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.
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, 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.