(Image by Justin See/Flickr Creative Commons)
(Image by Justin See/Flickr Creative Commons)

Theology of workflow connects dots between spirituality and efficiency

Promptly replying to emails can be just as missional as working in a soup kitchen, say advocates of a theology of workflow and organization. 

By Jeff Brumley

As assistant executive director of the Virginia Baptist Missions Board, Glenn Akins is charged with all kinds of big-picture kingdom work, including keeping churches up to speed on cultural trends and demographics.

“It’s important for churches to recognize changes so they can keep reaching new people for Christ,” he said.

But there is another — and just as important — way Akin says he does the Lord’s work every day: by keeping on top of his emails.

“I don’t like my inbox getting any bigger than my computer screen.”

Akins GlennHow does Akins equate helping churches survive a post-Christian culture with answering emails in a timely and friendly manner? By viewing both as a way to help others get their jobs done.

And that, he added, is being a living witness of Christ, whether in big or small moments and tasks. That’s huge in an era when everyone — from pastors to I.T. techs — is extremely busy.

“One of the ways I can honor them and acknowledge how harried they are, how thin their margins are, is by responding on a timely basis to their requests for help.”

‘Narrow view of work’

That may seem odd to some, but not to Matt Perman. Instead, hearing another Christian connect the dots between efficiency and spirituality is music to his ears.

“I think this is a huge gap in the church,” said Perman, a Minneapolis resident, Baptist and author of What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done.

That gap, he said, keeps Christ’s followers from seeing the importance of the seemingly mundane, day-to-day work they do on God’s mission in the world.

PermanMattMUGPerman’s mission, like that of his book, is to present a theology of labor and organization that pushes Christians to put the needs of others first — and not only by feeding the homeless or building houses in Haiti.

“Paul says ‘abound in the work of the Lord,’ and that means be productive,” Perman told ABPnews/Herald. “But we have this narrow view that ‘the work of the Lord’ means working in a soup kitchen or going on missions to Africa.”

More than retreats

There has been some push back to Perman’s theology of organization, including his critique of the practice of some Christians to treat the stress of life and work with spiritual retreats.

Retreats, whatever their form and length, can be useful in giving the faithful a time-out and a wider perspective on their challenges, he said.

“But to me, retreats are not the answer to everything.”

They can even be problematic if they keep people retreating from challenges instead of facing them head-on.

“God calls us to solve our problems,” he said. “Let’s stop making retreats with Jesus the solution to every problem we have.”

Perman said tackling big or small chores, at home or at work, can be just as spiritually refreshing if a person sees those tasks from a Christ-like perspective.

“A lot of times we don’t see our work as service, but just as something to get a paycheck,” he said. “Your work takes on a whole new meaning when you see it as an avenue through which to serve others.”

‘Be fundamentally grounded’

But just as important as not running from or minimizing tasks like email and organization is not letting to-do lists become task-masters, said Jayne Davis, minister of spiritual formation at First Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C.

“I never got the idea that Jesus got up in the morning and had a to-do list,” Davis said. “He had one item on his list, and that was to make God known to the world.”

Davis said she agrees with much of Perman’s conclusions, especially because she’s “a to-do list kind of girl.”

Yet, she must remember not to fall into the trap of equating her identity with her accomplishments or job. Also, she must remember that to-lists are never completed.

“We have to be fundamentally grounded in the idea that we are acceptable just as ourselves before God,” Davis said. “So make sure you know the ultimate goal of your list — which is making sure all those [items] have a God-given purpose.”

‘Blows them away’

That’s the view Akins has of his to-lists and email inbox, and it transforms any task into a work of service.

“I might be responding to some admin that needs a piece of information so she can do her job,” Akins said. “Because if I am holding her up, it holds up something else down the line.”

Akins said he knows the world needs more of that attitude because, often, people are shocked that he replies in a timely manner to requests for help or information.

“They are not expecting that,” he said. “It just kind of blows them away.”

That is much better than the alternative, he said.

“But if all I do is blow them off and fuss over the administrative stuff, I am discounting them — and that just wounds me.”