More than a dozen years have passed since we buried my father-in-law. I sometimes wonder what he would make of our historical moment. Jim had a servant’s heart, and COVID has made service problematic.

I only recognized that admirable quality in Jim at his memorial service. It wasn’t a big affair, but I was overcome by the number of people who approached our family, eager to share stories of praise for all that he had done for them. For several years, Jim had been an employment case manager with Goodwill Industries. His job was to train and manage mentally and physically disabled individuals—people to whom much of society gave little thought. He taught them skills to perform jobs that gave them a purpose and a way to engage deeply and fully with the world. More, he gave them a sense of dignity.

The story is touching by itself, but it’s even more empowering when you consider that my father-in-law was a recovering alcoholic. In an earlier version of himself, Jim had been a successful ad manager for a notable newspaper in the Pacific Northwest. He was an affable guy, quick-witted and charming. His spiral into alcoholism meant he was absent for much of my husband’s early years. Jim dealt with his disease in fits and starts. He understood better than most the importance of dignity, of being needed, of having purpose. It didn’t bother him to work with men and women who carried the burden of stigma. He understood their worth and that work was a way for them to demonstrate their value—to belong and to be part of something bigger than self.

I’m not sure how Jim would fare in today’s environment. Like other non-profits and businesses across the country, the majority of Goodwill training centers had to close their doors at some point during the pandemic. Many remain closed, though service teams operate remotely. Still, I can’t imagine how Jim would work his magic from behind a computer screen. It was the personal touch, the pat on the back or well-timed accolade offered eye-to-eye that inspired and affirmed.

The relationship between work and dignity transcends job description, economic circumstance, or pay grade. Jim knew that. Others through the generations have recognized and wrestled with this truth as well. Yet the peculiar challenges wrought by COVID give us reason to pause and evaluate the interplay between work and dignity and how, as Christians, we are called to uphold a biblical understanding of both.

Historically in America, our understanding of dignity in the workplace has been closely aligned with a work ethic steeped in diligence, discipline, thriftiness and personal accountability. Generations have been raised to believe that the formula for success depends on a can-do attitude, a lot of hard work, and a little gumption. But like so much else in the current moment, the pandemic has upset our understanding of work and what counts for dignity. It is difficult, for example, to demonstrate industriousness while on furlough. Tapping into the savings account month after month to buy groceries or pay the rent feels anything but thrifty. And no amount of self-discipline can assuage the fear of working an 8-hour shift in an unsafe space.

The American workplace began a noticeable shift even before the pandemic. Employment opportunities began to dry up for large segments of the population, not only disrupting economic stability but also contributing to a crisis of self for many working-age men and women. The consequences have included an alarming increase in suicide rates, alcoholism, and an opioid epidemic of staggering proportions. The arrival of COVID compounded the problem, adding to what one scholar identifies as our growing “dignity deficit.”

“Social science, ancient philosophy, and common sense all testify that meaningful work and the means of earned success are vital drivers of happiness, human flourishing, and our sense of basic dignity,” writesArthur Brooks, a Harvard professor and behavioral social scientist. He has traveled the world exploring ways to bring dignity to people, particularly those at the margins of society. He concludes, “Nothing destroys dignity more than idleness and a sense of superfluousness—the feeling that one is simply not needed.”

Even as we scramble to understand the full shape and scope of the shifts within the American workplace, it is clear that the basic “need to be needed” axiom is in jeopardy. A recent Pew Research study estimated close to 10 million U.S. workers lost their jobs in the first year of the pandemic alone. To date, the federal response has included three rounds of direct stimulus aid to most American households, which has provided a much-needed lifeline for many families, but this short-term fix does little to address the dignity quotient.

Likewise, government stimulus programs in the form of paycheck protection have helped many small businesses stay afloat. Still, tens of thousands more have closed their doors for good, with industries like leisure, entertainment, travel and food service particularly hard hit.

Oddly, as the economy slowly reopens, there has been no mad rush of workers clamoring to fill vacancies.  Worker shortages confound many industries already reeling from pandemic interruptions. Countless restaurants and retail stores have posted signs reading, “Be patient—we’re understaffed.” Trash companies nationwide have had to continuously reconfigure pickup schedules because of reduced manpower. Warehouses and transportation hubs have become backed up because fewer workers are available to process orders. These are but a few examples.

Some economic observers lay the blame for current labor shortages on the largess of government and the very stimulus packages that were intended as a stop-gap measure. If someone gives you a paycheck to stay home, you’re probably going to stay home, or so the logic goes. Others point to another trend—what many have dubbed, the Great Resignation. For months, workers have been walking away from their jobs in record numbers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in November 2021 alone, a record 4.5 millionworkers quit their jobs. What may seem counter-intuitive after months of precarious job security also suggests a workforce willing to take stock of what matters most. Namely, higher salaries, meaningful work, a safe work environment and flexible/remote work schedules according to a new study on the future of work by online employment website

Which is to say, workers may be adjusting their own dignity deficits, and the pandemic has provided the springboard.

Of course, politicians, scholars, and activists of all stripes have bandied about the term “dignity of work” for decades.  Public policies, social programs, and economic initiatives that span the political spectrum—the New Deal, the Great Society, a Thousand Points of Light, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Jobs for Veterans Act—all reflect our collective desire to get dignity right in the public square. Civil rights giant Martin Luther King, Jr. famously equated dignity on the job with a job well done, saying, “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” This view, not surprisingly, is consistent with a biblical understanding of work (Colossians 3:23). It inspires a thoughtful attitude toward the sometimes-thorny issue of how best to recognize and promote dignity in the workplace.

In God’s economy, work and dignity are inseparable. Work is one of the most tangible ways we live out our relationship with God and practice discipleship with those around us. Dallas Willard, the late Christian philosopher, academic and author describes it this way: “Work is the production of value by the actions of our thoughts and bodily efforts upon available resources. What’s more, work is a good thing, and it is a natural disposition of human beings from early childhood on. Work is simply human creativity. It is a special type of causation through which goodness and blessing can be promoted in our surroundings.”[1]

Scripture tells us that work was never meant to be a grind. God delights in our work and wants it to be a space where we can experience a sense of accomplishment and self-worth and where we can draw closer to him and to others. Though certainly not an exhaustive list, here are four truths about work informed by God’s Word: 1) God created us with a purpose that is made manifest in our life’s work; 2) God calls and equips us with unique gifts, abilities and experience that we can draw upon to accomplish our work; 3) God gives us the means to cultivate character through work as we invest and manage the gifts he has entrusted to us; and 4) dignity abounds in all work when we dedicate it to the Lord. Let’s zoom in on these truths:

1. Created with a purpose

God was intentional about his work and he created man to be likewise.  Consider this: The first verb, the very first action described in the Bible speaks to the dignity of work: God created. He created all things, and then he created mankind in his own image so that mankind could . . . create! He called it work: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) Man’s intrinsic value, his dignity, is attached to the work God calls him to do.

It’s important to note that God’s assignment for Adam—to work and keep the garden—came before Adam and Eve sinned and fell from grace. In other words, work was never intended to be a punishment or a drudge.  Through work, man found purpose. He was fulfilled. Work brought joy and connection with the God of the universe.

But of course, in the very next chapter (Genesis 3), man messed up. Disobedience to God led to a redefinition of work, and by association, a more complicated understanding of dignity. Work, which once carried joy and purpose, became a matter of sweat and toil after the fall. But the good news is (with God there’s always good news), God does not leave us in our sin. The remaining 1,186 chapters of the Bible tell the story of God’s redemption in our lives—a redemption that is often revealed through work.

2. Called and equipped

God equips us to perform the work he has prepared for us. He wires each of us with certain inherent abilities. Some of us are good with numbers, for example. Others have a talent for baking or designing or building. When God instructed Moses to have the Israelites build a portable house of worship, he had an assortment of individuals and skills in mind for the project. Artisans contracted to build the tabernacle included woodworkers, metalworkers, weavers, embroiderers, jewelers, engravers, and others. God prepared these craftsmen and their overseer, filling them with the “Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship” according to the task at hand (Exodus 31:1-11).

Like the Old Testament artisans who created God’s house in the desert, our own unique collection of gifts or talents and the Spirit of God that animates them is often referred to as calling. Popular Christian author and speaker Os Guinness reminds us that our calling does not stand alone; we have a God who does the calling. “When God says, ‘Follow me,’ everything we are and have is given direction.” Our response to God’s calling in our lives becomes our fundamental expression of faithfulness and obedience.

Kim Harris responded to God’s calling six decades ago. “Music has always been the golden thread throughout my life,” says the long-time music and theater arts instructor who currently teaches youngsters at The Conservatory music school in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Kim heard God’s voice in a small church in Southern California at the tender age of seven. “I lived next door to the church, and the custodian, Mr. McAfee, would let me switch on the organ and play while he cleaned. I couldn’t even reach the pedals, but he would let me play full blast. I think God and Mr. McAfee were giving me permission to do what felt so natural to me—to make a joyful noise!”

She has been making a joyful noise ever since.  After studying piano, musical theater, and choir education, Kim performed on the national stage, in commercials, and in regional theater. Along the way, there were many jobs not related to her career, but which provided the means to accomplish her heart’s passion. Those provided dignity as well by putting food on her table or gas in her car, even as she pursued her calling.

For the past several years, Kim has been paying it forward, teaching young people to grab hold of their destinies. “Music has always made me happy. It has always connected me to God, to my spirituality. It connects all of us like nothing else can. I’ve had a good day if I can say to one student, ‘Wow! you have the makings of a great pianist, or performer, or singer—now let’s get to work and see where this can take you!’ And the students get excited because just that little bit of encouragement can help them see the beginning of a career.”

Kim demonstrates how using our God-given gifts can allow us to do more than simply cultivate our own sense of calling. We can help others realize their sense of purpose as well. That’s kingdom work.

3. Entrusted

Of course, that sort of work requires a certain level of stewardship. It begins with a clear-eyed recognition that our gifts and all the other resources at our fingertips are, in fact, on loan to us. God has entrusted them to our care. How we invest them determines what sort of return we will derive from those efforts.

We learn this lesson in Matthew’s gospel. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is the story of a man going on a journey who entrusted his property to three servants. Two of the servants worked with what was given to them and increased the value of the property. The third servant invested no time or talent with the property given to him. In fact, he buried his gift, so had no increased value to offer the master upon his return. Like the servants in the story, we can choose to either play it safe and bury our gifts, or we can choose to be enterprising and bold in how we invest them.

Emery Popoloski chose the latter. In the winter of 2009, Emery’s future looked bright. She was a new bride, on the verge of completing her bachelor’s degree and was weighing the possibilities of a legal career.  She remembers the day her husband Charles, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, returned home from his second deployment in Iraq a few months later. “I watched him walk off the plane. I met him with a ‘welcome home’ sign, and we thought everything was okay.” But everything wasn’t okay.

Emery noticed her husband wasn’t quite himself but dismissed his jumpiness as normal for someone recently back from a war zone. Charles was transferred to Fort Sill, where the couple welcomed their first child and Emery began studying for her LSATs. Then in February 2012, Charles collapsed with his first petite mal seizure. Eventually, doctors would diagnose PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI), but not before Emery had to redirect her own ambitions to become the caregiver and advocate for her husband.

“In the beginning, I had to put a lot of things on pause. I went into survival mode,” says Emery, recalling the early months of their medical journey, which included an honorable discharge for Charles and a move to Boston to be close to family. One of the hardest decisions was putting off law school. But Emery never felt sorry for herself. Instead, she applied her gifts and abilities to navigate the Veteran’s Administration and learn the intricacies of insurance benefits, rehab, and treatment options. She quickly plugged into a network of caregivers, which eventually led her to the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of the nation’s 5.5 million military caregivers. Emery started working part-time with the Foundation but eventually stepped into the role of program coordinator.

“It gave me something to anchor myself to that wasn’t tied to just the kids or my husband or panicking about what we were going to do next,” says Emery, who admits to a no-nonsense view of her circumstances. “I figured, I’m not dead. I’m here. It might be hard, but there’s still a way that I can make stuff work.”

The bright future Emery was staring into back in 2009 has turned into reality, although the pathway is nothing like she expected. She and Charles now have three children. Charles still struggles with PTSD and TBI but last August he started a full-time job as an IT administrator for a Boston-based firm. Emery earned her master’s degree in public administration and policy from American University in 2019. She continues to lend her skill set to the military caregiver community but satisfies her passion for law full-time working in legal operations and contract management for a biopharmaceutical company. “So, I never made it to law school, but I found a role that I really love and that works great for me at a company I really like,” she says.

Like the enterprising servants in the parable, Emery has been a good and faithful servant of the gifts and resources entrusted to her. She could have buried her talents. But difficult circumstances did not stop her in her tracks. Instead, she chose to pivot boldly and invest wisely in things of value—family, others in need—discovering a deeper sense of self-worth and accomplishment along the way.

4. Dedicated with dignity

That deeper sense of self-worth can be elusive, particularly in the dry seasons. Many of us have struggled in dead-end jobs, felt trivialized in some menial task, or been sideswiped by an unexpected lay-off. We can feel invisible when job applications and cover letters go unanswered or the boss overlooks us for promotion. The crushing weight of unfulfilled aspirations can flatten the soul. COVID has added a new dimension to that weight.

In her most recent book Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep, Christian author and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren points to the book of Ecclesiastes with this sobering observation, “The scriptures do not mince words about the fact that our work is often disappointing, grueling, unrewarding, meaningless, and even exploitative and degrading.” But she balances that view with an equally true, though more hopeful, reflection: “Our work—whether paid or not, drudgery or a joy, skilled or common—makes a difference. Done well, it adds truth, beauty, and goodness to the world. It pushes back the darkness.”[2]

In other words, we can be assured we will find dignity in work when that work is dedicated to the Lord. This is the Colossians 3:23 work ethic: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” 

Sheriff Bob Brooks has long been admired by friends, family and colleagues for embracing the Colossians 3:23 ethic and for bringing light into some of the darkest corners of society. Bob led one of the largest sheriff’s offices in the state of California for nearly 13 years. Since retiring in 2011, he has volunteered as a board member on the Joni and Friends Foundation and led humanitarian missions to Haiti and Peru to distribute wheelchairs and other aid to needy communities. Throughout the pandemic, Bob and his wife Debbie have continued to help facilitate small-group and food-pantry ministries at their church.

Despite his reputation today, Bob will be the first to tell you he wasn’t always the Colossians poster child. This big-hearted, affirming man of God has done a fair amount of grumbling in his day. As a young man, he dreamed of entering pastoral ministry. Instead, he found himself jumping from one paycheck job to another.

“When we first got married, I had to pay the bills, so I did some things I really didn’t like to do. They weren’t rewarding,” he recalls. “One of those jobs was working as an orderly in a convalescent hospital. It was just the worst job in the world. My boss was a miserable person, I was cleaning up everybody’s messes and making beds. I thought, ‘I wasn’t born for this!’ But that’s what I could get at the time.”

Bob was feeling sorry for himself and trying to make deals with God, begging him to change his circumstances. Instead, God wanted Bob to change his heart. What Bob heard in response to his pleas was God saying, “I’m gonna leave you here until you can learn to trust me in this, and until you can learn to do it with all of your heart.”

“So eventually, I started to clean up my act,” laughs Bob. “I started doing the job for Him, not for the people I was working for. That was a turnaround for me. It was my wake-up call that no matter where God puts me, there’s purpose. It can be a menial task, or it can be something that’s more dramatic. Either way, I’m going to have opportunities that he puts into that scenario that allow me to capture purpose.”

As Sheriff of Ventura County, Bob found great purpose working in law enforcement. He had many opportunities through the years to work with at-risk youth and individuals with criminal backgrounds to help them discover a sense of purpose in their own lives. He points to the many fine community groups and organizations that work tirelessly to inspire young people to develop skills that will allow them to find dignity in the community and in the workplace—groups like Boy Scouts, Salvation Army, and Teen Challenge.

And, of course, Goodwill. Which brings me back to my father-in-law. I’m glad Jim did not have to navigate the pandemic. It would have been hard for him. But it is encouraging to learn that, though most Goodwill training centers have moved to a virtual format, the organization continues to provide life-affirming services. Dignity is baked into the Goodwill mission. “I think our job coaches are our secret sauce,” says Lauren Lawson-Zilai, Senior Director of Public Relations and National Goodwill Spokesperson. “I feel like there is no other organization out there that has that level of empathy and caring. That’s what I’ve heard from participants, that they come to Goodwill and feel they are looked at as a person. We all want to feel good about what we’re doing. So really, it’s dignity at work.”

Jim would agree.

[1] Dallas Willard, Called to Business: God’s way of loving people through business and the professions (United States: Dallas Willard Ministries, 2018), 1.

[2] Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 65-77.

Erin Rodewald is a published writer, editor and communications strategist based in Northern Virginia. Her topics include civil society, community engagement, international religious freedom, and foreign policy. She is the author of the Writing for the Public Square blog. Erin holds a Masters of Public Policy from Pepperdine University. You can follower her on Twitter at @EDRodewald.

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