devil: Neoliberalism, Informal Work and Workers’ Resistance in the Clothing Industry of Turkey,” in Social Justice and Neoliberalism: Global Perspectives, eds. Adrian Smith, Alison Stenning, and Katie Willis (London: Zed Books, 2008); Kathrin Horschelmann, “Transitions to Work and the Making of Neo-Liberal Selves: Growing Up in (Former) East Germany,” in Ibid.; Carrie M. Lane, A Company of One: Insecurity, Independence, and the New World of White-Collar Unemployment (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2011); Katherine S. Newman, No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City (New York: Vintage Books, 2000).
  21. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology 16 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 57.
  22. Sherry B. Ortner, Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 139, 130.
  23. Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Cambridge: Polity, 1984), 16.
  24. David Cunningham, “Epilogue: Vocabularies of Vocation,” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 322.
  25. Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 115.
  26. Cunningham, “Epilogue: Vocabularies of Vocation,” 321–322.
  27. Xavier Massingue, Theology of Work and Poverty Alleviation in Mozambique (Carlisle, UK: Langham, 2013), 37.
  28. Gilbert C. Meilaender, ed., Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 11.
  29. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: And Other Writings, eds. Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells (New York: Penguin Classics, 2002 [1905]).
  30. The idea that hard work is good for the soul did not originate with Protestantism, either. Some monastic traditions, for example, called laziness “the enemy of the soul” and used work as a penitential practice. Volf makes an extensive argument that the roots of capitalism are traceable to Catholicism before Protestantism. See Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, 73; and Amintore Fanfani, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism (London: Sheed and Ward, 1935).
  31. For example, Gilbert Meilaender points out that sixteenth-century Puritans such as William Perkins, author of “A Treatise of the Vocations or Callings of Men,” would have been “astonished” that their writings have been used in the modern era to reinforce the idea that “work is integral to human identity and fulfillment” or that work is “the sphere in which one fulfills oneself.” See Meilaender, Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits, 13.
  32. Jason E. Shelton and Michael Emerson, Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 232.
  33. Data from the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, available at, cited by Raj Patel and Jason Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 41.
  34. Christine Jeske, “Why Work? Do We Understand What Motivates Work-Related Decisions in South Africa?,” Journal of Southern African Studies 44.1 (2018): 27–42.
  35. Barry Schwartz, Why We Work (New York: Simon & Schuster/ TED, 2015), 26.
  36. See for example: Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Newman, No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City.
  37. Gilbert Meilaender, The Freedom of a Christian: Grace, Vocation, and the Meaning of Our Humanity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 12–13.
  38. Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, 74.
  39. 1 Corinthians 7:20-21a.
  40. 1 Corinthians 7:21b, 23; Ephesians 6:9.
  41. See for example James 5:4.
  42. Matthew 8:6-13; Matthew 20:15, 18:13; John 13:1-17.
  43. Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 240.
  44. Exodus 5:8-9. All references from NIV.
  45. Exodus 5:17-18a.
  46. Exodus 1:12, 14; Exodus 2:23b-25.
  47. See Exodus 10:3 and Psalms 4, 6, 13, 35, 62, 74, 79, 80, and 82.
  48. Ecclesiastes 2:23.
  49. Ecclesiastes 4:2.
  50. Ecclesiastes 5:18-19.
  51. See Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 120.
  52. Dorothy Sayers, Why Work?: Discovering Real Purpose, Peace, and Fulfillment at Work. A Christian Perspective (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), 45.
  53. “The Road to Wigan Pier (Excerpt),” in Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits, ed. Gilbert C. Meilaender (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2000), 98.
  54. Margaret E. Mohrmann, “‘Vocation Is Responsibility’: Broader Scope, Deeper Discernment,” in Vocation across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 28.
  55. Jayakumar Christian, God of the Empty-Handed: Poverty, Power & the Kingdom of God (Monrovia, CA: World Vision Intl., 1999).
  56. Matthew 10:8.
  57. Deuteronomy 5:15.
  58. Leviticus 19:13a, 19:13b, 19:9-10, 29:43; Deuteronomy 24:14.
  59. Deuteronomy 5:12-15.
  60. “Called to Tell Our Stories” (Vocation Across the Academy: Storytelling, Mapmaking, and a Sense of Direction, Berry College, February 23, 2018).
  61. Mary Oliver, Wild Geese: Selected Poems (Hexham, UK: Bloodaxe, 2004).
  62. Romans 13:8, 12:10, 12:16; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Galatians 5:13; Ephesians 4:32, 5:19; Colossians 3:16.
  63. David L. Blustein et al., “The Psychology of Working: A New Framework for Counseling Practice and Public Policy. (Cover Story),” Career Development Quarterly 56.4 (June 2008): 300.
  64. D. L. Blustein, The Psychology of Working: A New Perspective for Career Development, Counseling, and Public Policy (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2006), 280.

Christine Jeske

Wheaton College
Christine Jeske is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College.