Opinion: A Tight Job Market Is A Chance for Christians to Rethink Work

By Karen Swallow Prior
rethink work
Opportunities for Christians to minister in emergency services and other fields is rising with a flood of job openings. (Benjamin Voros / Unsplash / Creative commons)

Earlier in the pandemic, the labor shortage was most noticeable at eating establishments, from local diners to Domino’s. As Americans returned to pre-pandemic levels of air travel, there were suddenly too few pilots, crew and air traffic controllers. The delivery of numerous goods and services slowed in part because of shipping snarls, but also because truck drivers were scarce.

Now, in my community and in others around the country, the labor shortage means too few emergency workers as well as reduced emergency medical flights.

This last shortage could lead to much more dramatic consequences than doing without a restaurant meal, or a delayed or canceled vacation (as distressing as that can be). Lack of emergency workers could mean the difference between life and death in some situations.

I’m not an economist nor a labor expert; I have no insights into why these shortages exist, how severe they are or how long they might last.

But I do think the problem offers an opportunity for Christian ministry: The shortages point to the need in our world for tentmakers. Not literal tentmakers (perhaps), but in the metaphorical sense of holding a nominal job while dedicating oneself to serving others.

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The metaphor “tentmaker” comes from the life of Paul. Before his conversion to Christianity, Paul had trained as a rabbi. It was customary at the time for rabbis to learn a trade. Whether or not Paul learned to make tents then or after his conversion isn’t clear. But Scripture does report that after his conversion as he underwent his mission to spread the gospel and teach in the church, Paul supported himself through tentmaking — literally. 

Being a tentmaker not only gave Paul financial freedom in his ministry but also allowed him not to burden the church financially. In the New Testament’s Book of Acts. Paul tells the elders of the church at Ephesus, “I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions.”

Yet, there is another reason Christians might consider being “tentmakers.”

Christian history has a robust theology of vocation, particularly from Martin Luther. Luther taught, as Gustaf Wingren says in his 1942 book “Luther on Vocation,” that “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.”

In other words, through our work, we serve our neighbor.

Now, of course, working in what we often call “full-time ministry” is a good, honorable  and needed means of serving our neighbors. But it is only one way of doing so.

In “Vocation: The Setting for Human Flourishing,” Michael Berg tells a story about a driver who comes upon a traffic jam caused by road construction that has reduced a long mountain highway to a single lane. Just as this driver is about to be let through, the flagman turns his sign around to the “stop” side, so the driver finds himself pulled up at the head of a new waiting line, next to the flagman.

Settling in for a long wait, the driver begins to talk to the flagman, whose job it is to stand there all day, day in and day out, in all kinds of weather. The driver asks how he can tolerate such a boring job. To the driver’s surprise, the flagman replies, “I love this job! Love it. You know why? Because it matters. I keep people safe. I care about these guys behind me, and I keep them safe. I also keep you safe, and everybody else on all those cars behind you. I get to make a real, tangible difference every day.”

Not long ago, an acquaintance of mine observed on Twitter that after going to college and seminary and serving in ministry for 10 years, he was surprised not only to find himself working as a barista, but to feel blessed to do so. I responded to his post by saying, “Glad to know you are in full-time ministry. As we all should be.”

Based on the positive and encouraged responses I saw to this thread, this is a message that needs to be repeated more often. “Ministry” is not defined by who signs our paycheck.

Ministry is good, honorable and needed to serve our neighbors as accountants, restaurant servers, pilots, flight attendants, emergency workers, bank clerks, call center workers and teachers. I could tell you stories for days about the ministry my husband does as a public school teacher who regularly has in his classroom fatherless, motherless, hungry and hurting students.

An encouraging development over the past decade is that more people are going to seminary for the purpose of applying their theological education to these kinds of occupations outside the church.

The world needs workers. And who is more called to serve their neighbors than those who are called to serve the Lord in doing so? It is but another way of fulfilling the exhortation of Jesus given in the Gospel of Matthew, when he says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Our good works might change a life. Or even save one.

This piece was originally published by Religion News Service.

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a columnist at Religion News Service. She lives in Virginia.

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15 thoughts on “Opinion: A Tight Job Market Is A Chance for Christians to Rethink Work”

  1. There would also be less shortages of workers if they weren’t purging employees who refused experimental medical treatments.

    1. I am an R.N. One of my co-workers quit rather than be vaccinated for covid. Days later she got covid. She was in the ICU for 2 months on a ventilator. More than once her family was prepared that any day could be her last day here on earth. She survived. Spent another couple of months in a skilled nursing facility learning how to just be able to sit up in a chair. And now she lives with her adult daughter, unable to do more than the most basic self-care.
      She will never work again, even if she were to now accept the vaccine.

      Meanwhile, those of us who were vaccinated are still working, caring for patients.

      1. Cindy, I had a friend who got very ill and was taken to the hospital. He doesn’t remember the first five days he was so sick. He texted me when he came to and told me he was in the hospital, and that they had him on remdesivir and some other stuff. I told him remdesivir often shuts down the kidneys and was killing people. Hospital staff finally conceded and stopped giving it to him. He was very grateful I told him that hospital protocol has killed far too many people. It took him several months to get back to work.

        Since you are a nurse, I would highly recommend you take a deep dive into the unproven theory of viruses. Most don’t because their income depends on them not understanding it. Even Pfizer’s retired Dr Mike Yeadon has recently humbly concluded the virus theory is a lie rooted in fear/control/financial gain, and that sickness is always result of chemical/environmental/mental poisoning along with nutritional deficiencies.

        https://rumble.com/v1enq2a-dr.-mike-yeadon-concludes-there-are-no-respiratory-viruses.html?_kx=yySUn5TY1Z6CiMQGDU4t6IMqa3KH4vS4PXV82AJsLD3ymIYm4_lSfnZKllC19iHq.UpXyYd

        https://viroliegy.com/

      2. Cindy Blandin,

        You have no way of knowing that the vax would have made a meaningful difference for this woman. She could have had any number of preexisting conditions, or simply genetically vulnerable to the virus.

    2. Did you feel this way when schools required vaccinations to enroll? And that’s not just grade school. I had to prove mine were up to date to move into my college dorm or to set foot on my business school campus (and it was a private university).
      What about countries requiring vaccinations for visas?
      The concept of requiring vaccinations is not new. We just had one added (for a while). Calm down.

  2. I’ll re-think work when the supermarket re-thinks prices. Oops, the prosecutors in Demo cities have already done that for us!

  3. “Jesus began His ministry at the age of thirty”. That’s what Luke tells us in the narrative of Jesus’ life. A simple but profound statement in scripture.

    What did Jesus engage in until that point? Luke tells us that, too, as do all four gospels. Jesus, the ‘carpenter’s son’ mastered the vocation of carpentry BEFORE undertaking the ministry of the gospel…

    Maybe there’s a reason Paul, who followed Christ, worked as a tentmaker, too. Jesus FIRST mastered carpentry as he ‘grew in wisdom and stature and favor with man’…

    What would our churches look like, if we required men to show they were fully capable in their walk with God in life, before they began engaging in ministry of the gospel, day by day, in their lives, helping the downcast poor, the captives who struggle with abuse to find freedom, the blind to be able to see the Light, and the oppressed as we proclaim the the ‘favorable year of the Lord; the age of the Messiah’s reign, is now HERE? Perhaps we might look a little more closely at the life of Jesus, and pattern what we do from the example we have in four actual gospels that give us a real picture of the life He lived as an example for us to see and actually FOLLOW as His followers?

  4. Where is this “tight” labor market? I work in consulting – many of my clients are Fortune 500 companies – and they have WAY more openings than applications. People are quitting or making ridiculous demands in offer negotiations. Many are ghosting – even on their first day – because they got competing offers or changed their minds. There are entire papers on the Great Resignation and it being a job seeker market now.
    With the recession coming (IMO it’s already here), folks need to get off their high horses, get realistic about their prospects (and bills), and respectful of employers.
    And that’s across political lines.

    1. I was curious about your comment, so I looked up the definition of a tight labor market. It means there are more jobs than people to fill them, exactly as the author said.

      1. You are correct, Dawn. I think the confusion is that the title refers to a tight job market (implying there aren’t enough jobs) which is different from a tight labor market (not enough workers).
        Even I slipped up in my comment. Thanks for making sure I clarify.

        But I will repeat that a recession should change things….

    2. Respectful of employers? How about some respect for employees from employers? I’m retired but the difference between the way the corporations treated employees in the 1980s to how they treated them in the early 2000s was huge — much worse. Employees are very much a disposable asset these days, so if employees feel they have the upper hand in negotiations they should use it because it never last very long nowadays.

  5. Rabindranath Ramcharan

    If there is really a tight labor market, there would be large numbers of people who are not working. Assuming that those people aren’t dead, they would presumably have to eat, live Indoors, pay their vehicle registration and so on. If they aren’t working, where are they getting the money to do all that?

    1. MANY people retired during the pandemic. For many the pandemic was the driving force to no longer wait to retire. The organization I worked for lost MANY senior staff over the past couple of years. Internal staff applied for promotions and there are still lots of open position we are having trouble filling since we are not the only company dealing with this. Additionally a shortage of skilled staff is driving up salaries as companies need to pay more to attract talent from other companies.

  6. For those who are curious about what the labor shortage is going to look like, you can check out Peter Ziehan. The stats that an estimated 400K baby boomers will retire this year more than 18 year olds will replace them in our job market. This keeps getting worse for the next 12 years until that number reaches an estimated 900K the last year and then starts to shrink. This is a permanent feature unless there is a financial collapse which will happen soon as well…

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